Incredible Shrinking Computer Shelf

Patterns in Tech Change

Personal tech evolves fast. Today’s newest gadget will be second best in six months, and in a few years it won’t be able to keep up. At least, that’s how it seems when you’re looking at advertisements for the latest thing.

There are larger patterns that happen so slowly that they are hard to notice. One of those patterns jumped out at me while walking into a Best Buy the other day.


My son is a hacker, in the “can jury-rig tech to keep it ticking” sense. This comes from him being an avid video game player, and me not buying computers for him frequently. I do often inherit computers. This happens when a machine is broken enough that the former owners decide replace it. Such broken machines are often donated to me. I guess people find the look of glee on my face satisfying. Plus they know I make sure their personal / financial info is properly wiped from their old machine.

This led to me having a large Computer Graveyard (as my wife called it.) My son learned that when something broke, or when his computer just wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the latest games, he could often dive into the Graveyard, exhume some parts (Igor style) and solve the issue. It wasn’t as easy (and rarely as successful) as buying a whole new rig, but he learned a lot about how computers work, and how to keep them working.

The resulting contraptions often had strange quirks that he needed to work around, but that was part of the fun. My favorite example was a situation where he found that his computer could work with a particularly nifty video card, but only if he reached into the computer and reseated the video card’s power connection at just the right moment in the boot process. It would have been pretty hard for anyone else to have gotten the timing just right on that one.

The Incredible Shrinking PC Shelf

We moved recently, and the Computer Graveyard didn’t come with us. Okay, I did smuggle a few things into boxes, but most of it went to the e-waste center. Thus when my son needed to add a hard drive and some RAM, we headed to the nearest Best Buy to pick some up.

Once upon a time, there was a big computer section at such stores. There’d be a whole aisle of internal hard drives, plus another aisle of RAM. Now most of the store is cell phones and tablets, with a sizeable chunk of floor space for video game consoles. The computers — both Apple and Windows — are relegated to a shrinking island way over to the side near the back. There were only a handful of internal disks to pick from, and we were lucky to find the variety of RAM we needed.

That’s when it struck me. This had happened before, maybe a quarter century ago.

The Incredible Shrinking Apple Shelf

Apple IIcWhen I was a teen, I had an Apple IIc. Computer stores always had a software section, split into “Apple” and “PC”. There was a time when it was a pretty even split, but the Apple section shrank over time as IBM-compatible machines became more popular. Eventually, the Apple Section became the Apple Shelf. Back then, before the internet made it easy to connect with retailers outside my city, it felt like I was trapped on the wrong side of technological history.

Not Dead Yet

There’s a temptation to use hyperbole to describe things, which is why we frequently read and hear about “the death of the PC” or “the death of rock and roll” or whatever. It makes the speaker’s / writer’s message sound more exciting. Similar to injecting profanity into a sentence. But in the age of the internet, technologies never really die. They may get to the point where only a “few” use them.  Worldwide, “few” can mean a thousand people, or a million people. Now all those people can find each other and communicate, regardless of geography. Their individual experiences won’t be “my local store doesn’t carry it any more, so I can’t get it.” Desktop computers might get to that point some day, but it will be a slow process.


Zip Disk Data Recovery: How To Do It

I had a collection of zip disks that contained data from the 1990’s. Now it’s 2016, and after some trial and error, most of the data has been recovered. The background on why I was doing this, and what didn’t work for me, is documented in a previous post. This post explains what did work for me.

A friendly warning to the reader: I’m a tinkerer, and a maniacally obsessive part of me enjoys devoting whole days to coming up with solutions to strange technical problems. For most people, if you have obsolete media lying around, it’s probably best to hire a pro (more on that here). Or if you’re lucky enough to be on good terms with a maniacal tinkerer, ask them nicely to help you out. If they say yes, it’s going to cost them time and maybe money, so make sure to bribe them with wine, or horchata, or whatever they’re into.

For fellow maniacs who are nutty enough spend time on this sort of thing, the following may be helpful.

USB To The Rescue

Zip drives with a modern USB plug are still available. It has been two decades since these were the newest thing, but media has a way of sticking around. Wikipedia has a writeup on why people still use these things — ranging from “it’s the best way to move data between really old computers” to an aviation company that still uses zips to distribute navigation databases.

I’m not sure what I’d think if I boarded an airliner and saw the captain using a zip disk. Given that some of the planes we fly around in today were designed around the same time as the zip disk, maybe it makes sense sense.

At the moment, USB zip drives cost anywhere from $60 to $200, depending on if it’s new and whether it’s the 100MB, 200MB, or 750MB variety. I got lucky and got a used one on Amazon for around $60.

Trusty Mac Mini

Tucked into a box of gear that “may be useful some day” was a mac mini. Its name is Awesomebot7000. I inherited it when a friend’s company went out of business. It worked well with the zip drive, unlike other rigs I had tried with the same drive.

The Good, The Bad, The Unrecoverable

I was able to recover a little over half the files. A few of the disks would not even mount (show up.) Many of the disks that remained had at least one file that was at least partially unreadable. Copying the files to Awesomebot7000’s disk by dragging rarely worked; it seems OS X would start copying the files, and as soon as it ran into a single bit it could not read, it would give up without saving any of the data it could read. Which seems like a silly way to write a copying routine. Manually dragging individual files would have been impractical because of the number of files involved.

What worked for me was:

rsync -r -v /Volumes/Zip\ Disk/Desktop DF/ ~/Desktop/recovered/

This worked best for me (compared to cp and scp) because it would give problem files a few tries before giving up. Some trial and error showed that files that had problems would consistently have problems, whether I was using rsync, cp, or scp. There were cases where one of the files would be partially copied by one of those methods, while other methods could copy none of a problem file. I failed to take notes on which got the partial copies of bad files, but those partial copies were rarely useful anyway.

Because of the retries involved, copying a 100MB zip disk to the local HD could take quite a while, especially on badly degraded disks. “Quite a while” meaning “longer than my attention span”, because I’d generally go find something else to do while rsync did its thing. It felt like anywhere from 5 minutes per disk to most of an hour.

Click of Death

Legend has it that zip drives are subject to a sort of hardware virus called “The Click of Death”. These tales say that if an infected disk is inserted into a zip drive, the zip drive will make a clicking noise, and from thence forth the drive will be infected. Once the drive is infected, any disks inserted into that drive will be infected…spreading the problem without limit. These stories also say that the Click of Death instantly and totally obliterates all data on infected disks.

There was quite a hubbub about this, with Iomega saying it was a myth, and irate customers filing a class action lawsuit against Iomega in 1998. There are still people today who believe that zip disks and their manufacturers are bad and evil, respectively.

Back in the 90s, I used zip disks extensively and never experienced the rumored hardware virus. Reading these old disks in 2016, I would hear a click noise when the drive was having trouble reading a disk. That got me worried; was this new USB zip drive erasing / infecting all my disks?

As an experiment, after letting the drive click a bunch of times trying to read an unreadable disk, I put in a series of “good” disks that had been read previously. I’d then copy the files from the good disks…and the good disks never became unreadable. The files that had been readable before remained readable. If I put the unreadable disk back in, the drive would click like before. I could even isolate it to specific files; try to read a single unreadable file, and the drive would do the clicking thing. But try to read a “good” file on the same disk, and it could be read repeatedly.

The drive is semi transparent, so I was able to watch the mechanism during this process. I’m pretty sure that click is just the drive resetting to try again. There are parts that “click back” into a default position.

So if you hear your zip drive clicking, don’t freak out. It might just be trying again. Or it might be that Click of Death thing…but probably not. See the Wikipedia writeup if you want the nitty-gritty on the Click of Death. There is some good theory there to explain what some people experienced. I had an experience with SyQuest cartridges once that suggests a different way that a whole stack of magnetic media can be rendered useless, without the drive being at fault.


So I got most of my files back. Turns out I had duplicated many of the files over multiple disks, so there was some sorting to be done. Now they’re backed up in the cloud. I’ll probably never use most of these files again (Marathon game saves, for example.) But there was novelty in seeing some things I had not thought about in a long time, like a web site I made in 1998, and collection of illustrations for print ads.

I’m happy to have accomplished this, and am now comfortable sending the zip disks to the recycling center. The drive will go to a friend who who has a similar project to do. And I’ll have one less box of baggage to keep track of.


Zip Disk Data Recovery: How Not To Do It

Zip disks seemed pretty awesome in the 90’s. They could hold 100 megabytes, which was excellent compared to the 1 megabyte or so a 3.5″ floppy could hold. It was especially nifty for me, because I was doing illustration and graphic design at the time, and trying to get my art to the local print shop on floppy disks was a challenge.

Back then, I used Mac. Just as they do now, Apple tended to make each generation of hardware incompatible with whatever plugged into their last generation of hardware, so few years passed before that zip drive, with its SCSI interface, was in a box with all those precious zip disks.

Digital Archaeology

Fast forward to 2016. Keeping this box of disks is not making my life better, but it would sure be nice to get at that old data. I was determined to either recover that data, or satisfy myself that it was beyond recovery. Once I had gone through that process, I would be ready to stop lugging that box around.

This blog entry is about the data recovery attempts that did not work out.

Data Recovery Services

Services like RetroFloppy will try to recover your data for you. All you have to do is mail your old disks / tapes / clay tablets to them and pay a bit of money. The prices are reasonable, especially if you just have a few disks. But I was in a do-it-yourself-ish mood. Plus, I had eighteen disks in the box. That could add up.

Power Mac G3

I want to talk about the Power Mac G3 for a moment. It is my favorite computer, ever. It was a handsome blue, it had plenty of room for expansion cards, and the motherboard was attached to a hinged door, making it super-convenient to get at components.

My first experiences with this computer were not entirely positive. As Apple still does today, they threw backward compatibility out the window with this generation of computers. It was annoying that it had no SCSI slots, so that none of my peripherals would plug into it. It used that new-fangled Ethernet networking instead of trusty ol’ AppleTalk, which made transferring my old files a pain. Plus I didn’t appreciate the new “USB” thing they were doing with the ports. But I got used to all that. I really liked the design…certainly cooler than the beige boxes Apple had been kicking out.  The motherboard being attached to a door made it easy to install all those new peripherals I’d have to buy.

One of those peripherals was an expansion card that gave me a SCSI port, so I could plug my old zip drive and printer into the new computer. SCSI devices each have a pair of ports in them, so that you only need one port in the computer. The zip drive plugged into the computer, the printer plugged into the zip drive, and there were probably a couple other devices in the chain that I’m forgetting. Good system (tho there were gotchas in the setup.)

This G3 had slept like Cthulhu in various garages and basements since needs moved me to other operating systems and hardware manufacturers. It was eventually buried under a pile of cast off technology (a pile which my wife called the “computer graveyard”.) In recent years, I jettisoned most of the computer graveyard, but I kept the G3. Now was the time dust it off and see if it could still operate that zip drive!

The answer was a resounding no. It would power on, but the disk made a distinctive clicking noise. My days as an IT guy told me the hard drive was a goner, even before the “could not find startup disk” icon appeared.

That was easily solved, because I still had a few IDE hard drives left (I admit it…part of that computer graveyard is still with me.) Plus I still had the system install CD. A swapped hard drive and disk insert later, it booted (see picture above.) I got to the desktop…and then it froze. No response from mouse or keyboard. I tried restarting…and it would not power on again. Some physical troubleshooting told me the power supply was kaput. Which was its right. Powering up one more time after a decade spent as an overly humid spider condo? You go power supply! You’re a hero.

I gazed for a moment at another, far more modern, computer with a power supply that might have done the job…and decided against it. Getting that power supply hooked up would take some time, even if it was 100% compatible. And I had no guarantee that the SCSI card would work, or that the zip drive was functional…it was time to try something else.

I lovingly closed up the remains of the G3, disconnected it, and put it in the car for a trip to the e-waste center. It had served with honor, and deserved its rest.

USB Zip Drive

Amazingly, Iomega still sells these drives! It turns out there are enough people using electronics from the 90s that there is a market for them. I’m guessing there are companies out there with warehoused boxes full of these disks? Just guessing.

I nabbed a USB zip drive from Amazon for around $60. Turns out that was a good deal. Looks like $100 – $200 is a pretty common price.

Zip drive on Ubuntu

Ubuntu is my go-to operating system now days. I’ve developed a lot of software over the past decade that was meant to run on Ubuntu servers, so using Ubuntu on my personal computer made certain kinds of testing easier. I figured I’d just plug the USB zip drive into my computer and whammo! Done.

But it was not to be. Couldn’t get the zip drive recognized by Ubuntu 16.04. Good thing I had other options.

Zip drive on Windows

I always keep a Windows machine handy. As a software developer, it’s important to be able to make sure things work on the operating system that has been dominating the market for years. At least, that’s my excuse. Really the main reason is the video games.

I plugged the drive in and presto! Windows recognized it right away! Then it offered to reformat the “unformatted” disks. Because these disks were formatted by Mac OS 8.5 … and Windows had no idea how to speak that dialect.

And so the saga continued

I still had options. Between being stubborn, and being an electronic pack rat, there were more avenues to explore. But that’s a topic for another blog post.