Monday, March 09, 2009

The Norwegian blue diskette

This is ex-data

“I knew he was trouble the moment I saw him walk in. It's a kind of sixth sense that you develop when you're in tech support.”

Lawrence and I were sitting in a Sacramento restaurant to fuel up the hour before a computer club meeting. I was a mini-bureaucrat in one of the state's mini-bureaucracies and Lawrence worked for a university. It was 1986 and we had converged on the capital city from different directions for some user group fun. A motley crew of regulars and semi-regulars would convene each month for burgers and sandwiches before taking in the featured speaker of the month and playing the usual “can-you-top-this?” game during the Q&A. Tale-swapping before the meetings was another regular feature and Lawrence had the floor.

I was not immediately impressed with Lawrence's story. Wasn't nearly everyone who walked into a tech-support office an occasion of trouble?

“But you must be used to that, Lawrence.” I said. “Don't you get weird problems all the time when you work tech support? And it must be even worse doing tech support at a university. Lots more opportunity for wacky cock-ups by clever people doing stupid things.”

Lawrence grimaced.

“Well, yeah,” he admitted. “That was certainly the case with this guy. He was a teaching assistant in the economics department and he had a data problem.”

A diskette problem, to be specific. In the high-spirited early days of personal computing, the Apple II and the IBM PC had established the 5¼-inch floppy diskette as the standard digital medium. By the time of Lawrence's incident, the newer 3½-inch was catching on, popularized by the Macintosh and newer model PCs. That's what the hapless grad student had in his hand when he visited the tech-support office.

“Here,” he told Lawrence, handing him the diskette. “I need you to recover the data from this PC disk.”

Lawrence took the diskette and looked it over. There was no obvious damage to it. He carried it over to a desktop computer that sported an array of different disk drives, inserted it into a 3½-inch drive and typed a command to list the disk's directory.

Error message.

That was only to be expected. Lawrence ran Norton Utilities on it. He tried to scan the diskette's sectors for recoverable data. After several minutes with several different diagnostic software tools, Lawrence ejected the diskette and handed it back to the teaching assistant.

“This,” he declared, “is a dead diskette. The directory is nonexistent and the bytes on it are indistinguishable from gibberish. Sorry. I couldn't recover anything at all. That happens sometimes when a disk really gets scrambled.”

The grad student was aghast.

“You don't understand,” the TA said. “You have to fix the disk. It has the gradebook for Economics 101 on it. I need the grades for the professor.”

“Sorry, but perhaps you don't understand,” rejoined Lawrence. “The data has passed on. It is no more. I can't recover what's not there. You are simply going to have to dig up your backup copy.”

A moment of silence became uncomfortably prolonged. Finally the student spoke.

“Um. This is the only copy.”

Lawrence gave him a weary look.

“Okay. Then you have no digital copy. You're going to have to re-enter all the scores from the last time you printed them out and recreate the gradebook from scratch.”

Now the grad student looked completely devastated.

“But there is no print-out! I was using the disk to prepare a grade list to post in the classroom before finals. The professor wanted to let students know their current grades going into finals week. That's when the disk crashed and I got a read-error from the computer. We didn't put up any previous grade reports. There's no other disk and there's no print-out. That's why you have to fix this disk. You just have to!”

Lawrence regarded the graduate student assistant with long-suffering patience.

“This is tech support. We do technical work. We don't perform miracles. I can't recover what no longer exists.”

The TA left Lawrence's office with his head bowed and shoulders slumped, the useless diskette clutched in one hand. A moment later he heard the sudden sound of the diskette's plastic case shattering against the concrete wall of the corridor and the slam of the door behind the departing TA.

“Rather dramatic,” I said to Lawrence as he finished his story. Other people at the table were grinning at its conclusion.

“Shortly thereafter I got a call from the Econ 101 professor complaining that I had failed to help his TA. I had to explain all over to him that you can't get data from a scrambled diskette. He was particularly upset because there was only one week left in the quarter and all the scores from the previous eight or nine weeks had been on the diskette.”

“So what did they do for grades?”

“That I don't know. No one told me. It I were to guess, though, I'd bet there were a lot of students who got surprisingly good grades in that section of Econ 101.”

I thought about it a second.

“Yeah, I wouldn't take that bet. I think you're right. It was the professor's safest option. Generous grades would prevent any student from filing a complaint and causing the department chair to adjudicate the dispute and ask for the grade records. We could have a bunch of econ students out there who got passing grades they never earned.”

And later they all went to work in the financial sector.


dance said...

I'm not great at backing up daily, but I do email myself some files after every round of grade-entering. Because I sure do not want to be in that place.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I'm not sure there's any evidence that the ones who earned their grades do much better ... or at all. That's a very fuzzy discipline.

(two jump drives, and

Kristian said...

Where does Norway come into the story/

Peter Lund said...

"Remarkable bird, the Norwegian Blue, idn'it, ay? Beautiful plumage!"