Sheldon Cooper panic attack

Nothing lasts forever. As Ani di Franco says, even our tattoos are only as permanent as we are. So it is with computers, as many of us have experienced.

This past week, the hard drive on my Mac Book Pro took a dump only a few weeks after I finished the rough draft of my latest novel. For writers and other creatives, this is our worst nightmare realized.

The good news, I was able to recover nearly my entire WIP, minus some comments I had made in Scrivener, but it took some effort and cleverness to recover some of it, on top of my efforts at preparedness.

What I Did Before the Crash

This is critical. Saving your work on a regular basis is great, but in the event of a catastrophic failure, as I experienced, it’s not enough. You must back everything up.

One way that I do this is via Dropbox. I have a paid account, though the free account is usually enough for most people. So nearly all of my documents are on Dropbox. This also allows me to pull up files on multiple computers.

Dropbox also keeps multiple versions of files for up to 30 days. For anyone that’s accidentally deleted a file, this can be helpful.

The other thing I try to do regularly is use Time Machine (I use a Mac. I don’t know what the PC equivalent would be.) to create a backup to an external hard drive.

What Happened After the Crash


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Step 1: PANIC!!!! AAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHHH!!!

What happened was that my screen froze. No biggie, right?

So I did a hard reboot. Except that instead of booting up, it would flash some tiny black screen of death text in the upper right hand corner of the screen and go through a few cycles of attempting to reboot before giving me a big O with a slash through it. Uh oh.

I’ve since learned that it was triggering what’s called a kernel panic. I think that’s similar to a fatal exception error in Windows. Bottom line, it wasn’t rebooting.

Step 2: Contact Apple Support.

So I contacted Apple support. The rep was very nice. We tried to reboot in safe mode. Failed.

Tried to reboot via Internet Recovery, but the computer wasn’t finding a hard drive to reboot to. Holy frack! So not good!

The support rep scheduled an appointment for me at the nearest Apple Store for later that afternoon.

Step 3: Visit to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store

So I schlepped to the Apple Store at the mall. It’s an airy place with lots of the latest gadgets on sale and populated by millennials in green shirts helping customers of all ages.

I was helped by Taylor and his millennial-style beard. He was very nice, ran my Mac Book through some tests, and concluded my hard drive was indeed fried.

I should point out that my awesome wife had installed a new SSD drive in my Mac Book Pro last Thanksgiving because I was running out of storage space.

Because it was a third-party hard drive, Taylor couldn’t do much for me. Thanks anyway, Taylor. Nice beard, by the way.

Step 4: Contact the Vendor

After another panic attack, I talked to my wife. She discovered that the SSD had a 3-year warranty. She contacted the vendor. They politely agreed to cross-ship the replacement drive.

We had to pay for the new one up front, and they would refund once they received the bad one we shipped. No big deal.

Step 5: Replace and Restore

When the replacement drive came, my genius wife switched it out. I then began the arduous process of restoring my computer.

First I had to format the hard drive using Mac’s Disk Utility. I had to look up how to do this on another computer. Thank goodness we had another one.

Next, I installed the version of OSX that originally came with my computer, which was Mountain Line. Yeah, my laptop’s about 5 years old. This took a couple hours so don’t plan anything. Have much patience.

Then, I rebooted the computer. Very important to do this, otherwise your laptop will try to connect to the Apple account and send you nasty messages saying your password is wrong. I went through a few rounds of this when we first installed the SSD drive last November.

Then I upgraded to the latest version of OSX, Sierra. This also took a couple of hours. Patience!

Finally, I rebooted again and connected my external backup hard drive. And…I discovered that the most recent backup was corrupted for some reason. The one before was about a month old. Not ideal, but it was what I had to work with.

This took about three hours. And once it was complete, Dropbox did its thing. Only problem was that somehow the Scrivener files for my WIP got wonky. So it appeared that I was missing the last several chapters. Cue minor panic attack!


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Not sure what happened, but the good news is that the data, for the most part, was still there. It’s just that the Scrivener file didn’t know to look for them.

I was able to use Dropbox.com online to locate the .RTF and .TXT files and copy and past the content back into my Scrivener file. Then resave it.

Step 5: Adventures with Carbonite

With everything more or less restored, I needed to run a back up. A good friend of mine who fixes PCs for a living had suggested using Carbonite a week or so ago before the crash. Having an offsite backup in addition to the local backup on the external hard drive seemed like a good idea.

I figured that there was no time like the present to give it a whirl. So I purchased a personal license, downloaded the app, and started a backup. This despite my wife giving me shit about using Carbonite.

So when I went to look at the back up that Carbonite ran, it mostly just created a backup of the stuff that I had on Dropbox. But it didn’t create a backup of the actual apps and programs and associated data. You know, the essential stuff to open files that Carbonite created a backup of.

I tried to tell Carbonite to include the apps in its backup. Wouldn’t do it.

I contacted their customer service and during our lovely chat discovered that, despite what their ads claim, they don’t create an entire backup of your computer. Just a copy of your documents and files. No apps. No libraries. Nothing over a certain file size.

Essentially, they weren’t offering me anything I wasn’t already getting from Dropbox. So I requested a refund and uninstalled. I guess my genius wife was right.

Step 6: Back to the Time Machine

So I am now running a backup via Time Machine and saving it on my external hard drive. It would be nice to have a complete offsite backup just in case. Maybe I can alternate external hard drives and keep one in a safe deposit box. Not as convenient as I like, but safety first!

Conclusions

Two words: backups and redundancies.

If you are a writer, a programmer, or someone else with critical information on your computer, run regular backups and have some sort of redundancy such as Dropbox or even Carbonite, if you prefer. But understand what each offers and the limitations.

A lot of programmers use Git version control with offsite storage of their files on Github or Gitbucket.

Just make sure not to store all of your eggs in one basket or hard drive.

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4 thoughts on “When Hard Drives Crash”

  1. This story makes me hyperventilate, too. I’m so sorry you had to go through all that. Very glad you were able to recover data, at least.

    Like you, I’ve been told Carbonite is the be-all and end-all, and also have had a fairly close call recently. There are some web-based backup services that are Time-Machine friendly…I think. But it’s all so time-consumingly, brain-bangingly techie. After all was said & done, it appeared that backing up regularly to a hard drive with Time Machine is probably the best strategy. Easier said than done if you work on a laptop: keeping an external drive permanently wired to a laptop is not a practical strategy. But if you have more than one Mac and you’re paying for plenty of DropBox space, it makes sense to set one machine permanently on a desk, wired permanently to an external hard drive, and then do all your work on DropBox. TM will then back up all your current stuff. On this end, I’m backing up the iMac continuously in TM, and then doing manual TM backups of the MacBook twice a month to two different external drives, plus backing up currently active DB folders to a flash drive several times a week. With any luck, ONE of those will serve as the rescue the next time a fiasco like this strikes.

    It was interesting that you mentioned some headaches with Scrivener. Do you think it’s less than perfectly compatible w/ the Mac & Time Machine, or possibly some other issue was at work?

    Best wishes for a full recovery…of data, that is.

  2. I have mine backed up in several places. That hard drive failure happened when I was still working years ago. I learned from that. I also have a back up computer in case.

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