Saturday, February 09, 2008

Ladies & Gentlemen: We Have a Guest Blogger!

Today's post was e-mailed to me following a seventh-grade keyboarding class, where the student (my son, Walt) apparently had completed his work and grown bored. He was instructed to bide his time with a little freeplay in Microsoft Word. And this is what he wrote.

Day 1 of my sentence in keyboarding class:

I have been subjected to many different ways of torture, all for some reason called Mavis Beacon. This evil computer program has sucked out the little bit of brain I have left, and left my head a hollow, useless cove of tissue and skull bone. After removing my brain from my head, they have thrown the gray matter into an almost-frozen pot of water, took it out, and immediately thrown it into the fire, making it turn as hard as rock. It is my educated guess that they are now using the strange substance as a small paperweight. It puzzles me that they call these different varieties of torture, “Mavis Beacon.”

Editor's Note: I hesitated to include this borderline libelous piece in the blog because Mavis Beacon, I thought, is/was someone's mother or grandmother, and this casts in her in a negative light. But a little research led me to the following article, published in The Seattle Times more than 12 years ago. Read on ...

The Seattle Times

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Business & Technology: Sunday, November 19, 1995

Supertypist Mavis Beacon Is A Creation Of Marketing

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Who wouldn't love Mavis Beacon?

She's bright, attractive, helpful - "the world's greatest typing teacher," some would say. And for nearly 10 years, her generous smile and competent demeanor have generated millions of dollars for a computer company founded in a garage.

But - and you'd better sit down for this - she isn't real.

The super-swift typist who presumably lent her skill and image to five different versions of the "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing" computer program is a creation, a logotype - the Betty Crocker of cyberspace, one could say.

As for the sleek, confidence-oozing African-American woman whose photograph has graced 4 million copies of the software, she's a retired Caribbean-born fashion model named Renee Lesperance, discovered - so the story goes - shopping in a department store.

"The high concept was that the world's best typing teacher was standing right there next to you, helping you along the way to becoming a great typist," said Michael E. Duffy, one of Mavis' programmers and chief technical officer for Mindscape Inc., the California company that created the software.

Mavis gets around

Even though Mavis doesn't exist, Mindscape markets the program - which promises to improve your typing speed by 25 percent - as if Mavis were the real deal, rendering her image in computer graphics and circulating promotional materials showing her with groups of excited schoolchildren.

Although reviews of the software have intimated that Mavis is less than she appears, the large package photo of Lesperance in a yellow wool suit with pearl earrings and shoulder bag has helped make her a computer-industry icon.

"I thought I read somewhere that she had won a big typing contest, or that she ran a school, or something," said Brent Bynum, 41, a Philadelphia man who purchased Mavis as part of a CD-ROM bundle at a computer show. "There really is no Mavis? I can't believe it."

You don't have to be a layman to feel duped.

Chris Commons, a 22-year-old administrator at the Computer City store in Cherry Hill, N.J., has been seeing Mavis on shelves for years. And for years he has thought she was real.

"She's not the lady on the cover?" Commons asked. "Really?"

Commons said he doubted that blowing the lid off Mavis would hurt sales. She's nothing if not durable, having clawed her way to the top of the typing software heap. (By some estimates, "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing" is the bestselling program of any kind for Apple's Macintosh.)

And even now, as the software approaches its 10th birthday, Mindscape is celebrating with a children's version for Macintosh and an updated version of the main program designed to work with Windows 95.

Mavis gets a new outfit

The new packaging carries the same 10-year-old photo portrait, but this time Lesperance is shown in a burgundy jacket and a cream-colored blouse. The makeover was done with a computer.

Duffy said Lesperance, who was paid for individual photo sessions but receives no residuals, lives quietly in the Caribbean.

The model, Duffy said, was discovered in 1985 by Les Crane, the former talk-show host, while he shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills.

Mindscape was created in 1986 when Crane, an early investor in computer entertainment products, merged his small company, Software Country, with Software Toolworks, another small business founded by programmer Walt Bikofsky in his garage in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Crane had been looking for a woman with "warmth and compassion coupled with confidence" to embody his company's new typing program, Duffy said.

Meeting Lesperance, Duffy said, was "like Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab's (drugstore)."

The name of the fictional typing teacher was taken from Mavis Staples, lead vocalist for the Staple Singers and a favorite of Crane's, and from beacon, as in a light to guide the way.