When Tech Disaster Strikes…

September 7, 2010 at 4:59 am (Uncategorized)

Apologies for the radio silence, team. It’s been a pretty harrowing week on the technology front. You know how I keep saying 2010 has been – among other much better things, of course – the year of truly cursed timing? Well, on it goes. Take last week. If my computer had to suffer a total cardiac arrest, was it really necessary for it to happen very late on the eve of a freelance deadline? I wouldn’t have thought so. I really don’t see why it couldn’t have happened at any other time during the last nine months of drought instead.

But no.

What’s more, it was an Apple “Genius” who signed the death warrant. To be fair, he was extraordinarily patient and even-tempered throughout the hours and hours of our telephone conversation after I phoned AppleCare for the second time in 24 hours. I liked him the whole time – particularly since the technical agent the previous day was so patronising I wanted to bite his face off – at least, I liked him right up until he instructed me to do something that abruptly killed my computer. Up until that moment, we were good. From that point onwards, I honestly went into a state of shock. It makes me feel sick even thinking about it now. My MacBook Air – two years old to the day, interestingly (all part of Apple’s cunning plan, I’m sure) – could not be revived.

I stared at the blackened screen.


Then the technical agent E said, “There’s nothing more I can do from here. You’re going to have to reinstall your entire operating system now. You’ll need an external disk drive to recover your data, which will hopefully still be there.”

Wait a second. What?

“Excuse me?” I said. “Don’t you think that’s a little detail you might have mentioned before telling me to trash that folder? I have a work deadline. This is my livelihood you’re talking about. You have just removed my capacity to do my job.”

“I did tell you that you probably needed to get an external disk drive, and that there might be a problem with your hard drive.”

“Sure,” I said, “but there was no mention of even the shadow of a possibility that following your instructions might – just might – kill my computer. I even told you I had a USB key sitting in there – all you needed to do was tell me to take a moment to make sure I’d saved my urgent documents, because, you know, there was a small chance the computer would die. But you didn’t say anything like that, you didn’t warn me there was even a remote chance I wouldn’t be able to use my computer once I did what you said. I’m sorry, but you left out that bit. I would’ve just called you back tomorrow, after meeting my deadline. I wouldn’t have considered risking it. But what do you expect me to do now?”
“I’m sorry,” he said.

Cue a mirthless snort of laughter.

“You and me both.”

“I really expected it to work.”

“So, um, what do you suggest I do now? My interview transcripts are on this computer. I’ve just spent the day transcribing them. I honestly don’t know what I am supposed to do now.”

“I really don’t know what to say to you.”

There was a long pause.

Spectacular,” I said.

I got off the phone and called my editor with a heads-up. Thing is, he’d also given me the brief for another story, 2,000 words no less, and I really didn’t want him to take it away. I dragged out my antiquated laptop – it’s ten years old – the same computer that wouldn’t even boot the last time I tried it, pressed down on the start button, and prayed.


It was as dead as a doornail. Choking back a sob, I found a safety pin and pricked the tiny little reset circle. I tried turning it on again. After an eternity, my old faithful slowly, loudly groaned to life. I nearly wept. I had a computer. I shoved in my USB modem and crossed my fingers. It connected. Now I also had the internet. This meant I had email access, which meant I could cobble together my story and send it to my editor in the morning. I sent him a follow-up text letting him know I would have something to him by 10 am.

I spent an entirely sleepless night, staring up at the ceiling wondering what to do about my lost transcripts. The mind is a funny thing. Mine utterly refused to switch off on Wednesday night (ironic given the flat-line state of my computer). I was just too anxious about finishing the job, and too upset about not being able to refer to either transcript – but slowly, construction began on a blueprint for the story I could still write, and, just as slowly, my mind started organising the quotes I could still remember. At a certain point in the wee hours of Thursday morning, I was satisfied I would be able to get something together in time, and I slept.

When I got up at 6 am to start writing, I found the article still loosely formed and hanging on for dear life in some unfamiliar recess of my mind. I can’t emphasise enough that this is NOT the way I work. I write in the doing – these people who say they write whole books in their heads before they commit a word to paper? I think they’re freaks. I would lose everything of value trying to work that way. The mere thought of it makes me shudder. But in this crisis, it is still, most unexpectedly, exactly what happened. The Emergency Draft basically wrote itself in my head before I tapped on a single (hilariously clunky and ancient-seeming) key.

You know, I think the mechanics of transcribing meant that I had actually retained a lot more than I had initially thought possible. My memory locked on to just enough of these fragments to get me over the line, and with my MacBook Air lying dead on the desk like stiffened road kill, I filed the story on time.


The final indignity? Because I headed straight into Apple as soon as humanly possible to consult face-to-face with another “Genius,” I called up to change the time of my driving lesson, and incurred a $51 charge for my trouble. Happy days.

Anyway, I filed the 2,000 words yesterday, had my driving lesson today, and we are officially back in business. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about my new bookshelves.



  1. Pete said,

    Oh no, that’s dreadful! Really really bad. But I’m glad that you managed to get the old one limping again and crossed the deadline in time. (I’ve just realised that I really need an external hard drive.) Your story reminds me of a writer here (Antje Krog) who had a mini-stroke at the same time as her hard drive crashed completely. It’s weird to think that parts of our brains are externalised into machines and when they crash we die little deaths along with them. Perhaps I’m being overly dramatic! Anyway, glad to see you’re back. And that memorised draft in your head is a bit scary!

    • doctordi said,

      Really, really bad, Pete. Really, really, really bad. It’s not often I *actually* have my head in my hands and *actually* clutch fistfuls of hair. It was truly traumatic.

      Get an external disk drive.

      Krog’s story is disturbing and completely understandable (albeit coincidental…?). I definitely felt a little piece of me fall to the floor.

  2. Grad said,

    Isn’t there something called…I can’t remember the name. It’s a service that saves your data so if you crash, your files are saved. I hear it advertised all the time, but can’t think of it. Oh – Carbonite! I don’t subscribe to it because I do all my on-line stuff at work at we’re backed up. But Carbonite (supposedly) stores everything at an off-site storage, is encrypted for safety,and isn’t very expensive. If your computer crashes, you can retrieve your data from any computer. But, obviously you have to get to another computer that works. We are far too dependent on technology. Our network crashed at work for two days which meant we couldn’t retrieve our files, get on the internet, or communicate by e-mail. I can’t even begin to imagine how much revenue we lost since we bill out our time, and if you can’t retrieve the files, no work.

    • doctordi said,

      I don’t know about Carbonite, Graddikins, but I do know I am now the proud owner of an external disk drive.

      What’s so annoying is that I am a pretty good back-up vigilante – losing a draft chapter of a doctoral thesis will do that to you – and so the USB had everything else on it *except* these two goddamn transcripts. I was so mad with myself afterwards, because I was just too tech weary to stick with my own program, it was exhausting, we’d been on the phone for hours and I was STARVING, and I dropped the ball. I sort of abdicated responsibility and deferred to his “genius,” instead of following my own back-up protocols. Stupid. It would have taken a split second to save it before the apocalypse, and as I said to Genius E, I think we both learned a valuable lesson in not doing it.

      Oh my god – a major crash at a law firm? Nightmare!!! All those lost billable units… unthinkable!

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    How frustrating and aggravating, Di. I’m so glad you were able to get your story in. Computers are a blessing and a curse–and the techies that provide “help” the same.

    • doctordi said,

      Lilian, I was in a bit of a daze post-crash, I must admit, but it must have been all right in the end, because the story appeared as filed, and one of the subjects emailed me to say how delighted she was with it, so all’s well that ends well – not a conclusion I could remotely foresee at the time. Yep, computers both help and hinder, that’s for sure.

  4. David said,

    This entry was so scary that I couldn’t even read it without turning all my lights on and hiding under a blanket. Erasure. Of the hard drive. No, no. This is what nightmares are made of.

    • doctordi said,

      I’m not going to lie to you, David. It was horrific.

  5. litlove said,

    How truly awful – and why DO these things happen always at the worst possible moment? I don’t know why physicists bother with string theory when this strikes me as a much more pressing question. I’m so glad – and all kudos to you – that you managed to get out of the fix and I am immediately running through the data storage security options that we have chez Litlove, to update if possible. As one researcher to another, you may imagine I have suffered traumatic losses in my time… it’s always ghastly.

  6. Fiona Wood said,

    Congratulations at navigating your way through this nightmare!! (I have to get an external hard drive.)

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