The Compleat Writer: Backing Up – Part 2 (a)

Having survived Hurricane Sandy in our Staten Island home last fall, I learned from experience the wisdom of anticipating disaster and making advance preparation for it.

More recently, I had occasion to apply that lesson, albeit belatedly, to my digital life. After almost three years of trouble-free use following a thorough overhaul, my MacBook Pro began to freeze. This commenced shortly after I hooked it up to a new 22-inch ViewSonic monitor (model VS11803). Timing aside, I found no evidence pointing to this widescreen LCD as the culprit, but I disconnected it anyhow. The freezes continued, however, turning into crashes that evoked the dreaded gray multi-language Apple restart screen.

Worrisome in themselves, and resulting in some minor losses of work done in Word and Excel, these freezes and crashes particularly troubled Filemaker Pro. I do much of my work in FileMaker Pro, using various solutions for customer relations, incoming and outgoing email, document storage, bibliography maintenance, and numerous other tasks. Familiar as I am with it, I know that while this splendid app autosaves data entered, it does not respond well to dramatic, unscheduled shutdowns. Following these episodes, sometimes several in a day, my FMPro solutions needed recurrent time-consuming consistency checks, typically precursors to more serious instability. No evidence suggested that any blame for these incidents attached to FMPro, but my work within it certainly bore the brunt of the damage. 

Eventually, those interruptions, whatever their initially localized source, evolved into a system-wide problem: repeated instances of kernel panic. (Or, as I like to think of it, given my tendency toward animism, unwelcome visits from Colonel Panick.) I could no longer ignore the fact that I had a serious problem on my hands.

What I needed, and should have had at my disposal but didn't, was a boot disk that would enable me to run diagnostics and initiate fixes. So I had to develop one while in jeopardy -- not the ideal method. Fortunately, I had the necessary components on hand. With the guidance of MER editor Harris Fogel, I proceeded as follows:

1. Booting up off the Install disk for Snow Leopard, I ran Disk Utility's Repair Disk and Repair Disk Permissions several times. This provided enough damage control that I could boot up my internal drive and clone it to an external drive, using Carbon Copy Cloner.

2. For that purpose I used a review unit of a 500GB Firewire Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Pro -- large enough for my complete hard drive. After initializing and partitioning it, and making it bootable, I ran CCC. Some four hours later, I had a bootable copy of my hard drive.

3. However, that clone carried in its genes the flaws it inherited from the original. This meant that it too would invite the presence of Colonel Panick. So, booting up from my MacBook Pro with the GoFlex Pro attached, I ran Disk Utility's Repair Disk and Repair Disk Permissions several times on this external drive.

4. That enabled me to apply Alsoft's Disk Warrior to the challenge. Version 4.1.1, which I had installed on my internal drive -- and cloned to the GoFlex Pro -- dates back to 2008. (The latest release is 4.4.) Remarkably, 4.1.1 proved up to the task. Booting up from the GoFlex Pro, I ran all of Disk Warrior's tests and repairs on the internal drive of my MBP -- coincidentally, a Seagate Momentus XT 500 GB Hybrid SSD 7200rpm hard drive I'd installed myself in May 2011. That took roughly an hour.

5. Then I reversed the process, starting up as usual from the now-stable internal drive of the MBP and applying Disk Warrior to the GoFlex Pro.

Yet none of that kept Colonel Panick at bay. I'd created a reliable fix for freezes and crashes in general, but I hadn't addressed, or even identified, the root cause of my specific problem. A day later, my MBP locked up again, while I watched a video on Hulu. Attempts to reboot off my new boot disk (holding down the Option key) failed; either I got the multi-language Restart gray screen, or the kernel panic gray screen, or (sometimes) both, layered over each other. Time to seek professional advice. So I headed to Tekserve, the Apple specialists in Manhattan. Their diagnosis: A failed logicboard, repair of which would require days.

Compounding the problem, I faced a looming deadline for a public lecture with accompanying Keynote slideshow. No way for me to be without a computer for up to five days. So, reluctantly, I bit the bullet and sprang for a 2.5Ghz/4GB Apple Mac Mini, which, with an external disk drive and a 3-year AppleCare warranty, set me back $900. A day later I had finished clean installations of my major apps and set to work on my lecture and Keynote presentation while adjusting to Mountain Lion. (I'd stayed with Snow Leopard on my MacBook Pro.)

The Mac Mini had no trouble with that 22-inch ViewSonic monitor, nor with a second monitor I added, an Envision G19LWK 19-inch unit, the combination providing me with bigger screens -- and more screen real estate -- than I've experienced before. Overnight, in terms of hardware and OS, I found myself in a completely reconfigured workspace. I wouldn't have opted to confront so many changes while under the gun of an imminent deadline. I don't welcome enforced revisions of my toolkit. But I've come to the conclusion that adapting to them with the frequency mandated by the computer industry probably helps to keep my aging brain nimble and youthlike. This has led me to make my peace with it.

So I emerged from this crisis with some lessons learned. First and most obvious, don't just back up your data and applications regularly, as I've done for several years, via Time Machine or some other method. On some regular schedule, clone your hard drives and keep those clones updated, so as to have a reasonably current version of your main drive handy on an external drive at all times.

As soon as I had my major apps and data safely on the Mac Mini, I started backing them up to my ioSafe via Time Machine, and cloned a bootable version of the Mac Mini's drive to that same Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Pro. Using Carbon Copy Cloner on a regular schedule, I can keep that disk reasonably updated. (New clonings will replace only changed files.) So, in case of another such emergency, I can put Disk Warrior to work immediately while keeping Colonel Panic on his verandah, sipping his mint juleps down on the old plantation.

The second lesson I learned is that hardware fails, and rarely at opportune moments. I'd already replaced the motherboard in my mid-2007 MacBook Pro once, in early 2010, while AppleCare still covered the unit. This indicates a life cyle of three years or less. And the Seagate Momentus 500GB SSHD I'd installed shortly thereafter also seemed to have failed after under three years of use, possibly as collateral damage from the fried logicboard. Once I reformatted that drive with a "Zero All Data" option, however, it resumed its normal performance; all those crashes, it seems, had merely corrupted the directory, but left it undamaged. Still, erring on the side of caution, I plan on replacing it with their latest version, and in part 2 of this narrative I will report on the process and any performance enhancements that result.

Given such unreliability of mechanical parts, it makes sense to equip oneself with backup hardware as well. Taking this experience to heart, I proceeded to do so.

(To be continued.)

A. D. Coleman, posted 6/1/2013

For more information on Disk Warrior visit:

For more information on Carbon Copy Cloner visit:

For more information on the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Pro

For more information on the ViewSonic VS11803 monitor visit:

For more information on the Envision G19LWK monitor visit:

For more information on the Apple Mac Mini visit:

For more information on A. D. Coleman visit:

© Copyright 2013 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services,