Monday, October 18, 2010

The Lure of Retro Computing

I want to get Lubuntu working on the old 2000 Sony Vaio, make it a streamlined, stripped-down, responsive old toy.  It won't go online without an ethernet cable, which makes it perfect for distraction-free writing. The silly thing is, though, that it runs Windows XP just fine, it's running it fine right now, with OpenOffice and everything that I need, and not going online with it keeps it pretty well free of viruses. Stripping it down to a lightweight package with Abiword/Gnumeric is really counter-productive, since I could be diving in and writing novels on it right now.

But then again, there's the productive writing angle, and then there's the fun of messing about with unorthodox operating systems and seeing how they play with old hardware, and pretending these are both part of the same pursuit is a bit disingenuous.

I've got that Asus Eee netbook, too. My reading in bed computer, almost three years old already but working great, going strong. The small keyboard’s not much of a hindrance; I actually like the minimal feel of it. And the small screen lends itself to a certain degree of focus. It will go online, but it won’t stream YouTube videos without burping along, and I can forget all about watching Hulu on it or looking at any pictures in high resolution. I could have been content with just that, but no, I had to go and purchase a Pentium 4 desktop for $120 from a guy who saved one from the dump and dropped a new hard drive into it. And why didn’t I just get one from the dump myself? Well, because the guy got to it first, the price was reasonable, and I feel good supporting that guy’s lifestyle of local-salvage-and-survive. Of course, that same day, Staples had a great deal on a 22” widescreen LCD monitor to pair with it, so now I’ve got a massive screen dominating my otherwise uncluttered desk that’s constantly calling out to me with uses for its vast tracts of screen real-estate.

These stupid conundrums, I spend hours obsessing over them, when friends of mine might be levelling up their World of Warcraft characters or fragging bots in first person shooters. Or raising children and doing the other suchlike things that adults are supposed to be doing with their time.

All these machines, built for communication. I strip them down and prune them back. Too much communication makes me nervous. Why should we share our dinner plans on Facebook and post our bowel movements on Twitter?  Just because there's an app for that?

I like the older machines because I feel they’re not being wasted; I can ask of them everything they can give and use them to the fullest. This is what K. Mandla speaks about when he says he is not a computer minimalist. He’s a maximilst, getting the most out of ten-year old laptops he pays $20 for. And there he is, building, researching, and publishing online (which is a more elegant description of what we do than “blogging,” which is perhaps the most unfortunatly coined term of this last decade) all from the command-line. Whether this makes him any more effective or productive as a writer and journalist is up for debate, but it seems to me he gets a pretty decent load of fun out of the proceedings.

Unlike Mandla, I'm not ready to go back to command-line-only. I've been tempted by the challenge of it, but climbing the learning curve of Unix commands and Vim keyboard shortcuts is a fun exercise that I’ve embarked upon a couple of times, but repeating that exercise enough to comfortably compose a letter without going online to reference tutorials and man-pages starts to make me feel that maybe I am wasting my time, a little. There’s enough distraction-free text editors out there for Linux that I can re-create the feeling of austerity and still wave my mouse around when I want to put something in italics or copy and paste.

Don’t think I haven’t considered getting that old 1980 IBM PC, which has no graphics card, out of my mother’s attic and re-acquainting myself with the keyboard shortcuts of WordPerfect whatever point whatever that I loaded onto it, back in the day, with my buddy's mother's boss's stack of 5.25" floppies. The thing boots in seconds and will output to the dot-matrix printer in near letter quality, provided I can scare up a ribbon and a carton or two of tractor-feed paper. If I bring that thing home, though, I’ll get open-source ambitious and lose a couple of weeks trying to load up a stripped down version of Linux through those 5.25” drives, and then I'll be diving right back into the morass of text editors and obscure, out-of-date printer driver installation. Is there any way to sauter a USB port onto a 30 year old motherboard? Getting anything I write off of that old thing would be a significant challenge.

And now I'm toying with the idea.  But if I have to find a place to put that hulk of a machine, I’ll have to get rid of one of these bulky typewriters (probably the Selectric) which call to me, nightly, from beneath their dust-covers. They want me to type something, anything, and they seem to be unaware of the cruel truth that I’ve run out of things to say.

All these computers are four years old, at least (and the typewriters are 40 years old, at least) so it’s not like we’re one of those families that goes around scooping up the latest gadgets and sending last years models off to India and Africa for recycling and reclamation. The problem is that despite whatever planned obsolescence is built into them, they persist in working just fine. Throwing them away doesn’t feel right, but it’s not like we can sell them, either, given that people would rather finance an iPad with their credit card (”It’s like buying a computer with no money down!”) then make do with something that still gets the job done, something they could have second-hand for twenty bucks.

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