After my disk crashed

Originally published at Reposted here with minor edits.

A couple of years ago I lost all of what I would have considered, up to that point, my intellectual life, not to mention a lot of irreplaceable photos, in a hard drive failure. And while this post is not about the technical and behavioral missteps that allowed the loss to occur those things nonetheless make up a part of the story. How does it happen that an experienced software engineer, someone who is often responsible for corporate data and has managed to not get fired for losing any of it, suffers a hard drive failure and finds himself in possession of zero backups? Almost effortlessly, as it turned out.

Since the early 1980’s I’ve kept all my digital self in a single directory tree off the root of my system’s boot disk. Over the years this directory structure was faithfully copied every time I upgraded, travelling on floppies, zip drives, CD-Rs, DVD-Rs, USB thumb drives, flash drives, from my first 8088 to my second and ridiculously expensive 80286 and so on through all of the machines I’ve bought or built in three decades. Along the way it grew, becoming the repository for all my software and writing work. The first VGA code I wrote was in there. The complete source code for my shareware backgammon game was in there. All the articles I wrote for Dr. Dobbs, Software Development and other journals were in there.

For many years I preserved that data by regularly copying it to another physical device. Most recently Microsoft’s SyncToy had been responsible for doing the job of replicating the directory structure from the C: drive to the D: drive. This worked fine and reliably right up until I built my most recent system. In the process of setting it up I decided to move my personal directory from the 500GB Samsung SSD boot disk to the 1TB Seagate spinner on which the D: partition lived. I also finally replaced the copy of Windows 7 Pro I had been running with Windows 10. As you might already have guessed, what I did not do was set up SyncToy or whatever the current equivalent is.

Thinking back I’m not sure it even occurred to me. The backup had been automated for so long I’d simply stopped thinking about it, and even though I attached great importance to the data in that directory tree the truth was I almost never actually accessed it. More on that theme later. In any event, one evening while sitting at my desk I realized that I had for some time been hearing a soft clicking. It was so soft that it was hard to tell exactly where it was coming from. After creeping around trying to follow these tiny little energy pulses to their source, I found myself homing in on the computer. I put my ear to the case and distinctly heard the clicking from inside.

I should inject here that I had never before had a drive fail. So it took my brain two or three seconds to connect a possible explanation to this unnerving sound, and as soon as I realized what it had to be I jumped back into my chair and opened Windows Explorer: no D: drive. I was shocked. I powered down and removed the drive. I googled things. I stuck the drive in the freezer for a bit and tried it again. Seriously. I’ve read that it has worked for some people, but it didn’t work for me. The drive was dead. The funny thing was that within about two seconds of realizing what had happened all of the little details that I had failed to think about for a couple of months were suddenly crystal clear in my head: I had no backup of anything on that drive.

I packaged it up and sent it to Seagate’s recovery lab. A couple of weeks later I was standing on the lawn of a mansion on the shore of the Delaware River celebrating a nephew’s nuptials when I got a voice mail from the tech who had examined my device. The platter was destroyed. Nothing could be recovered. Probably, he said, it had been “left running after the failure.” Well no shit. Not like it flashed a red light. If the drive were smart enough to detect that something bad had happened perhaps it could have stopped the platter, I don’t know. In any case it was dead, and the stuff it contained was now dust in the corners of the drive case. Up until that message arrived I had held out a little sliver of hope. Not very much, but however slim it was now gone. How could I have been so freaking dumb?

The answer of course was: very easily. And anyway it didn’t matter, really. It was gone, and I resolved to not think about it anymore. I would not dwell on the ancient source code, the unfinished novels and short stories, the thousands of pictures of kids and pets and places. I hadn’t looked at any of it in years. Yes, I always knew it was there, and I wanted it to continue to be there, but obviously that could only remain the case for so long. I’m 58 years old so there are maybe 30 years between now and the time when some relative unplugs all my crap and lists it on eBay. They may even be sad while they’re boxing it up. Do I think they will take a careful inventory of the data and preserve what is meaningful? I do not. I don’t think they will even be able to access it.

And that’s true of so much other stuff: my Facebook page, the Twitter account that I almost never use. Nobody will be able to log in and do anything with them without access to my phone. If my relatives act quickly in the wake of my passing they might unlock it using face recognition. If not then that stuff will just sit there, perhaps for decades, quiet and sepulchral like the last server in a game with no more players. Eventually Facebook will dwindle away, be acquired by a holding company nobody ever heard of, and collect dust until the day when the last rack is unplugged. Twitter might not even last that long. But at least for some time my free social media legacy is assured. The things that aren’t free will not linger much longer than I.

This website, for example, sits on a VPS. It’s cheap, but not free. At some point not far into the postmortem future an email will be sent that no living human can read, and after some period of time that site will disappear, as permanently as the orderly magnetic structure of my hard disk. I am mostly ok with that, but there are some things I wish I could preserve. Over the years my Dad and I did a lot of genealogical research. My site has documents and links to scans of a lot of interesting things, such as my great-great-grandfather’s wanderbuch, which he carried around 1850’s Bavaria as a journeyman cabinetmaker. Surely a descendant might come along at some point and care?

The odds are against it. One lesson history teaches is that time is the opposite of your old hoarder aunt who never throws anything away. Your dear family photo, if it survives a generation or two, is likely to end up a crinkled and unknown relic in a box or album that someone’s kids discard when they clean out the apartment. A digital photo might not even survive your next change of phone. And it’s not just the ephemera of our lives that are treated so brutally. This is a thing that Americans must remind themselves of which many other people around the world, raised in anciently populated landscapes, know intuitively: nothing lasts. Roads, buildings, walls, even cemeteries disappear, once people cease to care about them.

As someone who has made a hobby of seeking out and photographing lost places this is a thing I get viscerally, which may be why the loss of thirty years of digital stuff didn’t hit me harder. The things we make disappear, in most cases not long after we do. There are places not twenty miles from our home in densely populated northern New Jersey where you can be walking through the woods and come upon a little sunlit space with the crumbling century-old tombstones of people whose memorials were once cared for and remembered with love. That sort of thing puts life’s smaller losses into perspective, and having viewed such scenes it’s easier to laugh off the destruction of some bits that never actually existed anyway.

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