36 – Computer disasters: a cautionary tale

It was the day after my birthday. I was working on some emails in the Qantas Club in Perth. I’d been there for an hour or so and had made good inroads into the never-ending intray. I stood up to stretch my legs and clear my head, when all of a sudden the girl working next to me shouted something incoherent and I heard a loud crash. I looked down to see my laptop on the floor. It seemed like everyone in the Qantas Club was looking at me and I just wanted to cry. The people nearby who could see what had happened were very sympathetic.

Feeling sick to the stomach, I tried to assess the damage. The screen was still displaying but it was cracked open at the seam and wires were hanging out. I pushed the wires back in and clicked it all back together. Amazingly it seemed to be OK.

It sounded like the hard disk was still running but I thought I should be careful and save a big file I’d been working on that morning onto a floppy before I turned it off. I succeeded in doing that, and was starting to get complacent. What I should have done then was save as many recent files as possible onto the three floppies I was carrying. I didn’t do that – big mistake. Once I switched it off, it never booted up again. It tried and tried and tried, going for hours attempting to identify all the bad sectors on the disk, but eventually, a few days later, I came to the sad (and accurate) conclusion that I was never going to see those files again.

This was a good luck/bad luck story.

The good luck part was that I had backed up my working files only a few days before. Once I recovered the files I had emailed away to other people, I ended up losing only about a day of work, which is much less time than it took me to set up and fully install my new computer.

The bad luck part was the remarkable combination of factors that joined forces to lead to the loss of the hard drive.

  1. I chose to work on a glass-top table, rather than a desk in the business area as I usually did. The glass top was slippery.
  2. The rubber stoppers on the bottom of my laptop had long since fallen off, so the combination was really slippery.
  3. When I stood up, the computer’s power cable was wrapped around my leg. Because of the slippery table surface, I didn’t even feel any pull of the computer as I moved away from the table.
  4. I didn’t see it moving either, because I had turned my back to it as I stood up.
  5. The computer was downloading a large email attachment, so it was actually writing to disk at the time of the crash, giving the hard disk heads maximum opportunity to damage the disk surface.
  6. The floor in that area was surfaced with tiles so there was no cushioning of the blow whatsoever.

The computer was getting on a bit anyway, so, trying to look on the bright side, I decided to upgrade to a new one. I bought a lovely new Compaq with a big wide screen and heaps of everything. After far too much work, I finally got it set up with the right software and all my files in the right places.

When I got the new computer, I started backing up with furious frequency – at least daily – made easy by the presence of a CD burner built into the computer. It was a pace that couldn’t last, and it didn’t.

One day when I’d had the computer for about a month, I was working in my office at home, concentrating hard on writing a Pannell Discussion, or some other masterpiece. I was totally absorbed, when all of a sudden there was an almighty thunderclap apparently right above the house and I bounced about 10cm off my chair from the surprise. At the same time, I saw a tiny little flash of static electricity (a micro lightning bolt) inside the keyboard of the computer and the screen went blank. I stared at it in disbelief. This cannot be happening.

Jolted from my very focused state, I realised that I had been hearing thunder rumbling away quietly in the distance for some time. I hadn’t been concerned because it had seemed so far away. I should have unplugged the power to run on batteries and disconnected it from the phone line, but I didn’t. After that there were no more thunder claps near by, only continuing distant rumbles.

I tried to re-start the computer. It wouldn’t. This was just too much. I haven’t felt so unhappy for years. I suppose that indicates that I generally live a charmed life, which is true, but that didn’t stop me feeling pretty miserable for some days.

Ironically I was less well backed up this time than a month previously. About a week’s worth of stuff was on the line.

I took the computer back to the store where I’d bought it, and they tried to reset it, but that didn’t help either. Eventually I was ringing the Compaq call centre, which like almost every other call centre these days is in India. The Indian woman I spoke to had immediate access to databases of Australian street names and postcodes and could me tell where the nearest Compaq service centre was. It was just around the corner from the store. I took it there, and after about a month and a comedy of further errors with them ordering the wrong motherboard, it was finally fixed again.

My work was a total shambles that month. I struggled by on a borrowed computer and, most painfully, I had to redo several pieces of urgent work even though I didn’t yet know whether my hard drive had survived the ordeal. Amazingly, when I finally did get the computer back, the hard drive was fine. My luck had changed.

Now I am genuinely disciplined and regular with my backing up. As I’ve always said, there are only two types of computer users: those who have had major losses of files, and those who will.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia