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July, 2023:

Still More Things That Are Slowly Vanishing (Or Gone)

Here’s another bunch, some from me, some from readers. Time passes. The world changes. More and more, the world that’s vanishing is the one we grew up in.

  1. Mechanical charge-card imprinters. You know, when charge cards used to have embossed numbers, and the store clerk would put your card down and a 3-carbon slip over it, and go snick-snick to transfer the embossed card number onto the charge slip. I haven’t had an embossed card for quite a few years, so these are well and truly gone.
  2. Pocket radios. I still have a couple of these, but I don’t remember when I last listened to any of them. Carol and I have had a “kitchen radio” (the solid state successor to the archetypal “All-American Five”) for over forty years. It’s in the kitchen. It doesn’t get much use.
  3. 4:3 computer monitors. Although you can get them used on EBay, the canonical 4:3 aspect ratio flat-screen monitor is long out of production. I have several, but if they ever flake out on me I suspect I’m going to buy a big-ass 9:16 and force myself to get used to it.
  4. Churchkeys. And by that I mean the kind with two ends: One to pop the tops from soda/beer bottles, and the other to poke triangular holes in soda and beer cans. Cans are all pull-tab now, and it’s only imported sodas (and some beers) that need a churchkey to open.
  5. Rolodexes. I still have one, and I still use it to keep significant business cards within easy reach. However, I’m pretty sure that my generation will be the last to use them on a daily basis.
  6. Green River soda. This was and would probably remain my all-time favorite soda—if I could still get it. We used to buy it at a quirky grocery store near our condo in Des Plaines IL. They had regular and diet, both in glass bottles and in 2-liter plastic bottles. I used to get the 2-liter diet sku, which I haven’t seen since we sold the condo in 2015. It still exists (and has its own web page) but can mostly be found in quirky little grocery stores in or near Chicago.
  7. In-house intercoms. The 1958 house Carol grew up in had one. Ours (1949) did not. The new house we bought here in AZ in 1990 had one, and that’s as recent as I’ve seen one. My folks had a Talk-a-Phone intercom put in when my sister was born, and for awhile it was a baby monitor. I took the two units apart circa 1969.
  8. Dehumidifiers. These generally sat in the basement, and a refrigerated coil of aluminum tubing would condense all that Chicago humidity into drips that gathered in a pull-out well in the bottom. These may still be in use in humid climates; needless to say, they aren’t necessary in Arizona.
  9. Superballs. Again, these may still exist, but I’ve never seen one recently like those we used in the mid-1960s: Their surfaces were under considerable tension, and even a tiny scratch would spread into a crack. Eventually they just split into chunks. But damn, those things bounced high.
  10. Pocket calculators. When every smartphone is a pocket calculator, there isn’t much call for standalone pocket calculators. I still have my late ‘70s red-LED TI Programmer, and my 1982-ish TI-30 SLR.
  11. Slot cars and retail slot car tracks. Bill Beggs reminded me of slot cars, which were never an interest of mine but in their heyday were a very big thing. There was a storefront slot-car track less than a mile from where I grew up, on Devon in Park Ridge. Long-gone. Still with us, however, is Dad’s Slot Cars in downtown Des Plaines, just outside Chicago. Fifteen years or so ago they added an ice-cream parlor at the back of the storefront. It’s only open on weekends now, but there must be slot car fans somewhere or it would not be open at all.
  12. Car CD players. My 1996 Jeep Cherokee was the first car I had that came with a CD player. The 2001 4Runner we bought not only had a CD player but a CD changer that could play six CDs without needing to reload. By the time we bought our 2014 Durango, the CD player had been superceded by the now-ubiquitous USB port and thumb drive player in the console.
  13. Rear-projection TVs. We bought one of these just before Christmas 2005, and used it until something inside it fizzled out and died in 2012. The picture, while big, was never exceptionally sharp, and once LED panels could be mass-produced in 56” (or more) diagonal sizes, rear projection died in a hurry. I had to pay $75 to a recycling company to get rid of it after it croaked.
  14. Pastel-colored toilets. These were huge in the late 1950s. Carol’s childhood home (1958) had three bathrooms, each with a toilet/sink of a different color. I believe we added a pink toilet and sink when my folks had a second bathroom put in in 1957. You can still get them, but they are now Midcentury Modern retro exotica.
  15. Pastel-colored Kleenex. This was common through the 1970s and then started getting scarce. Carol and I passed a light blue tissue between us as we knelt on the prie deux during our wedding mass in 1976, alternately mopping our eyes.
  16. Paper encyclopedias. My family bought the 1958 Encyclopedia Britannica. It was wonderful. Carol and I bought the 1974 edition shortly before we married in 1976. I read it a lot until the Internet happened, and then little by little Alta Vista searches (and later Google) made research a whole lot easier. We sold it to the people who bought our Colorado house when we moved back to Arizona in 2015. The leather bindings were drying out and cracking, and in truth we went years between sessions with it. I’ve heard they’re now “shelf candy,” and can be rented to stage houses.
  17. Dollar coins. Half-dollar coins died about 2001, though the US Mint struck collectables for a few years thereafter. Just to be perverse, I asked my bank for a few Sacajawea dollar coins circa 2012 and spent them. Older cashiers just grinned. Young people at the register looked hard at them. But really: When was the last time you handled or spent one?
  18. Horse racing. Like slot cars, I’ve never been interested in horse racing, but Rich Rostrom told me that the Chicago Bears bought Arlington Park racetrack, had the grandstands demolished, and may be planning a new football stadium there. Apparently horse racetracks are shutting down all over the country.
  19. Smoking pipes. (And I don’t mean crack pipes, or anything else in the line of drug paraphernalia.) This again came from Rich Rostrom, and he’s right. My father had a pipe but I never saw him smoke it. A friend and I tried to smoke marijuana in a cheap pipe in 1971, and mostly failed. I truly don’t remember the last time I was in the presence of a pipe smoker.
  20. Stove-top percolators. (This from Bill Beggs.) When I was a kid, my folks used a beat-up aluminum percolator to make their coffee. Mr. Coffee drove percolators off the edge of the world, and I think Mr. Coffee is now being shoved toward the same abyss by K-machines. I now mostly buy my coffee at McDonald’s.

Bring on the Twitter Killers!

The whole problem with social media (apart from being a hazard to some people’s sanity) is simple and ancient: Too much power in too few hands. And the threat to sanity could be managed if people cared to. There should not be five corporations controlling 90% of social media. There should be fifty. No, scratch that. Five hundred. My older readers might remember the BBS era. Those are the kinds of numbers I’d like to see.

Well, the solution may be in sight. Every time I turn around, someone is pushing a new, um, “Twitter-killer.” There are lots, most of them pretty new, some of them still requiring invites to join. Meta’s Instagram subsidiary has created something called Threads, which is still invite only and (obviously) I have not seen. (I don’t even think their server is publicly visible.)

Another one being pushed by the mainstream media is Spill, which is still invite-only, and targeted at Black folks. (I won’t say “African-Americans” because as best I know Spill’s reach will be global.) There’s Amino, for teens. I’m 71, but again, Yay!

Lifewire has a list. Have any of you every heard of Plurk? I haven’t. It has “an adorable interface.” Yay wow! (When’s the last time you saw the word “adorable” expressed without irony?) Aside from Mastodon and Tumblr, I’ve heard of none of them. But yeah, bring ‘em on.

The best list of Twitter alternatives I’ve seen here comes (predictably) from Vice. It’s a good article; at least skim it. New to me were Cohost, Post, Substack Notes, Spoutible, CounterSocial, and WT.Social. Other lists are out there, and many other social media sites are new (or new-ish) that I have heard of, like Bluesky, which is touted as a “decentralized Twitter.” Another that’s been around for some time is Discord. A lot of my friends are on LinkedIn, and although I’ve had a login for years, I don’t check it much.

There’s, which competes (as best I can tell) with Substack, though leaning toward shorter posts. Ello dates back to 2014 and was created by and still caters to artists and designers.

Of course, there are Gab and Minds, which offered less censorship of conservative users and positions. Parler was once in that space too, but I think they’re now defunct, though there is some talk about a relaunch.

My point? The more social networks there are, the less power a handful of social networks will have. Network effects are real, of course, and so is tribalism. I infer from the descriptions of some of these sites that they are silos for a particular ideology. That’s all to the good; I don’t like ideology. Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter thinned out Twitter’s ideological machinery radically. That’s one reason I see no reason to leave Twitter. Musk is reinventing space technology. I like space technology. He’s ballsy, and seems to be deliberately annoying certain categories of users who liked Twitter’s traditional censorship via cowardly tricks like shadowbanning.

I see lots of people saying they’re leaving Twitter. I wonder how many actually are. I’m all for Twitter refugees finding a comfy home somewhere else. The sort of people who will flee a network because it doesn’t censor enough are people I’d just as soon not hang out with.

Of course, most of these networks will probably croak after a couple of years. But some may grow, and siphon off some of Twitter’s bellyachers. (I have some hopes for Bluesky and Threads.)

Will the new social networks really kill Twitter? Don’t be absurd. Most of us are happy with Musk’s changes. I’m even considering getting a verified account, just for the hell of it. I used to pay for Compuserve and LiveJournal, after all. I’m not averse to paying for what I use, if it’s useful enough.

Twitter, so far, has been more than useful enough.

Don Lancaster 1940-2023

The inimitable Don Lancaster has left us. He died on June 7 in Mesa, Arizona, of complications following hip surgery. He was 83.

Anybody who was there at the dawn of microcomputing knows who Don Lancaster was. His seminal TTL Cookbook sold over a million copies. He also did cookbooks for RTL and CMOS ICs. He was famous among early mirocomputer fanatics for his books on “cheap video,” back when video boards were just emerging and (can you believe it?) some folks rolled their own from loose parts. He wrote about the Apple II, including one or more books on Apple II assembly language. His book The Incredible Secret Money Machine was an eccentric guide to starting your own small-scale home business.

When I began using Don’s books in the midlate 1970s, I never gave any thought to actually meeting him. His CMOS Cookbook was critical to my ongoing COSMAC Elf project. I built the original Elf from Popular Electronics in 1976, and over the next several years expanded it in several ways, including a wire-wrapped memory system totaling 2,560 bytes of CMOS memory, as ten banks of paired 5101 CMOS 256X4 RAM chips. I doubt I could have managed that without the CMOS Cookbook.

I also used his TTL Cookbook to learn how the various TTL chips worked and could be hooked together. I’m not exaggerating when I say that without Don’s books on ICs, I would never have learned digital logic to any useful degree.

Don had a strong interest in local archaeology, especially the ways that indigenous  peoples used and stored water for irrigation. About that I know little or nothing, but looking for tinajas was one of his hobbies.

As I drifted toward technical writing in the early 1980s, I realized that I was imitating Don’s style without consciously doing so. This is an odd talent called “pastiche” in literary circles, which is the art of writing in another writer’s style. I discovered this talent in college, when after reading the whole (thick) book of e.e. cummings’ complete works, I began writing what were recognizably e.e. cummings poems. They weren’t great poems, but they were definitely in his style. When I began writing Pascal MT+ From Square One toward the end of 1983, there was a lot of Don Lancaster in it.  (That book eventually emerged as Complete Turbo Pascal in 1985.) I later found myself pastiching Isaac Asimov when I wrote the “Structured Programming” column in DDJ. Asimov almost always started an article with a funny story, and so did I. (See DDJ for September 1991 for my well-known intro about the Pizza Pride girl.)

Don Lancaster and Isaac Asimov taught me more about technical writing than anyone else, ever. Furthermore, neither had any idea that he was teaching me. I met Asimov at LACon in 1984 when Carol and some friends and I won breakfast with him at a charity auction. But unlike Asimov, Don eventually became a personal friend.

I don’t precisely recall how I was introduced to Don. I think my PC Techniques art director Barbara Nicholson’s brother somehow pulled me into Don’s network. Flukier still was the fact that Don lived within reasonable driving distance from Phoenix, in Thatcher, Arizona. Although Don never wrote for my magazines (and we published none of his books) we invited him to our monthly author parties. He attended quite a few, generally with his wife Bee and his dog.

And we went down to visit him a time or two. Don took us up the side of a nearby mountain in his VW microbus, which was scary at times but otherwise wonderfully scenic.

Once Carol and I left Arizona for Colorado in 2003, Don and I fell out of touch, but he was still working to the very end, and produced a boggling body of work including 44 books and over a thousand technical articles.

He was a little eccentric (though he had nothing whatsoever on Wayne Green) and I’ll freely accept the tag for myself as well. His skill with words and his rampaging curiosity were like nothing I’ve ever seen elsewhere. I am honored to have known him, and to have learned from him. He really was a guru, and the world could use a few more (or maybe a lot more) like him.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.