I love my PowerBook. My computer is my life… or at least, it allows me to conduct it, and contains most of the relevant details of it, and connects me with the world beyond it. And using a Mac makes the whole process, really, downright fun sometimes.

Nevertheless, I admit to living dangerously where the safety of my loved one is concerned. I know the mantra that hard-drive failures are a matter of “not if, but when”… but despite that, I’ve never really had a regular backup routine. I have some archived files that are years old, but most of the more recent documents on my current machine (purchased over three years ago now) aren’t backed up.

Recently, however, I decided to own up to this irresponsible conduct and change my ways. I’ve been putting off a system upgrade (from OS X 10.4 to 10.5; this Mac is from the last pre-Intel generation, so it won’t run 10.6), but I knew that before installing a major upgrade a backup would be a Really Good Idea, just in case Something Went Wrong. This drive has worked flawlessly for as long as I’ve had the computer—in fact, I’ve never had a drive failure—but better safe than sorry, right? Plus, its 80GB capacity was about 75% full, and I know performance starts to take a hit above that level, and I figured before I started weeding out old files I should have everything backed up. And I expected that regular incremental backups would be easier after the upgrade, anyway, thanks to Apple’s nifty TimeMachine utility, so any headaches involved with this “safety” backup would be a one-time thing.

So yesterday I pulled a pristine new 500GB external drive out of its box, and attached it to my trusty PowerBook with a FireWire cable, and downloaded the latest version of the handy freeware backup utility SuperDuper!, and carefully shut down everything else that was running, and had the program begin making a bootable clone of my PowerBook drive on the external drive.

And guess when my hard drive decided to fail?

That’s right. Smack in the middle of my first backup attempt. Which is why I’m writing this blog post from the other computer in the house. Indulge me as I share the painful details.

First the copying slowed down, then after about 22 GB of content it seemed to stall out entirely. When there’d been no progress for over an hour, I figured I should just stop it and check things out… but the “stop” button on the program wouldn’t work. Neither would a Force Quit (cmd-opt-pwr). So I did a hard restart from the power button, and detached the external drive, prepared to see what was up and try again as necessary.

Except the computer didn’t reboot. Instead it hummed and spun and produced something horrifying: a blank gray screen with a blinking folder icon alternating with a question mark. IOW, my poor Mac was asking me “where’s the startup drive?”

I tried to tell it. I went through all the obvious troubleshooting steps, then checked the internet (other computer, remember?) for non-obvious ones. All told, in the quest to get it to boot, I tried:

  • Zapping the PRAM (cmd-opt-p-r on restart). No luck.
  • Restarting with a MacOS Install CD in the drive while holding down the “C” key, to boot from the disc (from which I could then run Disk Utility on the hard drive). No luck (and now the disc was stuck in the drive, unejectable).
  • Restarting with the Option key held down, to bring up the Startup Device selection menu and (hopefully) choose the CD. No luck. All I got were two inscrutable little icons (small boxes, each containing an arrow) that did nothing, in the middle of the gray screen, with a spinning clock cursor.
  • Restarting with (cmd-opt-shift-del) held down, another way to force the Mac to boot from the CD drive. No luck.
  • Connecting the laptop to the other Mac via FireWire, then restarting with “T” held down to set it as a dumb “target drive” accessible by the other computer. No luck.
  • Booting into Open Firmware (cmd-opt-o-f) to get to a command line interface… and hey, this actually worked! Momentarily heartened, I then tried to use it to:
    (A) Reset the NVRAM and reboot. No luck.
    (B) Set the boot-device to the CD and reboot. No luck.
    (C) Reset all defaults and reboot. No luck.
  • Resetting the laptop’s Power Management Unit, by disconnecting the power cable and removing the battery, pressing the Power button for five seconds, then reconnecting and rebooting. No luck.

Are you by any chance sensing a trend here?

The hard drive would spin. The CD drive would spin. And the firmware would resolutely fail to recognize the existence of either one. I’ve been working closely with computers for years, both Macs and PCs, and I have never seen a computer so irretrievably bricked without any warning signs whatsoever.

After some fitful sleep (a whole two hours’ worth), first thing in the morning I looked up local computer repair shops. Chicago Computer Repair got glowing reviews on Yelp and has multiple annual customer service awards from Angie’s List, and they were friendly on the phone, and they’re located nearby, so I wrapped up my poor wounded PowerBook and took it in immediately. (After tracking down my lost car keys, that is. Karma is really getting back at me for something today.)

I got an estimate back within a couple of hours. They could repair it, including a replacement drive (at twice the capacity—160 GB), and get it back to me today, for $220. Okay, that’s not too bad…


That doesn’t include data recovery. And data recovery is kind of important to me. All of my documents are on there—my whole life, including everything from multiple versions of my résumé to my personal financial records in Quicken, from contact information for everyone I know to all of my background research about comics and politics, and much, much more—and they aren’t among the 22 GB that made it to the new drive before the crash. (That does include my photos, music, and e-mail, though… I suppose I should be thankful for small favors.) The repair shop referred me to a local specialist, LWG Data Recovery. I talked to one of their technicians and he tells me the odds are mixed of recovering my data, depending on the exact nature of the problem. If it’s just a matter of “logical recovery” (data that’s intact but inaccessible on a working drive), the odds are good and it’ll “only” cost me $430… but if it’s a mechanical problem like a broken drive head, as the repair shop suspects from certain clicking noises they found the drive making, then they’ll have to work on it in their clean room, the odds go down, and if it’s recoverable it’ll cost me $1100.

Don’t you love the way modern technology makes our lives easier?

So I’m not really sure what my options will turn out to be at this point, much less what I’ll choose. At best it’s a painful cost/benefit decision.

But, the guy tells me, it’s really not all that implausible that the failure happened when it did (instead of even a devoutly wished-for 12 hours later)… since the process of backing up an entire drive requires so much more intensive read/write activity that it puts abnormal stress on any mechanical weaknesses in the drive that might otherwise go unnoticed. If I hadn’t tried to back up, it would probably be working just fine today. Catch-22, anyone?

Merry Christmas.


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9 Responses to “Irony so thick I could choke on it”
  1. phredd says:

    Yeah, I do have faster broadband in the UK, but for the upstream it’s not much better than you have. Sugar Sync (and I would presume others) do their thing in the background, so I don’t even notice. I think when I first set it up, I configured it, set the folders I wanted and let it go to work when I went to bed. I also keep my mac running 24/7 anyway. I’ve never experienced any lag from the backup process. I also do have a 300 GB external that I throw things onto as another form of backup as well, but I’ve seen my share of backup disasters involving primary and backup spinning media. Also, off site backups have your back in case of fire or other such disaster.

    Anyhow, Happy New Year!

  2. Phredd-

    Thanks also for your sympathy and advice (your long comment was languishing in limbo until today when I saw it waiting to be “approved”). You’re not the only one to suggest online backup, although what’s always held me back from taking that route (for more than a handful of documents, anyway) is that it’s so much *slower* than a firewire connection to another drive. Perhaps your broadband is faster than mine… I only get 3 Mbps downstream, and about 1Mbps upstream. (Remember when speeds like that sounded fast?) I’ll look into it, nevertheless. (As for tape, as you note, cost is kinda prohibitive.)

    Even if I were to do incremental backup of key documents to the “cloud,” though, I’d probably still want an emergency bootable copy on a physical drive… and the attempt to create that is exactly what killed me here. That’s what’s so frustrating. Everything I’ve ever read says best practice is to do one *whole* backup before doing later incremental ones, and that was the stumbling block. *Whatever* form of external storage I might’ve been trying to write to, it was the very process of writing from my whole chock-fulla-documents User Folder at one time that apparently proved to be too much for my drive heads.

    Last conversation from the data recovery guy, he informed me that my PowerBook had a particular model of Seagate drive with a known flaw that can lead to physical drive failure… meaning my odds of recovery are down around 40%, and if anything’s there it’ll be expensive. At this point I’m pondering the cost (in terms of both emotional angst and sheer inconvenience) of just writing off the lost data and restarting from scratch. New year, fresh start, right?…

  3. Some of us end up scattering them hither and yon by accident in spite of our best intentions to the contrary. At any rate, this is going to be a cautionary tale sooner than later, I think.

  4. phredd says:

    And re: users storing things in strange places: I’ve even seen people using the trash as a file storage folder.

  5. phredd says:

    Chris, you have my sympathies. I’ve been a backup evangelist forever, but I also know what a pain in the ass it can be unless you’ve got a loyal sysadmin taking care of it for you (and even then, shit happens).

    I’m very much not a fan of backing up hard drive to hard drive because drives die a lot. I prefer tape, but doing that is a pretty big investment in time and trouble.

    Happily, these days there’s something a lot easier to do if you have broadband. There are a number of good online backup services available these days, which let you set up backups that you can just set up to go and forget about. I’ve been using a service called SugarSync. http://www.sugarsync.com/ Which you can try for free. There are plenty of other services around too.


    Those can get you started.

    I don’t have SugarSync back everything up for me, just my project folders as I create them and also things like my email files and photos. I haven’t had to use it yet, but it’s nice to have around. It’s also been handy for me as I can set a backup to become a shared web folder, so I’ve been able to use it to get docs to people with ridiculous limits on email attachments.

    Oh, and no matter how you decide to approach backups, you absolutely must do a test restore once you’ve got a backup up and running. It won’t do you any good to be backing up if the backups are buggered.

  6. RAB-

    For a bootable external drive, a clean install of the OS is the best way to go, along with a fresh install of third-party apps, preference panes, etc.

    In retrospect, yeah, that would’ve been the way to go. (Although a lot more labor-intensive.) Suffice it to say I’m a whole lot more skeptical now about the usefulness of programs like SuperDuper (and its competitor CarbonCopyCloner), notwithstanding all the glowing reviews scattered about.

    Of course, given that the failure occurred right at the point when it was trying to copy my User folder, which is easily half of my content overall, it might have happened even had I just done it manually.

    OTOH, as long as I’m casting recriminations at myself (and believe me, I’ve been doing that all day), if I’d just gotten off the fence and done this months ago, maybe the drive would’ve survived the ordeal and I’d have a recoverable backup. I kept procrastinating because I was (until recently) always using the computer for one big project or another, and didn’t want to be left hanging if I started fiddling with it and Something Happened. (Like this.) So, IOW, trying to be risk-averse wound up leaving me in a risky situation. Can’t win for losing, eh?

    (Do people really still scatter their files hither and yon like that? The OS practically holds your hand to avoid it these days…)

    You must have quite a few backup CDs floating around at this point. Doesn’t organizing/cataloging them get to be a hassle?

    Anyhow, thanks for the good wishes, everyone. Keeping my fingers crossed…

  7. RAB says:

    This definitely gave me sympathy pains. Been there more than a few times myself…and as a former Apple certified tech I’ve had to try and help others through it as well. Though this may be too late to help now, I hope you’ll forgive me offering a suggestion for the future. I’ve never been a fan of full disk backups, partly because of this kind of hazard and partly because it always seemed somewhat wasteful. In most home user cases for OS X, all your important stuff will be in your home directory, and that’s what you really need to back up. (That said, whenever I do a data backup for a client, I check to make sure they haven’t accidentally been saving documents into the Applications folder, or System/Library/, or something — it happens more often than you’d think.) For a bootable external drive, a clean install of the OS is the best way to go, along with a fresh install of third-party apps, preference panes, etc.

    Anyway, I’m wishing you the best and hope all that data can be restored!

  8. Michael says:

    This sucks. And it adds yet another reason why my method of backing up is simply to copy selected folders to a CD every so often (like, say, before a trip). And to keep copies of really important files on at least two of my computers.

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