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Computer Stupidities

Floppy Abuse

Floppy disks routinely undergo severe ordeals by owners who do not know how to treat them or even, in fact, understand what and why they are. One would think, in a world where audio cassettes and music CDs are mainstream, people would understand that floppy disks are a similar medium. Some do. Some don't.

A customer saw me handling some floppies, and remarked, "How do they get the words small enough to fit on there?"

A company at which I once worked replaced their existing clones and XTs with PS/2s. Users were informed to convert their data to 3 1/2 inch diskettes. One user didn't replace everything. Not to worry, as she just folded the 5 1/4 inch floppy in half and jammed it into the 3 1/2 inch drive.

When one of the computer labs upgraded from Apple IIe computers to Macs, one student came to me because she was having problems with the new computers. She had "reformatted" her 5 1/2" disks by trimming them down with a pair of scissors so that they would fit into the 3 1/2" drives.

My coworker came over to my cubicle and held out the magnetic disk he'd ripped out of a 3.5 inch floppy drive and said, "Does it look like this has any bad or missing sectors to you?" He sounded angry.

Half-wondering if he was serious, I said, "No, it looks fine to me." The disk had been bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated.

He frowned and said, "That's what I thought," and proceeded to wipe it down with Windex. I later heard him asking another coworker what he thought all those grooves on there might be.

I work as a technician and manager for a local sales and repair shop regarding computers and computer hardware, in Oslo, Norway. One day I got a call from a woman who said she bought a ethernet card for her desktop computer. She was having problems installing the card and asked for help.

It seemed her problem was that she couldn't insert the driver disk for the card into her floppy drive. It sounded like a mechanical failure on the floppy drive to me, so I drove out to her house, figuring I'd be replacing the floppy drive.

When I got there, I took a look. I tried to insert a floppy, but something was in the way. The disk refused to go in, and the door on the drive was half open. I opened the case, took the floppy drive out, turned on my flashlight, and studied the damage more closely.

To my horror, I realized she bought a PCMCIA type ethernet card and thought the proper way to install one was to wedge it into the floppy drive.

Here's another for your web page -- as written by the culprit.

A few years back, I suffered an embarrassing lapse on one of those cornerstones of computing: putting a floppy disk in a disk drive. They had an environmental test lab with several BBC micros with 5 1/4" floppy drives. These machines were probably a decade old even then. I had some games on a floppy disk. I put the floppy in the machine, but no way could I get the machine to read the floppy. So I tried another machine. Same result. I didn't believe that all the floppy drives were faulty, so it had to be the loose nut at the keyboard. But I couldn't figure out what I'd forgotten. Actually, I had forgotten to turn the lever that closes the floppy drive and locks the disk in place.

What's mortifying is that in past years I'd used plenty of 5 1/4" floppy drives of that exact same type. I have no idea what happened to the "turn the lever to lock the floppy in the drive" clue that I used to have. It must have evaporated after a few years of disuse.

My Dad had brought home his laptop computer from work but couldn't get a floppy into the external drive. He called me over to fix it. The drive was sitting on the table upside down.

That one warms my heart every time I think of it.

A third year computer science student asked me why her file wouldn't save to her floppy.

I used to teach a high school computer class. Once I passed out some data disks and told the class, "Let's see what's on these disks." I looked up, and half the class was attempting to determine the contents of the disks by visual inspection.

There is nothing worse than the customer who will only believe his or her own self-diagnosis. A woman and her daughter were lingering around by the Macintosh display in our store. She told me a story that I never really grasped, but the general problem was that her daughter saved a report to a floppy using the Mac they had at home. Later, when they tried to read the file, they couldn't find it. They had put one disk in after another, but every directory looked just like the first disk. She KNEW what the problem was and would be damned if I would tell her different. SHE knew that the disks were all kept in a stack on the desk, and that the disks all had the same data as the first one because the topmost disk "leaked" onto the others. I told her the correct way to look for the lost file on a Mac, but she wasn't willing to accept my answer. She wandered off, and I went to help another customer. Fifteen minutes later, I noticed that she had a second salesman cornered and was making "leaking" gestures as she presumably told him the same story. He talked for a while and demonstrated how to read disk directories. She gave him the same blank stare that she gave me and wandered off again. Not good enough! Fifteen minutes later she had a THIRD salesman cornered and started going through her while story again. The salesman looked like he was ready to pop, so I stepped back in.

Knowing she'd never leave until we told her what she wanted to hear, I told her that after some further thought, I realized she was right. There was nothing that could be done to save her daughter's file, but in the future she should always keep each floppy in a ZipLoc bag to be sure they don't leak on each other in the future. She was instantly happy and went on her way. I'll make a bet she still keeps her disks in sealed plastic bags.

When I was in third grade or so, we learned some computer skills on an Apple ][e. One day, the software we were using wouldn't load on the computer (keep in mind this is a classroom full of 9 and 10 year olds), and the teacher said, "Oh, the window must be dirty," and proceeded to rub the window of the 5 1/4" diskette with her thumb and forefinger, smearing it badly. The entire class yelled at her to stop, but not before three or four brisk rubs. Apparently she thought the disk was a little dusty that morning, so she wiped it that way before the class got there, then again when it wouldn't load for the class.

When I was in seventh grade our principal substituted for our computer teacher. One morning we walked into class and to our horror she had all of our disks soaking in a big bin of soapy water. Earlier that morning she had been grading our assignments when she got an error message. She assumed that the disks were dirty, so she decided to clean them. When we explained to her that you can't get a disk wet, she said, "I didn't know that. Next time I'll just use a little Windex."

I got a call from a user installing a program on her Mac. Our software used a copy protection scheme that required the floppy to be write enabled.

The user put in the disk, hit the "double-click to install" icon and started the install. Then suddenly the disk popped out, and a message came up on screen saying, "At this point of the installation, you need to write-enable your disk. Please write-enable your disk and reinsert."

She looked at the disk. Shoved it back in. It popped back out. Same message on the screen. She tried again. Same result. So she took out the disk and looked at it. Then she picked up a pencil. She wrote "enable" on the disk. Then called tech support because it didn't work.

It's not uncommon for new computer users to try to put disks in the wrong drives -- ZIP disks in the floppy drive, floppies in the CD drive, etc -- but once I saw a student mix up three. He had put a 5 1/4" floppy in the CD drive, then tried to access it via the A: drive, which was the 3 1/2" drive.

Tech Support kept getting calls from this one client because any disk which was sent to the client became unreadable after one day in the field. A live technician was sent out. He asked what happened after the client received the disk. "I keep them right here, on the side of the file cabinet," he said. (Under a magnet!)

The computer was having problems reading the disk. I checked the disk and found that it had a coffee ring on it. I asked who set their coffee cup on it, and one guy raised his hand. I asked why, and he said, "Well, I didn't want to hurt the table."

One user, a gentleman quite unfamiliar with computers and very short on common sense, had a floppy disk that wouldn't stay in the disk drive. He called the help desk because his computer wasn't working as it normally did and wondered if someone could take a look at it.

The problem was his "solution" to his floppy disk problem. To get it to stay in, he used superglue to keep it in the drive.

A customer was having diskette problems. After trouble shooting for a while (magnets, heat, etc), tech asked the customer what else was being done with the diskette.

A customer complied with a tech's request to send in a copy of a defective diskette. A few days later, the tech received a letter from the customer along with a Xerox copy of the floppy.

My professor logged into the computer in our classroom to show us a spreadsheet she had set up on a floppy disk. She double clicked on the A: drive to get a directory listing, and she frowned and said, "These are not the right files."

So she closed the Explorer window, took the disk out, and logged off. Then she logged back in, put the disk back in, and double clicked on the A: drive again. She was astonished that the files still weren't the right ones.

We never did find out what happened to the disk she'd originally put the files on.

A floppy-based computer would not boot. I went to the site and discovered that the 5 1/4" floppy was inserted sideways.

An incident occurred when I worked as a computer support person. I stopped at a nearby building to say hi to co-worker. She was working on a laptop problem and had been working for over an hour trying to figure out why the thing didn't boot into Windows. It kept launching a game every time it was turned on or rebooted. I removed the floppy from the drive and rebooted. Relief, shock, and laughter occurred simultaneously.

The simplest of the problems can be the most memorable to me. Yet they can be very difficult to solve if you don't approach the problem at the most basic level.

Over the summer a couple years back, I was working for a small chemical company as a process engineer. The secretary in the area where I worked had recently acquired a new Macintosh computer and since I was one of the few who knew how to use it, I got called when ever there was trouble. Well, one time I got called to come over and help her. I got there and found out that she was having problems getting the 3 1/2" disk into the disk drive. It would only go about half way in and no further. I proceeded to check to see if there was already another disk in the drive and also used a paper clip to see if somehow the drive had gotten into the down position. I was stumped...until I looked down at the disk and realized that she had put the disk label entirely on the front of the disk instead of folding it around to the back like you're supposed to. In the process, she had literally taped the metal door shut so it wouldn't open when she tried to put the disk in. Apparently she had labeled a whole pack of disks that way.

I was working on a client's computer in the shop, and I had a box of disks that he had dropped off with the system. In the box was a 3 1/2" floppy labeled "System Setup Disk," and in brackets below was the clarification, "For the computer."

One user kept her diskettes in a three ring binder -- but punched the holes in the disk rather than the sleeve.

One student turned in his program with the printout neatly stapled to the disk.

One tech support person told a lady to insert a clean disk into the drive. She washed it first.

A very common misconception is that the plastic case of a 5 1/4" disk needs to be removed (with an x-acto knife or something) before the disk can be used.

A consultant showed a new user how to copy a disk to do backups and told her to buy a box of disks. She did, and when she got the new box, she unwrapped the disks and did the backup. The consultant returned a week later, and the client proudly showed him her backup disks. To his amazement, she had 'peeled' off the wrapping on all ten disks, including the metal shutter. Her explanation: "I thought you had to expose the disk."

One new user, diligently following instructions that you had to format new floppy disks before using them, promptly went home and formatted all of his program disks. They were new, after all, and he wanted to use them.

"How do I open this new-fangled floppy drive?" a user asked. He was on an IBM PC-XT, pointing to the hard drive.

A student reported that he was trying to copy his assignment to floppy disk, but the machine he was using wasn't formatting the floppy correctly. I asked him to try formatting it again so I could watch.

He correctly inserted the floppy, started the format correctly, but when it got 34% finished, he ejected it.

An unfailingly polite lady called to ask for help with a Windows installation that had gone terribly wrong.

Training stresses that we are "not the Software Police," so I let the little act of piracy slide.

I work as a computer consultant at a school. One day a very irritated -- and irritating -- student walked in with a floppy disk.

She handed me the disk. It was a really cheap brand -- I forget which -- and the case was slightly cracked and missing the protective metal cover. The disk media itself had fingerprints on it and a sizable bend at one point. I tried the disk out, and sure enough, no files were found. I tried to explain to her that this was a lost cause, but to no avail.

The sad thing is, since then, I've seen several other students with disks in similar condition, and they all contained their only copies of their senior theses.

I said that she could, but I wanted to say, "Yes, we are an equal opportunity computer lab."

A friend of mine purchased "colored" floppy disks so she could save email attachments to disks. The attachments were color GIF files, and all she had around the house were black floppies.

I was demonstrating MS Powerpoint to some students. I imported some color clip art into the program. After I asked for questions, one girl asked if I saved the file to color or black and white floppies.

A few years ago, a woman called to complain that she bought a computer, and after only a couple months, Windows didn't run anymore. She further explained that her son had installed a game on the computer and that that was the only thing the computer would run.

I went to her home and found that the son had created a boot diskette for the game and never popped it out of the drive.

Someone came up to me in such a big distress because we don't have WordPerfect on our machines anymore. So I told this guy to use Microsoft Word because it's the same sort of thing. Well, the guy told me that he needed to save the resume he'll be typing, and since his disk had been used previously with WordPerfect it therefore couldn't be used for Microsoft Word. He formatted the disk for Wordperfect, he kept insisting, so it wouldn't work for Microsoft Word. Obviously I couldn't slap him on the face, but I wanted to.

I received a call from a secretary asking for a document to be converted from WordPerfect 5.1 to WordPerfect 6.1. So I did as she asked and emailed the converted file back. Later she called and asked, "If I copy this to a disk, will it stay in 6.1 or will it go back to 5.1?"

One user had a word processor that took 3 1/2" disks and stored files on them using an MSDOS file system format. He wanted to convert the files that were on his word processor disks to his new MAC machine. Unable simply to insert the word processor disks into the MAC's disk drive and have them be readable, he enlisted the aid of an acquaintance who had a PC with MSDOS.

He didn't grasp that a second disk, also formatted for PC use, wouldn't work in his MAC any better than his originals.

Later on, he got an idea when he was reading the documentation for a Disk Doctor program he had on his MAC. The utility, he discovered, could restore files that had been erased from a disk by accidental deletion or reformatting. So he took one of his MSDOS-formatted word processor disks, reformatted it in his MAC, then tried to get the Disk Doctor to recover the lost MSDOS files. Didn't work, surprise, surprise.

I was on duty one night at my university's computing centre. A woman came in with a disk that she wanted to retrieve some files from. The disk was in really bad shape; the metal door was missing, a boot print was on it, and the label had been treated with white-out several times. I suggested she go buy another disk at the vending machine down the hall while I tried to read the data off her disk.

When she returned, I told her that I was able to get most of the information off the old disk. I asked for the new disk so I could save the information.

"Ok," she said, and started to hand the disk to me. Then she paused and said, "Oh, wait. I forgot to format it."

With that, she took the disk in both hands and ripped the metal door off.

"There," she said, pleased with herself.

It took all the self-control I could possibly muster to retain my composure and suggest she buy another disk.

A student was trying to upload something from his disk to geocities. He had been sitting there for about twenty minutes before I finally had the nerve to go ask him what he was trying to do.

Well, some of these typewriters can write MSDOS format disks, so it's possible.

She hands me her disk. Unfortunately, it's not a writeable disk. In fact, it's not a disk at all. It's a yellow plastic insert, most definitely a piece of shipping packaging.

Now, here's where years of living with teachers comes in handy. Can you imagine trying to keep a straight face?