In the town where I was born

I don’t have “get rich quick” schemes.

I kind of have “get moderately well-off, gradually” schemes.

The worst one has been buying shares. I got a tip that shares in Xero (the online accounting software company) would skyrocket. And they did, from about $6 to something like $40. But that was before I got around to buying them. By the time I bought them, they’d dropped to about $25. They subsequently fell to $15. Currently they’re sitting at $18. I didn’t buy a huge number of shares, but I’ll hold onto them for now rather than sell at a loss.

Here’s one of my crazier schemes:

Before Christmas I spotted this at one of the local toy shops: Lego set 21306: the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

Ooh. Alas, I didn’t get it for Christmas, but I thought maybe I’d go buy it for myself.

My mate Josh used to talk about Lego as an investment. Some Lego sets are very limited runs, and over time become quite valuable, especially if in the original box, unopened.

It got me thinking… maybe I should buy two? Keep one for myself; keep the other for, say, five years, and sell it on. I might make my money back, meaning the set I keep is free.

It had vanished from the toy shops. All the toy shops. Chains like Big W and Target had it listed on their web sites, but out of stock. I checked a bunch of them, including checking with a friend who runs a shop that sells Lego. No luck. All gone. No more coming.

Yellow Submarine Lego

My last hope was the official Lego online shop. The catch is you pay an eye-watering $25-35 for shipping.

But wait! Go above $200 and they waive the shipping fee! The set is $80, so including shipping I could order one for $110, two for $195, or three for $240. So I ordered three.

(Checking again now, the web site offers conflicting information — one page says $200, another says $100.)

The sets arrived today.

This may be my silliest investment scheme yet, though even now the set is listed on eBay at a “Buy it now” price of around $120. Who knows if they’re actually selling at that price.

I’ll let you know how it went in about five years.

Good riddance

Since I don’t have a transport-related post ready at the moment, here’s a quick one about music.

I’m loving the Sonos system. I’d been warned that buying extra speakers for it was addictive, and it’s true. I just got another Play:1. They’re the smallest of the range, but they still pack a punch. (All Sonos speakers are $50 off at the moment, until the end of the year… help me, I don’t need more, but may not be able to stop myself.)

But anyway…

I sometimes listen to Green Day at work when I’m trying to concentrate. It’s good for drowning out background noise.

I was remarking to my sons that “Time Of Your Life” is just about the only Green Day song you hear on many radio stations. It’s also perhaps the most un-Green Day like Green Day song.

They replied that they don’t like the song, it’s too overused, and too nice.

Nice? Ah… so I was able to tell them three things they perhaps didn’t know about the song, which might be reasons to like it.

1. It was used on the Seinfeld finale (well, the clipshow episode that aired with the finale). Even for millenials, Seinfeld is a hit, so that’s worth some brownie points.

2. On the album recording, if you listen carefully from the beginning, you’ll hear Billie Joe starts playing, hit a couple of wrong notes, then utter an expletive before starting again.

3. It’s not called “Time Of Your Life”. Its full name is actually: “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”, which puts a completely different spin on it. Indeed, Billie Joe Armstrong wrote it in anger when his girlfriend broke up with him and moved overseas.

Does this make it unsuitable for end of school celebrations and funerals and the like? Probably not. Wikipedia: To the band’s surprise, the song became a hit at prom dances. … Billie Joe Armstrong remarked that, in retrospect, the lyrics make sense when viewed that way. “The people that you grew up and braved the trials of high school with will always hold a special place. Through all the BS of high school you hope that your friends had the time of their life, and that’s what the song is talking about”.

Also amusing: the song’s style is quite unlike the rest of the Nimrod album. Songfacts says: The song was such a sonic departure for the band that record stores reported a high rate of returns from customers who purchased the Nimrod album expecting similar songs.

But in any case, my sons decided they had a new-found respect for the song.

The lesson here? Sometimes things aren’t quite what they seem at first glance.

Back to the arcades?

Every so often I’ll splash out on a new toy for myself. Last year it was a new camera. The year before was a hifi. The year before (just over two years ago in fact) that was an iPad Mini.

Those paying attention will know that I had considered adding a multi-room music setup to the hifi. I ended up buying a couple of Sonos speakers, which have been great.

Here’s another idea that some may consider a bit “out there”.

Nostalgia is a powerful force. I was in a bookshop the other week looking at the Ladybird spoof book on mid-life crisis. (There are some pretty funny titles in this series.)

One manifestation is for people to buy one or more big nostalgic objects. Something tangible from their past. Unlike the people in the book, I’m not about to buy an old car* or a guitar.

(*My actual car is a 2000 Astra. Old enough to be old, but not old enough to be a classic. It probably needs replacing in the next few years, but for now meets my minimal driving needs.)

I remember going to a party in about 1992 somewhere near Riversdale station, and the focal point of the room was a fully-fledged working pinball machine.

I was never much of a pinball person, but this oozed cool. No, back in the day, I played arcade game machines.

Hmmm. What if I got an arcade game machine?

WarGames: David plays a Galaga arcade machine
Pic from the movie: WarGames

Types of cabinet

Apparently there were once 1.5 million machines in North America alone. I don’t know how many there might have been in Australia, but I’d guess it would have certainly been in the tens of thousands.

What happened to them all? We don’t know. Some of them got gutted and re-used, but some are still around, and come up for sale quite regularly on eBay and Gumtree and elsewhere.

Arcade game found in a forest, near Pemberton, Western Australia

The styles vary… doing a little research, I found there is a myriad of choices.

  • Stand-up — the “traditional” machine we (or at least I) used to stand up to play in the arcades, milk bars, etc. Almost as tall as an adult.
  • Cocktail — like a low table that you sit at on a stool, these got the name because you could rest your drinks on them. I was never that keen on these, as the controls are at the wrong angle to play some games well, and you end up bending your neck to look down onto the screen.
  • Low boy — these seem to be common these days, but I don’t remember them back then. Like a stand-up machine, but the machine is smaller (particularly with regard to height) and the screen is angled a bit lower. Many seem to be linked to Australian distributor Leisure and Allied Industries (known in Aussie arcade gaming circles as LAI for short).

Old vs new

The various styles have gone through several permutations over the years, and you see them all on sale from time to time.

  • early 80s-early 90s – probably the traditional layout, MDF and/or wood. Some of the liveries are very distinctive. Varying conditions; some have been gloriously restored, some not. Some have been modified.
  • late 90s – sometime close to the end of the 20th century, the style seemed to change to a kind of blobby plastic shape, known as “candy”. Very unappealing to my eyes, they combine the worst of the stand-up models in being quite bulky, but players have to sit down in front of them, like a cocktail cabinet. Possibly the lower height might have been due to growing awareness of disability and access issues.
  • reproduction models – usually try to mimic the early 80s models, but some are stylised to the point of, again, being quite unappealing to me in terms of nostalgia value.
  • a subgroup of the reproduction models is the table-top versions, which are little more than a miniaturised version that sits on a bar or table. Again, not my cup of tea.

The older, vintage machines often have coin slots, though most people who have these games at home set the machines to free play.

They’re also in varying states of repair of course. Some people are expert at restoring them, and a whole cottage industry has grown up around it. Parts are surprisingly easy to obtain — even things you’d think are pretty obscure nowadays like CRT monitor chassis and coin mechanisms are available from suppliers in Australia. That said, I’m not sure I’d have the knowledge or the time to take anything major on.

WarGames: David plays a Galaga arcade machine
Pic from the movie: WarGames. Standing desks are not a new concept!

The games

And then there’s the game software itself.

  • Genuine PCBs (Printed Circuit Boards), one game per PCB. This is the only way to play the genuine article. The older ones had custom connections to the controls and the screen; many of the newer ones from the 90s onwards have a JAMMA connection — a standard interface thought up by the Japan Amusement Machine and Marketing Association to make it easier for arcade owners to convert a machine from game to game. But basically they are wired-up for one game at a time. PCBs are found on the secondhand market from time to time.
  • Inside some cabinets are PCs running MAME — which emulates arcade hardware, allowing many games to be emulated.
  • There are also 60-in-1 JAMMA boards that you can plug in (and variations with different numbers of games). It turns out these are just small computers that run MAME too. Some are known to be underpowered for specific games (Gyruss has been highlighted as problematic on some boards), which could be frustrating.

The limitation on multi-game setups is that arcade games were written to either a vertical (portrait) or horizontal (landscape) screen. Cabinets were designed to be reconfigured if required, but it means a limit on which games you can play easily. This means you won’t find Donkey Kong, Ms Pacman and Galaga (vertical) on the same machine as Moon Patrol, Joust and Popeye (horizontal).

Original cabinets of course had CRTs for screens, some of which are now unreliable and need repair. Some old machines have had LCD replacements — most of the new/reproduction cabinets have LCDs, for a clearer but less-authentic experience.

eBay and Gumtree regularly have ads for various boards, cases, parts and fully-fledged machines. The going price for a genuine vintage machine seems to be from about $500 upwards, depending heavily on the condition.

You see some advertised at much higher prices, up to $2000 for a vintage machine, but they don’t seem to be selling. Apart from vintage machines selling frequently in the $600-800 range, you can get a very passable classic design reproduction for about $1000; I would think few would want to pay $2000 for a decidedly average original. That said, there are more elaborate and rare machines, such as sit-in models for driving games or Star Wars, which are probably quite reasonably advertised for several thousand dollars.

From all my rambling, as you can tell, I’ve done rather too much research on this.

Could it even be a good investment? Tony Temple (who writes an awesome blog around arcade machine restoration, culture and history) notes that prices are steadily increasing, particularly outside the USA where cabinets in good condition are getting rarer.

But I suspect you’d have to be incredibly lucky to count on making money this way — and confine yourself to immaculately restored genuine machines dedicated to their original game.

I really don’t know if buying something like this is a good idea. In fact it might be totally ridiculous. But I’m not going to pretend I’m not tempted. I’ve got a corner of one room with crap in it that might look quite good with an arcade machine instead. But I’d have to clean up that corner first.

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Further reading:

A bit of pedantry

I can be a bit of a pedant, so this photo caption in Saturday’s Age caught my eye:

Picture of Patrick McCaughey in The Age 23/7/2016

“Former NGV director Patrick McCaughey” pictured in 1986 — so was he the former NGV director back then?

No — the article text makes it clear he was the director in 1986.

There’s a simple way of conveying this in the text, and it’s not just me — it turns out National Geographic has a style guide which recommends:

Do not use former when reference is made to something done while a person held a position; then may be used

(My emphasis)

Not to single out The Age here — I’ve noticed “former” being used when “then” is more appropriate in a lot of stories from various media outlets recently.

Interestingly I couldn’t find anything about this in the online style guides from The Guardian, The Economist, Griffith University, or the BBC.

Fairfax has its own style guide, and there’s also the Australian Commonwealth Printing Office style manual — but neither of these are online. I might try and hunt these down in a library.

Perhaps only NatGeo and I care about this?

But the meaning of words matter. They should be chosen carefully.

Regardless of my pedantry, the article about the 1986 theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman, and the accompanying account of then Chief Conservator Thomas Dixon, are a great read. I wonder if we’ll ever know what actually happened.