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SIGN OF THE TIMES: THE DECREASING VALUE OF "STUFF"

It is a sad realization that I grew up in deprivation. An era when "hand-me-downs" and "cast-offs" not only had value, they were much appreciated.

The local dump provided endless hours of entertainment. Shooting rats and other "varmints" with my BB-gun and locating various and sundry treasures to be salvaged, cleaned-up and put into functional service. 

A trip through the local salvage bin at General Telephone's local service yard was like being handed the keys to geek heaven. All of my friends had "forbidden" extension phones -- not that we spent any real time calling anybody -- but because they were fun to hook up. I was probably the only person on my block to have a multi-line call commander and speaker phone although we still had only one real telephone line -- but every room in the house had their own impromptu intercom.

Later the telephones gave way to old "teletypes" that we imagined had seen service in foreign newsrooms and big corporations who used Telex services. They were intensely mechanical and smelled wonderfully of lubricating oil when they grew hot from "clanking" out their messages. We used punched paper tape to crank out important "spy" messages to our friends and to records "special" information. One of my friends used his teletype to produce a "neighborhood" newsletter which he sold for a whole nickel. The contents were contained in about two-feet of yellow paper with the consistency of newsprint. Later the newer teletypes were used to fashion computer input terminals or connect to mainframe computers using "time-shared" access.

But the real treasures were the computer manuals and operating instructions for exotic technology which were obtained from dumpster diving and cast-offs by friendly local technicians.  I learned to program first in absolute machines language, then symbolic assembly languages and then in higher level languages like Fortran (Formula Translation). Programmers in local companies ran our programs after hours and we waited with great anticipation for days and possibly weeks for the output to be returned. The BASIC (Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) was still a few years off.

Books of all kinds were valuable treasures, to be hoarded, read and re-read, to be traded to others for other good and valuable considerations: a roll of wire, an aging radio or  radio tubes of all types -- (especially the good ones like the 12-volt series with exotic numbers like 12BE6, 12BA6,12AV6, 12AX7 and the 6-volt series like the 6GH8 and 6BE6)

Almost everybody I knew had a technical library of some sorts, a very large "junk box" filled with electronic parts and various and sundry treasures and the persistent desire to build something.

But we also had access to a variety of other entertainments. There was an airport next door (Clover Field AKA Santa Monica Airport) where you could trade your manual labor (mostly cleaning up other people's junk or washing and waxing planes) for plane rides in the Cessna 150's that were extremely common and used as flight school trainers. As for parental permission: the operative guideline was "what they didn't know didn't bother them." But, somehow, they knew you were having fun.

One of my neighbors was a Douglas Aircraft employee who invented the "PetriePool" built from riveted aluminum sheets and looked like a giant one-ended Airstream trailer. The pool was used for a number of television programs and it wasn't uncommon to find Lloyd Bridges (of Sea Hunt fame) fiddling around teaching kids how to swim when he had the time. You could easily sneak on to the relatively nearby movie lots of 20th Century Fox and MGM -- aided and abetted by friendly guards whom you assiduously cultivated (bribed) with bottles of soda.

But the real treasures were the hand-me-downs and cast-offs which provided endless hours of enjoyment and could be used as a form of currency when you wanted new things to play with.

Those days are gone...

At work, I am confronted with a small warehouse full of older computers, books and software. At home, all manners of older electronic devices and a collection of near-new books about recently employed technology. And the sad fact is that you can't find anyone interested in taking them off your hands for FREE.

Schools, for the most part, no longer have the budgets or the inclination to operate a "trade shop program" where you were allowed to take drafting, electric shop, wood shop, metal shop, auto shop and printing along with your academic classes.

For some strange reason, school systems almost demand that everybody be processed into an academic program -- no matter what they really want to do when they grow up. I learned more practical math from my shop teachers than I did in my math classes. "Measure many times, cut once" was the operative guideline. You learned to use tools and never were afraid of practical repairs. The point being that  there are little or no schools existing today to which you can donate your "valuable stuff."

Charities, likewise, seem to be similarly affected. Especially those big charities who formerly accepted all manner of used equipment and now are not willing to accept used computers or software. If it is not almost instantly convertible into money, they are no longer interested in your old stuff. The thought of salvaging parts to train workers to re-build older computers is not even a consideration.

Libraries were always willing to accept donations for their collections or to move them up or down the library system chain. Now they want popular novels and current books that can be sold in their "volunteer" book stores to raise cold, hard cash to be used for "unspecified" special projects and "themed" events. It is too much trouble to actually catalog a book (with library catalogs being distributed by third-party vendors) and place it on a shelf. And, of course, most real librarians have given way to a series of chief library clerks and their minions.

The days when the librarian gave you a lecture on the Dewey Decimal system and the use of a card catalog to research your subject has given way to printing out Wikipedia entries and other computerized research materials. The old card-catalogue drawers are now chi-chi antique decorator accent items -- no longer filled with knowledge, but filled with the odds and ends of real life.

School libraries, who were most appreciative of technical and business-related books, no longer will add anything that does not appear in their computerized catalog to their collections. And they also refuse to allow students to pick and choose among the FREE offerings as if it were too much trouble to set out a free book table or box next to the door.

Most libraries have become de facto computer access points and places to do your homework rather than adjuncts to learning.

Even the charities dealing with the poor and downtrodden in foreign lands no longer want older electronic devices and computer equipment or anything that is not in their native language.

So the dumps, no longer accessible to children due to our over-litigious society, continue to be filled with the detritus of daily living or where the material is shredded for their recycled raw material value.

Forget doing good ... it is now a matter of disposing of unneeded technology. Since most computers and other electronic devices are now classified as hazardous waste, you can't even dump them into the garbage can. Off to the politically correct recycling facility. In California, stores collect a $6 recycling fee when they sell the new computer... and it is anybody's guess as to what really happens to that money.

George Carlin on "Stuff" (contains strong language)

What can YOU do?

Think twice before buying the latest whiz-bang device which is desirable more for its status value than its functionality. The device with more features than you will ever use or even require. Decide whether or not the money can be better invested in your future, your family or even given to charity.

Think about reducing your personal clutter by deciding, in advance, to give up something similar in your burgeoning collection of stuff to make room for your new purchase.

Avoid being a packrat as you age. It is almost a universal fact of life that stuff accumulates -- manage your stuff before it manages you.

Enjoy your stuff as you impossibly wish for the return of the "good old days."

-- steve

Quote of the day: 

The easiest way for your children to learn about money is for you not to have any. - Katharine Whitehorn

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"The object in life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." -- Marcus Aurelius

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