ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Rest of the Infocom Cabinet —

Here’s an update on the Infocom Cabinet, with a side order of ethical debate.

Michael Berlyn

I’ve now dumped the balance of materials I have around into the Infocom Cabinet collection on the Internet Archive. There’s some scatterings left on my hard drives, but they are either 100% personal (think: pay stubs and employee evaluations) or they’re duplicated in many ways in what did go up.

So with this little update comes:

All told, we’re somewhere in the range north of 5,000 individual scanned pages in this uploaded collection. It’s worth it to note that this wasn’t even the full extent of Steve Meretzky’s file cabinet – this was just as much as I grabbed with a sense of “this needs to be saved” cross-purposed with “this will look good scrolling by in the final film”. There’s likely piles of interesting material in the collection, including all of Steve’s work with Boffo and Legend Entertainment, two companies he worked at after Infocom – I just had to call it at some point, or I’d probably be scanning to this day. I again note that Stanford University was donated the entire Meretzky collection, where it sits safely to this day.

For the “what about” crowd… yes, there’s a few other items in the collection, and I may put them up if it makes sense to, but this should really be enough for anyone to produce a reasonably informed opinion on the goings-on, from nearly day one through to the office closing and all the remaining items shipped away, of Infocom, Inc., 1983-1989. They’re readable in the browser, and the original scans that are up are all 600dpi, meaning they can be zoomed in for artistic meaningfulness, which as a documentary film guy I’m pretty big on. It’s a triumph! People are talking about it! It’s making waves!

Now what?

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So, there’s an important factor in this. The vast, vast majority of Infocom employees are very much alive, some still working in the games industry, and others who have possibly not thought about the words “Zork”, “Infocom”, or “55 Wheeler Street” for a very long time. And now, out of nowhere, related to no particular anniversary or event, the sum total of the company’s materials are now online somewhere, browsable, and thousands of people are poring over them, studying and commenting.

Some will be delighted. Some will be confused why anyone cares so much, and maybe one or two will be in some ways horrified or nervous, especially if they haven’t gone over what’s been posted themselves.

For the film, I interacted with a variety of Infocom staff, some of them for just one day (interview), some just over a single phone call (saying they wouldn’t be in the film), and others on and off for years. I can’t pretend to call myself their friend beyond the Meretzky family and especially Steve, who I spent a large amount of time with during production and who I occasionally see when I’m in California.

There’s a situation in making a documentary I call “Stop-Motion Interaction” where you interview someone, spend 3 years working on the movie, and then either have the person at the premiere or run into them, and you have been spending months inside your head getting to know the person from what they talked about, and then you see them and to them, you’re just this old dim memory and to you, you’re seeing an old friend again. It can be jarring for both parties.

But there were people I didn’t get the opportunity to talk with at all. They literally have nothing to know about me or my methods or what I’m about, beyond I made some sort of film and that film had an Infocom aspect to it. (Some Infocom alumni just called GET LAMP “The Infocom Movie”, presuming that’s what it’d be about.) For some of them, they will likely see what just happened with all this documentation and have a “reaction”.

So.

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This gets enormously complicated. And painful. But if I’m going to talk about where I got to with releasing all this historical information, and to stand as some sort of example of the issues involved, I gotta go here.

It’s explained in excruciating detail in this podcast, so I’ll go with the Cliffs Notes version, like someone explaining why one shoulder blade is 2 inches higher than the other, and why there’s a scar going from one ear to the forehead.

Besides this treasure trove of infocom documentation in Steve’s basement, I had someone contact me saying, basically, “So, you’re working on this movie. Would you like The Infocom Drive?” Like everything else, I said YES without needing any details because that’s how I roll. When the Infocom Drive arrived (a roughly 150mb .zip), it was essentially a snapshot of Infocom at the end of days, Knowing that this was a goldmine that needed to be in some way preserved, I gave three copies away to trusted sources, and one of them wrote an article about a particular narrative thread in the drive’s contents, got a ton of attention, some extremely angry ex-Infocom folks (both privately and public, to me), my movie almost died in the cradle and I didn’t talk to the author for about six years.

Again, the podcast goes into this whole thing for the sake of the looky-loos, but I’m trying to get to the core of the discussion/debate here – that to tell this narrative thread, this article used e-mails, entirely private, pulled from the hard drive and which were never, ever published anywhere and I’m sure the employees on both sides of each letter had no idea their writings survived and just imagine waking up to that nightmare scenario.

Reconciliation did happen, and I did have conversations with a lot of people about it, and I definitely still harbor both the sadness at the initial event and the lost opportunities of six years of potential collaboration.

So then, what exactly am I doing here?

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First, I tried to take lessons from the debacle of a half-decade-plus ago and implement them in a way that would protect people:

  • Removal/blacking out of personal information in the realm of addresses and phone numbers, that are surprisingly still intact to the present day;
  • Employee evaluations and specific medical information
  • Anything that might be construed as a personal attack, especially on a person not along the chain (name-calling against specific managers, or a parody gossip article naming two employees, the “parody” aspect possibly misconstrued in modern times)

Steve has been rather open with how he does his work, so there are things in there that I wouldn’t do if I hadn’t worked things out with Steve and gotten his opinion on what’s acceptable. For example, I left in a salary listing for Steve just because it’s both historically interesting and because I think if he had it on his computer, he’d make it part of a presentation at GDC. But only Steve gets that treatment in any way.

I worry about someone defending decisions made decades ago, with 20/20 hindsight applied by groupthink hive-mind perfection-oriented knowledge. I hope that doesn’t happen. People in this group range from early 20s to early 30s (with a few noted exceptions) and Infocom was often either their first job, or a completely crazy 90 degree change in career. They did what they did, and it came from competence and doing the right thing as they saw it. I don’t know if any of us could stand up to such scrutiny and get top marks across the board.

Beyond this, though, there’s the situation itself.

This is probably going to be the only time, outside of maybe Sierra and Broderbund, that this level of depth of the life cycle of a game company will ever end up online. And while I know there are archives of some game companies, I don’t believe any had the meticulousness that Steve showed in gathering up company work and management product and placing them into perfectly boxed-up folders indicating what aspect of the firm they were. We literally have the memos introducing the start of the sales team, company library and health insurance… and then the “we’re not doing so well”, the resignation letters, the calls to sell furniture and office supplies. It’s all in there.

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It is my strongest belief that this collection will instruct, inform and change things in games, if only to show what situations have persisted for years, and what aspects are evolved from how things were. It’s hard, cold source material, unprettified and unsummarized, and showing something else: Just how fucking amazing Infocom was.

These were good people. Hardworking employees, creative geniuses, and driven towards the goal of being the best of the game companies. A place that people dreamed of being part of from the outside. A company that stood as doing all the right things, until it wasn’t doing the right things. A chance for people to figure out where the cracks showed, where the triumphs were, and where dreams were actually and truly formed and hewed on a daily basis. That’s pretty amazing.

Infocom alumni can e-mail me (jason@textfiles.com) any time if they have concerns about something, or which I overlooked the nature of (I tried to be very careful about this and all the thousands of pages have been vetted by me personally – the buck stops here.) Naturally, the world at large can e-mail me too.

I should rush to say that the reaction on the part of everyone I’ve found has been 100% positive. I’m writing this not because someone complained, but because I saw in a potential scenario that angry and betrayed researcher I was so long ago with my friend (who is still, again, very much my friend) Andy. I know that the result is often not shouting but seething. That solves nothing. I wanted to get ahead of it.

For everyone else, please enjoy this rare and possibly unique peering into what is, ultimately, one of the high holy grails of gaming history.

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A Cabinet of Infocom Curiousities —

This is big news, in the realm of game design studies.

During the production of GET LAMP, I spent a lot of time digitizing or photographing all sorts of artifacts and documents related to Interactive Fiction and text adventures. This included books, advertisements, printouts, and various ephemera that various players or programmers had lying around from that era. This would usually involve one or two ads, maybe a map or two that someone had drawn, and one or two photos snapped at a convention.

But not in the case of Steve Meretzky.

If you’re coming into this relatively new, or even if you need a little brush-up, let me state: Steve Meretzky has earned the title of “Game God” several times over, having been at the center of the early zenith of computer games in the 1980s and persisting, even thriving, in the years since. He continues to work in the industry, still doing game design, 35 years since he started out as a tester at what would become Infocom.

But more than that – besides writing a large amount of game classics in the Interactive Fiction realm, he also was an incredibly good historian and archivist, saving everything.

EVERYTHING.

When we finally connected during production (as it turned out, we lived within 10 miles of each other), Steve showed me his collection of items he had from the days of Infocom (which spanned from roughly 1981 through to the company’s eventual closing and absorption by Activision in the early 1990s). And it was a hell of a collection:

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Recognizing the value here, not just for my documentary but for the world at large, I gained permission from Steve to start scanning these items. First, in his basement, and then, when the job extended past a few weekends and it got annoying to have this guy in Steve’s basement, from my home, in a setup that I would work from with a set of pliers (for staples) and just scanning, constantly, as I could:

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This took a long time. I scanned as much as I could, and after working on Steve’s “design binders”, which are very large combinations of every scrap of paper related to a game, I took a run at the file cabinet, which had pretty much every major communicated aspect of the Infocom company, from memorandums and business process through to interoffice softball game preparations and crab race outcomes. I definitely didn’t get everything, but I got a whole lot. Something on the order of roughly 9,000 scanned items, in fact.

Ultimately, Steve moved out of his lovely home and went to the west coast. His binders, artifacts and other items went to Stanford University, where they are housed today. I sent them copies of my hard drives, and they are using them (to my delight) to house their own digital form of the archives, and intend to bring in the remainder of the materials over time.

I ended up using a lot of material in GET LAMP, with loving pans across these 600dpi images of puzzles, writing and advertisements while people talked about text games and the craft of creating them. And after the movie was done, I put the scans away and moved onto other projects.

Until now.

Today, I’m dropping the first set of what I hope will be the vast majority of the stuff I scanned during that production year, onto the Internet Archive. The collection is called The Infocom Cabinet, and right now it has every design notebook/binder that Steve Meretzky kept during the period of what most people consider “Classic” Infocom. This includes binders for:

Right there are nearly 4,000 pages of material to go through related to the production of these games.

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Bear in mind: Steve did not mess around when it came to assembling these folders. He includes the light, drizzly roots of a given game, whether it be some cut-out newspaper articles or an exchange between employees of “what should Steve work on next”. (In some cases, heavy descriptions of the games Steve never got a chance to make, including a Titanic game and Minute Mysteries.) It then follows through many iterations of the maps, puzzles, references of any given work. Often, there are draft versions of the artwork and text for the manual and hint books, including all correspondence with outside vendors (like G/R, the copywrite/design group Infocom used heavily and which Steve has the occasional huge disagreement with). Then, once the game is functional, we have letters and feedback from playtesters.

(PLEASE NOTE: I HAVE REDACTED THE NAMES AND PERSONAL INFORMATION OF THE PLAYTESTERS INVOLVED – ORIGINAL UNREDACTED COPIES ARE NOT ONLINE BUT EXISTENT.) 

For someone involved in game design, this is priceless work. Unfettered by the crushing schedules and indie limits of the current industry, the designers at Infocom (including Steve, but not limited to him by any means) were able to really explore what made games so much fun, where the medium could go, and what choices could be made. It’s all here.

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But more than that, and I mean much more – Steve kept all the memos, business process, and related papers that were generated through Infocom Inc.’s life. Like, pretty much all of it.

This gets slightly harder for me to put up – I am going to have to work with Steve and some of the other people involved as to what can go up now and what should stay in Stanford’s stacks for researchers to work with. But for now, a healthy set of materials have gone up:

This is a relatively tiny amount of the total internal company scans I have made, but these are the ones that I can put up without worrying about it crashing into anyone’s life. Again, personal information has been removed, and the focus has been on company process and interesting historical documents.

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There’s so much more not up right now, but this 4,000 page cache should give you something pretty extensive to chew on. I also can’t promise when the ‘next wave’ will come, as it really will be time consuming to go through compared to the relatively light (personal-information-wise) design binders. But it will!

I can’t thank Steve enough for what he did during the timespan of Infocom – he just absolutely captured a very special company during a very special time and kept it, well-sorted and updated, for years and years. That we have this at all is a tribute to his staying firm to this approach, even with the side-effort of, you know, completely revolutionizing computer games.

Enjoy this holiday treat.

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Close the Air Gap —

Close the air gap. Close the air gap. Close the air gap, the air gap, the air gap.

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Close the air gap. Close it. The air gap. Close it.

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Close the air gap. Close it right now. This weekend. This month. Close the air gap.

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There’s a layer of atmosphere, of air, in between us and the data, and that needs to go. It needs to be pulled in. It really needed to be pulled in years ago. It needs to go in now.

In the nascent period of “will Javascript be up to the task” that came out of the beginning of the JSMESS project, there was a worthwhile point to focusing on the “will it work” aspect. We got it to work. It’s not perfect, but it’s very, very good. If you have a very fast machine, and as time goes on, we will all have fast machines, then the experience can feel great. What’s left is polish and documentation. The beast lives, the machine hums. It needs help, yes, but the amount of people who can help are relatively tiny in the world.

What’s needed is to close the air gap.

I’m not worried about entire classes of “stuff”. Console games made before 2000. The full run of “Friends” on DVD. Most anything released audio-wise on CD that had a UPC symbol. I’m not worried in the same way you shouldn’t be worried about falling rocks when driving through a road in cornfields. It might be a problem, but it shouldn’t be at the forefront of your mind. It’s not in my concern circle that there are probably some releases by Tommy Boy Records or an occasional post-2010 feature film that is difficult to find in just the right video format.

When people talk about ‘saving’ materials into digital form, some of the “big things” get immediate attention and love. For example, Nintendo and especially Mario. We’re set on Mario. But there’s entire swaths of material I call “Advocate-less Items” that just need someone to digitize them regardless. Old user group floppies. Placemats. Rave flyers. Handmade cookbooks. Shop manuals. Beverage distribution one-sheets. Matchbooks. You know, stuff.

I will be resuming work on DIGITIZE THE PLANET because I think that will help bring an army of digitizers to the fore. People who will drop a little money, go get scanners, and help us add materials that are sitting around, give them useful metadata, and then upload them to places like the Internet Archive.

But as I sit here in my room, ripping hundreds of CD-ROMs, floppies, and tapes, and as I start to scan in newsletters, books and pamphlets, I feel like we’re running towards the Tsunami with buckets, trying to catch it. We need more people, and we need more scanning, and we have a lot of work ahead of us.

Close the air gap.

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Close the air gap.

Close the air gap.

Close the air gap.


Archiving 3,500 Hours of Stupid —

The title has little context, which I think is appropriate.

One of my friends in high school insisted, nay, demanded that I listen to an album called A BIG 10-8 PLACEwhich was either about or by something called Negativland, which I didn’t have a clue as to what that could mean, and before I could really absorb that, I had to hear the album, and oh man.

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I can’t even easily describe this album. It’s primarily a set of audio collage, some of the finest that can blow through headphones, with ridiculous self-reference and unusual disturbing moments. It was just a game and life-changer for me, some crazy kid in 1986, a mere 16 years old and up to that point living with Art of Noise as my most wild band.

I bought a number of Negativland albums over the years, and in college, by a very, very lucky set of circumstances, I got to attend an actual, live, Negativland concert at The Western Front in Cambridge, MA – one of their rare East Coast appearances. I showed up way too early, and met the band.

I’m compressing time insanely – sorry about that, but my personal life with this band is not important to the main points other than to say that it’s progressed on to what will now be a life with Negativland for 30 years next year: 1986-2016.

Along the way, I saw them live a handful of times, and in one case, even put the entire band up in my house in Waltham when they had some Boston appearances. The whole band! In my house! What fan wouldn’t love that?

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Maybe I’ve just hit that age where I approach liking different bands to “take it or leave it” – you either listen and are grabbed, or you listen and say “not for me”. But if you like clever or really brilliant sound collage, cultural ridiculing combined with satirical commentary, and the occasional burst of disturbing, intense music, then you may enjoy Negativland.

Along the way, I’ve become really close with one of the members, Mark Hosler, who I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with in various locations, and who has never failed to delight me with his presence. Kevin Smith says “Don’t meet your heroes” but what I counter with is “Get better heroes.”

In the middle of 2015, one of the members of Negativland, Don Joyce, passed away, at the age of 71. He was amazing in his own right. There are some really excellent obituaries and memories out there, and again, I’m not going to add to them here.

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What I’m going to do is tell you about how this nearly-30-years-long fan got the chance at the dream of his lifetime, when he was able to leverage his position at a very large, very open network-connected archive to bring forward a collection of Negativland and Don’s work that nobody ever thought would be in one place.

It’s called the Over the Edge Collection.

See, during the time he was in Negativland and doing a lot of sound work with the band, Don was also the host of a weekly radio show in KPFA called “Over the Edge” – an hours-long sound collage of themes, commentary and thrown-into-the-mix listeners that he called Over the Edge. That’s three to five hours a week, every week, for decades. Unique enough as a show, it’s definitely unique in the consistency and execution of his vision. He did his last show, died a few days later, and various people from the band and long-time collaborators showed up and did the very next show entitled THERE IS NO DON, and the show was announced as continuing in some form, but the era of Don Joyce was over.

There were scads and scads of recorded shows from the many years, some of which had been remixed into sold items for the Negativland Seeland Records catalog, but which the vast, vast majority had not seen the light of day since broadcast.

Until now.

Working with the Band’s Archivist, Tim Maloney, who has painstakingly digitized tapes for years, the Internet Archive now has up over 3,000 hours (THREE THOUSAND HOURS) of this radio show. It’d take you a good part of a year to listen to it all.

There are now lots of articles about this hosting of all this material (I particularly like this one), but there’s two things I wanted to address before I set you off to it.

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First, I work for such a great place that adding 941 shows of hundreds of megabytes of audio each wasn’t even a rounding error – I didn’t have to bring it up with a single person before I helped do it. This dream of Don’s and others in the band, that all the Over the Edge material would be up somewhere, instantly listenable, came true in hours as the hard drive uploaded the items.

The Archive’s derivers convert all incoming audio to various forms, including .ogg and related formats, as well as generating waveforms and just generally trying to give listeners the most options. It is now possible to listen to all 941 shows (with more coming) and not have to hit a paywall, a banner ad, a rate limiter, or any other barrier. It might be worth considering to donate to such a generous organization.

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Second, you need to realize that a band this meticulous, this directed in their focus and approach and art, was making a huge and ridiculous leap when they just threw up these thousands of hours of shows. Up to this point, they’ve crafted nearly every second the public heard of their work, and so presentation was done at great pains and effort. And then, a short time after Don’s passing, we are suddenly given all of these items with, in some cases, almost no descriptions at all.

The choice was pretty clear – only release what had gone through rigorous metadata refinement, fully describing and cataloging this collection until it was 100% ready to go as a perfect crystalline museum piece… or just dump everything up there and figure it out later. It was very difficult to do a 180 and put it all up as is.

As a result, there’s a call for help in describing these shows. Don only described a percentage, and efforts by fans new and old to describe these shows would be appreciated. It might take years, or a few insane weeks, but the literal life’s work of Don and the members of Negativland (and many many others, I rush to say) deserves the community it should get.

Let’s get Stupid.

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The Internet Archive Telethon —

I’ve been given permission to go ahead and schedule an Internet Archive Telethon to allow us to have a gosh-darn-it actual showcase at the amazing space that is the San Francisco headquarters. My goal, humble as always, is to try and raise a million dollars for the Archive in a weekend.

To do this, there will be a live telethon from noon on Saturday, December 19th to noon on Sunday, December 20th. I will be co-hosting with others, and it will be quite a hoot.

I’m now working on stuff regarding logistics for it, but I’m letting people know about it because of two reasons:

FIRST. If you know or are a group who makes use of the Internet Archive, either hosting with the Archive, or are a prominent name (I’ll leave the definition of that to you), then please write me at telethon@textfiles.com and let me know your ideas for an act, appearance, pre-recorded message, or other contribution that will be good to have during the live streaming.

Second, if you donate to the Internet Archive in advance of the Telethon, and include the phrase LOCKBOX in your donation, it will be added to the Telethon’s pre-telethon “Lockbox” and that will give us the initial boost towards the goal.

I’ll return to my regularly scheduled weblog shortly.


In Realtime: Some Initial Sorting and The Power of Two —

I drove down to Baltimore yesterday, sorted manuals for the day, and then drove back.

First, I stopped by the Manuals Plus warehouse to see the current status of the manuals that we left behind. Answer: Gone. Thrown out. Recycled.

20916883838_6eb8937192_k 20917977539_937dba2e48_k 20917978649_b96502b73b_k 21104777875_c7e768cd21_kSo there you go – that’s what would have happened if we’d not organized and arrived within 5 days of being told it was being thrown out. Except, of course, we got quite a bit of things before having to leave the rest behind.

I’ve seen some share of criticism of this process, but people need to remember that whole “It was Friday and I was told it would be thrown out on Wednesday” thing. Spoiler: It’s kind of vital to why we had to work we did at the speed we did. And the outcome was really nice.

The manuals we saved are in three storage units at a storage place down the road from the warehouse. I planned to go to the units, and work with whoever showed up. As it turned out, one person showed up.

The reasons for this are obvious – little relative warning, middle of the day, etc. But there we were – me and Eric and a storage unit full of stuff:

IMG_7153We did just this unit for the day, because of two main reasons: There were only two of us, and my back is still in very rough shape from the initial load-out.

There were a notable amount of people horrified that the boxes were sitting straight on the concrete – apparently outside of flood risk, concrete has a habit of transmitting moisture through the ground to whatever’s sitting on it. Something had to be done, and we went with wooden pallets.

20916681120_64091c287f_kOnly $3 apiece! We bought twenty.

Then it was a “simple matter” of us going through all the boxes in the storage unit and making a very quick determination if it was “Hewlett-Packard”, “Tektronix”, or “Other”. You see… there’s an awful lot of HP materials – like thousands of manuals. Same for Tektronix. Those should be noted and set up to be mostly near each other, while I figure out the next move.

The result of a full day’s work was this:

IMG_7156 IMG_7159 IMG_7160 IMG_7161 IMG_7162Everything’s on wood now. Stuff is still piled a little high, but we sorted it out, so there’s a clear set of “HP/Tektronix” piles and then piles and other stuff. (Any situation where these HP/Tektronix items go to another home will require a last QA check to make sure other manuals aren’t in there too.) We labelled as best we can, so that eventually, the HP might have its own unit, while the brand names on the box will make scanning choices slightly better.

It was a hot box. I sweat. A lot. This was sweat:

21112477581_3b45ce6fac_kBut ultimately, we hit a good break point – the boxes are better than the initial load-in. Now I just need to come back down and do the rest. I also have a lot of calls to make to engineering museums, libraries, archives, and other groups I know. These things need a permanent home that doesn’t have the word “EZ-Storage” at the front of it.

I drove 570 miles in 24 hours just now to do this shoring up.

Totally worth it.

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8-Bit Generation – It Lives. (And has a Kickstarter.) —

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Way back in 2012, I posted something, talking about how worried I was that a documentary that looked and sounded great seemed to have disappeared. I’d looked far and wide to contact the filmmakers, and nothing. But I wanted to at least put my voice out there, in case they wanted to talk to me. Unlike people who talked big about what they wanted to do, the small amount of footage I’d seen from the documentary looked so fantastic that I very nearly quit doing documentaries.

Like a lot of people, I’d pre-ordered the blu-ray edition for the forthcoming film, and I’d waited. And waited, and then nothing came of it, websites went down, and I squirreled away the trailer and other footage I’d seen, sad beyond belief such a promising work seemed to be doomed, destined for the shadows of promises and wishes.

Then, in 2014, I got contacted by one of the creators. Yes, they were alive. Yes, they had a lot of pieces of the movie. And yes, they’d run into incredible financial problems, gone bankrupt, lost homes, had massive layoffs… yes, as expected, there had been some incredible shitshow and the production company was essentially gone. They’d had to go into other directions, and put the project into a box and refund whatever they could afford to refund, and make a living.

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So, they’d contacted me, asking if I knew anything that could be done. They were paralyzed. They had footage, and major swaths were done, but the project needed more resources to finish, and anyway, everybody in the world hated them for how it’d all blown up.

Here’s what I’m telling them, and what I’m telling you.

There’s really three choices at a juncture like this. They are:

  • Never touch it again. Everything disappears. Gone.
  • Edit and put together something salable, even if less ambitious.
  • Dump all the footage into the Internet.

We agreed that the first was a horrible situation and should be avoided at all costs. Not even an actual option, really, even though at that moment it was the easiest.

The third was (and still is) an option but really should be a last and final resort, since raw footage is hardly the kind of thing to educate like a film would, would be of interest to a tiny, tiny audience of nerds who like to listen to people cough and act confused, and ultimately would be a shame considering all of the work that went into it.

That left the idea of putting something together. That won.

I then talked to the XOXO festival organizers, suggesting that maybe it would be interesting to have one of the producers come from Italy to show some footage for the first time and show what happened. They heartily agreed. This is what happened:

Here’s the resulting presentation:

After that, Bruno (the one on stage) headed back to Italy and they began trying to put together a plan for how to put the movie out, however they could.

So they announced a kickstarter last week. Here is a link to the Kickstarter.

As of this writing, it’s a little less than halfway there. (I tend to use Kicktraq to see trends and understand how it’s all going.)

Let’s make it clear: I gave these folks something like $100 for the pre-order a couple years back. That money is gone. Gone, gone, gone. I lost my $100. But now, in the present day, I have given $100 to them again for this kickstarter.

Am I a sucker? Am I a rube? No, I’m somebody who has seen the footage, knows how fleeting and fragile documentary projects can be, and I want to see this thing live.

There is footage in here of Jack Tramiel, talking about his time running Commodore and Atari. I can’t begin to tell you how rare this is. Jack is quite gone – he died soon after they filmed him. He would never talk to anyone about his time there, and certainly not on camera. Just that alone would make me give hundreds to ensure some version of this film is made.

But there are so many interesting behind the scenes folks, people who were managers and logistics and programmers and employees, besides folks who are the big names you would hope to see. This is a breathtaking accomplishment. I want to see something of this come out.

There are spectacularly angry people out there about how this has all gone down to the present moment. They paid money and the money is gone. They want some apologies and they want some consideration. I told the creators this – that there would be a wave of outrage. I’ve seen what people do over $10 – what they do over $75 or $100 would be close to murderous. They are going to end up giving away a lot of free copies of this movie at the end of this.

But you have to take the lashings, the earned punches and the screams. There’s no way for that to be avoided (and frankly it shouldn’t). But out the other end, one hopes, just enough people will step forward and provide enough money to make this happen.

Again, here’s the kickstarter. The choice is yours.


A Little Bit of the Manuals —

Of the barrage of advice the world was prepared to give me from the vantage point of the Internet, one unique bit of advice came from a long-time collector and rescuer of older computer documentation and equipment. It’s definitely the all-around best advice, and was, in fact, truly unique: nobody else brought it up.

The advice, basically, was this: be very careful how you promote the release of these manuals and portray the extent of the collection, because your ability to get attention combined with the fragility of the remaining manual businesses means you could cause the long-running family businesses to close. In other words, there’s a non-zero chance that loose words could sink a shrinking market fast enough to devastate the remaining players. And, additionally, not all of those remaining players will be as generous and patient as Manuals Plus was.

That’s the kind of good advice I like to get.

So let me be very clear that the collection of manuals collected from Manuals Plus is not a comprehensive collection of all electronics or even testing equipment manuals that ever existed, and while effort will be made to scan much of the collection and upload it to the Internet Archive, it will be done while being mindful of groups selling paper copies of the manuals, or making duplicates of rare manuals for a fee.

I also expect to become a very reluctant expert in who has what, which companies flip their lid about their manuals being online, and what kind of life you lead when you have 3 storage units 200 miles away full of paper you wrecked your back hauling. I’ll be sure not to be shy about it.

But let’s talk about a secret thing I did, and what the immediate benefit is.

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So, a bunch of people generously sent support funds over to the jason@textfiles.com Paypal address, many of them sending money just for the idea the work was being done, and that money was critical to success, as it allowed for the rental of storage space, my hotel room for three days, and the ordering of 1,250 banker boxes, not to mention the cost of the movers and properly tipping the movers. It was as vital a component as possible.

So, when I got back, I thought about those people. They’d spent good money to help with this, just sending what they were comfortable with. And for them, they would only see the results when we got to digitizing stuff and putting it up.

I thought I could do better.

So I contacted the people who sent paypal money during the project, and told them what I’m telling you now: After we’d finished moving the 1,600 boxes (final number) out of the warehouse, and after we’d cleaned the thing up, and after I’d left some gifts for the owner and the employee of Manuals Plus to thank them for three days of generosity, and knowing that when we walked out of there, there was an extremely positive chance that most if not all of the remaining manuals would be pulped and turned into hamster cage liners or whatever.,….. I took some manuals. Actually, I took a lot of manuals.

I then contacted all the generous backers and told them if they wrote me, I’d send them a manual.

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I figured in a kickstarter world, even if you had the proper attitude of supporting the project for the project’s sake, it would be a nice bonus if they could be offered a real, honest, was-going-to-be-destroyed vintage manual going back as far as World War II. So I went through the shelves and took two large boxes of manuals, intending them to then be sent to backers who’d responded. And a lot have.

I’ve ordered nice rigid envelopers to use for shipping, and I’ve begun stuffing them with vintage manuals and marking which contributors get their manuals sent. But then I hit another mental problem of exquisite paranoia.

What if I had unique manuals anyway?

What if there had been a series of oversights and a couple unique manuals, not in the storage units, were in the collection I had? What if I and the people I would be sending these to didn’t really look it up? What if the manuals were then stored and lost anyway, and I’d played a part?

Anyway, and that’s how I ended up scanning in a few manuals tonight.

After I’ve scanned them, the copies of them all go out. This will slow things slightly, but I think we all agree it’s a better way to go. Additionally, all these scans will be of manuals I thought in some way beautiful, so you can judge me.

So let’s go!

If you don’t like these, well, I have 50,000 more for you not to like. And if you love these, good news is ahead….

But as we begin to see this project bearing fruit for the world, it’ll be most interesting to me to see the reaction. Will it be loved by a tiny few and ignored by the world? Will the manuals, online, be re-purposed into great works of art and commentary? Or will a simple manual with seemingly no major controversy or role cause someone to come blasting forth with an amazing story?

We’ll see. In the meantime, keep an eye out as more manuals join the fray before being mailed to their generous backers.

Please note: Again, you are welcome to send more donations via paypal to jason@textfiles.com for this and some amount of future projects, but the amount of manuals is limited and may already be out. Please don’t assume one will be mailed out at this point. Good news about reading them online, though.


Digitize the Planet —

I know it’s been announcement city over here for the past week and a half. Here’s the last piece in the puzzle: trying to solve the biggest looming problem for online libraries and archives.

So, people get it: When items are online, they become infinitely more useful. They can transfer instantly, they can be viewed through a wide variety of means, and automatic scripts and robots can have their way with the data, producing all sorts of additional information by analyzing them. Digital is good. Digital is top-shelf fantastic, actually. Digital’s the way to go.

But.

Once people realize that digital is the way to go, they assume institutions like the Internet Archive, with its massive scanning operations and other ingestion abilities, must be able to work like Doc Brown’s Mr. Fusion.

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Nnnnnnnope.

I mean, make no mistake, the Archive can digitize a hell of a lot, and there’s a pile of projects going on right now – they digitize a thousand books every single day, and they’re duping records, videocassettes and other media in at a fantastic rate. But as this happens, so does word that things are available, and then a grateful and well-meaning audience wants to send even more stuff into the machine to be processed.

And as people achieve enlightenment about the awesomeness of the archive, they start assuming that sending in 20-30 crates of “stuff” means that stuff will just slip into the stacks with no issues. And at some point, unless there’s funding attached, that’s just not going to be true. There’s a line at the door, trust me.

Meanwhile, the Archive’s machines and servers can provide instant, accessible homes to digital files almost instantly – if you upload an .ISO, or a PDF or a MP3 file, it knows just what to do. And when you add the metadata/information about that file, we end up with a nice little entry indeed. That is going incredibly well.

So here’s my solution, which I hope is obvious:

Teach everyone to digitize. 

Tell people what tools, practices, and methods they need to turn stuff in their house or place of business into digital files. Give them links to the software that will work on their platform of choice. Provide tips for getting the best capture. Inform them about the importance of descriptions and how that’s done. And for people who are with unusual formats or who don’t feel comfortable with the above, give them links to people and places who are comfortable and can work with them to make it work.

And tell them all the related stuff, too – how to digitize without destroying the originals, how to track down rare stuff or verify it’s not already online, and how to be hero of your particular culture or community in getting it stored away.

In doing this, a whole range of disparate, non-specific pages out there that cover this and that will be added into a central clearinghouse of CC0-licensed information that will spread far and wide.

It’s the next logical step.

So, it is with great pleasure I announce the DIGITIZE THE PLANET WIKI.

http://digitize.archiveteam.org

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Naturally, as it has been up for about 3 hours, it’s very scant. A lot has to be added. But collaborating, and with clear goals in place, I expect to begin assembling a large amount of information in a short period of time. It’s all out there, after all.

The goal is that a person with neat “stuff”, or thousands of such people, can begin going after a whole range of materials and bring them online, for the world to share. Let’s turn this into a flood, a massive wave of items that had no advocate, who have no foundation to grant them immortality. I’d love to see placemats, training VHS tapes, old cassettes, and all the knowledge of the underground and overlands get into the Archive (and other repositories).

It’s the future. Building a library, together.

Let’s see how it goes.


In Realtime: Post-Mortem —

I’m just keeping the theme with the title. Future postings will be less obscure.

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This is a wrap up and list of conclusions after this grand experiment.

And an announcement.

But first things first.

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A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WARNING TIME.

In my inbox, going back over a year (and going back years in my mail archives) are people letting me know about Stuff Going Away. When you’re known as someone who rails against needless lost of information and history, it stands to reason that folks will come running with news of most anything shutting down anywhere.

That’s how I was told there was some place with manuals that was going out of business at some point. And that’s how I mailed them last year, and that’s how I was on the phone with Becky, first and last employee of the Maryland edition of Manuals Plus, on a Wednesday. By Friday, I was visiting the warehouse. And by Monday, it was me and dozens of people loading things into boxes.

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I stress this because one needs to understand both the timeline and the swiftness of the operation that ensued, because a lot of criticisms or suggestions were simply not possible in the time given. That Said, I am happy to have them for the next time something like this crosses my life. It just wasn’t possible with such a small amount of warning.

Regarding warning: Yes, I was told that this place was closing, and in theory I could have cooked up some plans in the previous months, but the problem was the closing deadline kept shifting. Originally, there was talk of March 2015, and it wasn’t until August 2015 it was getting serious, like Becky calling me and telling me I better move on it immediately serious. It was easily possible that the owner might have decided to keep it. And this was not one of the major things on my radar my year – not even close. So that’s why it wasn’t until the Friday before that I found myself in the warehouse.

Which brings me to:

IN PERSON TRUMPS E-MAIL AND PHONE EVERY TIME

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Here’s Becky and I during the load. Becky and I had talked a couple times on the phone and multiple times on e-mail, but I could tell that with the owner, Nick, there needed to be a human being in the warehouse and not promises on the phone. I’m sure I’m not the only one with memories of someone talking grandiose schemes and solutions over the phone or in e-mail, building castles in the air. The problem is that it’s very easy for people to shoot out a bunch of promises, which are wishes instead of plans. I hopped into my car and drove 400 miles round trip for a one-hour conversation. That’s the big difference. Nick was affable in person, talked straight, and when I shared my ideas, he was all for it.

This was not a simple “whatever”, either. He was essentially saying “feel free to run wild in my storeroom I paid a lot of money for years earlier, and take whatever you want to”. That’s an enormous amount of trust to visit upon someone. And I think that showing I was willing to make that trip was what convinced him, as was my very long days being accessible and running things during the load-out week.

And that leads to the plan.

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THE PLAN WAS TO GET THINGS AS STABLE AS POSSIBLE AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE AS EASILY AS POSSIBLE.

The shifting factor was the warehouse. The time constraint was the warehouse closing. Whatever could be done to stabilize those two situations was my priority.

Here, there could have been a wild amount of choices. If I’d had warning and could have talked to everyone I needed to at Internet Archive or another institution, I could have probably hired some tractor trailers, gotten some Gaylord containers (they’re huge, and forklift compatible), and just loaded the Gaylords up with documentation before sending it off to my institution’s warehouse.

Or I could have a pile of warehouses ready to go, along with people who loaned trucks, and we could have been in there with a fleet of trucks ready to go. That is, if we’d known it was going to happen when it did. But we didn’t.

It’s the speed that was the key factor. That’s why I went for a local storage facility, a local moving company, and bouncing between them as fast as possible – the storage facility was stable (and under contract, not favors), and I could keep renting more space as it became obvious we had a gross underestimation of how much there was.

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THERE WAS A LOT MORE STUFF THAN ORIGINALLY THOUGHT.

The “25,000 manuals” came from an estimate of “21,000 manuals” that I thought was low. We are sure this is 50,000 manuals and it may be many more. And when it came to amount, we had bought a wildly-over-the-top 252 banker’s boxes until we found out that we really needed about 1,700. Nearly every estimate was low: the amount of stuff, the amount of boxes, how many people would be willing to show up, how many days we would have. This was all logistics 101, but that brings up the other positive:

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WE WERE RIDICULOUSLY FLEXIBLE.

Over the three days, we could stay late, we could pack more, we could move more and we could stop and go as we needed to. We weren’t locked into some hard dates and time, and Nick was very kind to keep extending us since we were essentially saving him recycling money by taking maximum amounts of stuff away.

WE DIDN’T HAVE ONE GEEK BREAKDOWN.

We were so lucky. Having dozens of people, especially really intense personalities involved in something like this meant there was potential for a real world-class meltdown. Either an argument over how things were doing, a “I don’t like this person” tantrum, or just a general “could you please not <thing you actually kind of have to do>”. I’m not saying conflict didn’t happen – I’m sure some people avoided each other or someone decided they’d had enough and quietly left the proceedings. But we didn’t have a meltdown, and that is very, very appreciated.

I ENCOURAGED THE WALKABOUT.

When people came in, I offered for them to spend 5 minutes just taking the place in. It helps, if you’re going to volunteer and be doing a simple thing in the corner for an hour, to walk around and understand what you’re dealing with and why you want to do it. Some people got tours from me, others were happy to walk through themselves. Some looked, and immediately turned and said “WHAT DO I DO”, and, well, that’s cool too.

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I LET PEOPLE PROVE THEMSELVES.

There were what I called “smart jobs” and “dumb jobs”, both of them vital. “Dumb jobs” didn’t require any particular training – things like “assemble these boxes out of cardboard” or “make sure there’s no empty boxes in the aisles”. The “Smart Jobs”, like “sort through these manuals to get the unique ones, including minor changes in revisions”, needed an eagle eye and endless concentration. Some people were up for that, others were not quite in the mood. There was also variant approaches, and some people took hours to do what others did in 15 minutes. That said, that was progress. By giving people lots of shelves to go over (there were over 300 shelves, after all), different approaches and skills with the sorting could co-exist. Also, people would go over other shelves that had been “done” and double check that was the case. It let us catch a lot.

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FOOD. REST.

We ordered pizza a lot. One volunteer brought in coolers and drinks. And if someone had to walk outside or smoke or just sit down, we let them. This wasn’t some insane army with punishments for walking off – this was a volunteer effort and it wasn’t right to call it anything else.

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YOU MUST ACCEPT THE SITUATION.

We did about 2+ months of work in 2 days. As I told each volunteer as they settled in, we were going to miss stuff, stuff was going to be destroyed, and yet every thing we picked out and put into a box would be, in some way, saved. If you launch into a project this large wanting the outcome to be 100% perfect, you’re going to have the aforementioned meltdown. You do your best – every move you take is improving the situation.

In the very rare cases where miscommunication meant someone had not pulled all the right things, it was trivial to have another person go through the shelf again. The attitude to take is that the second person wasn’t “fixing” the efforts of the first person – they were partners.

KEEP IT LIGHT.

 

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People kept coming back because the goal was obvious, the environment was self-directed, and people could talk and share stories. This happened a lot – I walked into lots of geeky and informed conversations from people who were just thrown together. We had families come, and everyone was shown a good time. And where possible, I tried to be funny, except where I was annoying the hell out of people. Well, maybe I kept trying, anyway.

NEVER, EVER, EVER FAIL TO INDICATE HOW YOU WERE JUST A DOPE WITH AN IDEA AND 70 PEOPLE DID THE REAL WORK.

It’s an easy narrative/headline to say “Jason Scott saved this.” no, no way. If this had been just me, it’d be a tiny fraction of what got out. No, people worked their asses off, much harder than me, and it was because of these selfless people that we ended up with the collection we did.

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PLEASE TELL ME IF YOU CAME AND ARE MISSING FROM THIS LIST.

The hundreds of people who sent in money to make it feasible to do all this.

Tim Skoczen, Reverend Ragnarok, Tom Miller, Darrell Kindred, Matthias Lee, Andrew Peterson, Mark Gifford, Rob “Deker” Dekelbaum, Rich Kulawiec, Anne N., Douglas Taylor, Effrem Norwood, Joe Hourcle, Brent Greissle, J. Alexander Jacocks, Jonathan Sturges, Pete Morici

AND NOW, A LITTLE ANNOUNCEMENT

One of the volunteers involved in the project, Daniel Siders, suggested that the goodwill and the interest in these types of project shouldn’t fade away with the completion of the main part of the Manuals Plus project. He instead proposed that there be something like Archive Team for physical rescues. Naturally, there’s a lot to learn in that space, but with a level of speed and radical approaches that worked for Archive Team, maybe something good will come of it.

Therefore, in one line, I announce: ArchiveCorps.