author, journalist, publisher, humorist, Internet and
Interview by Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P.
This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive
interview with Randy Cassingham, a world-renowned writer,
author, journalist, publisher, humorist, Internet and
With more than 200,000 subscribers in over 190 countries,
Randy is author and publisher of the highly successful
newsletters and websites, This is True (ThisIsTrue.com),
the True Stella Awards (StellaAwards.com),
and The Spam Primer (SpamPrimer.com).
With a degree in journalism from California’s Humboldt State
University, Randy has explored a number of careers including
photographer, freelance writer (articles, fiction, and
screenplays), editor, publisher, paramedic, search and
rescue sheriff’s deputy, process engineer, business
consultant, software engineer, and speaker.
As an international expert of the Dvorak Keyboard, Randy has
served as a technical advisor to the American National
Standards Institute’s (ANSI) keyboard standard committee. In
addition, he worked for the prestigious NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory for ten years starting with the Space
Station Project, editing and publishing the satellite
communications technical journal SATCOM Quarterly, working
with the flight project mission operations office,
publishing the Lab’s “strategic vision” for future
information systems, working with JPL’s Intelligent Vehicle
Highway System, and finishing as a software and process
engineer for the JIT material acquisition project.
Q: We are very fortunate that you have taken time from your
demanding schedule for this interview—thank you!
A: My pleasure.
Q: You have an incredible and varied history. Please share
stories from your many past careers that made an indelible
mark on your life. What obstacles did you face and how did
you overcome them? What lessons do you have for our
A: I think it’s vital for a writer to have a varied
background. I come from a solidly middle-class family, but
my paramedic and law enforcement background showed me a lot
of other aspects of life, some of which can be pretty
uncomfortable to see — on both sides of the social and
economic spectrum. By working in a number of diverse fields,
I’ve been able to see connections between things that others
might not notice. It helps me not only in a business sense,
and in the way it enriches my life in general, but also
increases the potential for humorous insights, which This
is True relies on quite extensively. My work experience
has essentially been an extension of a typical university
curriculum — there’s intense concentration on a couple of
subjects, but a bunch of “general education” courses are
also required to round out your education.
It’s beyond simply being “smart” to do: it’s absolutely
critical to my success. I not only create the content in
True and TSA, but I run the business aspects too.
If I had to hire people to do all the things I do myself,
especially during the startup years, there wouldn’t have
been any money left over for profit — which is exactly the
problem so many “dotcoms” had.
Q: Any funny stories?
A: I laugh like crazy about those failed dotcoms. Some of
them had great ideas (though not very many of them), but
they were destined to fail by focusing only on the
short-term payoff that might come from an IPO. They tried to
convince people that “it’s different online”. Yeah, some
things are different online — I’ve been online since
1982, so I know that very well — but not the fundamentals of
what makes a business work. I just rolled my eyes at their
claims and got back to work — and watched as they all fell
dead at my feet when, at the same time, I had record
revenues every year, even the meltdown year of 2001. Those
who had realistic business plans, like Best Book Buys (now
BestWebBuys.com) come to mind: terrific ideas with long-term
strategies. Those are among the few that are still here,
still profitable, and still privately owned by their
Q: What was the attraction in becoming a ham radio operator?
A: Pretty much it’s the same thing that attracted the
pioneers to the Net: it’s a “free” way to communicate long
distances using tons of nerdy technology. Plus, it’s one of
the only communications mediums that still work in major
disasters, which is why when an earthquake or hurricane
strikes somewhere, very often the media has to quote the
only ones able to communicate out of the disaster area:
local hams. Since I do a lot of volunteering for disaster
organizations like the Red Cross, I know first hand that ham
radio is still an extremely useful medium.
Q: Describe your work with ANSI and your expertise with
A: I got into journalism because I liked to know about
things, and my education taught me how to learn about those
things. When I heard there was a better keyboard than the
common “Qwerty” layout I was intrigued, but couldn’t find
much information about it. That piqued my interest, and I
ended up researching it so much that it resulted in my first
book, which was published just after I graduated from
journalism school. To make it easier for others to get the
basics, I created a micro-site on the keyboard (Dvorak-Keyboard.com).
The Dvorak layout enables me to type much faster; I
had topped out at 55 wpm on Qwerty, but can type at over 100
wpm on Dvorak, and it’s easier on my hands — I have no
carpal tunnel problems even after years of working seven
10-12 hour days every week. As a writer, that’s a critical
advantage. Anyway, when the ANSI committee needed to update
the Dvorak standard, they had some questions about how it’s
used in the real world, and by virtue of my having “written
the book” on the subject they came to me. I’m also the one
who is responsible for the Dvorak layout being added to
Q: How did that come about?
A: A Seattle-based friend of mine who teaches typing,
including Dvorak layouts (Linda Lewis of Keytime.com), knew
a lot of people at Microsoft, and heard they were working on
a huge new rewrite of Windows — version 3.0. Windows was the
bane of Dvorak users at the time since it disabled the
keyboard filters we used to swap our keys around. I was
coming up to Seattle to visit Linda, and she used my
presence as an excuse to get a meeting together with the
Windows keyboard team. We convinced them they needed to add
Dvorak, as well as its one-handed variants for handicapped
typists, and to their credit they agreed to do so. I then
offered to be a beta tester. They called back later to say
that there were so many Dvorak users at Microsoft, including
Chief Technologist Nathan Myhrvold, that they didn’t need
beta testers for that aspect!
Q: Detail your experiences while at NASA working with the
best minds on the planet.
A: It was an incredible experience. I prefer working for
myself, but if you have to work for someone else JPL is a
terrific place to do it! Some of the most interesting
aspects fit into my communications background — I did
technical publishing for their satellite communications
group for several years. Very nerdy stuff: JPL does a lot of
communications research since it’s the NASA center that
launches probes to the outer planets. The typical deep space
probe has a 60-watt transmitter, and they have to stream
back huge amounts of data 3 billion miles back to Earth.
What an awesome challenge! As a comparison, the transmitter
in a typical police car’s radio is 110 watts so they can
talk across town.
JPL enabled me to utilize my preferred working style: I
like to dabble in a lot of different things. Among other
things I worked on a flight project (space station), pure
technology (satellite comms), and I finished up on in-house
business processes, doing software engineering for a
completely revamped procurement system. Not bad for a guy
with a journalism degree, and what a way to learn a lot of
different ways of doing things.
Q: Tell me more about your flagship column, This is True.
A: It actually started at JPL! Most people pin up cartoons
on their bulletin boards at work. Not me: I pinned up weird
articles from the newspaper. But just pinning up articles
isn’t enough for me, so I hand-wrote comments on them. It
got to the point where I’d pin up a new batch and go back
into my office, and within five minutes someone had noticed
the new additions and a crowd gathered around to read them.
My secretary begged me to write a column and give the items
wide distribution. About the same time — this came to a head
in 1994 — the Net was starting to take off, and one night I
sat bolt upright in bed with the realization that I could
connect my interest in weird news with the growing power of
the Internet to create a new career. (See what I mean by
having a varied background so you can make vital
connections?!) I instantly knew that this was my ticket out
of Los Angeles, which was a goal since I absolutely hated
the smog, traffic, crowds and violence of L.A. My gut told
me that it would take me about 2 years to make the
transition to working on True full time, which is to
say I’d be getting enough income from it that I could leave
my Day Job. Almost two years to the day later, I quit JPL
and moved to Colorado, and I’ve never looked back. But I do
miss a lot of the people there; as you say, some of the best
minds on the planet are there.
Essentially, This is True is a compilation of 7-9
very short weird-but-true news items that I’ve rewritten out
of newspapers from all over the world, each ending with a
brief bit of social, ironic, or humorous commentary. There
are two versions people can subscribe to online: a free one,
with four of the stories plus some other fun content. And,
second, those who really enjoy the content and want to
support it can pay $20/year and get all the stories, and
without the outside ads.
Q: Please describe your other websites and publications:
purpose, content, readership, future objectives, evolution,
business model, revenue streams...
A: I think True’s revenue model is quite interesting,
if I may say so myself. In addition to the Premium (paid)
subscriptions and ads in the free edition, I sell book
compilations through my web site; they especially sell
very well around Christmas time! Several newspapers also
buy the column for their pages (the first one being in
Canada, but they dropped it when the exchange rate got too
far out of whack). By combining several revenue streams I’m
not dependent on any one of them, so when online advertising
took a major nosedive in 2001 it didn’t kill me at all — I
had plenty of other places to fall back on while I came up
with new strategies. Meanwhile, most other online
The other main site is the True Stella Awards. Most
of us in the online world have heard of the “Stella Awards”:
they’re a list of ridiculous lawsuits, purportedly written
up to illustrate the abuse of civil litigation. The problem
is, all of the cases in that urban legend e-mail that has
been going around for years are all fake — completely made
up. I thought it was ridiculous to use falsified evidence as
a discussion driver for a real problem so, since I was
already doing a lot of research for True and
sometimes featured stupid lawsuits there, I knew I’d be able
to find plenty of actual cases of lawsuit abuse that could
drive public discussion. As a result, and because the
StellaAwards.com domain was (astoundingly enough!)
available, I grabbed the domain and launched TSA last
year. It has been getting pretty good growth, even though I
never bothered to send out a press release:I registered more
than 45,000 subscribers in its first year.
HeroicStories started as a spin-off of my “Honorary
Unsubscribe” in True, which is essentially an
obituary of someone interesting who died recently. My
favorite type is someone who had a big effect on our lives,
but we have no idea who they are. A supreme example is
Reynold B. Johnson. I'm sure even your readers are saying
"Who?", but Johnson, who worked for IBM, not only invented
the hard disk, he also invented the method of putting video
tape into cassettes (not a mean accomplishment: have you
ever seen the path video tape takes through the recording
heads?!), and the bubble test forms that you fill out with
the ubiquitous #2 pencil. One guy did all of that and more,
creating enormous impact on us all, yet hardly anyone has
ever heard of him. HS was designed to tell those
kinds of stories without having the subject die first. It’s
sort of the opposite of True, where you read about
stupid people doing stupid things. What an inspiration to
read about real people doing cool things! After it was up
and running, in 2003 I turned HeroicStories over to another
publisher who shared my vision for it so I could devote more
time to TSA.
I also have a number of “micro-sites” that make it easier
for people to find information when looking for something
specific, like the Dvorak Keyboard site I mentioned earlier.
Another is “Get Out Of Hell Free” (GOOHF.com), a viral
marketing site that also spun off of True. One of my
readers told me I was going to hell for a story I wrote, so
I responded by coming up with a GOOHF card, a parody of the
Monopoly “Get Out Of Jail Free” card. When I told the
readers the story, and offered to send them 10 cards for a
buck to cover printing and postage, they went wild
for them. They didn’t order 10, they ordered 50, 100, 500!
And they all have my URL on them, which is why I consider
them a form of viral marketing. We added t-shirts and
stickers for Christmas 2002, and it’s become a mini-industry
in itself. Playboy was so fascinated by the concept
they wrote about it, reproducing the card at larger than
The last major micro-site is the Spam Primer
(SpamPrimer.com). I publish True by e-mail, and by
1996 I realized that spam would become a big, big problem.
So I decided that it was important to educate my readers
about it, telling them why it was such a bad
development in the online world and giving them some
pointers on how to deal with it. A few readers wrote to say
I was exaggerating, that it wasn’t such a big problem. I
said “just wait”. And it’s still going to get worse, I
think, before it gets better.
Q: With so many activities, how do you divide your time?
A: That certainly is a major challenge. I don’t hesitate to
take time out whenever I want to relax or do other things,
but I do work every day, and I work a lot of hours every
day. On the other hand, I really, really enjoy the work I
do, so I don’t mind the long hours. Why take time for
“recreation” when most of my work tasks are recreation in
Q: What makes a story interesting?
A: The usual answer to this question is that the reader can
relate to it. For the kinds of stories I write, however, I
think the answer is a story where the readers say to
themselves, “Gee, and here I thought I was screwed up. But
I’m certainly not that dumb!” Yet there is still a
touch of relating there! While in general I mean for my
writing to be entertaining, it’s definitely not always
supposed to evoke a laugh. If it prompts a laugh, great, but
it’s equally valid for me to evoke outrage, or action, or
(best of all) simply make people think and come up
with new insights, since otherwise the act of reading is too
passive for my tastes.
Q: For aspiring writers, any tips?
A: Besides having massively wide-ranging interests and
education, the most important tip is to write, which
seems obvious but apparently isn’t. I’ve done writer’s
conferences and workshops and have found that most “writers”
simply aren’t. They love to talk about writing, but they’re
not actually doing it. If they put as much effort into
writing as they do talking about it, they’d actually be
writers! But they excuse their lack of action by saying they
have “writer’s block” or otherwise just can’t write. I don’t
believe in writer’s block. To me, that really means “I
either have nothing important to say, or I have no clue
about how to say it.” Real writers simply don’t have that
Part of it is since we all learned “to write” in school, too
many people think it’s easy and they should be able
to be writers. Well, we all learned finger painting too, but
how many of us can make a living as an artist? I sure can’t.
The wanna-bes need to grasp that “knowing how to write” and
“being a writer” are hugely different concepts. A word
processor is not the most important writing tool!
Q: Can you describe future projects, articles, and books?
A: I am indeed working on a Stella Awards book, but
my main goal right now is to slow down a little. I don’t
have any plans for new publications, but I’d like to expand
on some of my thoughts a bit in books, and enjoy myself
Q: Your opinions on the Internet — any predictions about
specific technologies, future trends, winners and losers;
A: Despite the obvious setbacks in the war on spam, e-mail
has always been, and will continue to be, the “killer app”
online. Yes, spam will get worse before it gets better, but
we’re already well beyond the point where something needs to
change so that users can take back the control over their
own inboxes. Whether that change is strong federal anti-spam
legislation or a complete re-work of the mail transfer
protocol, e-mail is far too important to give it up to
scumbags who steal resources to pitch fraudulent offers at
people who have made it clear they’re not interested.
Filters are a sorry interim solution, with far too much real
e-mail being blocked and far too much garbage getting
through. We have lost some battles, but the war against spam
is one that users must win.
Q: You are considered the most successful Internet
publisher. What allows you to reach such a diverse global
audience? Please share your top tips for successful
publishing and distribution on the Internet. Which skill
sets are required?
A: Again, breadth is not just smart, it’s required, because
one word you said is key: publisher. Everyone has
heard the adage about the “power of the press”, often said
with the caveat that you have to own a press to have the
power. In the old days, printing presses were so expensive
they were out of the reach of regular people. The Internet,
however, is essentially a “free” printing press that any
idiot can operate (here we go, talking about spammers
again!) But remember that word, “publisher”. Yeah, the
Internet gives you the “right” to publish, but way too many
people forget about the responsibilities that go with that
right: just because you’re an individual publishing from
your spare bedroom doesn’t mean you aren’t liable for huge
damages if you infringe someone else’s copyright, or libel
someone. You can bet that will be a ripe area for future
lawsuits, and they’ll rarely be “Stella Award” material
since the plaintiffs will usually be right — copyright is
valuable, and if you infringe it you have caused damage. And
defaming someone? Things published online are forever, and
if you truly defame someone you better be ready to face the
very real consequences of your actions.
So once you have that in mind, your challenge is then to
publish something that people will want to read. Luckily,
the Net is big enough that you should be able to find an
audience for just about any niche publication if you can
write about it well. To do it for a living, though, takes a
really top-notch talent — much more than simple writing
Q: You receive hundreds of e-mails daily. What are the
common themes? Share some of your most interesting e-mails.
A: I get lots of “This is True is fantastic” mails,
which I love and never tire of. But it’s a lot more fun
to get some idiot ranting over something he or she thinks I
said, but probably didn’t. It’s absolutely astounding to
watch the babblings of people who truly choose to be
offended. For instance, I’ll talk about how I got a bunch of
letters from dumb readers, and a bunch of letters on the
same subject from intelligent, insightful readers.
Invariably, someone will write and say how offended they are
that I called them dumb. Well, if they choose to lump
themselves into the dumb crowd instead of the
intelligent one, who am I to argue? Since True is
essentially about stupid people doing stupid things, I
consider publishing such letters to be part of the
entertainment that the publication offers, and the majority
(the smart ones!) just eat it up. A great recent example of
the phenomenon is at
http://www.thisistrue.com/milbrat.html — I don’t really
have to respond to the fools, since my readers will let them
have it much more strongly than I ever would. And I
just sit back and enjoy it with the rest of them.
Q: How does your family view your international reputation?
A: I know they’re proud of my ability to make a living doing
what I want to do, but all in all I’m sure they think of me
as a regular guy; I’m just Randy …who happens to have a big
worldwide audience and now and then goes on TV or gets
interviewed by newspapers and magazines. They do a fine job
of making sure my ego doesn’t inflate, which really isn’t a
worry anyway — I’ve seen far too much of the “real world” to
let things go to my head, and I do realize how privileged I
am to have opinions that others find valuable enough not
only to read, but to support with their subscription
Q: If you could go back in time, what would you change?
A: Not much. I’d probably save more money, since I think the
economy will be at least somewhat unsettled for years to
come, and a financial “cushion” sure lets you relax. I’m not
as relaxed as I’d like to be.
Q: Where do you see yourself in two, five, and ten years?
A: I don’t really want to change much. I’ve been doing
True for nearly 10 years, and I still love it, and I
still have plenty to say through it even though my forum is
somewhat constrained by its format. I’m having a hell of a
lot of fun, so why change anything? But at the same time, I
would like to take more time off, maybe by hiring out some
of the work I do, such as my research. I hope to be at that
point next year or so.
Q: Describe your computer setup?
A: It’s pretty basic; I just need reliable (and quiet!) Word
processors and browsers don’t take a lot of horsepower, but
I switched to a flat panel display to get rid of the CRT
flicker, and I have the most ergonomic keyboard money can
buy since I’m pounding on it so much. I live in a very
remote area, so to get broadband I had to go satellite.
Since my computer is my lifeblood, I tend to get a new one
every three years or so; if it starts getting flaky, it’s
Q: Any career advice? Where are the jobs in the future?
A: I don’t know where the jobs might be, but I think
attention to detail will be the key for most careers. People
are getting fed up, and rightly so, by lousy service.
Companies who just don’t care, or force you into “voice mail
jail”, will suffer at the hands of competitors who go the
extra mile to provide good service. When every job opening
has 5, or 50, or 500 applicants, companies are able to be
much more selective about who they hire. Are they going to
hire some uneducated idiot who doesn’t care about their
work, or are they going to hire someone who takes initiative
and makes customers happy, and thus brings in more value
than his salary costs? The people who got signing bonuses
and stock options during the heady dotcom days will either
have to learn to get over themselves and get back to basics,
or they’ll forever be lamenting what coulda been, if only.
Q: What do you
feel are the top five hottest topics of interest to both
businesses and IT professionals today?
A: Reliability is
key, in all its aspects. Security, both of data and
resources (think Trojans that hackers use to remotely launch
spam or DOS attacks). Identity theft will become a hot
button, and companies will have to show they are serious
about protecting their customers (and the government will
have to strengthen laws and enforcement; identity theft
should be a felony, pure and simple). Customer service. In
short: a simple return to basic values, since people are
getting tired of being ignored and treated badly.
Q: In your work,
which top ten resources do you use most often and why?
A: Google, Google,
Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google, Google and
Google. Seriously. Talk about getting it right! When a
reader says they heard a great story on the radio that would
be perfect in True, I can usually find it using
Google News. When I need to learn more about some specific
topic so I can write about it intelligently, I use Google.
It’s an awesome tool for any writer.
Q: If you were doing
this interview, what three questions would you ask of
someone in your position and what would be your answer?
A: 1) What resource do you wish you had
when you got started?
Someone who was there before me to get me
up to speed — a consultant. Any consultant worth his or her
salt will save you ten times whatever they cost, not to
mention the real benefit of not having to tear so much of
your hair out during the learning process. But in 1994 there
was no one with expertise in online publishing so I had to
invent a lot of things myself as I went along. I do some
consulting myself now, but I’ve priced myself pretty high so
only the very serious will come to me. Which is to say, I’ll
only do it if they really make it worth my while, since my
time is now more valuable to me than a mediocre pay check.
But I’m still confident those who do pay my price will save
much more than I cost them.
2) What makes True so popular?
In addition to the concept of “I’m glad
to see I’m not as messed up as I might have thought”, I
think people really love that I am willing to say things
that need to be said. I’m not afraid to call something (or
someone) stupid, or to take a stand. I don’t talk down to my
readers. The average person only reads at a fifth-grade
level? Tough! I’m not interested in an “average” reader; I
want readers who are willing to think. If a big word is
best, I’ll use it. If a reader doesn’t understand it, they
can get a dictionary and learn something. I absolutely
refuse to pander to the lowest common denominator — that’s a
recipe for mediocrity; I prefer to inspire people to think
and learn. And the people who understand that love me for
3) What are you most proud of?
That I was able to come up with business
and technology models which enable me to deliver my work
directly to my audience, unfiltered, and in return they are
willing to support me with their hard-earned, heavily-taxed
cash. It’s a powerful endorsement, and I don’t take that
Q: Randy, we will continue to follow you work with interest.
Thank you for sharing your considerable knowledge and
experiences with our audience.
A: You had some great questions; you made me think.
From me, that’s a very high compliment indeed.