Short Story Of the Day – Punch Card by Bill Chance

“It’s been a prevalent notion. Fallen sparks. Fragments of vessels broken at the Creation. And someday, somehow, before the end, a gathering back to home. A messenger from the Kingdom, arriving at the last moment. But I tell you there is no such message, no such home — only the millions of last moments . . . nothing more. Our history is an aggregate of last moments.”
― Thomas Pynchon,
Gravity’s Rainbow

Galatyn Station, DART, Richardson Texas


 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#69) More than two thirds there! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


I try and keep most of what I write here to around a thousand words. This one is about three times as long – sorry, I know time is short, but I really didn’t feel up to cutting it down too much.

I had a little trouble with technology. This is from an outline I wrote several years ago – when Angry Birds was a thing. Now, it’s already too late.


Punch Card

“Grampa Ron! Grampa Ron! Lookit what I got for my birthday!”

Sammy Meeks shouted as he tore through down the hall and into his beloved grandfather’s study, waving a new digital tablet.

“Well well, let’s take a look at that,” Ron said as he adjusted the glasses on his head. Sammy turned the tablet so his grandfather could see the screen and with a flick of the finger set a flock of birds flying into a stone castle occupied by evil pigs.

“Angry Birds, Grampa, Angry Birds!”

“Well whataya know. What will they come up with next?”

“I’m sixteen today and this is my present.”

“You know, Sammy, when I was sixteen they didn’t have things like that.”

“I know Grampa Ron, even I remember when they didn’t have these. You must have used a laptop.”

“No, Sammy, we didn’t have laptops. I had never even seen a computer until I was in college, and they didn’t look like they do now.”

“What did they look like, Grampa?”

“Well, believe it or not, the first computer I used filled up half of one floor of a whole office building.”

“It must have been powerful.”

“Nope, I’ll bet that little tablet is ten times more powerful that this thing was. It wasn’t as powerful as my phone.”

“Half as big as a building? How did you use it.”

“Oh, Sammy, now that’s a story. Got a minute?”

“Sure Grampa, always for you.”

“It didn’t have a keyboard or a screen. It printed out reports… that’s all it did. And to put stuff in, you used these.”

Ron pointed to a frame, mounted on his wall. Sammy walked over to look at it. Mounted, matted, and professionally framed, was a rectangular piece of beige card, with one corner cut off. It had a series of square holes cut into it and a dot-matrix sentence printed across the top. Sammy moved closer, and squinted a bit, so he could read the legend.

I know, but I can see you. I think you’re cute – Christine,” Sammy read. “Grandpa Ron, What does that mean?”

“Well, Sammy, like I said, that’s a long story. It’s the story of how I met your Grandmother. Do you have a while?”

“I got all day, Grampa.”

So Grampa Ron Meeks settled down in his desk chair, half-closed his eyes, and started to tell the story.


I hated the punch card machine more than anything I had ever hated before. I was a junior, majoring in comparative literature and since I wasn’t in the computer science department I could only use the computer lab after ten in the evening. The giant computer itself took up half of the bottom floor of the building – but nobody went there. The other half was filled with a filthy snack bar, lined with rusty automats that spat out moldy candy bars and bags of stale off-brand potato chips – and a series of dingy rooms filled with hundreds of punch card machines.

I had taken an elective class in Fortran programming because I thought that computers were the future and I was worried about paying rent after graduation. Writing the assigned programs was easy – find the sides and angles of a right triangle, the day of a date, or draw a series of boxes. I could write the code, but I couldn’t punch the cards.

My homework problems had to be punched onto cards. I had to buy a case of the damn things at the beginning of the semester. I couldn’t imagine using all those cards. I didn’t know. Three months later, I had to buy another half-box from some kid in my dorm.

This was worse than a typewriter. You would load a stack of cards into the machine and then it would warm up and start to hum. The heat would rise and the ozone would burn your nose. The keys were big and yellow and had to be shoved hard before the machine would roar and then… “Blam!” it would whack a little tiny rectangle out of the card. A paper flake would fly through the air to join the thick layer of cardstock confetti coating the floor and a corresponding hole would appear in the card itself.

With the punch card machine a mistake was a disaster. Sure, the code printed out along the top of the card but they never put new ribbons in the machines and it was always too faint for me to read. When I had my stack of cards all finished I’d take them into the computer room, wrap them with a rubber band, and shove them through this little wooden door in the wall where they would fall down a chute.

Then it was time to wait. Wait for hours. I’d spend all night there, waiting for my program to run. Then, my output would drop down another, bigger, chute into a pile. Every time an output would drop, all the kids waiting would run to see if it was theirs. It was horrible.

You see, if your program ran correctly you’d get a few sheets of paper with the code and the answer printed on it but I never did, at least not the first three or four times. I’d find my cards still rubberbanded together and clipped to a huge stack of pinfeed folded green and white striped paper. On the top would be a handwritten note that would say something like, “Core Dump, you loser!”

Whenever you made a mistake, even a tiny one, the core would dump and the computer would print out hundreds of pages of gibberish. You were supposed to carefully peruse the printouts and find your error in there somewhere but nobody had time for that. You’d throw the printout in this huge wooden bin, scratch your head, and start looking for your mistake. I have no idea why they wasted all that paper.

Sometimes it would be a mistake in my work, but usually it was a typo in my card punching. The little holes corresponded to letters, numbers, or symbols and I punched out a card with everything on it, in order, and I would slide the thing slowly over every card I had punched to find the mistake.

It was horrible. I would be so tired, my eyes swimming, sitting at that huge punch machine, trying to type. Even when I made it through a card, I’d be terrified I had made an unknown error and would generate another core dump. It was killing me… but I had nowhere else to go.

Our instructor was always harping on us to put in comment cards. These were punch cards marked in a certain way so that they didn’t make the computer do anything, but simply left comments. You were supposed to leave comments about what your code was supposed to be doing or what your variable represented or why you decided to do something the way you did. It was a pain in the ass and I never did it until the teacher started marking my grade down because I had insufficient comments in my code.

So I started putting the comments in, though I never commented on the code. I figured he didn’t really look through everybody’s work for these things and only took the computer’s count of how many comments were in here. Sometimes I’d just gripe… like, “Fortran really sucks,” or “This is too hard,” or “It’s way too late at night to be doing this.

This got to be pretty boring pretty fast so I switched to some of my favorite Shakespeare Quotes, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” or “There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting,” or “I am not bound to please thee with my answer.” I might make some mistakes punching the comments… but who cared? They would still go through as comments and you could still read them.

I remember the day when I picked up my output and, sure enough, there was the big thick stack of folded paper, another core dump, but instead of a handwritten note, there was a punched card on top of my stack. It was different in that it had been done on a machine that had a fresh ribbon in it and across the top, in crisp, clear, printing, it said, “Funny Comments Ronald. You’re getting close. Ck crd 7 error in do loop – Christine.

And sure enough, in my seventh card I had hit a capital letter “Z” instead of a number “2.” I never would have seen that.

So I redoubled my efforts at witty, humorous, and obscure quotations for my comment cards. I was reading this huge crazy new book called Gravity’s Rainbow and one day I quoted from it. Stuff like, “You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.” or “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers,” or “Danger’s over, Banana Breakfast is saved.”

My program ran that time and the card on top said, “A screaming comes across the sky – Christine,” which made me so happy I didn’t stop smiling for a day.

The next program, I added a comment card that said, “Christine, I can’t see you – Ronald.

And it came back with, “I know, but I can see you. I think you’re cute – Christine.

So I thought about it and worked up my courage. At the end of a program that I larded with my best quotes from the composition book I carried with me and scribbled in all the time… my commonplace book, I finished with a card that said “Christine, I want to meet you – Ronald.”

All that night I was the first to fight their way in to grab any program that slid down the chute, only to be disappointed again and again as other student’s projects ran before mine. Finally, as the sky was beginning to turn a light pink in the west, my program dropped. On top was a card. I ran back to my dorm room to read it, not daring to look at it anywhere in public.

It said, “Love to Ronald. Snarky’s at six, on Thursday. Don’t be late – Christine.”

Snarky’s was a little chain restaurant off campus not far from the computer building. My heart almost beat out of my chest. Thursday was going to take a long time to get there.


I didn’t want to be late, so I showed up outside Snarky’s a half hour early and paced back and front in front of the place for fifteen minutes.

I was so nervous and excited. I had barely been on a date since I arrived at school and had never had a girlfriend. This was so weird, meeting somebody I had never even seen… but it was my best chance and I was going crazy.

So I went inside a good fifteen minutes early, sat down, and asked for water. Twenty minutes later, nobody had shown up.

“Well, sport, you ready to order yet?” asked my waitress. She was skinny and wearing this awful uniform covered with little badges that had smiley faces or stupid phrases like, “Have a nice day!” or “Today is the first day in the rest of your life.” She stood there tapping her pen on her little black order book.

“I’m sorry, I already told you; I’m waiting for someone. I’m waiting for my date.”

“She better get here soon, this is our busy time and I need the tips off of this table.”

“She was supposed to be here by now. I’m sorry. It’ll be any minute now, I’m sure.”

“OK Romeo, what does she look like? Maybe she’s already sitting somewhere else.”

I looked up at the waitress. Her name tag said, “Mabel.”

“I’m sorry, Mabel, I have no idea what she looks like.”

“Give me a break… you don’t think my name really is Mabel, do you. Not that I care but I’m Audrey. I hate these name tags and write something different every day. Oh, and what the hell do you mean you don’t know what she looks like?”

So I explained it. Everything. I even had the punch card, the one that’s in the frame, tucked into my jacket pocket. I showed it to her.

“Oh Shit!” she said, “Those bastards!”

I was confused. All I could do is stammer out some garbled noise.

“It’s those computer lab guys. They are in here all the time. A bunch of them. The worst dirty hairy stupid idiots you ever saw. And they are lousy tippers too.”

I still didn’t get it. “What are you talking about?”

“Wake up and smell the coffee, sport. They set you up. They sent you those cards so you couldn’t tell from the handwriting. There isn’t any Christine. They’re probably in the back room checking on you, laughing their idiot asses off. I’ll go check.”

So she spun and left. I sat there shaking, doing everything I could do to keep from bursting into tears. I cradled my water and gripped it hard, to stop my hands from shaking. After about ten minutes, Audrey the waitress came back.

“Sure enough, sport. They are in the back room having a good old time at your expense. Don’t look, they’re peeking over the salad bar at you. I’m sorry, that sucks, those guys are real assholes. And bad tippers, which kinda goes together.”

I could feel my ears burning. I was terribly dizzy and sick. It felt like everybody in the place knew my humiliation and was staring at me. The normal buzz of conversation rose around me and I knew everyone was talking about me. I couldn’t even raise my eyes, my sight up above my empty water glass.

“Nothing I can do,” I mumbled.

“Do? Do?” Audrey the waitress said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, sport. Their order was up when I was back in the kitchen. I had the dishwashers all spit in their sandwiches.”

When she said that, everything suddenly broke and the room seemed silent and clear and bright as noon. I looked up into the face of Audrey the waitress and knew then that I was suddenly hopelessly and helplessly in love.

And that was how I met your grandmother.


“I’ve heard you say so much about Grandma Audrey,” Sammy said. “I wish I could’a met her.”

“Me too. We married a year after graduation and your father was born a year after that. He didn’t even know her, really, he was only three when they found the cancer in her pancreas. She went downhill very fast. Back then, we didn’t even take very many pictures, except of your father.”

“So you don’t have much of hers,” Sammy said. “That’s why you keep that card in the frame. That way you have something to remember her by.”

“Not much of hers? Oh no, you’re wrong about that. The only reason I keep that card is…. well, to make little boys like you ask questions. I remember her by your father. For all these years she’s been gone… every day… no… every second of every minute of every hour I remember her by your father, and your big sister, and you… and maybe even your kids someday.”

Sammy didn’t know what to say. He brought his new tablet up and snapped a picture of his Grandpa Ron sitting in his desk chair and then set it as the background on the screen.

“Enough of this,” Grandpa Ron said, “Let’s go outside and throw the football around before it gets too dark. Or is that too old fashioned for you?”

“Nope, that sounds cool.”

“Well, you find the ball and I’ll be out in a minute once I turn the lights out in here.”

Sammy spun and ran off to look for the football. Ron stood, and stretched the creakiness out of his bones. He reached over and turned off the lamp. Before he left the room he leaned over and placed a quick kiss on the glass that covered the framed punch card.

 

What I learned this week, May 16, 2014

Ink & Paper

As a small child I remember watching a linotype operator keying his machine and fascinated by his callused hands handling the hot lead slugs.


The Mystery of Go, the Ancient Game That Computers Still Can’t Win


How to Deal With Negative Press


How does George R. R. Martin do his actual writing?

Using a separate computer for writing is brilliant. I wouldn’t go back to Wordstar – I’d use Wordperfect 5.0 – the best word processing program I’ve seen.

I like his rant against auto-correct – “If I had wanted a capital, I’d have typed a capital.”


Kaiju-a-go-go: Every Godzilla Monster, from Lamest to Coolest

I can’t argue with King Ghidorah at #1, but I would have ranked Mothra higher.


Rate of US bicycle commuters rises by 60%

The only thing better than biking to work is biking to somewhere other than work.


Mesquite steering away from groundbreaking DART pact

I have no sympathy for Mesquite in this deal. I lived there, years ago, when the DART vote went down. Mesquite voted no. The reason I heard was, “If we get a train and a bus system, poor people will move here.” Wrong. Young professionals that work downtown and are looking for affordable housing will live there and take the train to work. And when the young profesionals move to other suburbs (with dense, transit-oriented development) what do you have left?


Google Street View sleuth: help us identify our cities’ biggest failings

There are plenty of bad spots in Dallas. Here’s one that I particularly abhor. It would be a very useful route to get from Downtown/Cedars to the Santa Fe Trestle Trail… if it wasn’t a death trap. It looks like there are sidewalks and stairs too – don’t be fooled, they go nowhere… fast.

Sunday Snippet – Punch Card (How I Met Your Grandmother)

I had a writing teacher once that said that ideas were swimming through the air all around us and if you didn’t catch one as it went by, someone else would.

This morning, I caught an idea for a short story and wrote down an outline before I went out for a bicycle ride. There are four scenes, spread out over, say, forty years. The working title for the story is Punch Card (How I Met Your Grandmother).

Here’s the second scene, which takes place in the past (maybe 1975 or so). I’ll write the other three scenes over the next few days – hopefully to take to my writing group. If you want a copy of the first draft when I finish it, send me an email at bill*chance99@gmail.com – except put a period where the asterisk is and the number 57 where the 99 is (take that spammers).

I hated the punch card machine more than anything I had ever hated before. I was a junior, majoring in comparative literature and since I wasn’t in the computer science department I could only use the computer lab after ten in the evening. The giant computer itself took up half of the bottom floor of the building – but nobody was ever allowed to go or even see in there. The other half was filled with a filthy snack bar, lined with rusty autobots that spat out moldy candy bars and bags of stale off-brand potato chips – and a series of dingy rooms filled with hundreds of punch card machines.

I had taken an elective class in Fortran programming because I thought that computers were the future and I was worried about paying rent after graduation. Writing the assigned programs was easy – find the sides and angles of a right triangle, the day of a date, or draw a series of boxes. I could write the code, but I couldn’t punch the cards.

My homework problems had to be punched onto these beige cards – rectangular with one corner cut off. I had to buy a case of the damn things at the beginning of the semester. I couldn’t imagine using all those cards. I didn’t know. Three months later, I had to buy another half-box from some kid in my dorm. I was always a terrible typist and would get nervous, freeze up and hit the wrong letter.

This was worse than a typewriter. You would load a stack of cards into the machine and then it would warm up and start to hum. The heat would rise and the ozone would burn your nose. The keys were big and yellow and had to be shoved hard before the machine would roar and then… “Blam!” it would whack a little tiny rectangle out of the card. A paper flake would fly through the air to join the thick layer of cardstock confetti coating the floor and, magic, a corresponding hole would appear in the card itself.

With the punchcard machine a mistake was a disaster. I never could see that I’d missed a key. Sure, the code printed out along the top of the card but they never put new ribbons in the machines and it was always too faint for me to read. When I had my stack of cards all finished I’d take them into the computer room, wrap them with a rubber band, and shove them through this little wooden door in the wall where they would fall down a chute. You never could even see what was on the other side.

Then it was time to wait. Wait for hours. I’d spend all night there, waiting for my program to run. Then, my output would drop down another, bigger, chute into a pile. Every time an output would drop, all the kids waiting would run in and see if it was theirs. It was horrible.

You see, if your program ran correctly you’d get a few sheets of paper with the code and the answer printed on it but I never did. I’d find my cards still rubberbanded together and clipped to a huge stack of pinfeed folded green and white striped paper. On the top would be a handwritten note that would say something like, “Core Dump, you loser!”

Whenever you made a mistake, even a tiny one, the core would dump and the computer would print out hundreds of pages of gibberish. You were supposed to carefully peruse the printouts and find your error in there somewhere but nobody had time for that. You’d throw the printout in this huge wooden bin, scratch your head, and start looking for your mistake. I have no idea why they wasted all that paper.

Sometimes it would be a mistake in my work, but usually it was a typo in my card punching. I figured out that the little holes corresponded to letters, numbers, or symbols and I punched out a card with everything on it, in order, and I would have to slide the thing slowly over every card I had punched to try and find the mistake.

It was horrible. I would be so tired, my eyes swimming, sitting at that huge punch machine, trying to type. I’d make a mistake and throw the card onto the overflowing trash bins and start again. Even when I made it through a card, I’d be terrified I had made an unknown error and would generate another core dump. It was killing me… but I had nowhere else to go.

Our instructor was always harping on us to put in comment cards. These were punch cards marked in a certain way that they didn’t make the computer do anything, but simply left comments. You were supposed to leave comments about what your code was supposed to be doing or what your variable represented or why you decided to do something the way you did. It was a pain in the ass and I never did it until the teacher started marking my grade down because I had insufficient comments in my code.

So I started putting the comments in, though I never commented on the code. I figured he didn’t really look through everybody’s work for these things and only took the computer’s count of how many comments were in here. Sometimes I’d just gripe… like, “Fortran really sucks,” or “This is too hard,” or “It’s way too late at night to be doing this.”

This got to be pretty boring pretty fast so I switched to some of my favorite Shakespeare Quotes, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” or “There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting,” or “I am not bound to please thee with my answer.” I might make some mistakes punching the comments… but who cared? They would still go through as comments and you could still read them.

Like it was yesterday, I remember the day when I picked up my output and, sure enough, there was the big thick stack of folded paper, another core dump, but instead of a handwritten note, there was a punched card on top of my stack. It was different in that it had been done on a machine that had a fresh ribbon in it and across the top, in crisp, clear, printing, it said, “Funny Comments Ronald. You’re getting close. Ck crd 7 error in do loop – Christine.”

And sure enough, in my seventh card I had hit a capital letter “Z” instead of a number “2.” I never would have seen that.

So I redoubled my efforts at witty, humorous, and obscure quotations for my comment cards. I was reading this huge crazy new book called Gravity’s Rainbow and one day I quoted from it. Stuff like, “You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.” or “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers,” or “Danger’s over, Banana Breakfast is saved.”

My program ran that time and the card on top said, “A screaming comes across the sky – Christine,” which made me so happy I didn’t stop smiling for a day.

The next program, I added a comment card that said, “Christine, I can’t see you – Ronald.”

And it came back with, “I know, but I can see you. I think you’re cute – Christine.”

So I thought about it and worked up my courage. At the end of a program that I larded with my best quotes from the composition book I carried with me and scribbled in all the time… my commonplace book, I finished with a card that said “Christine, I want to meet you – Ronald.”

All that night I was the first to fight their way in to grab any program that slid down the chute, only to be disappointed again and again as other student’s projects ran before mine. Finally, as the sky was beginning to turn a light pink in the west, my program dropped. On top was a card. I ran back to my dorm room to read it, not daring to look at it anywhere in public.

It said, “Love to Ronald. Snarky’s at six, on Thursday. Don’t be late – Christine.”

Snarky’s was a little chain restaurant off campus not far from the computer building. My heart almost beat out of my chest. Thursday was going to take a long time to get there.

Digital Nostalgia

I was talking to Nick and Lee about digital technology, history, and advancement, trying not to be so much of an old fart – “When I was a kid we had to walk fifty miles to school through twenty feet of blowing snow….”.

They were messing with their IPhones and imagining what the state of digital electronics would be in ten, twenty years from now; when the IPhone will be as clunky and obsolete as a hand-cranked telephone. I talked a bit about when I was young – back then you were not allowed to own your own phone – you rented it from the phone company. They were usually hard-wired into the wall (when I was in college, our city of Lawrence, Kansas, was a pilot program for the now-ubiquitous cube taps – it seemed revolutionary [which it was, more than we imagined at the time]) and very, very few folks had more than one phone in the house.

The kids said that the smartphone was the most important digital invention in their lifetime (so far) and that it had changed the way they lived. They are right – the fact that you are now able to tap into the far-flung digital word from any spot (pretty much) on the planet at any time. They were especially adamant about being able to access the web at a moment’s notice is revolutionary – not only communications, but information, maps, social networks…. it really is amazing… here in this, the best of all possible worlds.

I think of going to high school in Central America…. I felt so isolated and out of touch. If the Internet existed then (forget about smart phones) I would have been able to stay up with things…. A few years later – single, back in the US, it was so easy to lose contact. Social Media, a smart phone – what a difference that would have made. I think of all the time I spent searching for pay phones, trying to keep up.

I started thinking of the moments of digital history that affected me. Not so much the technology itself, but the split seconds, the flashes of epiphany, when I realized that things were changing irrevocably – that new worlds of possibility were opening up.

Nick and Lee really didn’t understand what I was getting at, but I still thought about it-

I remember when I first understood the power of using a computer with a graphical interface. I’d been using the early Windows programs and the mouse and all was cool – but I didn’t see what the big deal was. Until one day, sort of at random, I realized I could cut from one program and paste the data, pretty much intact, into a completely different application…. I could do complex calculations in a spreadsheet, for example, and simply cut the whole mess out and paste them into a word processing document without any extra typing. And do that again and again and again until the report was done in a tenth of the time it would have taken me before.

That was a moment when I knew things had changed.

I remember, long before that, before the Internet, even when I discovered digital bulletin boards. I’d stay up late and use my computer to dial in (remember the sounds of dialup and modem negotiation, the tones, the hissing – like Pavlov’s dogs my fingers would itch whenever I heard that sound) and trade ideas and information with total strangers over the phone lines. Once the Internet arrived a couple years later, I was ready for it – it seemed like a single world-wide bulletin board (which it was).

There are hundreds of such moments… all clear as a bell with the perverse lucidity of nostalgia.

One moment stands out for me, however. In and of itself, it wasn’t a big deal, but something about it…. It was the first time I saw a laser printer spit out a document. I had been working for years with Daisy Wheel Printers and then with the Dot Matrix ones. The loud buzzing of the print heads, whopping of the paper, and the crash of the carriage return were ingrained in my ears, brain, and soul.

Of course, I had heard of Laser Printers, but they were somehow an exotic vision of expense and extravagance, something that worthless peons like myself would never have access to. I was visiting another company, one significantly more advanced than mine, and working on some joint reports. When we finished, the little box started spitting out documents with nothing more than an insignificant little whir. That is what amazed me, the silence. You want it? Here it is. No big deal.

My jaw dropped.

Things had changed; things would never be the same again.

New Screen

Last year, at Tulane, some time Lee stepped on his laptop and cracked the screen. He had a separate monitor, so he could still use the thing. Still, it killed me. I would love to have a nice laptop like that (I’ve got a decent one, it was Nick’s Toshiba – a present his Junior year in high school – until the hard drive fell out and he went out and bought an Apple – I retrieved his broken one and installed Ubuntu on it – which kicks it up a notch, IMHO) and I would take better care of it.

Still, accidents do happen. It’s a few hundred dollars in parts and labor to repair damage like that. Luckily, there is ebay, and without any trouble I could find a brand new replacement screen for seventy five bucks or so. I’m not so cheap to muck around on a used pull or something like that – though I did look for one at the First Saturday computer swap meet.

Luckily, there is even a YouTube Video of the procedure.

So, the Fedex man brought the box, I watched the video a few times. I collected my weapons: screwdriver, forceps, a couple little bowls to hold stray screws – on the kitchen table.

Lee's Laptop

Here's the laptop and the replacement screen - all ready to go.

So I took a deep breath and dug in. It was pretty easy. It was very easy until I had it all apart. The guy did a great job with the video, detailing how to get the thing apart and pointing out possible problems and potholes.

All Apart

All taken apart.

The only difficulty is that the video ends with the well worn bromide, “Just do the opposite of what you did taking it apart to get it back together.” Technically, this is true.

But it is a lot harder to get those tiny little screws to jump back into their holes that it was to yank them out in the first place. Especially with big fat clumsy fingers like me.

But I kept at it and soon enough, it was all back together. Works like a charm.

Now, lets see if we can get him to keep the damn thing in a bag when he’s not using it.

Yeah right.

First Saturday Sale

Customers

A wide variety of customers listen to a sales pitch at the First Saturday Computer flea market in Dallas.

Candy’s laptop is hosed and we need to get her back into the digital world. She is thinking about an iPad or a new laptop, but in the meantime, Lee has decided not to take his desktop computer back to school with him. It’s a Frankenstein machine I built for him years ago, carefully assembling it from pieces as they went on sale at Fry’s or MicroCenter. It’s now about half a decade out of date, but it’s still functional, chugging along as always. It’ll work fine for surfing the web or doing some light word processing. He has a nice monitor that he’ll take with him, so all we need is a new monitor and we’ll be good to go.

I know I can get a cheap used monitor at the First Saturday Sale. And today is the first Saturday in August.

The First Saturday Sale used to be a big deal. It started out in 1969, in the pre-digital days, as ham radio aficionados would gather in the vacant lots on the east end of downtown Dallas and trade tubes and microphones and whatever passed for electronic equipment back in the day.

With the rise of the personal computer, digital technology entered the picture, and the popularity of this high tech swap meet/flea market grew until in the 1990s it reached the stage where hundreds of vendors and up to forty thousand customers would descend upon the cracked asphalt. Rows upon rows of vendor tables would stretch over about a square mile of real estate with crowds milling between, staring at memory chips, picking through piles of used software, or feeling hard drives, wondering if they would work or not.

I remember needing to buy a replacement drive, and picking up three of them for less than a tenth of what a new one would be. I asked the guy if they worked and he said, “I have no idea, I pulled a thousand of these out of a corporate job and don’t have time to test them.” I figured at least one of the three would be good – two were.

I used to enjoy going down there during the salad days. Actually, I would seldom actually buy anything, but to walk up and down the crowded rows gawking at the stuff was fantastic entertainment. I remember once a guy had about a half-dozen high powered industrial lasers for sale out of the back of his pickup truck. The vendors were wildly diverse, everything from legitimate computer stores picking up a little extra business to people that were obviously spending the week dumpster-diving and dumping their crap in a big pile with a cardboard sign that said, “Everything One Dollar.”

The only people making big money probably were the folks that ran a breakfast sausage truck feeding all the hungry bargain hunters. I remember salivating at the smell of the cooking sausage as the sweet smoke crawled down the aisles between the vendor tables, pushed by the yellow light of the rising sun. The sale was officially Saturday morning, but to get the hottest deals you had to get there at one or two AM. The whole thing was pretty much over by noon. Candy went down there with me once to score some deals on used music CDs and said, “I have never seen so many nerds in one place in my entire life.”

It was a blast, and like all good things, it didn’t last. The rate of change in computer equipment accelerated to the point that used stuff wasn’t good for anything. The prices for hardware kept dropping until it was cheaper to buy something new. And software migrated into two camps – extremely expensive (and the First Saturday Sale has always been crawling with the authorities looking for bootleg software – there were some spectacular arrests) and free – neither category does well at a flea-market. The vacant lots of the east part of downtown were torn up and replaced by the billion dollar development of the Dallas Arts District and the humble computer sale was pushed west under the Woodall Rogers Freeway Overpass.

It’s still there. Even though it is only a vague shadow of its former self, bargains can still be had at the sale. I have had good luck buying headphones, networking gear, wireless keyboards, small obscure components, and especially, flat screen monitors.

monitors

There were several vendors with tables full of used flat screen monitors.

So down we went. We didn’t want to deal with the heat so we left as early as I could haul myself out of bed – about seven in the morning (it was still plenty hot, though the rumbling overpass overhead provides some well-needed shade) and everything was in full swing. Years ago, it would take an hour to walk from one end to the other, but now it is so compact that within ten minutes we had bought a nice used Dell flat screen monitor for forty bucks. We walked around a bit more and Candy bought a beat up old tool box for next to nothing, but I didn’t see anything else that caught my eye.

Working

It's a lot of work sometimes to get this old crap up and functioning.

There are still bargains. I you need a computer, you can buy a useful desktop for a hundred dollars or so. These are obviously corporate units that have been replaced and refurbished – they should work fine. There are still vendors selling top-quality stuff at a discount and there is still a big area where it looks like someone dumped a huge pile of random junk – if you are brave enough you can dig through this and find a jewel – something that you never knew you couldn’t live without.

Instead of a breakfast sausage truck there is a taco truck, and they seemed to be making the most money. But it is nice to know that there are still enough die-hard nerds to keep the sale alive, if barely.

Geezers

A couple of experience computer bargain hunters work their way through the many bins of parts. Coffee helps.