ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

How I Do It, Buffered By Cries I Am Doing It Wrong —

The last entry garnered an awful lot of attention. While I would normally write in such a way as to move around between unrelated subjects, sometimes I’m backed into a corner to do a follow-up or second part; the amount of people who have wandered into my field of vision to ask me for deep details of what they variously call my toolchain, setup, or approach has now overflowed my life’s efficiency.

Here is a quick time-saving suggestion: Skip everything I’m writing down to the nice picture of the videotapes. Then read what’s after that and don’t comment.

Still here? Let’s go.

There are many things which set me off, but few have been as consistent as Nerd Bullying, especially where people who consider themselves kings of very tiny kingdoms take their knowledge and smoosh it in a bowl with their social awkwardness and lack of cue-observing and come out of the gate with a way-too-overtuned neg-throwing style and tone criticism.

By all rights, this should be a minor, almost rounding error of an experience, but part of what I do on the daily is often a process or procedure and Nerd Bullies looooove these linear steps because it’s one dimension away from a flowchart and they feel they need to add one more dimension, one more fix, before it’s either better, or perfect.

Now, of course they have no idea what minefield they’re wandering into with me, or the disproportionate response it often garners when they’re “just helping”, but that’s also because I’m translating their words on the fly:

  • “Not sure if you’re aware” – Salutations, Dilettante Moron
  • “Pro Tip” – I think my opinion matters so much it should be canon
  • “Curious ______” – Everything after the word “curious” is always awful
  • “Why are you choosing to _____” – Everything after the words “choosing to” is similarly awful

And so on.

Their weirdly-framed criticisms or “Not a question, more of a comment” ends up doing nothing to move my needle, and in a few cases, gets a profanity-laden rant they are completely unsure how they signed up for.

Therefore, when people ask/demand how I “do” things, I tend to hesitate, because instead of providing Education, I feel I am providing Ammunition.

This is all, however, my problem, not anyone else’s. Of course people stumble through life, confused and various levels of paranoid, unsure if they’re doing the right thing or oblivious to the fact they aren’t. They found solace in the churning sea of life’s short run on a floating plank of easy-to-master geekery and in their minds it becomes an island from which to send up signals of their prowess before their bad diets send them into the darkness at shockingly high numbers and shockingly low ages.

And, of course, marbled like fine steak among this crowd are some truly generous and thoughtful folks, who honestly do want your opinion on what you do, realizing that someone else’s decisions aren’t edicts or judgements on their lives and choices. They benefit hearing the footsteps of another soul’s journey and taking warmth or warning from what they observe.

It’s to these folks I am now speaking.

Let’s get something out of the way: Depending on how you count it, I have, in my inbox, roughly 100,000 videotapes to process.

With numbers like that, choices are going to be made. Choices of whether to do anything much with it, how far I’ll get along in the expanse and functional reality of time, and what exactly a by-tape approach will take. I’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of consultation to come up with what’s going on currently, and the journey is not over.

Also, the choices are going to shift over time, as new opportunities present themselves, costs or income interfere, and long-term trends with the equipment and materials come to light.

At this point, I’ve digitized roughly 2,000 tapes. Last week I digitized 60. Who knows what next month will bring. My process is a snapshot, not an immutable declaration.

What I Do And How I Do It

One of the most variant choices to make are what Codecs your final video files are going to be in.

For the tapes of value or uniqueness, I am doing Lagarith, a chonky little codec which is lossless, and then compressed. It works out to anywhere between 25-50gb an hour. It is memorably huge. It has been around a long time, and it can be converted into a mass of lossy compression schemes down the line. It leaves the most options open in that direction. It is a pain in the ass to transfer, taking hours to upload and download. I keep them interlaced, again to provide the most options later.

For tapes where I will be dealing with many thousands (think, someone has recorded years of news programs), I use various types of MPEG-4, which is lossy (drops bits in the name of saving space) but gets the information across effectively, and the notably reduced disk space usage means that having a half-million hours of programs will be within the realm of cost availability. Should a tape go by that is so incredible it will need to be ripped via Lagarith, that command will arrive someday and it will be dealt with.

I do not throw out any tapes. They are all stored after digitization.

Currently I use an analog to digital device/card called a BlackMagic Intensity Pro 4k Card, which is about $240 and which does the job very well. It is compatible with a wide range of software, does not get flustered easily, and is not a massive mystery as to how it exactly works. It can work with HDMI, Component, and S-VIDEO cables, and I use the latter two. I currently have five of these cards in use.

I don’t care about brands of cables.

I use whatever cable is generally thought of as the “best” connection between the videotape deck and the outgoing signal. In order, that’s generally HDMI -> S-VIDEO -> Component -> Composite for me. Since none of the decks I work with have HDMI conversion (nor do I want it), they almost all are S-VIDEO right now.

The cables from the BlackMagic Intensity are going either into the deck, or through a “Time Base Corrector” which is located inside of a Panasonic DMR-ES10 DVD Recorder. The cable going into the DMR is either an S-VIDEO or a Component cable, but right now it’s always an S-VIDEO going into the card because why not.

I did not always use Time-Base Correction at the beginning of my process, but I use it all the time now. When you’re dealing with terrible, terrible, terrible tapes, you want to run them through this device, which helps with the signal to make it synchronize with the sound and not drop frames in a way that the result is a broken, fuzzy, off-kilter mess. If I don’t use it, it’s simply because I am dealing with the best of the best tapes, or I recently got a deck and I haven’t purchased one. In general, I use them all the time.

Finally (on the hardware side), I use a variety of VHS and UMATIC decks, and will be adding BETAMAX and BETACAM decks as well in the future. In general, I go for brands that are either well-regarded, or passable with my being given them for free playing a part.

Right now, the weirdest decks I use are SONY SVO-9500MD decks, which normally go inside MRI machines. They have very, very, very capability and they’re built like tanks. Someone who donated one to me had gotten it, and his insight caused me to love this model type very much.

I also use some variation of JVC S9600U SsVHS machines, because they have a lot of circuitry inside to take absolutely terrible tapes and make them look better. When I was dealing with bootleg rock tapes that are on their 3rd-5th generation, this makes a difference.

For the UMATIC tapes, I’m currently working with a SONY VP-5000 machine. This machine is hell on earth to work with, but when it all comes together, the image and output is very nice. The JVC and 9500MD decks put out SVIDEO, while this VP-5000 puts out a BNC connection I convert to component into the Time-Base Corrector.

Now you know the “Hardware Chain”.

For software, I am currently using Virtualdub, which is a rather old piece of video processing software, but which works very well for the straightforward “take in what’s coming on the BlackMagic card, and turn it into a file”. I can run two of it on a single Windows machine, with two BlackMagic cards in it. When I’m done with the files, I can use a third instance of Virtualdub to crop either side of the recording so I don’t have minutes (or hours) of blank space being stored in the file. So, in this way, Virtualdub is both a capture, and a finisher.

I do not process the files further. I do not de-interlace. I do not convert them to another codec beyond Lagarith. I put them on USB drives and I upload them as is, with the filenames as the metadata that was written on the tapes, if any.

Again, for the more “Tape to File” mindsets:

  • VHS or UMATIC Tape
  • Sony SVO-9500MD or JVC S9600U SVHS, or SONY VP-5000 UMATIC
  • Connected via SVIDEO or Component Cable to Time Base Corrector
  • Panasonic DMR-ES10 DVD Recorder being used as a pass-through Time Base Corrector
  • S-VIDEO and the Audio Cables into a BlackMagic Intensity Pro 4k Card for each Deck
  • Capturing video via Virtualdub for each card, running in Windows 10 or 11
  • Lagarith Codec, Nothing Special Added,
  • Cropped via Virtualdub and uploaded with Filename as Metadata

This is how I do, and this is how I do it.

Philosophy

Come back in a year, and I may have changed any part of this – this is not a final decision with no negotiation, although I have talked to more people than most might expect, and the choices here come from a real place and aren’t random.

The tapes are not thrown out, and can be revisited. I do not let myself worry that I get one shot with the tapes – in almost all cases, I’m going after tapes that would never have seen any treatment at all, so what I’m doing in the aggregate is already better than expected.

This is all very hard on the decks. I expect to go through many along the way. I do not throw them out when they break, yet, and will see what goes on.

My experience is USB digitizers (you plug the video into a little device, and the little device goes into a USB port) are not dependable.

Everything I digitize, I share immediately. People find errors and I have fixed them.

I am focused on doing the same thing decently enough 100,000 times, not doing a tiny handful of things perfectly. If you have 20 tapes to work with, no doubt you’ll be different. You may be different all the way down, in fact. Have a ball. Don’t tell me.

See you on the stream.


Archiving in the Time of Streaming —

Few things are harder to start than a narrative of the thing you “do” and what all the ramifications of it are. For people who don’t make it the center of their lives, your thing is already hopelessly complicated and gaining enough of a foothold to feign interest is olympic-level effort. For people who do make it the center, your description fills them with a never-abating dread that you’re going to get the explanation “wrong”, or that you’re going to give the Outsiders a bad impression.

So let’s begin at the beginning, again.

My parents’ divorce, taking place in the realm of the beginning of the 1980s, was not in any way friendly and in fact rather contentious. I wasn’t yet a teenager, and I was the oldest, and most notable for the purposes of this story, my mother gathered up her children and scooted off to first a hotel and then a location with family, without telling my father where she had taken us. In modern parlance, the term is “child abduction”, although I’m sure my mother didn’t think that’s what she was doing. Ultimately, connections were made, a nasty divorce proceeding happened, nobody was shot, stabbed, restrained, or attacked.

But in many presentations I’ve given, I mark the moment of being scuttled out of the family home into the great unknown of Outside The Neighborhood as being when my focus and awareness of the world fundamentally changed, because as she put things into the station wagon and tearfully told her kids to get ready to go, she also asked us to take what we needed. Which is a difficult question for someone in the realm of ten years old.

I needed a blanket and my dog.

Woven into the simple declaration take what you need are a host of world and perspective-changing understandings of what you and need are. Let’s not overplay the trauma aspect of it all, and focus on the concepts being dropped on me and my siblings, which first and foremost is a crumbling of rock-solid foundations. Foundations of family, to be sure, but also possession, consistency and location. Home was no longer an immutable realm, but split into multiple locations, one inevitably a favorite, with the other a shadow of the concept of home. Possessions stopped becoming things you could walk out of sight from and be a hundred percent sure (maybe 90-95 percent sure) they’d be there when you came back. And most effective on me was the idea that lack of effort to maintain the talismans and protocols of representation would result in a void. Put more simply: You’re the keeper of yourself and of what matters. There is no consistency that will protect you.

Like a lot of knowledge, this came at some level of heavy price, although I again stress the price is one many others pay at much greater cost. The fact remains that both my parents bent over backwards to provide opportunities, to ensure comfort and food and connection as best they could, and while I can sit back in my fifties and leave notes as to my parents’ actions in their thirties, my own thirties were spent in hacker conventions, shooting films and stumbling through my own home life, so I’m quite the unqualified judge.

This is all to say that when Chris Boufford showed me an acoustic modem in his grandparents’ spare room and how, by calling another number in Mount Kisco and putting the receiver of the phone into a cradle you’d suddenly get words on the screen, I had lived a life up to that point where two thoughts came almost simultaneously:

This is amazing.

I need to save this before it inevitably disappears.

I couldn’t have known that in the years afterwards, I would in fact collect so many artifacts from this thing, this concept of the Bulletin Board System, that I’d meet many of the people responsible for it existing, that this pile of artifacts would get a name and a branding, and that I’d collect it all so hard that I’d end up being associated with the concept of it for a lifetime. But I definitely understood, taught as I was during that painful childhood lesson, that inaction would be tantamount to approving its destruction and disappearance.

Calling as I did to many BBSes in my teen years, I’d focus on the textfiles, the message bases, the downloadable files, because they felt, I think, like special missives from beyond my little life and easily kept on floppy disks. When disks were the main way to store computer data for home users, you would encounter two kinds of people: folks who kept a small, special set of floppies representing what they needed, and others who had vast, terrifyingly large collections representing not what they needed but what they thought should be held in trust. I’ve gone through a lot of these collections over the years, and have seen rooms full of these things, hundreds and sometimes thousands, representing homemade bunkers of data. I had my own bunker, and while it was only a few dozen, the relative smallness of textfiles meant that each disk could hold many, many examples of these artifacts I thought deserved whatever long life I could provide.

At what point does a hoarder of data, driven by a sense of loss and of fear of same, turn from a mere accumulation of piles and end up with something resembling an archive?

I can point to various choices I was making in my teenage years with textfiles as the whole endeavor being more than just a private copy of things I liked: creating capsule descriptions of the textfiles for my own BBS, giving them unique extensions (HUM, PHK, HAC, PRO) to classify them in general genre headers, and attempting to keep the authorship and context of the files in the form of “buffers”, just saving all the output of a BBS to keep a record of where the files came from. I can find in my stacks actual essays I’d written about what these files were, and throwing my own writings in amongst everyone else’s so my own works wouldn’t be lost.

My college years were where all of it could easily have come to naught. New city, new goals, explorations and discovering my new set of interests could have led to my younger days and their collections being scattered to the wind. In a series of lucky maneuvers and chances across that period, I did not lose my textfiles and floppies and printouts, and they persisted for about 8 years in my hands and in the hands of a friend, David Weinstock, who kept things I was “done with” and critically asked me if I wanted them back. And by the time he asked, I did want them back. My own collection and archive, itself, came at the same risk of entropy and disappearance but the spinning wheel fell on “save” and I had them all again.

In my twenties is when I start creating The Warrens.

I don’t have a lot of handy photos of all the Warrens, and maybe that’s a compilation I need to add back here as I find them again. But over and over again, I turn wherever I’m living, or a single room within it, into a cramped, filled-to-the-brim, often deeply concerning space of materials. These will be favorite books, personal collections of memories, computer hardware and software, and an ever-growing set of amusements and pieces into my own functioning workspace. “Work”, in many cases, being the day-to-day activities of a geek browsing online things or playing with some sort of toy or tool, but surrounded by all the possibilities and options at arm’s length should my shifting focus switch to a new attraction.

I create Warrens a lot. Casting my net backwards, I count six of them, and each one a tiring memory to me, as I consider how much effort it took to build them up, and then inevitably pull them apart.

While it’s fundamentally silly to think each Warren was going to be the absolute last, there was definitely an approach and plan with each one to improve what came before. Bins instead of piles, thematic groupings instead of simple shelves of one kind of medium, and so on. Ultimately, though, they all have had flaws and they’ve all had a lifespan. My life changes and the Warrens soon collapse like a circus tent and travel to the next stop.

The site called TEXTFILES.COM caused me to regard not only my collection but the contributions of others, and the resulting documentary that I shot about bulletin board systems put me in a lot of homes with a lot of similar Warrens, and somewhere along that continuum, I found myself constructing an awareness of the types of items being collected by me and others, and giving them classifications. In more and more cases, I started to take on others’ collections as well, which forced me to think about it even harder.

Here’s what a few decades of this cobbled together in my mind:

When we end up with our physical and digital piles of material, there’s a couple grand classifications that help parse what we’ve got, and for some folks, they need this to process the next steps to take, especially if they’re overwhelmed. And those classifications are things that are you, things held in trust, and things held in indifference.

Things that are you tends to be stuff that you’ve created, be it writings, photos or saved data that represents projects or memories, and which is relevant as your trail of effect through your lived life. E-mails you’ve written, images you’ve made, and the inevitable works we consciously or unconsciously create as people. These items are not necessarily precious, but they are often rare – you have the only copy or item, only you maintain it. And in fact, only you may see any value in it or understand what it is.

Things held in trust are items that may or may not have deep meaning or relevance to you, but which you acquired from without – the downloaded programs, or bought books, or a six-foot statue you won an auction for years ago. You didn’t make these things, and there may be many copies of them, or you again might have the only one: but if they’re not part of your functioning life, then I consider them “held in trust”, as a caretaker keeps maintaining a garden or structure, towards some future.

Things held in indifference are all those pieces of life that acquire around a certain personality – ranging from discarded envelopes from packages you got, to motherboards and loose screws from machines long gone and pamphlets from trips and travel that you shoved into a suitcase and then forgot about. Some personality types (say, someone who remembers that time long ago he had to give up everything to take what he needed) might impulsively acquire things and then forget about them almost immediately. These collections can overlap with the items held in trust or the things that are the person’s own creations, as well.

When I give advice to people on what to do when they wake up one day and realize they have 2,000 CD-ROMs or piles of magazines they’ll never read, or stacks of VHS tapes of shows they bought 20 years ago and now will never watch, is help them reach the “end of the story”. People want a story, and they want the story to have a happy ending. I advise them on how to frame that story:

..but then, after asking a number of message boards and confidantes about what to do about this multi-gigabyte zip of Wojacks, the collector uploaded them to a website, finally resting knowing this long-gathered precious trust of meme juice would survive another generation. The End.

..but in a shocking twist, it turned out there was a weirdo working for an Archive of the Internet who wanted these stacks of CD-ROMs and floppies, and they offered a home which immediately cleared up that part of the garage, allowing the lawnmower to finally be stored inside, The End.

…having discovered that there are plenty of National Geographic issues to go around and there was no need to keep them around, our hero contacted a local old folks’ home and donated them to the residents’ library, where they were happily passed around and enjoyed for years to come. The End.

What is now past a decade working for the Internet Archive has meant that I’m working in both physical and digital concerns, and each one has challenges and its own peculiar qualities. Millions of items are being shipped to large warehouses controlled by Internet Archive, and millions of files and “items” are being added to the online presence. In some cases, they live in both places, existing in boxes in pallets in shipping containers in rooms in a building, and also inside a .zip file inside an identifier inside a search result on a website.

I’ve concocted ideas, then, on Archiving.

It’s probably as good a time as now to say that I am not universally beloved as a figure or authority. I am not a professionally trained archivist, but I’ve spent my entire life somewhere in the discipline, and it is not hard, if you seek them out, to find people who consider my very existence in the field to be a cavalcade of gaps in judgement by the world and by, perhaps, destiny itself. Why, in a world overflowing with top-notch expertise by individuals educated by some of the finest academic programs and concerns, would this street-wise dandy be considered the one to listen to?

Well, for one thing, I’m fuckin’ hilarious. But I also think it’s because I come to a lot of my conclusions and efforts from the point of view of ad-hoc need and not because I read somewhere that it’s where I should be putting my resources towards. I made a documentary about bulletin boards because I was concerned many of these people would die and there’d be no record of them and their perspective; and I was right. Doing this work put me in touch with lives and people who had collections that lacked a specific interest by established institutions, and so I was the one who helped keep them around, or even take them personally. And when the time came for me to join forces with Internet Archive, I was already strongly my own thing and it was a partnership, not a subsumption.

And so from this situation comes a pile of general credos and rules of thumb I’ve picked up in my travels:

Where possible, save the original. Where possible, digitize the original or maintain a digital copy. Ephemera and transient content is just as important to maintain as products and projects. Digitize at the highest resolution and fidelity possible, but realize you’re never going to get it perfect and keep the originals around, if you can. Make digital copies as widely available as possible, all the time, so it finds its value to people seeking it.

It seems pretty basic stuff, but some of it is hotly contested and virtual ink spilled by the gallon about process, style and considerations along the way. It’s what works for me, and on the whole, it’s been a succcess.

In this world-view, one of the critical parts of the whole aspect of “archiving” is making that digital copy of something physical or analog, using tools and equipment to do so. Naturally, “Born Digital” items merely need to be kept around and maintained, but items that are sitting in another medium or container need to make the leap over the Air Gap into virtual/digital reality and that’s where it gets complicated.

I’ve been asked, in all manner of ways, what the most difficult part of the process is – is it tracking down items to work on, or finding the right order, or devising which video container codec is best for a ripping of a VHS tape, the DPI of a paper scan, or which equipment stack is best for the job?

No, none of that.

It’s the crushing loneliness.

It’s the functional experience of facing down a pile of things that are in one format, and doing whatever steps are taken, over and over, to convert them into another form: the loading of the papers into the feed reader, the stacking of CD-ROMs into a ripping device, the constant movements of putting tapes into tape players and turning the capturing software on and off, typing in the filenames with metadata information as it’s done. Doing it endlessly, facing down hundreds and sometimes thousands of components in a single “collection” with lots of potential for mistakes, do-overs, unexpected failures, and all the bumps in the road for what seems like a very straightforward task.

It’s slowly grinding through a backlog of promises and easily-said agreements to turn This into That, and then finding hours, days, and weeks of your life drained out of you, resulting in barely enough data to fill a percentage of a modern hard drive.

The secret-not-so-secret is a lot of this work falls under “it should be paid for”, because it requires just enough mental capacity as to not be automation-ready, but the minute-to-minute joy of it is absolutely minimal, repetitive, and only enjoyable in the rear view mirror looking back at all the stuff you did. The occasional bright gem of something truly interesting and weird won’t make up for the hundreds of times you’ll be getting a necessary but basic item hoisted into digital, and after enough time, you just wear out.

When I started digitizing VHS tapes en masse, I did a bunch of research and asking a number of people how they approached the task, and an interesting theme of conclusions came out: Most were working with a specific set of items, and most of them burnt out after 20 to 50 tapes. Almost nobody went past that amount, even when they had many more to do.

My solution, then, was to Stream.

For the years I’ve been doing the fundamentally boring VHS and U-Matic tape ripping as part of my projects, I’ve almost always had a stream going on Twitch. It’s at https://twitch.tv/textfiles and it has ranged from a non-camera showing of what was being digitized to a full-on just-short-of-a-televised-show experience, while I move through piles of cassettes stacked to the ceiling from donated sets.

In this way, I’ve digitized (at this juncture) over two thousand videotapes, with many more to come.

The initial work was being done out of my actual apartment, which made sense until it really, really didn’t.

The nature of this sort of project is spare parts, awaiting cardboard boxes, and a mildew smell that starts to hit you when you walk in. At some phase of life, this is tolerable, but just like separating things that are you from things held in trust, it’s better to have a dedicated workshop away from a living space.

So, I started renting an office.

It’s in one of those facilities where they have dozens of rental rooms and has a set of group amenities like a kitchen, copy room, and even meeting rooms. Obviously, it cost more than just stuffing everything into my home, but the separation has turned out to be particularly healthy, both in terms of knowing what lying around is my own stuff, and what is destined for long-term storage after being digitized.

After consulting with my friend Kyle, I re-imagined the entire “streaming” approach to be focused on the image, and having it both look good, and look informative. The result is striking:

People have asked what the huge monitor is, behind me. I’ll answer that one straight off – it’s a cheap LCD TV, purchased for my apartment and long-since superseded by others but still working enough to look fine on a camera. The lighting is from two $25 LED lights designed for the purpose, along with a webcam aimed down the maw of the U-Matic tape device, since I have to keep the top off anyway (constant cleaning). The camera recording me is a mirrorless DSLR (a few hundred dollars) in constant monitor mode, and sending it all to a HDMI-to-USB Camlink.

Some time in the future, let me go into further detail of The Setup and the Toolchain, which a certain segment of audience can’t get enough of, and another can’t stand a smidgen of.

Instead, let me say that what’s obvious, looking in the context of my full life with this endeavor, is that I’ve built yet another Warren.

Cameras and framing are very deceiving. The room is tiny, barely 70 square feet. The day I toured the facility and was sent the stack of paper I needed to sign up for a year of long-term residence, they included a “typical” picture, which is either my office or the one next to it, and the difference is striking:

Because of the equipment, it runs very hot in there. Because I’ve got all the projects going on from so many sources, it’s also a bit noisy. Filters on my studio microphone prevent my audience from hearing the never-ending humming.

Composing the dull, generic room that I was given into the cyber-scape of fluorescent dreams that now appears on the Twitch stream has been a multi-year project. Tapes and other products move in, get processed, boxed up, shipped out. Streams have been a few minutes or many hours, depending on what I’m focused on and what time permits. And because I have a dedicated space, I can be very loud, very intense, and be able to speak freely on subjects without worrying I’m ruining anyone’s living conditions or sleep. It has worked spectacularly.

But again, the real purpose of this Warren is to share – to share with people online (thousands of them, over the years) with what I’m up to, to have conversations or debates through chat and phones, and to be able to conduct myself in a way that doesn’t feel like a prison sentence, even if the space I’m functioning in resembles a jail cell a little too much.

I know this set of decisions and designs is not for everyone. Not everyone wants to yammer constantly while doing their job to a shifting, weird audience of onlookers. Not everyone feels they need multi-colored lights and a massive background video to conduct themselves, but not everyone is processing thousands of videotapes all their waking hours, with a dreary consistency that would have long-ago wrenched all joy and delight from the occasional discoveries. Even with my motivations to archive and share being life-long, and my individual cramped spaces being laboratories that I use to experiment and improve my processes, it turns out that isolation didn’t give me focus – audiences do.

Here, in the contemporary time of my archiving life, really an archiving lifetime, is me now trying to turn the promise of endless stacks of media and materials into digital form, to make them reachable to the world, before something, and there’s more than a few somethings up to the task, takes me out of the game. It’s a life born of a tragedy, but that tragedy caused perspective, and that perspective has given me an awareness of how much has been done and how much is left to do.

From my cramped Warren launches hundreds of recorded moments, and maybe, with the help of a kind set of eyes, I’ll get a lot more of the work ahead done.

The twitch stream is at https://twitch.tv/textfiles. See you there.


Infinite Inboxes of Infinity —

Carcinization is the tendency of reality to keep making things into Crabs or Crab-like creatures. (De-Carcinization is when it goes the other way, and in fact there’s evidence of oscillation between the two states.) It’s the sort of thing that sounds fantastically interesting, the shallow end of the thinking pool, but then leaves you confused as to what to do with that information – you can’t fully stop it, and there’s no reason you might specifically want to. And whatever crab-making is happening now doesn’t really affect you in the short or even long-term – it’s just happening.

What I discovered, this late in life, is I turn everything into an inbox. Again, I’m not sure this is going to change your existence or opinion in any way, but here we are.

In the dim mists of decades ago, I appear to have launched into a serialization of projects that I’ve never recovered from, making piles of to-dos and tasks and then attacking them, often at the expense of all else, for hours and hours. The earliest efforts of what became TEXTFILES.COM was me gathering textfiles from all sorts of bulletin board systems, logging in to grab copies and take text-based snapshots of what was there, then dragging it home into piles of floppy disks, with the goal of…. well, something. I started calling the disks “The Works, Disk _____” as I visualized, at 13, that I would one day have a BBS called The Works and these disks would be the starting seed vault that it would grow from. The fact this happened is quite remarkable to me, but it happened. The Works BBS under Jason became the Works BBS under David and then Matt and then Others, and I then took the textfiles of The Works BBS and it became a site, itself a collection of descriptions that came because I created a second Inbox, one of describing roughly 50,000 files by myself.

That all seems like a rather straightforward observation, except it turns out that nearly everything I am doing, in all situations, has become an inbox, a collection of waiting piles of transferred or fetched tasks that require some sort of response, acknowledgement, or process as a result.

All this to say, that’s why this weblog hasn’t seen a real update in years.

The dark side of a Life of Inbox is that if some inboxes are more pressing or easier to process, other inboxes fall by the wayside, because they either require Deep Thought or otherwise need my full attention, and my full attention has become a rare commodity indeed.

I started this site for, essentially, Essays. Thoughts that would be best explained in detail, and then referenced over time, where people could pick them apart or talk about them, or be able to explain my motivations or efforts in a laid-back, slow-cooked, contemplative fashion instead of the hottest bon mot to fly out of my keyboard. And for years, it was definitely that.

Two things took that away.

First, the Podcast turned into a receptacle for both my essays, and presentations I might give; 12-20 minute compositions about subjects I thought needed covering, offered in a way that both reached people, and allowed, through a Patreon, to help cover my debts and money issues over the years. For both those situations, it has been a runaway success – my debts are basically paid (although I do get costs like medical that crop up, and taxes still continue to be a bother), and I’m happy with the subjects I’ve dove into across over 200 episodes, which is a lot of episodes to be sure.

Second, social media is a very nice way to construct a simple outlook, a shallow formed snowball from some half-cooked ideals, and throw them into the public sphere. And that’s been fascinating in its own right, and led to crushing lows and exhilarating highs. I’ve been lambasted, treated like royalty, and made amazing connections via the various to-the-minute inboxes they represent.

But with the very real, very actual spiral of Twitter, one of my inboxes has cleared up with a puff of poorly-administrated smoke. Because of architectural changes, I’m no longer getting what the folks call “engagement” in a meaningful way, and Mastodon, where I find myself living as well, does not encourage the multiple-dives-a-day energy of Twitter (for the better of all, to be honest).

So, back comes this weblog, with the 2020s in full swing and the world grinding along, and it’s nice to be back. I try not to cover old ground unless it’s needed, so the Rule of Essays continues.

Let’s go.


The Full BBS Documentary Interviews are Going Online —

This year, the full 250 hours of interviews I conducted for the BBS Documentary are going online at the Internet Archive.

There’s already a collection of them up, from when I first set out to do this. Called “The BBS Documentary Archive“, it’s currently 32 items from various interviews, including a few clip farms and full interviews of a bunch of people who sat with me back in the years of 2002-2004 to talk about all matter of technology and bulletin board history.

That collection, as it currently stands, is a bit of an incomplete mess. Over the course of this project, it will become a lot less so. I’ll be adding every minute of tape I can recover from my storage, as well as fixing up metadata where possible. Naturally you will be asked to help as well.

A bit of background for people coming into this cold: I shot a movie called “BBS: The Documentary” which ended up being an eight episode mini-series. It tried to be the first and ultimately the last large documentary about bulletin board systems, those machines hooked up to phone lines that lived far and wide from roughly 1978-2000s. They were brilliant and weird and they’re one of the major examples of life going online. They laid the foundation for a population that used the Internet and the Web, and I think they’re terribly interesting.

I was worried that we were going to never get The Documentary On BBSes and so I ended up making it. It’s already 10 years and change since the movie came out, and there’s not been another BBS Documentary, so I guess this is it. My movie was very North American-centric and didn’t go into blistering detail about Your Local BBS Scene, and some people resented that, but I stand by both decisions; just getting the whole thing done required a level of effort and energy I’m sure I’m not capable of any more.

Anyway, I’m very proud of that movie.

I’m also proud of the breadth of interviews – people who pioneered BBSes in the 1970s, folks who played around in scenes both infamous and obscure, and experts in areas of this story that would never, ever have been interviewed by any other production. This movie has everything: Vinton Cerf (co-creator of the Internet) along with legends of Fidonet like Tom Jennings and Ken Kaplan and even John Madill, who drew the FidoNet dog logo. We’ve got ANSI kids and Apple II crackers and writers of a mass of the most popular BBS software packages. The creator of .QWK packets and multiple members of the Cult of the Dead Cow. There’s so much covered here that I just think would never, ever be immortalized otherwise.

And the movie came out, and it sold really well, and I open licensed it, and people discover it every day and play it on YouTube or pull out the package and play the original DVDs. It’s a part of culture, and I’m just so darn proud of it.

Part of the reason the movie is watchable is because I took the 250 hours of footage and made it 7.5 hours in total. Otherwise… well….

…unless, of course, you’re a maniac, and you want to watch me talking with people about subjects decades in the past and either having it go really well or fall completely apart. The shortest interview is 8 minutes. The longest is five hours. There’s legions of knowledge touched on in these conversations, stuff that can be a starting port for a bunch of research that would otherwise be out of options to even find what the words are.

Now, a little word about self-doubt.

When I first starting uploading hours of footage of BBS Documentary interviews to the Internet Archive, I was doing it from my old job, and I had a lot going on. I’d not done much direct work with Internet Archive and didn’t know anything going on behind the scenes or how things worked or frankly much about the organization in any meaningful amount. I just did it, and sent along something like 20 hours of footage. Things were looking good.

Then, reviews.

Some people started writing a few scathing responses to the uploads, pointing out how rough they were, my speech patterns, the interview style, and so on. Somehow, I let that get into my head, and so, with so much else to do, I basically walked away from it.

12 years later (12 years!) I’m back, and circumstances have changed.

I work for the Archive, I’ve uploaded hundreds of terabytes of stuff, and the BBS documentary rests easily on its laurels of being a worthwhile production. Comments by randos about how they wish I’d done some prettify-ing of the documentary “raw” footage don’t even register. I’ve had to swim upstream through a cascade of poor responses to things I’ve done in public since then – they don’t get at me. It took some time to get to this place of comfort, which is why I bring it up. For people who think of me as some bulletproof soul, let it be known that “even I” had to work up to that level, even when sitting on something like BBS Documentary and years of accomplishment. And those randos? Never heard from them again.

The interview style I used in the documentary raw footage should be noted because it’s deliberate: they’re conversations. I sometimes talk as much as the subjects. It quickly became obvious that people in this situation of describing BBS history would have aspects that were crystal clear, but would also have a thousand little aspects lost in fuzzy clouds of memory. As I’d been studying BBSes intensely for years at this point, it would often take me telling them some story (and often the same stories) to trigger a long-dormant tale that they would fly with. In many cases, you can see me shut up the second people talk, because that was why I was talking in the first place. I should have known people might not get that, and I shouldn’t have listened to them so long ago.

And from these conversations come stories and insights that are priceless. Folks who lived this life in their distant youth have all sorts of perspectives on this odd computer world and it’s just amazing that I have this place and collection to give them back to you.

But it will still need your help.

Here’s the request.

I lived this stupid thing; I really, really want to focus on putting a whole bunch of commitments to bed. Running the MiniDV recorder is not too hard for me, and neither is the basic uploading process, which I’ve refined over the years. But having to listen to myself for hundreds of hours using whatever time I have on earth left… it doesn’t appeal to me at all.

And what I really don’t want to do, beyond listening to myself, is enter the endless amount of potential metadata, especially about content. I might be inspired to here and there, especially with old friends or interviews I find joyful every time I see them again. But I can’t see myself doing this for everything and I think metadata on a “subjects covered” and “when was this all held” is vital for the collection having use. So I need volunteers to help me. I run a Discord server that communicates with people collaborating with me and I have a bunch of other ways to be reached. I’m asking for help here – turning this all into something useful beyond just existing is a vital step that I think everyone can contribute to.

If you think you can help with that, please step forward.

Otherwise… step back – a lot of BBS history is about to go online.

 


The Undiscovered —

There’s a bit of a nuance here; this entry is less about the specific situation I’m talking about, than about the kind of situation it is.

I got pulled into this whole thing randomly, when someone wrote me to let me know it was going along. Naturally, I fired into it all with all cylinders, but after a while, I figured out very good people were already on it, by days, and so I don’t actually have to do much of anything. That works for me.

It went down like this.

MOS Technology designed the 6502 chip which was in a mass of home computers in the 1970s and 1980s. (And is still being sold today.) The company, founded in 1969, was purchased in 1976 by Commodore (they of the 64 and Amiga) and became their chip production arm. A lot of the nitty gritty details are in the Wikipedia page for MOS. This company, now a subsidiary, lived a little life in Pennsylvania throughout the 1980s as part of the Commodore family. I assume people went to work, designed things, parked in the parking lot, checked out prototypes, responded to crazy Commodore administration requests… the usual.

In 1994, Commodore went out of business and its pieces bought by various groups. In the case of the MOS Technology building, it was purchased by various management and probably a little outside investment, and became a new company, called GMT Microelectronics. GMT did whatever companies like that do, until 2001, when they were shut down by the Environmental Protection Agency because it turns out they kind of contaminated the groundwater and didn’t clean it up very well.

Then the building sat, a memory to people who cared about the 6502 (like me), to former employees, and probably nobody else.

Now, welcome to 2017!

The building has gotten a new owner who wants to turn the property into something useful. To do this, they basically have to empty it, raze the building the ground, clean the ground, and then build a new building. Bravo, developer. Remember, this building has sat for 16 years, unwanted and unused.

The sign from the GMT days still sits outside, unchanged and just aged from when the building was once that business. Life has certainly gone on. By the way, these photos are all from Doug Crawford of the Vintage Computing Federation, who took this tour in late 2017.

Inside, as expected, it is a graffiti and firepit shitshow, the result of years of kids and others camping out in the building’s skeletal remains and probably whiling away the weekends hanging out.

And along with these pleasant scenes of decay and loss are some others involving what Doug thought were “Calcium Deposits” and which I personally interpret as maybe I never need to set foot in this building at any point in my future life and probably will have to burn any clothing I wear should I do so.

But damn if Doug didn’t make the journey into this environmentally problematic deathtrap to document it, and he even brought a guest of some reknown related to Commodore history: Bil Herd, one of the designers of the Commodore 128.

So, here’s what I want to get to: In this long-abandoned building, decades past prime and the province of trespassers and neglect, there turns out to have been quite a bit of Commodore history lying about.

There’s unquestionably some unusually neat items here – old printed documentation, chip wafers, and those magnetic tapes of who knows what; maybe design or something else that needed storage.

So here’s the thing; the person who was cleaning up this building for demolishing was put into some really weird situations – he wanted people to know this was here, and maybe offer it up to collectors, but as the blowback happened from folks when he revealed he’d been throwing stuff out, he was thrown into a defensive position and ultimately ended up sticking with looking into selling it, like salvage.

I think there’s two lessons here:

  1. There’s no question there’s caches of materials out there, be they in old corporate offices, warehouses, storerooms, or what have you, that are likely precious windows into bygone technology. There’s an important lesson in not assuming “everything” is gone and maybe digging a bit deeper. That means contacting places, inquiring with simple non-badgering questions, and being known as someone interested in some aspect of history so people might contact you about opportunities going forward.
  2. Being a shouty toolbox about these opportunities will not improve the situation.

I am lucky enough to be offered a lot of neat materials in a given month; people contact me about boxes, rooms and piles that they’re not sure what the right steps are. They don’t want to be lectured or shouted at; they want ideas and support as they work out their relationship to the material. These are often commercial products now long-gone and there’s a narrative that old automatically means “payday at auction” and that may or may not be true; but it’s a very compelling narrative, especially when times are hard.

So much has been saved and yes, a lot has been lost. But if the creators of the 6502 can have wafers and materials sitting around for 20 years after the company closed, I think there’s some brightness on the horizon for a lot of other “lost” materials as well.


Jason Scott Talks His Way Out of It: A Podcast —

Next week I start a podcast.

There’s a Patreon for the podcast with more information here.

Let me unpack a little of the thinking.

Through the last seven years, since I moved back to NY, I’ve had pretty variant experiences of debt or huge costs weighing me down. Previously, I was making some serious income from a unix admin job, and my spending was direct but pretty limited. Since then, even with full-time employment (and I mean, seriously, a dream job), I’ve made some grandiose mistakes with taxes, bills and tracking down old obligations that means I have some notable costs floating in the background.

Compound that with a new home I’ve moved to with real landlords that aren’t family and a general desire to clean up my life, and I realized I needed some way to make extra money that will just drop directly into the bill pit, never to really pass into my hands.

How, then, to do this?

I work very long hours for the Internet Archive, and I am making a huge difference in the world working for them. It wouldn’t be right or useful for me to take on any other job. I also don’t want to be doing something like making “stuff” that I sell or otherwise speculate into some market. Leave aside I have these documentaries to finish, and time has to be short.

Then take into account that I can no longer afford to drop money going to anything other than a small handful of conferences that aren’t local to me (the NY-CT-NJ Tri-State area), and that people really like the presentations I give.

So, I thought, how about me giving basically a presentation once a week? What if I recorded me giving a sort of fireside chat or conversational presentation about subjects I would normally give on the road, but make them into a downloadable podcast? Then, I hope, everyone would be happy: fans get a presentation. I get away from begging for money to pay off debts. I get to refine my speaking skills. And maybe the world gets something fun out of the whole deal.

Enter a podcast, funded by a Patreon.

The title: Jason Talks His Way Out of It, my attempt to write down my debts and share the stories and thoughts I have.

I announced the Patreon on my 47th birthday. Within 24 hours, about 100 people had signed up, paying some small amount (or not small, in some cases) for each published episode. I had a goal of $250/episode to make it worthwhile, and we passed that handily. So it’s happening.

I recorded a prototype episode, and that’s up there, and the first episode of the series drops Monday. These are story-based presentations roughly 30 minutes long apiece, and I will continue to do them as long as it makes sense to.

Public speaking is something I’ve done for many, many years, and I enjoy it, and I get comments that people enjoy them very much. My presentation on That Awesome Time I Was Sued for Two Billion Dollars has passed 800,000 views on the various copies online.

I spent $40 improving my sound setup, which should work for the time being. (I already had a nice microphone and a SSD-based laptop which won’t add sound to the room.) I’m going to have a growing list of topics I’ll work from, and I’ll stay in communication with the patrons.

Let’s see what this brings.

One other thing: Moving to the new home means that a lot of quality of life issues have been fixed, and my goal is to really shoot forward finishing those two documentaries I owe people. I want them done as much as everyone else! And with less looming bills and debts in my life, it’ll be all I want to do.

So, back the new podcast if you’d like. It’ll help a lot.


The Bounty of the Ted Nelson Junk Mail —

At the end of May, I mentioned the Ted Nelson Junk Mail project, where a group of people were scanning in boxes of mailings and pamphlets collected by Ted Nelson and putting them on the Internet Archive. Besides the uniqueness of the content, it was also unique in that we were trying to set it up to be self-sustaining from volunteer monetary contributions, and the compensate the scanners doing the work.

This entire endeavor has been wildly successful.

We are well past 18,000 pages scanned. We have taken in thousands in donations. And we now have three people scanning and one person entering metadata.

Here is the spreadsheet with transparency and donation information.

I highly encourage donating.

But let’s talk about how this collection continues to be amazing.

Always, there are the pure visuals. As we’re scanning away, we’re starting to see trends in what we have, and everything seems to go from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, a 30-year scope that encompasses a lot of companies and a lot of industries. These companies are trying to thrive in a whirlpool of competing attention, especially in certain technical fields, and they try everything from humor to class to rudimentary fear-and-uncertainty plays in the art.

These are exquisitely designed brochures, in many cases – obviously done by a firm or with an in-house group specifically tasked with making the best possible paper invitations and with little expense spared. After all, this might be the only customer-facing communication a company could have about its products, and might be the best convincing literature after the salesman has left or the envelope is opened.

Scanning at 600dpi has been a smart move – you can really zoom in and see detail, find lots to play with or study or copy. Everything is at this level, like this detail about a magnetic eraser that lets you see the lettering on the side.

Going after these companies for gender roles or other out-of-fashion jokes almost feels like punching down, but yeah, there’s a lot of it. Women draped over machines, assumptions that women will be doing the typing, and clunky humor about fulfilling your responsibilities as a (male) boss abounds. Cultural norms regarding what fears reigned in business or how companies were expected to keep on top of the latest trends are baked in there too.

The biggest obstacle going forward, besides bringing attention to this work, is going to be one of findability. The collection is not based on some specific subject matter other than what attracted Ted’s attention over the decades. He tripped lightly among aerospace, lab science, computers, electronics, publishing… nothing escaped his grasp, especially in technical fields.

If people are looking for pure aesthetic beauty, that is, “here’s a drawing of something done in a very old way” or “here are old fonts”, then this bounty is already, at 1,700 items, a treasure trove that could absorb weeks of your time. Just clicking around to items that on first blush seem to have boring title pages will often expand into breathtaking works of art and design.

I’m not worried about that part, frankly – these kind of sell themselves.

But there’s so much more to find among these pages, and as we’re now up to so many examples, it’s going to be a challenge to get researching folks to find them.

We have the keywording active, so you can search for terms like monitor, circuit, or hypercard and get more specific matches without concentrating on what the title says or what graphics appear on the front. The Archive has a full-text search, and so people looking for phrases will no doubt stumble into this collection.

But how easily will people even think to know about a wristwatch for the Macintosh from 1990, a closed circuit camera called the Handy Looky..  or this little graphic, nestled away inside a bland software catalog:

…I don’t know. I’ll mention that this is actually twitter-fodder among archivists, who are unhappy when someone is described as “discovering” something in the archives, when it was obvious a person cataloged it and put it there.

But that’s not the case here. Even Kyle, who’s doing the metadata, is doing so in a descriptive fashion, and on a rough day of typing in descriptions, he might not particularly highlight unique gems in the pile (he often does, though). So, if you discover them in there, you really did discover them.

So, the project is deep, delightful, and successful. The main consideration of this is funding; we are paying the scanners $10/hr to scan and the metadata is $15/hr. They work fast and efficiently. We track them on the spreadsheet. But that means a single day of this work can cause a notable bill. We’re asking people on twitter to raise funds, but it never hurts to ask here as well. Consider donating to this project, because we may not know for years how much wonderful history is saved here.

Please share the jewels you find.


4 Months! —

It’s been 4 months since my last post! That’s one busy little Jason summer, to be sure.

Obviously, I’m still around, so no heart attack lingering or problems. My doctor told me that my heart is basically healed, and he wants more exercise out of me. My diet’s continued to be lots of whole foods, leafy greens and occasional shameful treats that don’t turn into a staple.

I spent a good month working with good friends to clear out the famous Information Cube, sorting out and mailing/driving away all the contents to other institutions, including the Internet Archive, the Strong Museum of Play, the Vintage Computer Federation, and parts worldwide.

I’ve moved homes, no longer living with my brother after seven up-and-down years of siblings sharing a house. It was time! We’re probably not permanently scarred! I love him very much. I now live in an apartment with very specific landlords with rules and an important need to pay them on time each and every month.

To that end, I’ve cut back on my expenses and will continue to, so it’s the end of me “just showing up” to pretty much any conferences that I’m not being compensated for, which will of course cut things down in terms of Jason appearances you can find me at.

I’ll still be making appearances as people ask me to go, of course – I love travel. I’m speaking in Amsterdam in October, as well as being an Emcee at the Internet Archive in October as well. So we’ll see how that goes.

What that means is more media ingestion work, and more work on the remaining two documentaries. I’m going to continue my goal of clearing my commitments before long, so I can choose what I do next.

What follows will be (I hope) lots of entries going deep into some subjects and about what I’m working on, and I thank you for your patience as I was not writing weblog entries while upending my entire life.

To the future!


Ted Nelson’s Junk Mail (and the Archive Corps Pilot) —

I’ve been very lucky over the past few months to dedicate a few days here and there to helping legend Ted Nelson sort through his archives. We’ve known each other for a bunch of years now, but it’s always a privilege to get a chance to hang with Ted and especially to help him with auditing and maintaining his collection of papers, notes, binders, and items. It also helps that it’s in pretty fantastic shape to begin with.

Along with sorting comes some discarding – mostly old magazines and books; they’re being donated wherever it makes sense to. Along with these items were junk mail that Ted got over the decades.

About that junk mail….

After glancing through it, I requested to keep it and take it home. There was a lot of it, and even going through it with a cursory view showed me it was priceless.

There’s two kinds of people in the world – those who look at ephemera and consider it trash, and those who consider it gold.

I’m in the gold camp.

I’d already been doing something like this for years, myself – when I was a teenager, I circled so many reader service cards and pulled in piles and piles of flyers and mailings from companies so fleeting or so weird, and I kept them. These became digitize.textfiles.com and later the reader service collection, which encapsulates digitize.textfiles.com completely. There’s well over a thousand pages in that collection, which I’ve scanned myself.

Ted, basically, did what I was doing, but with more breadth, more variety, and with a few decades more time.

And because he was always keeping an eye out on many possibilities for future fields of study, he kept his mind (and mailbox) open to a lot of industries. Manufacturing, engineering, film-making, printing, and of course “computers” as expressed in a thousand different ways. The mail dates from the 1960s through to the mid 2000s, and it’s friggin’ beautiful.

Here’s where it gets interesting, and where you come in.

There’s now a collection of scanned mail from this collection up at the Internet Archive. It’s called Ted Nelson’s Junk Mail and you can see the hundreds of scanned pages that will soon become thousands and maybe tens of thousands of scanned pages.

They’re separated by mailing, and over time the metadata and the contents will get better, increase in size, and hopefully provide decades of enjoyment for people.

The project is being coordinated by Kevin Savetz, who has hired a temp worker to scan in the pages across each weekday, going through the boxes and doing the “easy” stuff (8.5×11 sheets) which, trust me, is definitely worth going through first. As they’re scanned, they’re uploaded, and (for now) I am running scripts to add them as items to the Junk Mail collection.

The cost of doing this is roughly $80 a day, during which hundreds of pages can be scanned. We’re refining the process as we go, and expect it to get even more productive over time.

So, here’s where Archive Corps comes in; this is a pilot program for the idea behind the new idea of Archive Corps, which is providing a funnel for all the amazing stuff out there to get scanned. If you want to see more stuff come from the operation that Kevin is running, he has a paypal address up at k@savetz.com – the more you donate the more days we are able to have the temp come in to scan.

I’m very excited to watch this collection grow, and see the massive variety of history that it will reveal. A huge thank-you to Ted Nelson for letting me take these items, and a thank-you to Kevin Savetz for coordinating.

Let’s enjoy some history!