MiniTutorial - HamFests!
(Aka Swapfests, aka Electronics Fleamarkets)
I run into a lot of students and other financially-challenged folk
who find it hard to stay on the 'net sometimes. Well, in terms of accessing
the net (getting a cable modem, etc), I can't be much help, but I have
become a bit of a scrounger when it comes to finding cheap (and I mean
CHEAP - $20, $30) working computers to use as terminals to the 'net.
These aren't dream systems by any means, but they will allow you to
dial up and get back on the net to participate in your MUSHing/Mooing/Mudding/IRC/WebBoards/Chats/Websurfing.
STEP ONE - Find your local HAMFEST
<- has a search feature
<- Has a list of New England Fleas
What, praytell, is a Hamfest? Does it involve pork? Oh,
how I wish...but no. (Although, the sausage sandwiches at the Flea
at MIT are to die for! At this point, since my house is full of
old PI's and PII's and parts already, I go to that show just for the
sausage sandwiches. Word of caution though: The coffee will kill you.
Skip the coffee. Really. No kidding.)
These shows started as Ham Radio rallies/shows where people could buy
and sell electronics. Computers, being electronical in nature, have
ended up there. Now you can find anything from electronics bits and
pieces from the turn of the century, to military-specification laser
equipment and opticals, motors and controllers for things like making
Battlebots, to...my favorite...old computers and parts from any era.
STEP TWO - Go to the Hamfest
How to Shop at a Hamfest
The show I go to most often is the Flea at MIT, but my good friend
Ian goes to lots of Hamfests all over the region and this was his advice
#1 - Cash! Cash is the coin of the realm, from what I've seen.
Bring lots of small bills and then some $20's depending on what you're
in the market for. I usually go with about $50 to $60 bucks, but I've
gone with as little as $20 and still had a great time.
#2 - Haggle! Be ready to haggle a bit if you want a lower price
-- you *can* haggle. That's the other really fun thing about Hamfests.
They have this weird open-air-market-in-Bali-meets-Star-Wars-Canteena
thing going on about them. A little psychology can go far at a hamfest
too. If you see two things on a table that you like, you can often shave
several dollars off the price by offering to buy both but with about
20-25% lower on the combined price. Have your cash out in your hand,
visible, while you haggle. This may cause the seller to be more excited
(seeing the money right there, and thinking about all the junk he won't
have to haul home if you buy it...)
#3 - Know the Language! Tested = works. Untested = Broken. Not
everyone is honest and you'll be taking some risks, but generally, folks
are honest. If you have misgivings, try to get a card or contact info
for the person you're buying from. Soemtimes they'll make good if it
turns out something you bought didn't work.
#4 - Spend the Day! At the start of the day, the good stuff
hasn't been snatched up yet. At MiT, the Swapfest starts at 9 and ends
by about 1 or 2. Food is available for sale, and it's GREAT food, so
you can make a very pleasant day of it. We try to get there at 8:30
and get in to see the really cool stuff before it gets bought and carted
off (like this parabolic mirror that when it caught the sunlight, you
could hold a piece of paper up at the focus point and it would instantly
burst into flames! Fun!) And, there's not just electronics. I got a
set of real dental tools to use for sculpture, and there's lots of raw
materials - tubes, pipes, wires, do-dads - that are great for art. I
got a beautiful gem-stone-button calculator for my daughter for $1,
and an AM/FM radio for free too, once. :)
At the end of the day, you're going to see prices start to really drop,
and FREE STUFF getting put out in the front of tables, or at
a little area down by the exit. I have gotten 2 perfectly good WORKING
14" MONITORS form the free pile, and my friend Ian got several
cables worth $80-$100 EACH from a box in a parking lot marked 'Free'.
Folks don't know what they have, oftentimes.
If you're really just there to get cheap and free stuff and are crunched
for time, just go from noon to 2... but I like to spend the whole day
just browsing and savoring the experience.
STEP 3 - Get your Goodies home and Test 'em Out!
Be Ready for Surprises when you get home! Good and bad. I have
had $60 machines come home and turn out to be end-tables (like my HP
Vectra -- bastard who sold it to me was a lying sack of...well, you
know.) And, I've had $20 purchases turn out to be solid gold (like that
happy little pentium I have humming away upstairs. It was in complete
working order, from the CD-ROM and network card, 64 megs of RAM right
down to the 1 gig hard drive. TWENTY FREAKIN' BUCKS!)
Plug it all in and see if it works. If it does, you're golden! You
can get back on the 'net and use this computer as a backup until you
can get a serious system back online.
They almost always have some outdated version of Windows on them...
Usually Windows 95 or Windows 3.1. This is enough to get you on the
If it doesn't have an operating system, be sure to pick up a copy of
Debian or FreeBSD or some other Linux based operating system at the
show. At MIT, there's a table where folks are selling the open source
OSs. I recommend FreeBSD because it requires so little RAM to run (8
megs to install, 4 to run), but I've heard great things about Mandrake
That's it! :)
So, there ya have it. MIT's last hamfest of the year is going to be
next weekend, Sunday October 20th. I'll be there. I'll be the short
lady with the sausage sandwich and no coffee. :)