News From The Woods - January, 2006

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published January 31, 2006


"Back Up! Back Up!"


The title of this month's column is not at all about what you say to your bus driver as he is driving off the edge of a cliff. As you may have already surmised, it is all about computer technology.

Computers, for all the accolades we heap on them, are incredibly stupid. They will only do what you tell them to do, so most of the time if something doesn't work correctly (or at all) the blame is usually due to "operator error". In other words, we have no one to blame but ourselves. I think the most important advancement for the user in modern computers is the UNDO button. It gets us out of trouble 90% of the time when we forget to think BEFORE hitting that SAVE/DELETE/OVERWRITE key. With multiple undoes you can even sometimes go backward through your maze of changes until you get to where you were when you first went off the beaten path. This is great for creative types because we sometimes go off on a tangent and soon forget what we were doing in the first place. How did we ever get anything done in the early days without the UNDO button? It was a time of frustration and periodic road rage directed at an inanimate object.

Today of course things are quite different. Developers and the "Keepers of the Code" have done their level best to tame the wild computer in order to make it more user-friendly and therefore accessible and more affordable to the masses. A prime example is RAM and hard drive capacity, or "dollars per byte". I recall in 1981 when I was hired by the local newspaper as a "computer technician" and installed the very first Harris 640 typesetting and word processing system in this region. We had 12 terminals and three processors. Each processor was the size of a footlocker and contained ONE MEGABYTE of storage! I think the terminals (today called workstations) could independently sustain 12 kilobytes of memory each for word processing.

When I first started futzing with my own personal computer in 1992, my main system drive, which housed all my programs and associated software and data, had a whopping 120 Megabytes of storage on its internal hard drive. The storage seemed endless at the time. Just three short years later I was beginning to edit video with the computer that ran at an "accelerated" clock speed of 75-MegaHertz. I had two 4-Gigabyte video drives, a 1-Gigabyte audio drive, a 250-Megabyte system drive, and 128-Kilobytes of RAM. I had probably $20,000 invested in the entire system (monitor, printer, modem, hard drives, RAM, tower case, hardware & software), which was about what just one of the 1-Megabyte CPU's cost the newspaper in 1981. In fourteen years we went from a super-expensive and highly-engineered multiple terminal mainframe which could only move text around to a small personal computer capable of sophisticated editing of audio and video, animating and modeling in 3 Dimensions, and creating multi-layered graphics for broadcast applications. And all this was BEFORE the UNDO button!

Today just about anybody who owns a computer can store and edit video, write music, create PowerPoint slide shows, surf the Internet, upload and download files on a cable modem, and store their complete database on a 1-Gigabyte flash drive so small it doubles as a key chain. The world is moving at a much faster pace, and as clock speeds move beyond 3-GigaHertz dual processors, we find ourselves drumming our fingers over a task that used to take four times as long to complete. Time is of the essence and our "irritation factor" as we wait for our electronic slaves to crunch numbers seems to rise as prices for memory drop below $1.00 per Megabyte.

We have all learned to SAVE our work along the path of creating it, but for many of us that's where we stop. When we get our project done we archive it to whatever means of delivery the media works with. If it's an article like this one I simply print it out onto hard copy or post it electronically on the Internet. If it's a video project I make a master edit on DVD and clone copies for the client. Basically it's the same story for creating and/or recording music. Most of the time I usually create some kind of safety master for storage, but not always. And thus we now come to the reason for this article and my tale of woe……..

Less than a year ago I purchased a 120-Gigabyte Seagate external hard drive from Wal Mart. Over the past eight months or so I used it quite a lot for storing large video clips and also had two large client folders of music and video projects. One of those folders was the "Goldrush" project, which contained not only the audio tracks from the 1977 session which had been restored from the original analog tape, but the project files which I had been working on for almost four months. These project files contained ALL the data I had compiled during the time I spent restoring, mixing, and enhancing the tracks. These files contained all my mixer moves, EQ settings, assigned effects with their respective settings, volume envelopes, pitch changes, and individual track edits for every song on the album. It was a HUGE body of work.

I don't know WHY I didn't think to back it all up!

Maybe I assumed that since the drive was still pretty new I had time to back it up later. Maybe it was because I had never had a drive failure out of the blue (usually you get some kind of "warning" before it goes completely belly up). Maybe I was just too busy and kept telling myself "I'll do it next time". I don't know. But one morning I booted up the computer and, intending to do some more mixing on "Goldrush" for the day, I turned the power on for the drive - and nothing happened! It did not show up on the system's "My Computer" menu, even after I checked all the connecting cables and power cable. It started up and I could hear the drive spinning. The power indicator was lit, but the computer would not recognize the drive. Immediately, my first thought was "What's ON this drive?"…………[insert queasy stomach sfx here]………

After another day of failed attempts to get it up and running again, I went to the Seagate site to see if I had any options. After first checking my warranty and discovering I was still protected, they gave me an RMA# and I immediately sent the drive off. About four days later I got a call and email from a customer service tech that informed me the drive was DOA and indeed fragged. "Multiple read errors affecting the file structures and folder contents rendered the drive irreparable with all the contents corrupted.". They said they would replace the defective drive but could not do anything about the lost data. However, they DID have one option. It turns out that Seagate- being a giant in the industry - have their own data recovery department. I asked if they would send it over for evaluation but was told they did not have an official line of communication between the two concerns (?). So they had to send it back to me and THEN I had to send it out to the recovery department. A week later the recovery team spokesman called to say they could recover the files but it would take a couple of working days to do the procedure. He then proceeded to read me a projected quote of $1,500.00 for services rendered.

Now, I realize that they are geared for major corporate data recovery, but the sticker shock left me temporarily speechless. When my sense of balance returned I admitted that although I had at least one project on the drive which constituted a hundred hours of work and priceless project files, it was a personal project and the client was ME. And "ME" couldn't afford the cost. I told him I'd call him back ASAP with an answer. Meanwhile, while I was mulling over the total loss of my data, the phone rings and it's a good friend who runs his own computer business here in town. I lamented my recent loss and he said "Hey Bob, give it to me for an hour and I'll have a look at it". Sooooooooo……. I figure I have little to lose (I'd lost it all already in my mindset) so I had them return the drive back to me. Five more days later it gets here and I drive it into town. Before I even get back home I have a call from my pal who says he can see all the files, and there ARE corrupt files, but the main problem seemed to be the USB cable connecting it to the computer. He replaced the cable and it popped up, but much of the data WAS corrupt………. EXCEPT for one folder named "Goldrush"……………..

So NOW I'm having a cardiac because he says he would just copy the folder over to another drive on his system, then dump it onto any other drive I could bring in. I grabbed up a small 40-Gigabyte Seagate USB drive and drove back into town. In fifteen minutes he had given me back all the files I originally had no back up for. He charged me for an hour's time at his regular data retrieval rate of $65.00. I had just saved $1,435.00 !! I was so incredibly lucky. I boxed up the old drive and sent it back using the original RMA# and asked for a replacement. Although it took almost two weeks to receive the replacement, when it arrived I discovered they sent me the newer version of that drive model, which was a 160-Gigabyte that came equipped with Firewire in addition to USB. I hooked it up via Firewire and it is running like a champ! So I have to say here that from my perspective, Seagate is more than fair with their customer service. I understand that their data recovery work is a high tech concern, dealing with MAJOR issues for some individuals and corporations, or even the military, but it would be nice if they devised some kind of sliding scale for those less fortunate techno-dweebs like me. I can even forgive them for failing to mention (or discovering) the USB cable problem, as that was what made it possible to actually copy off a critical folder without doing the entire "data extraction" bit with the commensurate hourly wages. In the end, I was able to retrieve the most important set of files on the drive, AND got a "better than" replacement. My hat is off to Seagate for their customer satisfaction. One has to expect that drives will always fail, sooner or later. They DID recognize that it died while still under warranty so they cheerfully offered to replace the drive at no charge. I cannot expect them to accept liability for the data that was stored on that soon-to-be-corrupt drive.

The point here is: You NEVER know WHEN or HOW your computer or a hard drive will fail. You ALWAYS need to back up the most critical files that you could not replace. Today's technology is indeed wonderful, but only if you practice "preventative medicine".

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