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Post-1987 Technology: You're Doin' It Wrong

A thing you have to understand about my parents: they were born and raised during the Great Depression. When people talk about having to make a single piece of coal last the whole winter or walking uphill both ways in huge snowdrifts to go to school — they really did. So they were imprinted early on with the idea that "buying something new" was only something that profligate culture-destroying fat-cats did, and that buying something new would surely cause the Earth to be destroyed in a ball of fire.

Thus it is that, as the Family Help Desk, laurie_robey and I are constantly being forced to try to get these amiable old fossils to work with technology that isn't at least 20 years old — usually without success. It's particularly difficult with my mother because she has an odd psychological quirk: on any topic, she believes the first thing she hears and it takes an act of congress to convince her that there may be other alternatives.

For instance, my Uncle Billy the Player Character happened to come around some years ago, when my mom was connecting to AOL via the modem, and the modem was on the blink for some reason. He pulled out a cellular modem that he just happened to have in his pocket (the same way he might happen to have a gun, a wristwatch with a laser beam, or the access codes for Air Force One in his pocket) and plugged it in.

So my mom was instantly imprinted on the idea that a cellular modem was what she should have if she ever got the opportunity. Of course, cable or even FiOS would be ten times cheaper, but she wasn't about to believe that until she got the bill. ("SCANDALOUS! Why is my cellular bill so high??? I think they must be trying to rip me off!") Anyway, we finally got her off of the cellular modem ("Can you use it for something? It seems a shame for all that money to go to waste." "No, mom, without an account tied to it, it's not worth the plastic it was made from.") and onto cable, but these days we have another problem:

The 5¼" floppy drive.

My mother has a bank vault full of 5¼" floppies, which contain everything from bootleg copies of "WordPerfect 5.0 for DOS" that she got from other government employees back in the '80s, to awful cheapy solitaire games that she loves, to all sorts of historical records from various genealogical societies. And she wants to access these things. But practically no computer that actually still runs can even mount a 5¼" floppy drive any more, even assuming that the magnetic media inside hasn't disintegrated by now.

This is not something my mother wishes to hear, so of course, she doesn't. No matter how many times we say it.

My mom had a computer with a 5¼" floppy drive on it, carefully Frankenboxed together by mammallamadevil, but of course she didn't take the opportunity to transfer the items off the floppies. Oh, she'd "get around to it eventually," of course, but that didn't fool anybody but herself. So naturally, the Frankenbox died, as computers will, and she still has the bank vault of 5¼" disks.

So now, every time I speak to my mom on the phone, the first or second topic of conversation is when I'm going to get her a 5¼" drive. I have one, the same drive from her previous machine actually, but it needs to be removed from that machine, taken over to her house, plugged into the new machine (assuming it even will), drivers have to be found (if they exist), and it needs to be mounted. This, as you might imagine, is an enormous song-and-dance routine that I am loathe to get into, especially when I haven't even had the time to, say, draw or write all week.

laurie_robey and I have scoured the internet for options. There are external USB floppy drives, and I'd grab one of those in a heartbeat — except that they're all 3½", not 5¼". I thought about getting one of those, cracking it open, then plugging the IDE cable from the 5¼" in where the cable for the 3½ was ... but I'm not convinced that would work and I don't want to waste the time and money on a failed gamble.

There are also services that will transfer old disks for you — at the cost of $15 a disk. Holy cats.

And like I say, there's no guarantee that the disks are even still readable. My parents' house, let us just say, is not the ideal archival environment. *cough*

So the problem remains. If any of my many tech-savvy LJ readers have a viable solution, I'd love to hear it. Meanwhile, it's looking more and more like I'm just going to have to bite the bullet and sacrifice an evening's productivity to going over to my parents' house and trying to shoehorn a 1987 floppy drive into a 2007 computer.

-The Gneech


( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 26th, 2009 03:54 pm (UTC)
beware that old floppies are not "IDE" they were FDD bus all unto itself.. Most new computers don't even have this hardware on the mobo anylonger, as most don't even have a floppy. Drives like ZIP and such might have gone IDE..

Those external USB floppies are not standard floppies in the mountings, they are usually directly embeded USB firmware on the circuit board to keep them as cheap as possible, so a) you may not be able to connect it physically and B) the firmware is prolly hard coded for 1.44M so trying to mount a 720 3.5 , or 5.25" 1.2 or 360's prolly won't happen. you may try finding an old 486 computer, which will still have a bios able to set FDD's, and then copy the floppies onto like a USB hard drive or something.
Sep. 26th, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC)
This.. 5 1/4 inch drives used a different connector than the 3.5" drives, so even if you had a motherboard with a FDD port on it, you won't be able to connect a 5 1/4 drive to it.

I'd say your mum's out of luck.
(Unless you want to go out and buy a working 486 or something)
Sep. 27th, 2009 01:59 am (UTC)
Not entirely true.

The only difference between 3.5" and 5 1/4" connectors was the 3.5" used pins and the 5 1/4" used an edge connector.

You used to be able to get an adapter between the two, though I don't know if you still can.
I suggest browsing the second-hand computer stores or (if you have some) go through some old computer cases, especially the ones that had both a 5 1/4 and 3.5 inch drives.
Sep. 26th, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC)
Hmm...yeah, I can sympathize about your parents man, but sort of...from the opposite way around. My mother's a technophile, but she's not really capable of understanding the technology. She would be the sort to buy a new Blu-Ray player, and not understand that she can now buy the discs in the pretty blue-tinged cases. One memorable example was when I was trying to talk her through a modem reset. I'd just gotten to the point where she cut the power to her modem and turned it back on.

"OK now Devvie, the cable light is flashing"

"What colour?"

"Yellow. Does this mean the cable's broken?"

"No, mum you probably just jogged it loose. I'll show you how to..."

"DICK!" My mother screeched into the living room "We're not going to have television for a few days!" (And they're on satellite!)

Anyways, yeah mate I know this problem with the floppy disk problem. I'm sorry to say most of them have probably degraded by now, particularly if they were stacked right next to each other. BUT - we do have an ancient beast of a DOS machine that lurks in our basement somewhere that just happens to have a 5 1/2 and a 3 1/2 inch floppy drive. Did you want me to see if it still works?
Sep. 26th, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC)
Oh, right, I forgot to mention that my old CS prof once said that if the floppies aren't working, if you put them in the freezer overnight and (VERY CAREFULLY) load them into the drive, they might yet work - but copy them ask quick as you possibly can!
Sep. 26th, 2009 07:06 pm (UTC)
same goes for hard drives . They stop working as soon as condensation sets in .

Then it dies , of course.
Sep. 27th, 2009 02:00 am (UTC)
I've heard that it's best to put the disk in a sealable freezer bag first, to keep excess moisture out.
Sep. 27th, 2009 03:50 am (UTC)
Oh, you're absolutely right, thank you very much for mentioning it! Or fill it with inert gas.
Sep. 26th, 2009 04:44 pm (UTC)
Actually, the most trivial solution might be to track down an old, functional computer on craigslist or something that has both a working 5.25 drive and a working 3.25 drive. Something from the 386 era would probably be your best bet.
Sep. 26th, 2009 06:13 pm (UTC)
since I'm headed out there..
I think you have a good idea here. Please remind me to ask the overgrown children since they DO have such machines hanging around.

Sep. 26th, 2009 07:02 pm (UTC)
Re: since I'm headed out there..
I have a small 486 that should have the facility to support such a device, though not in the case it is in.
Sep. 27th, 2009 11:26 am (UTC)
Yep... that is the best solution so far..

I cobbled together an old machine just last year for the boss, and installed a 5 1/4 into it. His wife also had something similar to you.. a big collection of recipes she wanted to resurrect on 5.25s .

There was some kinda sheer nostalgic techie joy in seeing DRIVE B appear in the list...
Sep. 26th, 2009 06:14 pm (UTC)
can this wait 3 weeks?
I can get in touch with the overgrown children and see if they have a working 386 that we can ship to VA, and I will help you (along with fixing the machine that I put together, I THINK, in 2005-2006).

Sep. 26th, 2009 06:38 pm (UTC)
My father's the same way - he learned how to use this stuff in the late 80's and never upgraded. And though he knows how to use Windows he feels more conformable using DOS. He still preferred to use Lotus 1-2-3 (with a 386 running dos and a large dot matrix printer) to print out huge spreadsheets of all his business properties. He also liked to use Wordstar for letters. Thankfully he switched over to 3 1/2 floppies in the 90's and most modern software can convert them.

Sep. 26th, 2009 11:11 pm (UTC)
You could try converting him to linux! ;)
Sep. 27th, 2009 08:59 pm (UTC)
Forget it, he's been working with computers at work back to the days of punch cards. Except for checking his e-mail he hardly touches his home PC anymore. I think he feels the PC is a office tool instead of also being a game and entertainment machine.
Sep. 26th, 2009 06:45 pm (UTC)
OMG. I'm sorry you have to deal with this... but it's hilarious. More stories about your parents & technology, please!
Sep. 26th, 2009 07:04 pm (UTC)
Geez . I mean it would complicated enough if they were 3 and a half floppies as pretty much no modern computer HAS a floppy drive in them anymore . But it had to be the 5 inches floppies on top of that .

Good luck with it man .

Sep. 26th, 2009 07:05 pm (UTC)
I'm going to make a very very strong suggestion here.

Frankenstein a computer to copy things. IN YOUR HOUSE.

Take your Mom's floppies home.

Copy them all, if they can, and put them on a CD.

Shred the floppies.

Tell your mom that it normally is a great expense ($15 a floppy) to copy, but you traded your tech skills with a person able to do so for you. (No need to elaborate you were the tradee -- depression age folks totally understand swapping for value.)

Tell her that the floppies were destroyed in the process because you used the strongest possible way to recover the media.

I hate lying to people. Even half-truthing. But your mother will probably have far more of an emotional loss if the data is never recovered.

Edited at 2009-09-26 07:06 pm (UTC)
Sep. 26th, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
I like this plan. :)

As for the lingering question of whether or not a "modern" PC can support 5.25" floppies -- it depends on the kind of PC. If it's a retail brand-name PC, such as a Dell or an HP, that was bought complete and ready-to-go out of the box, then it's true that the odds are against it having a floppy-drive controller these days.

However, if it's something that was built-to-order by a local computer shop, or which you assembled yourself from components bought from Fry's, Tiger Direct, Newegg, etc. -- then the motherboard very likely does still have an FDC connection, and the BIOS will still recognize a 5.25" drive if you can find one.
Sep. 26th, 2009 08:46 pm (UTC)
Errmmm... I hesitate to bring this up, but what kind of format is all that data even saved in? Obscure file formats may be an issue, and as for the programs, are you willing to teach your mom Dosbox or soemthing? Point being, getting the info off the floppies may only be the beginning of a new nightmare.
Sep. 26th, 2009 09:32 pm (UTC)
:::Grins::: I have a 386 with a working 5 1/4" drive...it's my last-resort backup computer since it has a modem, in case the hi-speed line is ever truly knackered...knock on wood.

The problem is, it has no capability to move the data to anything ELSE XD Other than 3.5" floppies. Never had a CD burner installed.

Edited at 2009-09-26 09:32 pm (UTC)
Sep. 26th, 2009 11:12 pm (UTC)
No network card? :|
Sep. 26th, 2009 11:34 pm (UTC)
If it has a built in modem maybe not, and if it's a 386 it's probably ISA, not PCI slots on the MB, so finding one might be a challenge.
Sep. 27th, 2009 02:11 am (UTC)

And the floppies might well still be readable. They actually ARE intended for a 20 year or so life span (whether they actually HAVE, of course, is another story)

However...what computer is she planning to run them on? I have nothing against WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS...it was THE standard for a very long time for word processing. But I doubt it would run on an XP machine, and even if it would, the FREE OpenOffice does a lot more.
Sep. 27th, 2009 02:52 am (UTC)
Send me an address and I'll send a 5.25" floppy drive and appropriate floppy cable for it. It'll work with any MB that has a floppy connector on it.
Sep. 27th, 2009 11:28 am (UTC)
wowwwwww..... *boggles* ... woooooooot!!
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )

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