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Out of the jaws of floppy-disk defeat

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


Out of the jaws of floppy-disk defeat, a lesson in poetry
 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1984, The Syracuse Newspapers

As far as I can tell, this was written in 1984. It tells only part of the story of my floppy-disk disaster. Floppies have changed in the many years since this early article—they are encased in hard plastic, for one thing—and so have computers. The computer I was using at the time was an Atari 130XE, a model with 48 kilobytes of addressable memory for most software. (The rest of the 64K of base memory was cut off from most programs.) Some software programs took advantage of bank switching—the same technique used in what old-time DOS users know as expanded memory—and could address all the memory installed in the little Atari.

My 130XE had 578 kilobytes of RAM, an incredible amount for an 8-bit computer. My beloved Paper Clip word processor allowed me to store my entire spelling-checker dictionary in part of that RAM while giving me enough RAM left over for documents of hundreds of pages (I tested it up to 800 pages). What that meant to me was that my 8-bit Atari, using Paper Clip, was faster at word processing and spell checking than nearly any other personal computer available at that time. (Why? Because everything was done in RAM.)

I still own that 130XE. I don't use it any more. But I can't let it go.


It took human beings tens of thousands of years to progress from clay tablets to legal pads. The change was mostly for the better, especially for lawyers.

But the change from writing paper to its modern successor, the floppy disk, is happening much faster. This is also mostly for the better, but there is a vital distinction that has to be made here. Paper lasts a lot longer.

Paper can be spindled, folded and mutilated. Paper can be placed in odd places,such as on top of TV sets or in front of the radiator. Paper is rugged.

And paper is forgiving. As you can probably guess, I am heading gently into a tale, and it is going to be a sad one. So I had better start at the beginning.

Encouraged by the speed at which I could write using a computer word processor, I abandoned pencil and paper a couple of years ago. I gave my fancy electric typewriter to my daughter and stashed all my old notebooks on the top shelf of my closet.

Word processing, by itself, is truly a wondrous thing. I diskovered this the very first time I found out how easy it was to change one sentence or one paragraph without retyping an entire page. Words become unbound, freed from the restrictions of paper and ink.

But none of the glory of word processing would last beyond the flick of a computer's on-off switch without a storage device. For nearly all personal computer word-processing systems, that device is the common floppy disk.

The name is a misnomer, since the disk is not really floppy at all. It is, depending on your viewpoint, flexible (the manufacturer), which is a good thing; or bendable (the computer user), which is definitely bad. Basically, the floppy disk is round, usually five and one-fourth inches in diameter, coated with the same kind of magnetic material that covers cassette tape, and enclosed in a lubricated plastic jacket.

When it is snuggled into a disk drive, a floppy disk spins at about 300 rpm while a read-write head'' records or plays back computer data. The disk is just like a filing cabinet, with information stored in clearly defined folders'' called sectors.

However, unlike a filing cabinet's folders, which can be sorted by anyone with a minimum understanding of English, the floppy disk's sectors are indexed by a kind of code. This is the result of the way floppies are used; files that have been recorded can be erased, and the space the expunged files occupied can be used by other files.

If a new file is longer than the one it replaced, it will be recorded first in the space used by the erased file and then in a new space, which may be physically separate from the previous area. It is as if a person placing folders in a regular file cabinet ran out of places to put the files under C'' and so put some of them after the D'' entry, some between entries in the H'' folder, and others in the middle of the R'' file.

In a regular file cabinet, this would produce chaos, but the floppy disk contains a file map that shows where all the pieces of the individual files are stored.

This is a marvelous thing—when it works. When it doesn't, all of the files on the floppy disk might as well have been written in Aramaic and encoded in Venusian script. If the program that controls the disk's read-write head cannot follow that map—if, literally, it cannot tell when to go left and when to turn three paces to the right—all of the files are lost.

And that is just what happened to my simple little computer's reliable little disk drive. The VTOC—Volume Table of Contents—of the disk I was using last week suddenly became corrupted. As computer mavens say, the thing turned into garbage.

What disappeared into the shiny brown surface were 24 columns, including four for the coming month and three partly finished columns for the month after.

The loss is hardly catastrophic. The columns can be rewritten. What is worse than the loss of the labor of hundreds of hours is the embarrassment of not following my own advice. For years, I have encouraged computer users to make backup copies of all their floppy disks. I had backup copies of some of my disks, but not of that one.

The day that I lost the contents of that disk, I went to sleep with a solemn heart. I dreamed about electrons taking left and right turns, and got up half-awake and wrote something down on the pad I keep by my bed.

When I awoke, I saw these four lines on the paper:

To those of you with files at risk
I'd like to offer this advice:
The sturdy little floppy disk
Is not a permanent device.

By the way, does anyone have any spare legal pads?


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