NEW YORK -- The old Macintosh SE computer had sat collecting dust in my closet long enough.
If I didn't try to retrieve the data now from this relic, purchased in 1990, the task would likely only get more difficult. I'd learned as much researching an article on the short, unhappy life of digital formats.
What would it take to modernize and migrate the files - e-mail, college papers, "Melrose Place" drinking games from Usenet newsgroups - to my current computer, a three-year-old iMac?
First problem: While the SE, which I call Flunky, has a floppy drive, the iMac does not. But I do have a Windows XP laptop with a drive. Software exists for opening Mac disks on PCs, though it doesn't work with the SE's older formats.
Alas, newer Macs with drives can save files in PC format. So if I could find one, I could create disks for the Windows laptop, then network it with my Macs by installing the new Mac operating system, Jaguar.
Sounds simple enough.
I copied the files I wanted onto 59 floppy disks and took the 90-minute trip to my parents' home in New Jersey, where a Mac awaited.
After unpacking and installing the machine, including calling tech support (i.e. my brother, who writes skateboarding video games for a living), I had to fool the computer a bit.
Only high-density disks are sold these days. The SE uses disks of the same size but writes only in low- and double-density formats. The newer Mac couldn't make sense of them until I covered a small hole on one corner of each. For that, I used something extremely low-tech - address labels that come with junk mail with my name misspelled.
Next came the tedious part, copying everything onto my parents' Mac.
I formatted disks and copied everything back in Mac high-density and PC formats. I finished just in time to catch the train back home.
The PC disks worked, with one hitch.
They couldn't deal with the longer file names used by Macs. More upsetting was what I got after opening the files.
One file named "extortion notice" generated gibberish. Turns out I had used a fancy font that resembles letter cutouts from newspaper headlines.
From a file called "poem," I could make out fragments of "The Sounds of Sharples," an ode to our dining hall food.
Letters I had written using Word 3.0 gave me trouble on Word 97 (aka Word 8.0). Stray characters popped up. Apostrophes disappeared. Fun fonts were converted into boring cousins.
Word 3.0, meanwhile, crashed on newer Macs.
Drawings I had created on MacPaint 1.5 would not open at all using any of the graphics programs on the XP, iMac and on my 1997 PowerBook. I may have to print them out and scan them back in.
Oddly, the first file to give me no trouble at all was a GIF image of Newt Gingrich. Seems the file survived longer than he did as House speaker. I was also able to open files in plain text.
I'm far from done.
I've just recently tracked down a Jaz drive for some proprietary Iomega disks from about three years ago. And it looks like I'll have to pony up a minimum $250 if I want a data-retrieval company called Shaffstall Corp. to convert some 5-inch, Apple II disks from the 1980s.
I knew from the outset that modernizing my old files would be a tough chore.
And that is just the beginning.
After determining what I really want to keep, I'll have to convert each file to newer formats and check its integrity - formatting and otherwise.
I'll know now not to bother scanning my paper records into digital files. I'll also hold off getting a digital camera - negatives seem easier for reprints.
And, I won't wait another 10 years and five software generations to update my current files.
In the meantime, I'll check out one of my long-forgotten senior papers: "Brood parasites lay their eggs in the nests of ..."
Ah, on second thought, maybe not.
Anick Jesdanun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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