Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Learning to let go

Posted by Trixter on March 16, 2009

There’s a happy ending in here, so don’t cry for me Argentina.  Also, it rambles a bit.  These conditions should come as no surprise to those who know me.

For many collectors, librarians, and historians in the field of computer preservation, there is a line between “productive” and “OCD hoarding complex”.  I wouldn’t call it a fine line — it’s pretty broad — but a couple of measured steps in one direction and you can easily travel from museumland to crazyville.  My collection, for example, takes up about seven bookshelves (software) and about 700 cubic feet of space (computers/hardware in the basement and crawlspace).  I usually have three or four projects around me at a time, and so my work area is usually always quite cluttered.  For my current state of project completion, I consider myself right on the line:  If I acquire more stuff, it will progress from “cute little stockpile” to “life-threatening”.  If I let go of some stuff, it will migrate down to the happy state of “collection”.  But as a collector, it is against the fiber of my being to let go of… well, anything.

There are several things that tug at the heartstrings of a computer historian.  The most common is the occasional report of a large collection that was junked because the owner (or widow) didn’t know what they had.  Those are frequent enough (and geographically distant enough) that it’s easy to develop a callus.  Less common are when collections are offered directly to you, but you don’t have the space/money/time/permission/health/etc. to accept them.  Even less common are reports of collections that have been lost not due to negligence, but rather some sort of unexpected disaster (ie. fire, flood, etc.).  All of these royally suck ass, for lack of a more eloquent colloquial euphemism.  But the absolute worst is when you’ve done everything right — found assets, stored them properly, tagged and cataloged them — and circumstances dictate that it is you who needs to give them up before they have been fully processed.  And that time finally arrived for me.

I decided to let go of arguably the golden nugget of my collection:  My cache of Central Point Option Boards.  The personal aftermath of this decision surprised the hell out of me, as I actually feel… better about the entire experience.  (I lack the psychological knowledge to self-analyze why that is; suggestions welcome.) Why did I let them go?  So I could attend a demoparty.

Let’s talk about demoparties.

One of the things I look forward to most in life (other than family events, of course) is attending demoparties.  Europe is maggoty with demoparties (if you look hard enough, you will find at least one every weekend), but here in North America they are few and far-between.  The most amount of major NA demoparties we have had in a single year is two, and that was last year!  (And that won’t be repeated in 2009 because NVision will not occur this year.)  And because NA is so big, it can be a significant financial investment to get to one if you don’t live nearby.  Luckily, Jason Scott — probably at significant personal detriment — has committed to putting on no less than five annual large demoparties, which he both organizes and hosts.  This year is the third one, and although it isn’t as big as some Euro parties, it definitely has the correct vibe, which is a major accomplishment for being so far away from the demoscene nexus.  It’s got a room away from the convention that hosts it all decked out for coding, watching demos, meeting with sceners, listening to demo tunes, etc.  There are compos (including a true wild compo) in front of an audience of at least 200 people.  There are many scene in-jokes floating around.  There is booze of exotic varieties, ranging from home brews to salmiakkikossu (salmari) and a lot inbetween.  About the only thing missing is a bonfire — which is admittedly very difficult, since most NA demoparties are inside convention centers, hotels, or schools.

I mention the demoscene stuff because it is one of my first loves — and the Option Board is another.  In fact, my involvement with the Option Board (is this starting to sound dirty?) goes as far back as 1987.  I became so intimate with it (yeah, this is starting to sound dirty; my apologies) that I began to develop a sense for what settings to give the software based on the publisher of the game I was trying to copy before I even looked at the disk.  Even today, I use Option Boards in my hobby work, sometimes even transferring difficult disk images to overseas colleages who are more adept at cracking than I am, so that they can be dismantled and released into the wild.

So.  I love demoparties and I love my collection of Option Boards.  I lacked the money to go to Block Party this year.  I could sell the Option Boards, to get the money, but I hadn’t properly archived them yet (meaning, put up a web page about them, describe them and their usage, trivia, etc.), which is something I usually spend months doing — because I am anal about stuff like that.  I was stuck.

So how did I resolve these two diametrically-opposed objectives?  I cheated. I decided to perform a best effort at a quick documentation and archival process, and then sell them.  For a single weekend, every spare moment of time was spent scanning manuals and other materials, copying software, taking photos, and writing up a small history of the boards and how to use them.  All of this was organized into the Option Board Archive, which is now available for your leeching pleasure.  In an age where the DMCA is used for repeated abuse, the Option Board is a historical curiousity: A product marketed specifically to break the law (if you used it inappropriately), so I am glad to have had the chance to make my contribution to the world of Option Board history.  And as for the boards themselves, they are on their way to their new owners.  Two of them are going to a computer history museum in Germany; another is going to the KEEP project in France; the other three are going to private collectors with an active interest in using them to further their vintage computing hobby.

I can’t see a downside to this:

  • I get to go to Block Party, on my own terms (I’m paying my own way — my attendance is not conditional on any obligations.  That means a lot to me.)
  • I got the damn things archived and documented
  • I get to see other vintage computing hobbyists enjoying the boards
  • My family gets to see some more clutter go out the door

Life is good.

So does this mean I’m going to start liquidating everything I have, to achieve a zen-like state of higher conciousness?  Um, hell no — at least, not before I’ve had a chance to archive it all properly.  2010 will be the year of the soundcard museum, mark my words.  Now where did I put those Interwave cards…

PS:  I saved two boards for myself.  I’m not that crazy.

6 Responses to “Learning to let go”

  1. Personally, as time has dragged on, I have been more and more and willing to discard stuff that I have been carting around for more than a decade. However, I have various things of more collectible value. I don’t know how much such items would fetch on eBay, nor do I care that much. I would rather see the stuff passed on to an avid collector, free of charge, instead of trashed.

  2. Every collector goes through the motions sooner or later: what to throw and what to keep? In my case I managed to give most of my comparatively rare stuff (like an Apple III) to other collectors, but it still left me with three or four boxes of old PC equipment (anything from 5.25″ drives to ISA network cards to 486 motherboards) that had nowhere to go but the trash.

    Like you, it wasn’t easy for me but really did feel better afterwards, rather like any other hard decision.

  3. Chris said

    I had to go through a large purge a while back. Oddly I still have my boxed ’88 Option Board and that loose ’85 Option Board that I sent you a scan of ages ago. I re-focused the collection to a few “core” machines, mainly my Apple IIgs, and a few Macs. The rest of it was unremarkable and tossed. I found a few photos I took back in 2000 of my basement and wondered what I was thinking back then. It was a disaster!

    Some jewels that left the collection

    1. An original HP Laserjet (big, heavy, and useless with 128k of RAM, tossed)

    2. An uber clean Tandy 1000SX setup

    3. A Mac 512K with original packaging and rare Hyperdrive 20, numeric keypad, and external 400k floppy (gave to friend)

  4. Reader said

    [quote]But as a collector, it is against the fiber of my being to let go of… well, anything.[/quote]

    I know that feeling. I was holding on to a crappy, unclean, not even vintage HP Deskjet for ages. However, I kept the cable.

  5. Reader said

    After I tossed the Deskjet

  6. rabit said

    Too bad about the cancellation of NVISON2009. It was the first demoscene party I ever attended and was conveniently an hour drive to get to.

    As to old computer crap, I can certainly relate though my nostalgic tendencies tended toward old workstations and mainframes like an Altos ACS-8000, Apollo DN-460, and an SGI 4D that was used to process 3D scan data of Arnold Schwarzenegger for Terminator II. Over the last few years, I’ve gone through my stuff and I find more things that I just don’t have any emotional need to keep, like old PC stuff, scanners, printers, CRTs… In fact, getting rid of stuff sometimes gives me the same euphoric feel I had when acquiring it. There’s suddenly new space available for NEW toys that I might acquire. :)

    I do have quite a few gems in my collection that I am not going to trash, like a collection of classic HP, TI and Commodore calculators (including a beautiful desktop HP85A, with it’s original leather suitcase), lots of Timex Sinclair 1000 stuff including one and a 16kb memory expansion still in their boxes, still wrapped in plastic just as it was bought in the early 1980’s at Payless Drugs, Atari 2600 in original box, an AT&T Eo, a control panel for a Quantel Dp5000 (possibly the first pro digital graphics computer made) and a very old graphics programming book that I found at junk store, that I later opened the cover to and found it marked “Ex Libris, R.J. Mical.”

    I do tend now to keep some things for projects rather than nostalgic value, like torn apart and retrofited with a PC to turn into a media center, or an MP3 player out of an old walkman. I really regret trashing my TI expansion box because they make an incredibly solid, sexy PC enclosure. A friend of mine did that with a TI 99/4a, using the original TI keyboard in fact. Now I’m planning on doing some surgery on a dead old Bang & Olufsen Beocentre to turn it into the most stylish Boxee box anyone has ever seen. Yep, two DVD burners housed under a motorized lid that formerly held the phonograph. :)

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