On November 25, 2023 I started research for this article about ArVid, a Russian-developed device for storing data on VHS tapes. I finally hit “publish” on Jan 21, 2024, almost 2 months later.
This post is a “behind the scenes” look at my research methods, and some general observations that didn’t make it into the article itself.
What prompted this research
I’ve seen the ArVid mentioned before in forum comments. It is a neat device and it comes up reliably when someone has the neat idea to store data on VHS tape. Turns out that many people had the same idea.
The last time I saw it mentioned, I went ahead and visited the English Wikipedia page for ArVid to learn more. There was remarkably little information on that page. I decided to go a little further and Google it – that was more fruitful because it brought up documents in Russian. Luckily, I can read Russian and saw an opportunity to collate information about this device into one spot.
This initiative had the “ideal profile” of a project for me: something where I know just enough about several separate worlds to create something completely unique. (In this case, it was knowledge of Russian, knowledge of tech and Internet research chops)
I started the writeup for the wrong reasons. I thought it would rank well on a particular social media website that I hang out on. Pandering to others’ interests is not a good impetus, so I had to keep checking whether the effort was worth it to me.
The official story I told myself to keep going: imagine that there is an archivist somewhere. She gets a trove of VHS tapes from a deceased person’s estate – but they’re not films. They’re some sort of glitchy visual snow. Where does she go to learn about these tapes? My post could be that place and could be the key to her unlocking this data!
Well, to wrap up this story, here is a catalogue of strange signals on VHS tape:
As I got deeper into the research I began to let go of the original motivation and started to have fun. (Don’t worry, I’m still a shallow clout chaser!).
This was my first time doing historical research from original sources, and compiling people’s recollections from forum & Youtube comments.
One big hurdle was in understanding some features of the Russian Internet. For example, the Yandex search engine has it’s own quirks and functions differently in English vs. Russian mode. Russians have their own equivalent of eBay and Craigslist (Avito / Youla) and their own equivalent of Facebook (VK). In turn, VK hosts videos that are not found on YouTube.
Two tools were valuable in my search through the Russian web. The first was the search engine Yandex – it catalogues a lot more Russian content than Google does. For example, it effectively surfaced content from the VK social network. The second tool was ChatGPT. I used the free 3.5 version to translate English phrases to Russian, and also to translate the ArVid FAQ from Russian to English. Using ChatGPT sped things up considerably and version 3.5 was impressively accurate in its translations.
The ArVid device was discussed online in the mid-90s, but this discussion wasn’t happening on forums or social media. It was happening on something called Newsgroups, and FidoNet. Thankfully, we have access to an archive of postings from that era through Google – here is the group that I relied on heavily. During my research, Google announced that it won’t be recording any new Usenet postings. It was funny because one of the reasons they cited for the decision was “spam” – and people in-the-know had something to say about that:
Google took over this treasure-trove Usenet database from DejaNews. But what will happen when Google is gone? Who will host these historical discussions when Google cuts this unprofitable boondoggle in favour of cost control?
Perhaps something like usenetarchives.com
These Newsgroups were only the most easily accessible part of the ArVid story. The part that was unreachable to me was content on BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems). These were computer systems connected to a phone modem. You’d dial them up, and be able to read “mail”, play games through “doors” and download files. They could support one user at a time. And the files hosted there are mostly lost to time.
There is no “Wayback Machine” or web archive for the content on BBSs, because they weren’t as easily reachable as websites on the web.
Well… there are some copies of this data. And it is fascinating to browse:
One of my goals was to gather as much ArVid-related software and lore as possible. This was challenging, because most sites from 1995-1999 are now gone or have changed significantly. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine was indispensable in my research, because it keeps copies of old webpages and files. One useful trick for old websites: enter the name of the website, then click on the “URLs” option to list all available files in the archive. Sort oldest to newest, and you’ll discover a variety of files + pages that you may not be able to find by clicking around on the homepage.
The most enjoyable part of my research was getting the “vibes” of the time. Post-communist Russia was a weird place in the early 90s.
There were webpages, like this one with pictures from 1996, that captured a sense of the time. Some of the pictures were puzzling. Like, for example, this picture of a police crackdown on an unauthorized market:
It’s pretty brutal, right?
Except… why is someone allowed to take a picture of a masked policeman manhandling a guy? And what is that older guy in charge doing? Is he carrying a baggie of groceries while his boys beat up the merchants?
It was tough to find pictures of what a computer store looked like in the mid-90s. I suspect the reason is that these stores weren’t glamorous. This was a time where gangsters extorted anyone who looked successful, so it made sense to locate a store in a dumpy basement. Here are some relevant videos I did find:
I attempted to find print advertisements for the ArVid device. It was challenging to find scans of Russian tech magazines from the 90s. But I did end up finding articles and scans from two publications:
1994-1995 “Video ACC” (Корона Видео-Асс) games magazine (copy of the file on my site, lower-res than torrent)
The graphics & old tech magazines, especially, evoked a wistful nostalgia for a place I’ve never been to. The graphic design, the kooky illustrations, the CLOTHES!
But I can never get a true feeling for the times by watching videos, reading magazines and recollections on forums. It wasn’t a pleasant time. Russians aren’t pleasant people. The period of 1993-1998 was incredibly unstable, with inflation running at least 200% each year. The Soviet Union broke apart and Russia was suddenly adapting to Capitalism.
Computers were unaffordable to the vast majority of people: as a “PC gamer” you’d be more likely to play on your office computer after hours than on a machine you owned.
It was also a violent time. I don’t have a grasp of the dangers that computer entrepreneurs faced. The closest I can come is my own family’s experience of the time: in 1996 we were living outside the former USSR. My mother got a call from her brother. “I’m here, pick me up”. He was at the airport – unannounced. As far as I gathered, he was running stolen cars from Germany into Ukraine. He nodded off behind the wheel and wrecked one of the cars… now he was in debt to local criminals and had to lay low.
You see a neat finished article, and it’s easy to think that it sprang forth in its finished form. That’s not the case. The research for the ArVid article was fun but writing the article was brutal.
I had trouble structuring it: do I present it in terms of a story, do I present it as dry technical information, something else? I wanted to make it appealing to a general audience, because isn’t it neat that you can fit 2 Gigs of data on this VHS your family used to record Start Trek off the TV?… but it turned out that I’m from the last generation that actually held a VHS tape in their hands. It’s tough to explain this neat device to someone who only has a hazy idea of what a VCR is. What helped was sharing my challenge with others and getting some great recommendations from them.
The other challenge was that I just kept researching more and more as I was finalizing the drafts. More questions came up, I needed more screenshots etc. This made the article stronger but, at the time, it felt like the finish line kept getting pushed forward each time.
I have 2 young kids and a full time job, so writing had to happen in the evenings and whatever scraps of time I could find. Towards the end I sacrificed sleep in order to stay in the flow and keep working. It felt awful to make such slow progress. What kept me going was the fact that this experience is totally normal. Writers describe it as “you’ll hate the thing by the time you’re finished”. This is the “labour” part of writing and it doesn’t feel fun.
If you’re struggling to find time to write, or “finishing” feels awful, then know that you’re not alone.
Food for thought
Is it a “success” to build a business that only runs for 4-5 years?
The ArVid, as a product, was manufactured from about 1993 to 1998. Is that a “successful” product? Obviously, it had enough sales that it made sense to continue making and improving it. It was solving a problem, albeit for a niche group of super-techies. I see the ArVid as a successful product. But, if you had a crystal ball, would you embark on creating a product if you knew it will die in 5 years?
Your effort could amount to nothing
Data storage on VHS was one of the more successful approaches to storage, because it used an existing standard. There were quite a few “dead end” storage technologies. Watch this 108 Rare and Bizarre Media Types video from The 8-Bit Guy, and you’ll see a whole lot of other storage technologies that went absolutely nowhere.
So much research and manufacturing effort went into creating the read/write devices and media. Think of all the real people, creating physical products in the real world. But those products never went anywhere. This glimpse into the world of “lost” media types is a reminder that what we’re working on diligently today may not have any meaning in the future.
Perhaps it’s fine to solve a problem for today without worrying about the bigger legacy of your work?
Advertisements – an important source of information
I tried to find prices for computers and floppy disks from the 90s, in order to get context about the affordability of ArVid and alternatives. The best sources for this data were magazine ads. It tells you something about the nature of archives: you have no clue why a person from the future might need this information. They might be looking at prices, as part of economic research. They might be looking at graphic design, for inspiration from the past. They might even be looking for writing examples for training their LLM, because the world has been swamped by LLM-generated junk content that can’t be used for training 👽
Techies aren’t preserving their magazines and culture
I was well aware of “link rot” when it comes to old websites disintegrating over time. The Web Archive is a stopgap measure against that. But I also saw that tech magazines are becoming lost. A lot of this content is impossible to find on the open Web.
Specifically, I noticed that the Russian technology weekly Computerra and the Western Dr. Dobb’s Journal are 2 publications who’s older articles never come up in web searches. (This prompted me to host Computerra content and Dr. Dobb’s as an archive on my site… Not bad for something that started as vapid social-media hustling).
If techies – who have the necessary technical skill – are not preserving the key journals of their own field, then what hope do other fields have for preserving key publications? Who’s going to preserve the main quilting journal? The dog-fancy journal from the 80s? The grocer’s industry chronicle?
The situation is dire, but I have a message for you (yes YOU): regardless of your technical skill, you are the best hope for preserving the media that matters to you. Just go for it. It is ridiculously easy to preserve this stuff because nobody else is making an effort. Regular people are preserving lost anime videos, preserving direct-mail electronics catalogues, and archiving e-mailing lists.
I’m serious. If you need help with preserving media you care about, email me at jacob at this site and I will assist you.
Here is one bootleg advert from the 90-s. People were selling stuffed VHS tapes for Amiga, same way as C64’s turbo tape compilations on audio cassettes. 200 MB on 4 hour tape, 150 disks. Never tried it, had no Amiga nor C64 at the time. But remembered it as an extremely awesome thing.“Cybermodo” at Lemon 64 forums