Ciao Quadra

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For years and years, we’ve had several old, unused computers haunting the place. Our first machines, PC clones from the late ’80s, are long gone. The oldest of the still-resident collection was our Macintosh Quadra, which had a manufacturer’s date of July 23, 1994, stamped on it. It came with a 250 MB hard drive and 8 MB of RAM, and it ran a new version of the Mac OS, System 7. It was an estimable desktop and, with memory and software upgrades and a 1 GB external hard drive, stayed in daily service through late 2000. By then other members of the family had gotten much newer Windows machines — because of the wider software choice, mainly. I eventually got a Dell laptop that weighed about 8 pounds and was faster and more modern than the Mac in about every other way and could take advantage of our new broadband Internet connection. So, just about the time Al Gore was winning the 2000 election, the Quadra was consigned to unplugged status.

And there it sat, year after year. There was stuff on it that I was sure I’d get around to transferring onto some media or other and saving for posterity. Old email and document files full of my past brilliance. Tax returns. And lots of other material I’m sure I would have pored over and pondered for hours if not weeks. But with each passing year it seemed like a more and more complicated and less and less convenient operation to hook everything back up and deal with it. Eventually the Quadra got moved out to our weather-tight but temperature-uncontrolled shed. Every time I’d see it out there I’d think about those reams of incredibly clever things, whatever they were, sitting on the hard drive. Then I’d shut the door and lock it behind me.

Today, for no other reason than it is spring break, Kate decided to clear out some of our accumulated junk. The old computers were in her way first and made their way into our dining room. The plan was to take them down to an electronics recycling place down by the freeway, but we were still concerned about any readable data on the hard drives. We weighed the merits of various ways to erase them. The recyclers wanted $30 per drive to wipe them using some powerful electromagnet. I suggested running over the computer cases with the drives in them. That idea was vetoed. I suggested putting the drives in a big bucket and submerging them in water, but even as I said that I wasn’t sure that would ruin the drives since they’re pretty tightly shut.

The method of destruction we finally hit upon was to remove the hard drives from the computers and open their cases. Simple exposure to regular Earth air in a non-clean-room environment would corrupt them. This method worked fine with the Quadra, because the manufacturer used Phillips screws to close the case (the other drives used those funny Torx-head screws).

The pictures above (click on them for larger versions) show what we found when we got the box open. It was a little hard to remember that I was looking at mass-produced merchandise; the inner workings were unexpectedly plain and beautiful in a simple, straightforward way. Then the anthropomorphizing kicked in: those few bits of machinery were intermediaries in a lot of letters, stories and explorations. Exposing that disk, and thus killing it, made me feel a little bit like a vandal.

But also relieved. I never would have retrieved anything from the Quadra, so I can cross that chore off my list. And I got off my little pang of destruction pretty quickly: I “compromised” the data on the other two hard drives we had here slamming them into a concrete patio floor a couple of times each. Then we took the whole mess down to the recyclers.

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