36 years. That’s the number of years that I’ve worked in computers and electronics. That has only a little to do with the following post, but I thought I’d mention it right up front.
On Monday I had a classic computer problem. I’d like to say that I used all my years of experience to solve the problem, but “I got lucky” is closer to the truth. Here’s what happened Monday evening:
I logged into my iMac. Several windows were open and Firefox was very slow. Then I clicked on the MSWord window and got the rainbow spinning wheel of death (Mac users fear this). Now, sometimes, the spinning wheel of death goes away and you can breathe for a while. Being the professional I am, I decided that the best thing to do was to shut down all my programs and restart the computer.
So I started a mad rush to quit things. Nothing closed. Spinning wheel kept spinning and my mind recalled the song, “Spinning Wheel” by Blood Sweat and Tears from 1969. Yes, I am old enough to remember the ’69 release and mature enough not to smash my computer in to small pieces with a hammer.
I wanted to, but instead I go the old-man-patient route and watch the wheel spin while clicking on things in the vain hope that something would close so I could reboot. Some place in that ten minutes of clicking my brain snapped, patience failed, and I reached over to the power button doing what we computer experts call, a “cold boot.” Most of you would likely say that I turned the power off.
It’s possible that my rash behavior upset the gods of computing who in turn decided to punish my lack of patience or perhaps to humble me after I’d spent two minutes remembering how long I’ve been an engineer and calculating my relative smartness.
When I turned the power back on, the MAC made nice comforting computer sounds and lights flashed. And then it shutdown with a thunk. Gut wrenching, heart stopping, and mind-boggling, “thunk.”
It was that moment that I knew that something very bad had happened and fears of data loss started flashing in my head. As it does when I am at work, my mind filled with contingency plans, check lists and an overwhelming need for a cup of tea.
I had done my planning years ago and do have an active backup system – MAC’s Time Machine – which I check from time to time. Well, sort of check. I mean I look at the little time machine console to make sure it is backing up my data to the external drive down the hall in the coat closet.
Yes, my MAC time machine drive is in the coat closet. Long story, I’ll explain later.
What I’ve never done is to actually try to recover data from that drive and having seen a number of backup systems fail in my career, I let my mind wander into full panic that all my files – including my poetry book – were gone forever.
At this point I decided that I wasn’t an expert on MAC hardware and I’d need a little help. Lucky for me, my company provides me with a laptop computer so I was able to jump on-line and start googling around for, “iMAC hard drive failure.” I am going to let this professional secret out – when you call tech support, that typing sound you hear is a guy like me googling your problem.
I found the disk test and recovery procedures along with the URL for Apple support. The tests showed an unrepairable failure of the drive and the URL got me to a phone call with tech support.
At this point I should give you the official engineering lecture on computer hard drive failure modes. Don’t worry I’ll give the short version. There are three basic failure modes:
1. Mechanical failure. The motors stop working so the little wheel doesn’t spin any more.
2. Electronic failure. The motors spin but the electronics that read the data are fried and your beloved files are beyond the reach of most mortals.
3. Data corruption. Some times things just go wacky, and the computer writes something bad to the drive. There are still bits on the disk, but not the bits of your future best seller. The hardware is good, and the data could be rebuilt.
Note that failure mode 3 is most often caused by turning off the power to the computer while the disk drive is writing data. I was aware of that when I turned the power off, but like most people was sure “it won’t happen to me.” This is information I’ve known for 36 years and yet my finger firmly met the power switch.
Back to tech support, after a few minutes the support guy was convinced that I had a mode 1 or 2 failure and the drive would need to be replaced. He got me an appointment at the Apple Store to bring the failed system in. Since I was worried about the integrity of my data on the $100 USB drive in the closet, I got the helpful tech guy to walk me through the procedure for restoring the data on that cheap drive to another cheap drive so I could test the restore process. Plus, I’d have two cheap copies of my priceless data.
The next day I brought a drive and plugged it into the iMAC and started the data recovery procedure. In the computer world, redundancy is good.
Well, seems I screwed up, again. When the recovery menu came up it listed two drives and I picked the one that looked like my new external drive. Once the process got started the program announced it would take about 40 hours to recover the data. I did some mental math, decided it was bed time, and left the computer to do it’s job.
The next evening I was surprised to see that my computer was rebooted and all my data was in place. After some careful checking I discovered that in fact I had picked the wrong drive and the restore process had actually rebuilt all my data on the internal drive. Again, after thinking the problem over and doing a few tests I realized that, in fact I had a mode 3 error, and there was nothing wrong with the hardware. The Time Machine worked flawlessly and my data was perfectly safe.
So here I sit with a working computer, wondering what the real lesson of all this is.
The one lesson I have learned in 36 years is sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know.”
Till next week,