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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

http://www.arrl.org/hamfests.html <- has a search feature

http://web.mit.edu/w1gsl/Public/ne-fleas <- 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 to me.

#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 'net.

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 and Debian.

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. :)

-Dee :)

All art and text (c) 1996-2004 Dee Dreslough unless otherwise noted.
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