Putting my Data Retrieval service to the test

Almost a year ago, I started (tentatively) offering a new Data Retrieval service. It went basically ignored for many months — which surprised me a bit, since the two main reasons that led me to offer this kind of service were (1) keeping my vintage hardware rolling, putting it to good use, and (2) because I kept hearing people complain about having stuff on old devices and media and being unable to retrieve it. (As a somewhat bitter aside, I was not surprised to notice a lack of interest for a project of mine: it seems to be a recurrent pattern in my online presence.)

But lately things have started moving, and so far I’ve successfully helped three people, either by extracting their data from obsolete media, or by converting data written by obsolete applications into something readable by more modern software.

Success story #1
Giuliano, an “avid reader of my blogs” as he wrote in his letter, is an Italian graphic designer who recently relocated in France, and after settling in his new home, he found a box of old stuff from his early days in his profession. Most of that stuff was on Iomega Zip disks, and he was able to retrieve it by borrowing a USB Zip drive from a friend. But then he found a couple of SyQuest 44 MB cartridges, and that proved to be a bit trickier, so he sent them to me to see what I could do.

The disks needed minor repairs, nothing that the old Norton Utilities 3.2 and FWB Hard Disk Toolkit couldn’t handle. For the data retrieval I used my SyQuest 5200c unit (that reads 44, 88 and 200 MB cartridges) connected to the Power Macintosh 9500/132; the files, mostly old Photoshop projects, were transferred directly to my MacBook Pro via Ethernet and made available for Giuliano in my Dropbox public folder. It was thrilling to see file creation dates such as October 1995 and January 1996 (it’s safe to assume that they were Photoshop 3 files), but even more thrilling was the moment in which I could open them and realise they were still fine and readable (I asked Giuliano permission to verify the data before making the files available for him).

Success story #2
This was, admittedly, a rather trivial affair. Stewart, another reader of this blog, wrote me asking for assistance in converting a bunch of old DocMaker files into something he could read again. “These were e-zines I created with another guy back in the Nineties. We uploaded them in my FTP server and then time went by and we kind of forgot about them. One day I was doing some spring cleaning in the archives and bam! I was back to memory lane. But since neither I nor my friend have old Macs now and our Intel Macs don’t run OS 9 or Classic, at the moment I have no way of reading that stuff. I realized it has sentimental value — it’s fine if you can’t give it back to me in a pretty state, I’m mostly interested in being able to read it.”

Stewart gave me access to his FTP server, and four years of e-zines were waiting for me — almost 50 files. Since Stewart was just interested in reading the contents, I figured the quickest way was to convert them in PDF format. There is no DocMaker-to-PDF utility that I know of, but I used PrintToPDF on my G4 Cube under Classic and got the job done. (As the name suggests, PrintToPDF is a printer driver that creates PDF files. It works in the Classic Mac OS only, or in the Classic Environment under Mac OS X, and you select it as the default printer in the Chooser; then you can ‘print’ PDFs from any application.) Sometimes a page break cut graphic elements in two, but the result was readable and that was the main goal. I uploaded the PDFs back on Stewart’s server and he was happy, and that’s the most important thing.

Success story #3
Nicola sent me a file, presumably generated by an old version of ClarisWorks a few years back, and containing a series of photo references. It didn’t contain any images, just (as I discovered in my investigation) a long array of records with descriptions of where the photo was taken and what was on the photo. It looked like a temp file, and when I opened it with a hex editor it just looked full of garbage. My first idea was to use AppleWorks to open or import it, but I didn’t have much luck; then I thought about FileMaker. So I fired up my old copy of FileMaker Pro 6 which, to my great satisfaction, found the file readable and offered to update it in a more recent format. It ended up perfectly usable in the end.


These little experiences made me realise once again the importance of so-called obsolete technology. When new media and new formats arrive, we have to keep up with them and constantly transfer our digital archives on up-to-date devices and media, but sometimes we haven’t got the time, the opportunity, or simply the level of organisation needed for the task — especially as our archives keep getting bigger. So, every now and then, something doesn’t get updated, gets lost in a move, or simply the machine where it was created stops working (or the operating system or the application gets updated and doesn’t offer enough backward compatibility) and data or media become ‘orphans’. That’s where vintage hardware comes into play.

There may be some plan to expand this kind of service in the future, so that it can definitely come out of the current ‘beta’ state, so stay tuned!

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