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Wikipedia defines retrocomputing as simple as

Retrocomputing is the use of older computer hardware and software in modern times.

(emphasis mine)

Browsing through the list of current questions and answers finds roughly 90% of questions relating to history of computing rather than practical use of old computers. ("why was something done this or that way", or "what was the first computer to ..." instead of "How do I resurrect my dead Apple II").

In-your-face question: Does this site want to be the home of the armchair amateur computer historian or the practical user of historic equipment?

  • 3
    Thank you for asking. I was happy when I first found this Stack Exchange, but was quickly turned away by all the pointless opinion based "Why did Acorn use Philips screws and not Torx?" and "What's the oldest X?". – pipe May 6 at 14:00
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    I don't have any problem with computer history questions, but I really dislike all these questions of the form, "Was there ever a...?" – Cody Gray May 6 at 17:37
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    Dumb question: Who exactly IS "a practical user of historic [computing] equipment", in 2019? I remember a comment from an engineering co-worker who was deeply into the history of WWI aviation (note, WWI not WWII) who once remarked in a conversation about internet forums, "if I have a question, there are about ten people in the world who might know the answer, and I already have all their email addresses, so why would I want to post the question on a website?" – alephzero May 7 at 8:50
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    @alephzero Running a, say, ZX Spectrum on your desk and having problems (or solutions) with it is somewhat different (I guess) from operating a WW1 plane. – tofro May 7 at 11:37
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    Well all I can say is that I love having a place to ask historical questions, and couldn't give a crap what it's name is. People use wrenches to hammer nails all the time, and I use retrocomputing to ask (and get great answers on) history. Is the name really that much of an issue? – Maury Markowitz May 8 at 13:00
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    You can't use your old Apple if it's dead... That's EE.SE; beginning with, How to trace a circuit. I don't like, What was the first... questions either, but I wouldn't want to see historical questions thrown out with the bathwater. "WHY" something was done some way, is SE in its purest form. – Mazura May 16 at 23:39
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The last time something like this was asked was almost three years ago. There was almost overwhelming support for history questions being on-topic during the very first few days of the site's existence.

A couple of months later, however, there was a Computing History proposal on Area 51. A question was asked about what to do about it, and there was much resulting discussion. The parts of the conversation that occurred on Area 51 Meta have been lost (but not deleted), but the main points were:

  • There was overlap between the sites; many of the questions proposed for Computing History were on-topic on Retrocomputing.
  • The site did have the potential to field history questions that we wouldn't consider on-topic here.
  • The proposal got closed due to inactivity so most of this is now moot.

These questions have been on-topic for a while; it's nothing new. I vote that we don't change it unless there's a pressing need; we can always just ask more applied questions to shift the focus back if we need to.

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    Note I'm not saying "History of Computing" should be banned as off-topic (it surely must be part of this site and it surely is somehow part of retrocomputing) - I'm just feeling sad about the fact that hands-on, "real" core retrocomputing questions are so much under-represented. – tofro May 4 at 11:19
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    @tofro Then ask more questions about that! If even you haven't got many questions about it, then think of one that a new hobbyist might have and self-answer. – wizzwizz4 May 4 at 11:25
  • I'm actually not willing to flood the site with questions I'd like to see when the user base thinks differently (which they apparently do). – tofro May 4 at 23:14
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    @tofro Don't flood! Three or four a week is probably the maximum that would be acceptable. Oh, and don't confuse what people want to see with what they think is good with what they want to ask. If it's on-topic, why not post it? You're part of the user base too. – wizzwizz4 May 5 at 8:30
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If a question doesn't interest you, ignore it and move on.

Different people have different opinions about what they want to see on this site.

There is a significant amount of questions about old games and gaming consoles. I have absolutely no interest in that, and personally feel those questions belong on Arqade. However, I just let those questions go.

Some questions are about refurbishing older hardware. In many of those cases, the fact that it involves a computing device is not really important (e.g. power supplies), and the question could have easily been asked on Electronics.SE.

@BrianH's answer is spot-on. This site gets way too few questions, and is in Beta Purgatory. It barely has 2000 questions. Limiting the scope of the site isn't going to help.

As much as some people might not like the history of computing questions, they contribute a significant number to the total. Eliminate them, and you wouldn't even have 1000 questions. These questions also draw people to the site, to ask and answer even more questions.

I do my part to help with the site's review queues, and there are way too many questions that are closed for the stupidest reasons:

  • Questions that are closed "off-topic" because it's not a subject that the voter is interested in.
  • Questions that are closed "unclear" or "too broad" because the voter doesn't like how the question is worded. Then help to improve the question, instead of killing it!
  • Questions that are closed "primarily opinion-based" (even when all of the answers are factual) because there may be more than one correct answer. Why are we slavishly devoted to the voting system, instead of being a repository of knowledge? Heaven forbid that your answer isn't #1!
  • In a few cases, I have felt that a closure was initiated by a person who didn't like a question because they didn't know how to answer it. That's just unethical.
  • Closing a question discourages the asker from posting more questions, especially new users. Sure, a question can be edited and re-opened, but how often has that been successful?

I'd say less than 5% of posted questions cannot somehow be made suitable for this site, yet the closure rate is far higher than that.

If you ever want to see this site get out of beta, you must:

  1. Be more open-minded about what is on-topic.
  2. If a question doesn't interest you, ignore it and move on.
  3. Try harder to improve the questions we have, instead of instinctively closing them.
  • If the main target of this site is "get out of "beta", I agree with your statement. But I'm afraid it's not. – tofro May 7 at 14:25
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    I think your 3 rules make perfect sense. Educators are usually instructed to give questioners the benefit of the doubt - "There are no stupid questions" is an axiom to professional educators. Simply asking a question shouldn't require users to steel themselves for pushback first... – Brian H May 7 at 14:55
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    I'm only a member of retrocomputitng because of the history of computing aspect. – another-dave May 15 at 22:45
  • This is a common thing with another site I moderate, there are almost two distinct user bases covering two different technologies, they just happen to be owned by the same vendor. That said, there is some cross-over and that makes it valuable to have all the questions in the one place. – Matt Lacey May 24 at 7:00
  • "Then help to improve the question, instead of killing it!" Yes, this. A lot of questions here (many of them mine!) start out being not very good and though the process of seeing seeing the initial answers it becomes more clear how to improve them. – Curt J. Sampson Sep 16 at 7:12
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I think it is helpful to consider this question in light of our statistics on Area 51, and the fact the site is stuck in "Beta Purgatory".

The site is statistically on the right track, EXCEPT for the fact that it does not receive nearly enough questions. This is why we won't escape Beta.

We may have pigeon-holed the site with the currently dominant history content, and therefore unwittingly created an environment where users don't contribute by asking questions about other Retrocomputing topics.

So, my answer is, No, we are not on the right track, as evidenced by the lack of questions. The OP may be highlighting a significant contributor to this shortcoming. It is clear to me that more questions that address a broader range of topics would be a positive change. So limiting the history questions resulting in even fewer questions would be decidedly bad, but contributing non-history questions so that more users will understand the range of topics on offer, would be decidedly good.

  • it does not receive nearly enough questions - marking some as OT and downvoting (which is happening as I type this) seem like the wrong solution if this is the problem. Metcalf would have something to say about that too. – Maury Markowitz May 8 at 14:50
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    I'm not sure why call it "Beta Purgatory" or as being something to escape from. There aren't any real disadvantages to being in beta, except we don't get a theme. (And getting a theme takes years anyways.) – Ross Ridge May 14 at 3:32
  • @RossRidge StackExchange appears to use measurable, objective criteria for releasing new sites from Beta. As is the usual meaning of the term, "Beta" in this case simply means "not mature". Being able to successfully attract and respond to a broad range of on-topic questions means the site is mature. So being objectively less than that implies all that is usually implied by the term "immature". – Brian H May 17 at 17:41
  • I'm not criticizing your use of the word Beta. Sure it would be nice to graduate and drop the Beta from the end of the site name, but describing it as a purgatory we need to escape from exaggerates the actual effect of being in beta, of being considered "immature" as you call it, has on the site. – Ross Ridge May 17 at 18:00
  • @BrianH I need to support Ross Ridge here, as criteria, just because they are measurable, are not always objective. A one size fits all solution is exacty one that will be less than good for most. In our case, we exceed some of the criteria by far, which even more shows how rough that measurement is. Calling it immature and piling even more down pressure by applying negative wording doesn't really fit. – Raffzahn May 17 at 22:43
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Wikipedia defines retrocomputing as simple as Retrocomputing is the use of older computer hardware and software in modern times.

It would be interesting to learn how some random Wiki edit could be related to this site - especially as there are so many different way of doing 'Retro' as there are people

Browsing through the list of current questions and answers finds roughly 90% of questions relating to history of computing rather than practical use of old computers.

And history is not practical?

("why was something done this or that way", or "what was the first computer to ..." instead of "How do I resurrect my dead Apple II").

Well I have a hard time to consider the last one ("How do I resurrect my dead Apple II") really anything that would require a separate SE section at all, as it's just about plain (digital) electronics. There is noting retro not computing. The fact that an Apple II is some years old won't change it.

Similar I have a hard time to see how the "why was something done this or that way" question is not related to practical use. Or don't you think that asking for the reasoning to build a computer/device/program a certain way won't help to operate/restore/understand it?

After all, what is usage without knowledge? Noting more than button pressing!

I do agree that some of the "what was the first computer to ..." are rather pointless. Otherwise such questions may be a good way to learn about predecessors and investigate compatibility-issues due heritage. It might be hard to understand the qurks of an Apple IIc+ without learing hw it was done on a straight II.

Equally interesting is, that to my observation, the question trend is almost exactly the other way around. I noticed way too many borderline ('when was this optical mouse introduced') or unrelated ('Gotek configuration for a PC') questions creeping up.

In-your-face question: Does this site want to be the home of the armchair amateur computer historian or the practical user of historic equipment?

"Armchair Historian" ? Mind to explain that?

I think you're are trying to creating a dichotomy where there is none. Sure, I can imagine someone with knowledge about computing history without knowledge aboute computers and their workings and there might as well be such ivory tower historians (*1), but at the same time, I can not imagine someone serious into old computers without touching their history, inner workings and whereabouts.

So here are my two points: - Choosing the fashionable term 'Retro' which has not realy a good definition was maybe not the best choice, but it's as good as any other. - While I'm like you uneasy with some questions, I do not feel that RC.SE is a wrong compilation.


*1 - Well, there are. I remember one high level meeting of techno historian where two of them, in front of several dozend participants started to argue in an almost physical manner about the mindset of Zuse in relation to the Nazi government. I even have a hard time to fine any historical relevant aspects here, even less about his work ans engineer which the symposium was about. So yes, they are out there. Still, So far no sign of this kind of people on RC.SE.

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