category: Retro Tech

VHS Memories

VHS tapes

A recent episode of The Projection Booth podcast (one I started listening to because I’ve enjoyed Mike’s Cashiers du Cinemart magazine) focused on the subject of VHS. While most folks have moved way beyond VHS (and physical formats in general), the giant cassettes have made a comeback in recent years with new producers popping up and collectible tapes fetching hundreds and hundreds of dollars on eBay. How popular have they gotten? Enough for this episode to be over four hours long featuring interviews with directors of four separate documentaries in the works about VHS (ETA: a few weeks later, they did a 2 1/2 hour follow-up!). Having grown up on VHS, practically living at Medford’s mom-and-pop rental shop (first West Coast Video, then Couch Potatoes, which existed up until just a couple of years ago) and still owning a pretty sizable VHS collection, I was enthralled by this look back at the history of the format, the huge cultural impact it had allowing people to not only bring movies home to watch but to record content from television, and the recent resurgence the format has seen. One of the movies featured in the episode is Rewind This!, a film whose Kickstarter campaign I tossed a few bucks at a while back. It looks like it’s going to a fun flick, as does the last one featured in the episode, Plastic Movies Rewound. The latter will feature a 30-minute segement on forgotten and virutally unknown alternate formats that go way beyond Beta, Laserdisc, and Videodisc.

The Projection Booth solicited call-in contributions, so I shared my memories. It can be heard at about 42 minutes in, or being the egomaniac I am, I trimmed it down to just my portion so I could embed it here:

In the first story, I discuss my attempts at copying tapes as a teenager. I would rent a bunch of movies on the cheapest day of the week from the local video store and the copy the ones I didn’t have a chance to watch (or that I really liked) using a crappy portable VCR that I’d rent from the public library for $1. Unfortunately, thanks to annoying (but admittedly clever) copy protection schemes like Macrovision, copies would fade in and out making them barely watchable. (Side note: how can there be no videos on YouTube with examples of what copies of copy protected videos looked like?).

In the second story, I talk about Movie Mania at the former Pennsuaken Mart in New Jersey. Movie Mania still exists at the “new” mart in Willingboro, but I haven’t visited so I can’t compare it, but the original was a wonderful place where the most obscure titles could be found and if not found, ordered. Indeed, I special ordered both Anguish and the big box version of Zombie for significantly less that they would have cost me paying “Rental-Only” pricing.

I admit to having some level of nostalgia related to VHS, but it’s not so much for the format itself. After all, the movies released on VHS were rarely letterboxed (at least until near the end of the format’s lifecycle) and the quality was not-so-hot compared to the formats that replaced it. What I am nostalgic for is the community that surrounded the VHS era. I practically lived at West Coast Video (and later, Couch Potatoes) and any money that I earned that didn’t go to CDs from Tunes went to renting movies. And rarely did I rent the blockbuster of the day. Instead, I was renting catalog horror titles–the weirder the better–or old, mid-80s WWF tapes. Usually the local video shop didn’t hassle me about renting R-rated films at 15-years-old, but every so often I’d run into an overzealous new clerk that was adamant about being an upstanding citizen.

There was also the thrill of visiting video shops in new towns or, when I was in college, making a trip to TLA Video in Philly since it was near where my dad worked. Their selection blew my mind and started to introduce me to the more obscure titles by foreign directors that I loved. I’d watched Peter Jackson’s ultra-bloody Dead/Alive probably two dozen times on the screener copy my friend Dave gave me, but it wasn’t until TLA that I was able to see his earlier work like Bad Taste or the sick Meet the Feebles. Likewise for the harder-to-find (at the time) Argento and Fulci films and even more obscure arthouse flicks I was just starting to get into.

I won’t lie: I love being able to stream movies from Netflix at will or being able to watch random Weng Weng movies in full on YouTube, just like I wouldn’t give up my MP3 collection and music streaming subscription for anything. But I still appreciate physical formats and, even more, the community surrounding and experience of finding, renting, and buying movies (and music) at brick-and-mortar stores. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some sort of mini-resurgence of video stores in a few years the same way new record shops have started popping up. But, for now, I admit to longing a bit for the Friday night trip to the rental store to stock up on videos for weekend viewing.

Recently, I’ve been feeling a bit of an urge to revisit a lot of the old media that’s in my basement. For a while, the Normal Bias project has been underway, but I think I need to revisit my old VHSes. Perhaps a video series?

20 Years of the Web

Today marks 20 years since the web became publicly available. To celebrate, why not visit the web’s first page at its original URL?

I put my first page on the web a little over a year-and-a-half later, in December 1994 as a freshman at Mary Washington College, thanks in large part to help from Ernie Ackermann. Mine was the second student web site on the college’s server (John Forrest had #1, if I remember correctly) and before long was challenging the college’s own home page in terms of amount of traffic (hits, pageviews, bandwidth, I don’t remember). The page had a picture of Grover sitting on the toilet.

I took some time today to look around a the oldest saved version of my site, from 1996. Lots of hideous tiled backgrounds, amusing content, and memories are contained therein. Here are a few pages of more general interest:

The web was a very, very different place back then. I remember when all backgrounds were grey (you kids and your gentle CSS gradients, you have no idea how good you have it!), there was no chance you could separate style from content in any meaningful way, cgi-bin was a scary but magical place, BLINK was perfectly acceptable, HTML tags had to be uppercase (and closing tags? HAH!), <b> and <i> weren’t frowned upon, and advice like “upload your files using telnet and ZMODEM” made sense. Shoot, I remember freshman year that it wasn’t clear the web was really going to become something huge and I simultaneously published some content on a gopher site because more people at the school knew about it.

Over the past 18 1/2 years, I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of the web and make a living on it. While the feeling that I had in the mid-90s for the web is completely different from what I feel now, I’m still amazed every day at how the medium has grown and matured. If 1996 hideous-background-tiling me could see the 2013 web, he would be astonished at the beauty, the depth, and the mainstream acceptance it had gained. The web is still an awesome place to be.


Quasar (Klatu) the Robot


In the 1979 book Future Cities: Homes and Living into the 21st Century, these two pages outlined the “Living Room of the Future,” featuring a number of prescient technological predictions, including e-mail and flat-screen TVs. Among the less likely of the predictions was that there would be a “domestic robot [that] rolls in with drinks,” along with an interesting sidenote:

One robot, the Quasar, is already on sale in the USA. Reports indicate that it may be little more than a toy however, so it will be a few years before ‘Star Wars’ robots tramp through our homes.

Turns out, unsurprisingly, that this “robot” (actually named Klatu by its creator, Quasar Industries) was little more than a marketing gimmick that could “supposedly vacuum, dust, cook meals, walk the dog, and do the laundry,” despite the fact the technology to do any of these things wasn’t even close to existing:

After some research, I found that one of the division managers at Quasar had decided that they were going to sell a robot, dammit, and it didn’t matter that none of the technology they needed even existed at the time. That was a simple matter for the engineers to worry about. The robots that appeared in the media, in the meantime, were apparently radio-controlled by humans who just happened to be hanging around when the robot made an appearance. I even suspect that they might have had a guy in a suit for some of the things it did, although I’ve never seen that confirmed. After successfully scamming not only the public, but also his managers at Quasar, for many months, the guy apparently confessed that he pulled the whole idea out of his ass and then slunk off in humiliation, never to be heard from again.

A man named Tony Reichelt was the marketing push behind Klatu, described by an ex-Quasar Industries employee as “a lovable con-man – who really did love robots.” (This link also has a whole series of fascinating pictures of Klatu and other similar “promotional androids” of the time.)

I suspect Reichelt, wherever he wound up, probably looked at the Roomba when it debuted a decade ago and thought, “Klatu could do that.”

Will there be an AGATpad tablet device?

Oobject is serving up this great collection of 12 Soviet computers from the 1950s through the early 1990s:

Soviet computer manufacture had a promising beginning with devices such as the MESM, which when it was produced in 1950 was the first universally programmable computer in continental Europe. By today’s standards, you’d have to fill the Empire State Building full of MESMs to have the same processing power as an iPhone. Later Soviet block computers were invariably based on Western counterparts with a myriad of Sinclair Spectrum clones, an Apple II based machine, PC compatibles and later on, Vax based systems from Robotron in East Germany.

My favorite is the AGAT from 1983, a machine commissioned by the USSR Ministry of Radio that was “only partially compatible with Apple.” That monitor is something else! (And so is that color choice.)

Apparently, because of the lack of a source for a 6502 processor, they initially used a “partitioned 588 series” CPU that simulated 6502 instructions. Additionally, the ROM (presumably when they shifted to an actual 6502) still had Steve Wozniak’s name in memory. The unit was primarily used in school settings and had an available “Schkol’nitza” (“schoolgirl”) package to help teachers make use of it.

Curious about the AGAT computing experience? Of course there’s an emulator available.

He likes hoagies.

It’s not my first print publication, but it’s mighty close: the February 1988 edition of the Super Saturday Xpress, a photocopied newspaper created for a Saturday morning enrichment class about newspaper production. I was 12, in 7th grade, and my passion for writing about my obsessions was starting to form.

On the front page is my timely take on the Super Bowl that year. In the piece titled, “Super Bowl Disgrace,” I eloquently and impartially declare “This game was the WORST Super Bowl disgrace, except for the 1979 Super Bowl XIII when Pittsburgh beat Dallas.” Also provided is a handy sidebar of the most significant Super Bowl blowouts (nice touch, 12-year-old me!).

In “Scoops About Our Staff,” the paragraph about me helpfully shares, “He likes hoagies.” Indeed!

On the same page is an uncredited contribution that’s clearly mine: a capsule review of L.L. Cool J’s Bigger and Deffer. What exactly the difference was between a check plus and five checks, I’m not sure. And I clearly understood that James Todd Smith was trying to target the lucrative “12-23” age bracket with his release. This may have been my first published music review.

On the last page, I took out an ad (is that ethical?) to sell my homebrew software for the Apple II. Football (surely Tackle Smash Kill!!) is mentioned, as is wrestling, which I’d completely forgotten about. (Note to self: create a Youtube series of run-throughs for games I wrote as a kid.) I even offered readers quite the deal: “A free random number generator to give variety to your programs.”

4 Hours

When I bought this shirt, I wondered how long it would take wearing it before someone would “get” it. I’m happy to report that only four hours into day one, I got my first response to it.

I was sitting out by the lake reading at lunchtime when a guy walked by and says, “Awesome shirt! I love it!” I reacted with surprise that he actually understood it and he explained that he’s the VP of Marketing for a well-known tech firm located in the next building over.

“I’m helping put together a big 6,000 square foot Art of Video Games exhibit at the Smithsonian,” he told me.

“That’s amazing,” I replied and then we went back and forth in a game of Odyssey^2 game tennis.

“Remember the Lord of the Rings knock-off? And Wall Street?”

Pick Axe Pete?”

“Hell yeah! KC Munchkin!”

Which reminds me. I totally need to create a Pick Axe Pete t-shirt.