September 18, 2012
Staying on the road: Job 1 to own a classic
As autumn bears down on us this week — it begins on Thursday — I'm struck by changes of more than just seasons. A pair of experts about older engineering are retiring from the radio airwaves here in the US. They'll live on in a virtual format, with older shows full of the same rich information — just a little more aged. The comparisons to the 3000 community seemed apt to me.
Riding on a very old technology this summer, I filled my ears using a bit newer technology, to hear about tech with both innovation and heritage. I rode my bike, tech first envisioned and built in the 19th Century. I listened to a radio show while I pedaled my 13-mile circuit around my hilly neighborhood. It's often an hour that's blessed by the miracle of podcasts, smartphones and Bluetooth transmissions to my earbuds.
But I listen to talk from a show first created for a medium that's over 100 years old. My ears fill with laughter, troubles, innovation and love for technology that's not new. I listen to Car Talk, and I sometimes think about all of you, and what you do and have done.
Car Talk is a top-rated NPR radio show created once a week by two auto-repair garage owners, the brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi. These fellows are winding down an amazing career of detailed engineering advice and inspired comedy. Known as the Tappet Brothers, they're ending their radio show creation as of the end of September. They've been on the air since the HP 3000 was brand-new.
There are a lot of similarities between a radio show that starts with a bluegrass riff followed by with hard Boston accents, and your community of minicomputer owners.
Of late I've been hearing the 3000 called a minicomputer because I've been talking with MPE experts as old as Tom and Ray. The younger Ray is 63, the older Tom is 75. Your community's founders are from that generation, mostly Boomers, with their elders born pre-War. All of us were taught to mind our elders. A lot of us thumbed our noses at that rule, until we got older ourselves.
There's only one guiding rule on Car Talk: keep a perfectly good car on the road. Technology that's old might have been bypassed unfairly, so it's easy to hear the ardor coming from Tom while praising some cars built in the 1980s and '90s. The important word back there is some cars. Not all. Beloved as the original Volkswagen Beetles are, Click and Clack call them death traps.
It's essential to have florid language ready if you're going to keep your place in radio for 35 years. You also need to tell stories on yourself as well as idiots and innocents who offer up their problems.
Just like my job for the past 28 years, listening to Car Talk always makes me feel important (for remembering) and ignorant. But like so many of you, I can learn. One of my favorite septuagenarians, Vladimir Volokh, took me under his tutelage this year in an advanced course of 3000 technology. He started to call in earnest once I published my first novel -- because like an older car, it needed some tuning up.
Your HP 3000s could use a tune up, some time spent with as much honesty as ardor. They're running on borrowed time, some of them, but they're still on the road. Their disk drives have been spinning, some of them, since the Simpsons was brand-new. Some of them hum with MPE versions that were first designed while the Dallas Cowboys were winning NFL championships. Others have gotten new drives or memory or fresher MPE/iX. But Vladimir says their system's insides can be as clotted as a senior's veins off a diet from the Midwest, all cheesy, creamy and eggy. (Okay, and oh so tasty.)
Some of you are driving Dodge Darts along your roads of computer commerce. That's a car so storied, legendary and disrespected that Chrysler is reviving it. The commercials here during the Olympics gave us a teaser for the Dart II. The folly and glory of that venture reminded me of the Magliozzis' comic instruction, as well as the path for the 3000's remaining journey.
Yeah, it's old tech, all of it: radio, two guys taking phone calls, talking about 30-year-old vehicles. But like a classic and classy computer system, a car is vital to commerce and enjoyment. It's hard to hold a job without a car, but not impossible. It's hard to run a business without owning a computer, but it's becoming more possible.
Like a Dart that you hear about on the radio, business computers are becoming virtual. Even a classic like a 3000 is going to be virtual one day. That means the essence of its spirited engine, MPE, and its carb of IMAGE will be run someplace other than the circuits, disks and memory in a chunk of iron down the hall in a workplace. It will run in a server farm thousands of miles away from that office, rolling its bits and bytes along what we once called the Information Superhighway.
Click and Clack never see the cars which are the subject of the callers' ire and adoration. Things like the Dart, the Beetle, a Lincoln or a Mercedes are only understood by what the brothers have seen in their own garage, or the talk that good mechanics certainly share about the most frustrating and mysterious machines in their lives. Now the brothers themselves are going virtual. Car Talk will remain on the air, rebroadcasting shows, enough of them that producer Doug Berman figures it will be at least eight years before they have to repeat anything.
Would eight more years of a useful HP 3000 be enough for your company? It would be for most of you. If you're like me or Vladimir, you might dream of seeing your beloved MPE machine run longer, even beyond 2027, another 15 years of service. It's just as possible as seeing a 1971 El Camino rolling down a Texas highway, driven by another 3000 septuagenarian, Paul Edwards.
Edwards started his 3000 career about the time Click and Clack took their first radio call. Paul's not going any more virtual than Vladimir will this year. With tuning, memory and respect, lots of us want to stay on the road behind the wheel of a classic. If you turn yours off the pavement, I hope it's with a good plan for driving something you love just as much.
Would you like to be a part of the 3000's story of its journey, from the Sixties to infinity and beyond? Call me, or write a little email to the addresses on the back of this page. The 3000 is writing its memoirs, as told to this writer, retold from the ears of others. Tell me your role in keeping it rolling on the road.
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