Recovering 5.25″ Floppy Disks

When I was at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth they were just starting to supplement their serial terminals connected to X.25 PAD’s with some PC’s (Viglen I think), complete with hard disks and 5.25″ floppy drives. So I have had two boxes of 5.25″ floppies which dutifully came out to Australia with me when I emigrated from the UK back in 2002. These floppies are now well over 20 years old so I reckoned it would be about time to see whether they were still readable and, if so, what was on them. Labels like “Honeywell Backup Disk #1” only say so much.. πŸ˜‰

The first problem was that I didn’t have a 5.25″ floppy drive. Luckily my boss at VLSCI was able to lend me one. The second problem was I didn’t have a floppy cable with the 5.25″ connector on it. Fortunately Bernie at work had an old PC that was in bits which did have one, so I was able to borrow that. Then I found that the old Dell PC I was thinking of using had a really weird connector and wasn’t going to be that useful. My even older Olivetti Netstrada (a quad processor Pentium Pro monster) did have IDE, but the cables were going to be rather hard to get to as it has a bunch of SCSI drives and the cables for them were going to make it hard.

My final box was an VIA EPIA V box (originally from EverythingLinux back in 2003) which did have an easily accessibly floppy connector on the mother board, but only a single power connector for a drive. So it was either the internal IDE disk, or the floppy, but not both. I could have gone and bought a power splitter, but I thought I’d take the cheaper way and netboot it (the onboard ethernet chipset has PXE support) – it should be pretty easy.. Hah! πŸ™‚ This is what the box looked like after some careful assembly..

Resurrecting 5.25" floppy disks - hardware

The first test was to see if the 5.25″ floppy disk drive worked. Luckily I had a floppy labelled as “system boot disk” and after some mucking around in the BIOS (it turns out you can set it to boot from floppy without having enabled the floppy controller, which results in it not booting from floppy and much cursing until you discover it) it booted first time – a 23 year old DOS boot disk complete with partly bilingual Welsh/English welcome screen from 1988!

UCW Aberyswyth 5.25" floppy system disk from 1988

This was very promising – the first disk had worked first time and a quick test of swapping it out for another and doing a “DIR” also worked. Now to get the data off these before they went to the great /dev/null in the sky..

My plan to recover the info was to netboot this machine as a Mythbuntu diskless front end box – Mythbuntu makes that easy to set up and with a little fiddling of the DHCP server to make sure it would only every try and serve this box, and do so with a static address, it worked. Or at least it would load the kernel. Which then complained that it couldn’t boot as it needed a CPU which had PAE support. πŸ™

This VIA EPIA V has a low power (5W) 533MHz VIA Eden CPU (appropriately the kernel detects it as a VIA Samuel 2) and whilst it is IA-32 it doesn’t have some of the newer features which are selected for Pentium class processors in the current Linux kernel.

Oh well, that’s fine, I knew I could use Debian instead, so I used the ltsp-build-client (creating an /etc/sysconfig/ltspdist file first containing the line VENDORDEF="Debian" first so it would use the right set of scripts), thus:

ltsp-build-client --chroot sid --mirror --dist sid --purge-chroot --arch i386 --accept-unsigned-packages

Problem was that all the various kernel command line options for specifying the NFS server for the root filesystem just didn’t seem to work, it would just sit there saying something like “Waiting for root filesystem” and eventually give up and drop me to a busybox shell prompt, and a simple cat of /proc/cmdline showed the options were being set correctly. A little more thought and an examination of the config file for the kernel showed that Debian doesn’t ship kernels with CONFIG_NFS_ROOT set, so it was never going to work. πŸ™

Whilst I could have rolled my own kernel I decided to instead have a look to see if I could find a Linux distro that included PXE booting as an option and a Google search for “linux distro pxe” turned up PLoP Linux as the first hit.

PLoP Linux is a small (75MB) distro aimed at data recovery operations that comes as an ISO, tar.gz or zip file for i586, x86-64 and (crucially for me) i486 processors. They even have a separate tar file for the PXE files. It was easy to set up and so I booted the PC with high hopes. Then I got the same error about the kernel requiring PAE support in the CPU that I got with Ubuntu. Whilst there was an i486 tar file there wasn’t an i486 PXE tar file! That was easily solved by grabbing the i486 ISO, doing a loopback mount of it and stealing the kernel and initrd.img files from it instead.

This time it booted, and I found that it had just what I was after – a Linux shell prompt, working networking, mtools (for mcopy and mdir) and (most importantly) ddrescue to let me create complete images of the floppies. I created a directory for each floppy disk and then did ddrescue /dev/fd0 floppy.img to make the image. I created another directory called Contents and from there did mcopy -vms a: (yes, I ordered the options that way deliberately) to copy all the files and subdirectories off complete with their last modification times (from 1987 and 1988 generally).

In all I was able to recover 20 of the 21 floppies with no errors at all, which amazed me as I was expecting them to have degraded over time (especially as one box was just a flimsy cardboard box). I was hoping to have original B source code from HoneyBoard (the bulletin board that Alan Cox and others I knew there wrote) and AberMUD from the Honeywell L66 but sadly that doesn’t appear to be the case. There are 3 B programs but one is just just 3 lines (calling a drl) and the other two appear to be two versions of some sort of shell which I didn’t write as the first has a btidy timestamp from April 1987, before I arrived at Aberystwyth.

The 21st disk was completely unreadable – the drive didn’t seem to want to acknowledge its existence and ddrescue couldn’t see anything as the floppy driver in the kernel couldn’t get the drive to provide any data. I might try ddrescue’s mode of copying data in reverse to see if that manages any better..

Anglo-Saxon Hoard Discovered in Mercia

A metal detectorist has discovered a hoard of precious items (now declared treasure under the Treasure Act 1996) in land that was once part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia in England. Archaeologists were called in and recorded around 1500 items altogether, with around half being precious metals and gems.

It looks phenomenal, and is far larger than the hoard found at the Sutton Hoo ship burials which itself was impressive enough. What is really interesting to me is that these are often fragments of larger items and even the whole items haven’t been treated with care by whoever assembled the hoard – crosses are folded up for example – indicating that it was the previous metals and gems rather than items themselves that were valued. One of the experts who examined the hoard wrote:

The material is predominantly associated with war – swords, sword fittings, bits of helmets and the like – but all the precious metalwork has been stripped. That means they’re not treasuring the objects as wholes, they’re taking the precious metals off and keeping them.

Basically it looks like the collector of this was an Anglo-Saxon magpie, on a massive scale! πŸ™‚

I’m glad to see that this is a case where the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme worked out really well; the find was reported immediately allowing archaeologists to excavate the items in situ and record all the vital information that lets us put these items into the wider context which is otherwise lost if these things are just ripped out of the ground and disappear into a private collection or onto the black market. All too often we are losing that valuable information about our past forever when that happens. So big props to the finder and the landowner for doing the right thing (not to mention they’re up for a massive reward, which is also the right thing to do).

Time Team – Friars Wash – Post Excavation Report

Having just watched the first showing of the Time Team Friars Wash dig on the ABC I went searching for any post excavation reports and managed to find one on Scribd written by Wessex Archaeology (where W.A. seem to be putting up a number of reports) which has some interesting follow ups to what’s seen in the program, for instance:

  • It now appears there were likely three temples and an ancillary building, not the four temples talked about (and even then they’re not sure whether the circular building was a temple or a shrine).
  • The lead items thought to be “curses” (lead sheets with writing folded up and deposited at temples) turned out to be, sadly, more likely fishing weights as they were not comparable with previously found “curses”.
  • Whilst they found a lot of coins in Trench 4 (22 all up) calling them a hoard is apparently “tentative”.
  • There are apparently no “direct parallels” of the enamelled broach they found, and it could be 2nd century CE.
  • They found 7 (fragmented) pig jawbones in the sondage through the floor in Trench 1!
  • The closest parallel to the dual temple structure is at Mont de Sene in Burgundy

You can download the PDF of the report if you login to Scribd (they support OpenID, but not OpenID redirections like WP-Yaddis can do to, etc).

Chillies are old news..

..about 6,000 year old news in fact!

Archaeologists in Ecuador have found evidence that chillies were used in cooking more than 6,000 years ago. […] The team of scientists who made the discovery in a tropical lowland area say the spice must have been transported over the Andes to what is now Ecuador as the chillies only grew naturally to the east of the mountain range.

The BBC also has a nice chilli recipe site which includes recipes for chocolate and chilli ice cream and chocolate chilli crème brûlée!

Time Team on the ABC!

One of the things I miss moving from the UK to Aus was the TV, here we’ve only really got 2 channels worth watching (ABC and SBS), the commercial channels are awful – poor content, poor presentation and (deliberately) poor timekeeping – fortunately I’ve never watched a lot of TV!

One of the gems of UK TV is Time Team from Channel 4, an archaeology program showcasing a 3 day excavation from random peoples gardens where interesting artifacts have been found to prominent archaeological sites. A great bunch of characters and always interesting and I’ve missed it a lot.

But now it’s arrived down under! The ABC are showing it on TV on Tuesday nights at 6:10pm (though I missed the first one through being at a LUV meeting). Can’t wait!

Time Team team