Things Both Old and New

"...like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old" (Matt. 13:52)

Maybe it is my age catching up with me, but the older I get the more I have learned to value old but still usable things.

Take, for example, computers. I have, at last count, about ten of them. Only one of them, my very first, was bought new. Several others were purchased second-hand, while the rest were pretty much rescued from the scrap heap. A couple of these latter didn't work and were acquired for their spare parts. A couple of others were, or still are, perfectly good machines, except that their original owners began to see them as obsolete and went out and purchased brand new ones. Seems they couldn't live without having the very latest. But unfortunately for them (and fortunately for people like me) the very latest will, in a couple of years time, be considered equally obsolete.

Yet as technology advances, so do the multitude of problems that come with it. Many people today worry as to whether or not their computers are "Y2K compliant" and wonder if on January 1, 2000 their carefully cherished machines are going to "crash". On the contrary, after testing my computers -- that is, the ones that are still running -- I found that they are, for the most part, Y2K indifferent. Seems that their old automatic date and time chips have long ceased functioning, or in the case of my oldest machines, never had such fancy functions to begin with. The oldest ones actually required you to look at a calendar and clock, something that social workers require the denizens of old-folks homes to do each day lest they lose their grip on reality -- which makes you wonder if that hasn't already happened to the people who have designed the latest machines.

So too when it comes to software "bugs". The more complicated the software, the more things that can (and generally do) go wrong. The simpler things are, the more apt they are to accomplish their job without fail. I learned most of these lessons long ago, long before computers came on the scene. One of these lessons came through my experience with cameras, the other from my experience with cars.

Regarding the first, about 25 years ago, after my second-hand 35mm single-lens reflex camera was stolen, I was able to buy, with the insurance money, a new one that was the very latest hit on the market. But to my dismay, within a year or two, the same company came out with a successor full of automatic gizmos, and then another and still another within a few years of that. Within a decade my beautiful new camera was considered hopelessly behind the times and when, some years later, it needed repair, there was a serious question as to whether its continued (and questioned) usefulness justified the cost. But since I really couldn't afford another new one, I reluctantly got the old one fixed. So imagine my surprise when, about five years later I began to take up astrophotography as a hobby and learned, much to my amazement, that my old "obsolete" camera is in high demand as the premier instrument for this purpose, since all those automatic features are perfectly useless, cumbersome, and often a downright nuisance when taking the long timed exposures that astrophotography requires.

And as for cars, I drive a 15-year-old 4WD "sport utility vehicle" whose mechanical innards have barely advanced beyond those of the World War II Jeep. Some might consider my Cherokee as amounting to a self-propelled version of "The Antique Road Show"! Yet, when some 20 years ago American Motors hired a Frenchman (who else when you're looking for real taste?) to design a body that reflected the company's tradition of a kind of macho boxiness, he seems to have come up with a design that has become a classic and is now being manufactured world- wide, much coveted by American suburbanites, Chinese Communist functionaries, and Russian gangsters, with a look that is being imitated, not as successfully in my estimation, by all the competition. So why fork out over twenty-grand (if I had it) for a new one when for less than what I'd probably have to pay in insurance on a new one, I can keep this old classic look-alike operating reasonably well?

Then there is my old Ford 8N tractor, which not only looks like something out of the 1940's but actually is (the 8Ns being the postwar 1948 update of the prewar model 9N that came out in 1939). I picked it up at a farmer's auction for $1500. The design is so simple and reliable and easily repairable that one organization has been collecting them to ship overseas to African farmers. Or if I simply chose to sell it, it would probably bring close to twice what I paid for it -- which was, in turn, nearly twice what it cost back in 1948. Yes, I know the engine needs overhauling as it both burns and leaks oil badly, but in the meantime, it serves as a very handy incinerator of used Jeep crankcase oil. Not a recommended practice, I know, but in the dozen or so years I've had the old thing, I've noticed no diminishment of its power to push around snow or drag logs out of the woods. So again, why look for something slicker or newer, as long as this one accomplishes its job?

Many may object to the philosophy expressed here. After all, what would happen to the economy if more people acted like me? No doubt manufacturing and sales of new equipment would decline in proportion to servicing and repair. But would that be all bad? I hardly think so, especially when you consider how hard it is to get a new car, or anything rather complicated, properly fixed nowadays and when disposal of cast-off equipment and not easily recyclable trash (not to mention mountains of garbage) has become one of the major problems of contemporary life. We are, all too readily, a "throw-away" civilization, if indeed, civilization and disposability are not a contradiction in terms. Culture accumulates. You cannot have any true conservatism when nothing is kept around long enough to need conserving.

I do not want to go overboard or seem fanatic about this. Progress is also part of culture, and a civilization will certainly stagnate unless it innovates. I probably would not have taken the time or effort involved to muse on this subject were it not for the computer "hard-ware" and the word-processing "software" that makes such musing and writing a relative breeze. But at the same time, I could have written this just as easily on the first computer I bought about 17 years ago, as on the one I'm using now. The only difference is that with this one I can forward the manuscript to an editor electronically in a form where he or she can easily make corrections without retyping it -- immeasurably improving the chances that such musing like this will end up in print.

This essay will probably turn out to be the last that I write on this 10-year old computer, a monster that once sat in its own closet in a travel agency, and which had to be reclaimed by them for a short time when their newer, fancier one succumbed to a network virus. With my next computer (a 4-year-old one donated by a CPA who, fearing the ravages of the millennial turnover, recently updated his office) it will be easier to send this out to the whole world-wide-web for people to think about and to forget about picky editors, or cutting down more trees to produce more paper or grinding more stuff up to brew more ink. But all that is provided that the newer one, with its still greater complexity, doesn't succumb to the Y2K bug!

10/17/99


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