Like many a nerd, I rarely throw anything away that may come in useful at some time in the future. Rarely, however, do I find an actual need for the majority of the junk I keep around. Recently, I bought a new HP desktop with a ton more power, memory, storage and anything else I could imagine having in a box that I will use for the work I do – namely software development for research and pleasure and creative writing for this blog and a soon to be announced new web site.
Like many sports fishermen, I also loath throwing away any bit of tackle that may come in handy at any time in the future. Of course, since I started my collection of fishing gear, I have increasingly specialized in fishing salt flats and only rarely go more than a mile off the beach and, then, only when the kingfish pass through our area. I, therefore, have loads of junk that I’ve acquired over the years that I never use and will not likely use in most possible futures in store for me.
Susan, my lovely wife, talked me into culling much of the junk from my home office. One of the largest and least frequently used objects is a 1999 vintage Gateway desktop with a voluminous 17 inch CRT monitor. Combined, the two take up more space than my new HP, a Dell Desktop I keep around and a 15 inch flat screen monitor that I’m using via switchbox for both. I only use a monitor at all when I ask Susan to look over my shoulder to eyeball something when a screen reader isn’t reading something or has crashed and I’m unclear as to why so the smaller the monitor, the better for me. The eight year old Gateway, though, remains a pretty useful computer and its monitor, although big, still works nicely (or so I’m told). I’ve used this box to run Fedora Core with SpeakUp for over two years now and, although a little slow, it remains a perfectly usable set up for this purpose. Inside, it has a P3 450 and 512 mb of RAM. The old Gateway has two optical drives, one is a CD burner, the other was fast for its time and still reads CDs nicely.
Ridding myself of the old Gateway and its monitor is not an easy task. For starters, one can go to any number of retail web sites and find more powerful computers described as “refurbished” for under $150 and no one seems to want big, old CRT monitors. Shipping this system will cost more than it’s worth so finding a new home for it really means finding someone locally who will take it off of our hands for free. We live in St. Petersburg, Florida so, if you’re local, feel free to write or call me and you can have this PC if you want it.
Susan found some kind of charity computer gathering service that will actually pick up old hardware if they feel they can find a home for an old box. She spent last night finding the Windows 98 and Office installation CDs that came with the old PC. She listed it on the web site and I’m not sure if anyone has asked for it yet but I tend to be pretty doubtful that anyone really wants this old clunker.
In our quest to find things associated with this old PC, we ran into lots of old and forgotten technology and electronic things that have gathered over the years. I found the number of pairs of headphones and ear buds that have piled up over time the most remarkable of the various objects in the closet and boxes surrounding it. Without exaggeration, we must have accrued at least two dozen pairs over the years. I have no idea how long we’ve had some of these and, based upon general recollection, how many times we’ve packed and moved these items over the years. This house is our third home in Florida and I recognized some of these items as having come with us from Cambridge when we moved here almost 9 years ago.
As we started going through old software CDs, we realized that some of these ran on Macintosh, a type of computer we last owned about eight years ago when I gave our last one away to a colleague at FS so his then four year old daughter could have something to play with. I remember the awe I felt when I bought that machine as it had a screaming fast (100 MHz) Power PC processor and 64 whole megabytes of RAM. Amazingly, I have an iPAQ with 6 times the processing speed and tons more memory. Of course, also somewhat amazing is that we we found software for this dinosaur in our collection of ancient junk. I wonder if anyone still uses that ancient Macintosh anywhere?
Our search led us to a box of cables. I don’t think I’ve ever thrown away a cable in my life or so this collection would suggest. We have miles of coaxial cable left over from my days as a cable television box hacker; we have serial cables, parallel cables, ribbon cables, cable splitters, wire wrapped custom cables that probably connected beta video cards from the days I worked for Number Nine to monitors long ago disposed of. Why I kept such a collection boggles my own mind and, at the same time, I found myself saying, “you never know when you might need a null modem cable” and “that looks like a Lap Link cable, it could come in handy someday.” Maybe I should have my therapist test me for other symptoms of OCD as, clearly, these are not the thoughts of a healthy mind.
For many years, I’ve maintained a collection of the packages that software on which I worked shipped in. We found old Right Writer for DOS boxes, Quatro Pro for DOS boxes, every version of JAWS from 3.30 to 6.0, old releases of OpenBook, Dashboard for Windows 95, some old Broderbund programs (are they still around) and lots and lots of boxes of worthless software. I even had a copy of AutoCAD Release 10 which, if I remember correctly, came out in 1988 and was one of the first major applications that actually required a 386 to run. I decided to dismantle my personal software museum but keep a few items (JAWS 3.31, the first release with a virtual buffer) which remains one of my favorite JAWS releases as it, as Mike Pedersen put it, “made the competition squeal like pigs.” I kept a few other items for memorabilia sake but the rest went to the dumpster in the alley behind our house.
Much of the rest of the software we found, still in its shrink wrap, came with one or another PC that we’ve purchased over the years. We felt that any software that remained in its original package without its seal having been broken, would probably never be of any value to us. Thus, we sent it out to the dumpster to help Florida landfills grow to make the state safe for more condo complexes that will rise from the cracked plastics of our CDs and floppy disks.
Then, I opened the Pandora’s Box of ancient and even some relatively recent oddball hardware items. There, I found a DoubleTalk LT, the first hardware speech synthesizer I ever owned, the one I used with emacspeak on a Debian GNU/Linux distribution on a 1988 Gateway Solo laptop – coincidentally, the same laptop on which I first used Window-Eyes to write up my resume which got me my job at FS managing JAWS. This same old laptop was the first on which I used JAWS (a TE that Joe Lazarro from MCB sent me that same year), I don’t remember where the laptop went but the DoubleTalk LT remains in my possession. This box also contained a web camera that I have some vague memory of buying but no memory of using, a few old mouses, a couple of joysticks, a USB hub and some other junk. We kept all of this stuff as it doesn’t take up much space and one never knows when it might come in handy, right?
We also found boxes and boxes of manuals. These all went to the recycling bin as virtually all of them described software or hardware we no longer used and, in some cases, stuff we didn’t even own.
Trying to separate myself from old and, to me, relatively useless fishing tackle proved far more difficult. “A number six planer works great on Spanish Mackerel in 10-12 foot deep water,” I heard myself saying. To those of you who do not fish, one uses a planer to keep bait at a consistent depth while trolling at a relatively constant speed. Trolling like this requires a boat with an engine and, to the standards of a flats fisherman, deep water. I do almost all of my fishing from either a canoe or while wading. A canoe without an engine attached works very poorly as a boat for trolling; wade trolling would require that the fisherman run backwards through deep water – a comical notion certainly but, unless one is keen on drowning, an impractical one at that.
The collection includes lots of “terminal tackle” which, to the non-fishing people, means gear one uses when they fish with either live or formerly live bait. This gear is useful when we fish off of the Skyway pier and drop our bait to the bottom in hopes of catching some large grunts or, in the winter, sheepheads. As we rarely do this sort of fishing we probably don’t need a ton of gear but all of the stuff we have has never been used and as we may use it someday, I’ll keep it in the collection. So, with the exception of a few chewed up old lures, some fly gear with nasty tangles and some items that we did use and that is now caked in rust, we kept all of it. Maybe Ernie will want the planers and deeper water stuff and I promised one of the long unused reels to Charlie so some of the tackle collection may find a second life in someone else’s pile of tackle, used or gathering dust.
I kept one item specifically because it once was owned by the late Merrill “Conoeman” Chandler, one of the founders of the local paddle fishing community whose insights we all surely miss. Thus, I have an item I never plan on using that I bought at the Conoeman’s widow’s yard sale when she unloaded his junk after his untimely death a few years ago. To anyone else, it looks like a random piece of fishing stuff; to me it’s a bit of nostalgia for a really great guy.
I think we managed, in all, to free up about 20% of the space that we had hoped to reclaim. Do other people keep closets full of stuff they don’t think they will ever use? Am I the only geek who gets nostalgic for old boxes of software upgraded hundreds of times since it went public?
Does anyone but me, including people at FS, remember just how and why JAWS 3.31 was so incredibly special a release that, above all of the JAWS, MAGic, OpenBook, ConnectOutloud and other releases I managed at FS, it’s the only package I care to keep? I’m proud of almost every release of commercial software from my career before and after FS but JAWS 3.31 remains as the single point in my professional software development era (starting in May 1979 at Lincoln Savings in New York) where I believe the step forward from a previous (in this case JAWS 3.30) release was so dramatic. For those of you who do not recall, JAWS 3.31 did not include a lot of new features, it didn’t have too many new scripts either. JAWS 3.31 introduced using the IE DOM as a method of gathering information and it, for the first time ever, presented Internet information in what we called a virtual buffer. We had hoped to introduce the virtual buffer in 3.30 but, alas, we didn’t get it done to a satisfactory point for a few more months. When it did come out, our decision to eschew MSAA and go straight for the DOM made an immediate impact. Loading a web page with lots of links and such, we liked using Jamal’s EmpowermentZone page for its huge number of links, would take 30 seconds with JAWS 3.31 (we would get faster in the future) but over a half hour using the MSAA based competition. JAWS 3.31 would raise the bar for functionality, usability and performance for blind Internet users everywhere and, gradually, its competitors followed along. While there have been numerous innovations in JAWS, Window-Eyes, System Access and other screen readers hence, I still look back at the summer of 1999 as the period in which the biggest breakthrough happened under my watch.
Well, I’ve drifted from the topic at hand to nostalgia for years gone by. I suppose cleaning out the closets provides a good time for reflection and nostalgia so, in a way, the article’s end has some connection with its start.