Saturday, April 5, 2008

Making The Future More Fun

My husband collects and restores old computers from Digital Equipment corporation. He likes to make them
look factory new-- shiny with all the little medallions and nameplates in place. Of course, they also
work, with real, running operating systems on their hard drives -- sometimes installed by yours truly.
And he's forever seeking after the little bits that get discarded when the computer became obsolete --
chassis slides, faceplate covers, special-purpose cables and the like. It's much easier to find
processor or memory boards than it is to find some of those little metal parts that make a PDP-11
look factory-new.
When we first met, it harkened for me back to when I was in high school and old-time radio revival became
popular. People shoveled through thirty years worth of accumulated junk in attics and basements for old
reel tapes of shows they'd recorded when it was they, who were in high school.
Today, collectors scrounge around for all sorts of stuff from yester-year, and at the risk of
encouraging those unwanted pack-rat tendencies, I'd urge you to think twice about throwing something
"useless" away.
Today's commonplace items will be tomorrow's gold mine; it's just so hard to predict what items will
have value in years to come.
For example, on eBay, I recently purchased a Braille Lite. The surplus distributor knows nothing about
it -- a frequent situation since government surplus items often pass through many hands before
being auctioned to average consumers.
This unit is missing cables, power supply, software and case. And the blazie site we accessed for so
many years, appears to no longer be active.
When I bought a similar Braille 'N Speak several years ago, I archived everything from the Blazie site I
thought might be useful. But I didn't copy the Braille Lite flash updates -- now I wish I had.
It's all well for the efficiency experts to tell you that if you haven't used it in a year you should
throw it out. Clearly, they've bought in to the Brave New World mind-set that ending is better than
mending. (If you haven't read Brave New World, do so. What it says about even today's society is ever so
One day we're going to slip out of our excessive consumerism and find pleasure in things that don't
cause us to max out our credit cards. If fuel prices rise even higher, we're going to be living in the
days of "The Long Emergency" just as James kunstler predicts.
But Okay, Okay enough of the survivalist rant. Right now, I'm only saying that you, and not the
efficiency expert will be the best judge of whether to toss or keep something.
Back to my Braille Lite. We can imagine that it broke and that it's owner tossed its now useless wall
transformer. That's not the really sad part. The unfortunate thing here is that neither this device's
user, nor Blazie themselves bothered to archive the specifications. What are this transformer's voltage
and parity? Blazies manuals blithely tell you to be sure and use the correct power supply -- in fact you
are warned multiple times not to confuse it with the wall wart from another device. But like most
companies, Blazie thought they'd be in existence forever, so if your power supply broke you'd just order
a new one from them. In fact, they actively discouraged you from running over to your local electronics
shop to buy a replacement power supply by *NOT* publishing the specs!

So now I'm hunting all over the net and calling my friends, trying to track this information down. Even
if I did want the convenience of spending inflated prices from access technology companies for
accessories, Freedom Scientific no longer sells this power supply. It's gone, and information about it
is gone as well.
So I urge you; if you have information like this about a product you develop or support, write it down.
Even if you can't publish it today, because your company wants to make money on the edge that consumers
can't readily get this information -- please, if you know product details that aren't readily available,
document, then archive them now.
Today's brand-new Braille Sense, for example, will be on ebay in 2018. Will all the people who
know anything about it at GW Micro be retired, or have moved on to other companies? And perhaps GW micro
won't be around or like the blindness products division of Telesensory, morphed in to something else,
and eventually died altogether.
I had a rewarding experience while working at Caere. I was trying to troubleshoot a problem with my PC
and ran across a community maintained internet database of startup programs. (Today there are several of
these.) It gave the names of programs I could see with task manager, as well as details about what those
programs were.  I was able to find and remove the offending task after learning that it was some
configuration software for a video card that used to reside in that PC when it belonged to a graphic
Since Caere's products cluttered up the system tray with lots of extras, and because I was a tech
support lead, I decided to contribute anonymously to that database. I documented every task that all of
our products at the time installed (an amazing resource hogging number of them!) so folks could locate
and remove any they didn't want. I was elated to see that all the info I'd supplied was published.
Years later, when I was laid low by a bad malware infection, I revisited the database, and found my own
entries still there.  I'm glad any users who encountered these tasks, long after Caere vanished in to
the ScanSoft maw,  can learn about their details still. They'll know which tasks they need, and which Caere product the task belongs to. For example, PageKeeper, which tended to make the system unstable,  was installed by default even if the user had no desire to constantly archive everything they scanned. and
best of all, users who encounter the data I posted about these tasks can be relieved that all this stuff isn't more spyware!
A decade ago, my husband and  I both worked at Telesensory; he as software engineering manager, me in
technical support. When Blazie bought our division, and a few days before it was slated to close
forever, a few interesting things happened.
For one thing, I archived everything useful on our network. Old manuals, old tech support tips, old
inside information. I was secretive, I snuck the CD out of the building, not because I intended to use
it for any financial gain, or use it against Telesensory. I was just afraid I'd get in to trouble and that with Blazie technically owning the data that what I was doing wasn't legal.
I was a loyal worker who really loved the company and its product line and worried the information would be lost forever.
I've hidden it somewhere, being so paranoid, and  now I have no idea where it is. Not thrown away, but
stashed in some storage box somewhere no doubt. If I find it, I'll need to see what can legally be posted. I
hate the idea that information disappears when a company goes away. And so few people seem to care.
A couple of years ago someone at the Carroll Center blogged about this also. He was trying to find a
cable for a Dec Express. The cable he's looking for has a DB-9-to MMJ adapter on it and it's the PC DB9.
The Vax family also occasionally used DB9 cables too but their pin-outs were different than the PC. The MMJ connector superficially resembles a Rj-45, but though it feels like a network or telephone jack, it's used mostly for serial RS-232 connections.
Anyway, while rummaging through a bin at Weird stuff, a favorite Silicon valley surplus haunt, I found
a ton of MMJ cables. Just a couple bucks apiece. I bought some extras and scoured the net, but our
mysterious Carrol tech blogger had disappeared, just like the information he was seeking. If he reads
this blog and still needs an MMJ cable for his Dec Express, he should submit a comment. I saved one for
So to close this, I'll say it again. Today's shiny new toy is tomorrow's ebay item, and thirty-forty
years in the future it might even be highly sought. If you don't have an attic or basement, or you
aren't a pack-rat, at least preserve the crucial information needed to make this product useful for the
next generation!

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