Very interesting 24 hours here. I've been offline most of that time, not by choice. I've spent maybe 7 hours total on the phone with Apple Tech Support. It started with some email problems, and led to a discovery of some completely unrelated problems—discoveries which may well have staved off later catastrophe. The big problems are apparently all solved now, knock on wood, but the email irregularities continue.
Two tiny morsels of cheap advice, even though I realize a great many of my regular readers are far more computer savvy than I am: never buy anything from Apple without AppleCare (those guys are really great) and always, always, always back up!!! (Note that I do not splatter a page with exclamation points lightly.) My backup drive saved my bacon big time today! OS 10.8 allows you to switch between two separate backup drives, which I'll be implementing soon.
I hope to have TOP up and running again tomorrow sometime, with Ctein's overdue Wednesday column. Be aware that I am not receiving all of my email yet. The email problems will persist for at least another day and possibly through the weekend. If you've been trying to get in touch with me or have been expecting a reply—or just wondering about the radio silence—my apologies! We're a-workin' on it.
—Mike, learning IT crumb by crumb
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A book of interest today:
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Featured Comments from:
albert w erickson: "Mike, for those of us who live and die with our Macs, we would appreciate understanding your computer issues so as to avoid them in the future. Please write about the issues as well as the solutions. Thanks."
Mike replies: Pretty simple really, Albert, just scary...Disk Utility showed a corrupted system and couldn't repair it. So I had to erase my hard drive, download a new copy of the latest operating system, and reinstall my data from the backup drive. It's called a "clean install." Happens to lots of people, at least occasionally. At least I'm told it's not uncommon, whether with PCs or Macs.
It all went smoothly, but, understandably, I went from being very blasé about my backup protocols to being completely dependent on them for all of my data, including my 20,000-file digital music collection and all of my digital photographs.
That's an interesting experience. Remember that Time Machine is essentially unverifiable...you set it up, keep an eye on it to see that it's not complaining, and then essentially trust that it's doing its job. I do take certain precautions...for instance, I buy a new backup hard drive about every two years and put the old one on the shelf. My local tech tells me that hard drives need to be turned on once or twice a year to prevent freezing, so the old ones literally have a "limited shelf life." But I do it not for the sake of the shelved drive but mainly to insure that I have a new, late model drive keeping my backups. And I don't use the backup drive for anything else at all...just backups. My current one—the one that saved me yesterday—is a 2 TB OWC Mercury Elite Pro.
If you want to see what's up (assuming you're on a Mac, I know even less about PCs), just run Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility > Verify disk. (I am very much not an expert, but I have a slight advantage in that if I say anything dumb, a more knowledgable TOP reader will no doubt quickly step in and correct me.)
My local tech tells me that OS 10.8 (Mountain Lion) will allow you to swap out one hard drive for another and keep two physically separate sets of backup data. For maximum security you swap the two every so often and keep the off-duty one in another location. I doubt I'll go that far, but he told me he's seen several instances of a client's data being completely destroyed by a single fire. (This makes sense when you consider the photographers, Carleton Watkins and Jacques Lowe chief among them, whose archives have been lost to disaster—Carleton in the San Francisco Fire and Jacques in 9/11.) I've bought a second hard drive and plan to make a second backup in the future.
We discovered the problem during the process of troubleshooting the mail problems, which everyone agrees are on Apple's end, not mine. As we were waiting for something to happen, I was questioning the tech support supervisor about when I should buy a new computer, and I described some of the problems I've experienced with my computer lately. He said, "That shouldn't be happening. Let's just run Disk Utility so I can see what error messages you're getting." That's when one thing led to another.
The email problem still isn't fixed, but we're still working on it.
John Whitley: "Speaking as someone with years of experience avoiding disasters due to good backup policy, I'll offer this advice: Always keep at least three copies of any critical data. One is your 'working copy' on your computer, along with two other copies. Your backup process must be tested—can you access the backup when needed? Without this verification, you don't yet know whether you have a working backup.
"As the costs of disks have dropped, I tend to prefer full-disk bootable backups on small 2.5" bus-powered USB or Firewire drives. These work well and make it trivial to store one backup copy safely off-site. On OS X, software like SuperDuper! and Carbon Copy Cloner allow for great ease of use with this sort of process. The downtime in the event of a disk crash or other data loss is minimal with this setup. The last time I had a crash, I booted from the most recent backup, ordered a replacement drive and was working again in minutes.
"It's important to note that a 'cloud' or online service such as Dropbox, Google Drive, etc. only ever counts as one copy. Even if the provider nominally keeps backups, you have no visibility into what single points of failure ('SPOFs' in industry lingo) may exist in their processes. That also includes events such as catastrophic business failure, not just technological events. Use online storage wisely, but don't consider it to be magic."
HD: "One is none, as my colleagues mock me for saying perhaps one time too often. And two backups in one location is also none. One backup stays offsite, so short of an earthquake.... On Macs, Time Machine is a good tool, and SuperDuper has gotten me back up and running with only minutes of downtime on a number of occasions. Bootable backups are wonderful. Then there's the question of making sure that the backups work regularly, and are not corrupted (and that you're not silently losing pix). Drobos and the like start looking inexpensive."
Mike replies: What's a Drobo?
Murray Davidson: "The first time you lose serious data should be your last. May I direct all you grasshoppers to an entertaining and supremely educational site on the subject of backups? Read, embrace and achieve enlightenment."