Thursday, July 1, 2010...11:28 pm

My catastrophic LaCie hard drive fail

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Today has been a slightly more stressful day than it should, given the bucolic nature of my working environment this week. That’s because last night saw the total failure of my crappy LaCie 1TB external hard drive.

I say “crappy” – this is because I bought two identical versions of the hard drive last August, with a view to backing one up on the other, thus protecting all my data. However, within a few months of using the first as my main hard drive, it suffered some kind of malfunction. Only an emergency purchase of the very useful DiskWarrior utility saved my data that time.

LaCie fail

I duly switched to the other hard drive and used that until last night when, of course, it went and died on me – suddenly making strange beeping noises and refusing to mount. Not even DiskWarrior could save my bacon this time – the disk was too damaged to allow it to create a backup, and the otherwise invaluable Data Rescue couldn’t read it at all.

Regular readers of Freelance Unbound will know the slightly awkward relationship I have with technology. This is, in fact, only the latest in a series of unpleasant and inconvenient events involving hardware failure and data loss.

Iomega fail #1

The LaCie disks were bought to replace a pair of Iomega 160GB portable hard drives, which looked great and were really convenient, but weren’t terribly robust. I think the one I used for my main storage lasted about a year before it started the weird click-of-death® that meant I could no longer access my files.

How much data did I lose? Only about six weeks’ worth, I think. Certainly the only real loss was my Income Tax spreadsheet, which I had to put together from scratch as, stupidly, I hadn’t backed it up since I started compiling it. Most of the rest I could cobble together from email outboxes, stray flash memory sticks and Google Docs.

Iomega fail #2

In their turn, the Iomega portables were bought to replace my first Iomega external hard drive, which started playing up in about 2008. Luckily I managed to save all my data with Data Rescue and, before the whole thing went kaput, I bought the two shiny replacements

There’s a thread running through all this. I don’t have much luck with external hard drives – and that’s because I don’t treat them very well.

External hard drives are not robust. Well – certainly not when they’re in use. Don’t, for goodness sake, do as I do and actually move your hard drive when it’s up and running and attached to your laptop.

Portable does not mean movable

It’s a bit confusing, I know. I mean, they do say they are portable. But portable means you can carry them around in a handbag when they’re powered down. Not wave them around the house as you move from room to room with your sexy new MacBook thinking how cool it is to be connected to the internet everywhere.

My other problem is that my working environment is absolutely lethal for sensitive technology. As it happens, the flipside of my lovely view is that I live in a tiny cottage that is full to the brim with textiles and weaving equipment. The only space this leaves for me and my freelance work is an overflowing Ikea coffee table (or “filing cabinet”) and one corner of a two-seater sofa (or “office”), which generally contains my laptop and hard drive.

The other thing about external hard drives is that these days they never seem to have an “off” switch. The result is a delicate piece of electronic hardware, permanently powered up and sitting on an undulating surface, that keeps being moved off onto a stone floor when guests arrive.

My old hard drive does still work – but it’s kept upstairs on a bookshelf behind a mass of art portfolio folders, so I can never be bothered to unearth it, bring it downstairs and hook it up to the new one and do a backup. Which is why this last hard drive meltdown took not six weeks but six months’ worth of archive data with it.

So why am I not going on a psychotic rampage down Farnham high street?

My uncomfortable and chaotic working existence is actually an advantage here. The fact that I spend all my time working between different computers – in different rooms and on the train; at the university here and in a London office – means I’m never really organised enough to file my data properly.

The result is that I tend to put really important work where I can get hold of it anywhere – on Freelance Unbound for one, sometimes on Google Docs (though they’re a nightmare to actually use), occasionally on a memory stick. Mostly, when I’m working on the move, I’ll save a lot of stuff to the desktop of the laptop, and save it to archive on the external hard drive when I get around to it.

This is usually disastrous practice for data safety – but ironically it has worked in my favour. I’ve ended up with multiple copies of relevant files in a range of different locations – all I need to do is sort through them and pull out the ones that are really important and save them somewhere useful. And back them up. Oh yes.

So what have I lost this time?

Amazingly, in six whole months of data loss, there’s remarkably little to lose sleep about. Typically, the one real pain was to lose this year’s Income Tax spreadsheet as well – which I spent most of today reconstucting. I will so back this up in future – maybe somewhere online so I can be relatively sure I can always get hold of it.

Other than that, there are a few invoices that I’ll have to track down and some notes I started making on copyright for student teaching in the next academic year. Luckily I’ve been putting off working on my new teaching material until I had some time off in the summer, so I hadn’t got very far. Again, I’ll switch to making these notes online – at least Bluehost is competent enough to do regular backups.

There’ll probably be some other files that I’ve forgotten that will turn out to be inconvenient to have lost, but with luck the rest will be archived junk – just like all the stuff I’ve been keeping in a storage unit for the past four years waiting until I can finally move into a house big enough to hold it all.

Lessons learned:

  • Listen to your tech’s cry for help
    As with my dodgy Apple PowerBook power connector, when your tech starts behaving in a flaky way replace or repair it immediately and back up your files (see below). My hard drive started giving error messages and disconnecting itself without warning a couple of weeks before it packed up. Did I listen? No – I thought it was a problem with the USB cable.
  • Back up your files!
    I mean, obviously I don’t do this, and probably never will. But you should. It will make your life so much easier. Trust me – I know.
  • Be organised – or be REALLY disorganised
    One or the other. My disorganisation has been a help – but it would have been better if I’d never got around to archiving anything on my hard drive.
  • Live somewhere big enough to have office space
    That at least I can manage. By August I will have a real office space with an honest-to-god desk in it. And a proper system for managing my data…

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