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Don’t do what I did

On Tuesday I arrived at the library to send already-composed emails and make a blog post. The laptop wouldn’t boot.

Bear Bussjaeger quickly and correctly diagnosed a hard drive problem; the drive was going south, boot sector first.

But the real problem wasn’t a dramatic crash of the hard drive. It was more like a slow leak between my ears. This post is to recount where I went wrong, note the very few things I did right, thank the people who saved my backside, and serve as a cautionary tale for anybody out there who might be stumbling into similar screwups.


Where things stand now: It’s been three days and the trouble is far from over. The fact that I have even limited online access and email contacts with a few close associates is entirely due to the standard little LOT of help from my friends.

Big IOUs to:

  • S for providing the iPhone that I didn’t really want, but that turned out to be a lifeline; and for setting me up with a new phone-based email address when nothing else was working, then establishing contacts with the tech guys;
  • To tech guys B & B for getting me out of password hell;
  • To M & J, who both rushed to offer lightly used computers;
  • To D, who suggested getting SpinRite to try to salvage the drive, and M who is loaning me a copy.

Without these people I would be so screwed I doubt I’d have managed to post or make contact with anybody for weeks.

As is, I still have a long trek ahead to have a fully functional computer, and at this point, it’s still entirely possible that I could end up losing a lot of mail plus the ability ever again to decrypt and read the last year’s worth of encrypted messages and data.

I’m optimistic SpinRite will keep that from happening, but who knows?


Where I went wrong: I’m tempted to say “everywhere.” But my mistakes fall into two broad, and sadly familiar categories, both of which apply to all kinds of prepping, well beyond the realm of computers:

  • I got complacent.
  • I didn’t think out my recovery plans.

Anybody else recognize themselves there?

Specifically, I got into the mindset that this “new” computer worked so well that it would just go cranking along forever. I unthinkingly assumed that — even though the “new” computer was actually nine years old, had a keyboard with half the letters worn off, and had been giving out weird glitches for months. Oh, the wages of optimism.

And I got so much into the habit of treating key data in certain rote ways that I long since stopped asking questions like, “What will I do if X, Y, or Z happens?”

The specific problems that arose from those two broad follies were many and varied.


System backups. I habitually backed up documents and valuable data like passwords, email server settings, and bank information, but I stopped doing system backups. Even if I’d been doing system backups, I probably wouldn’t have given enough thought to questions like, “How do I apply these backups to get up and running again without delay?”

Encryption. I send and receive a lot of PGP or GnuPG encrypted email. All my most private data I store encrypted. So then why (you might ask) did I not a) back up my encryption keyrings after creating a new key pair a year or so ago and 2) make sure I had a working encryption system somewhere apart from my everyday computer? Instead, I ended up with “safely” encrypted vital data that I can’t decrypt.

A functional backup computer. Given my reliance on the computer to earn a living and communicate with the world, I should not only have had backups, but should have had a fully functional, frequently tested second computer with those backups on it, up-to-date and working. As is, the old computers I thought I was so smart to keep on hand were, and are, completely out of date and in various stages of malfunction. I can’t use them at all to get back online or find current, much-needed data.

Contact information. Although in a way this is a subset of the other problems, I should have saved my email address book and other contact information separately and in the clear (unencrypted).

Alternate email setups. Another subset, but as it turned out, a huge one. Having lost access to my email accounts AND the (encrypted and unavailable) means of setting them up again quickly, I was skunked. I couldn’t communicate with people I desperately needed to reach and I couldn’t receive password hints, verification codes, etc. from sites. Of all the problems I caused myself, that was the worst. That non-existent functional backup computer should have been running a fully parallel email system. (And no, don’t say web mail; I hate web mail.) Point in my favor: I had parallel email on the iPhone. How could I know Apple would “upgrade” it to death AND that my main email servers would be having trouble this week? “Two is one and one is none” and sometimes five or six can also be none.

Security missteps. My otherwise positive stand on privacy came back to bite me in several ways. I’ve refused to use a password manager because I don’t trust anybody but myself to create and keep my passwords. I just kept them in a form I momentarily can’t access. I’ve also habitually refused to give a mobile number to most sites, and that meant that, without working email, some sites had no way to verify my identity when I entered them via an unfamiliar computer at the library.

Passwords and “remember me.” The passwords I always manually enter (e.g. on bank sites) I had no problem using, post-crash, on the library’s desktop computers. The ones on which I allowed browsers to “remember me” caused trouble because I didn’t have to remember them for myself — until I did have to. And couldn’t. Nor could I receive password hints or password resets from those electronically “remembered” sites.

Definitely a series of unfortunate events.

So much pure stupidity. Laziness. Failure to plan. Cheery complacency. And all this is especially bad coming from me, the preparedness believer. I confess it here because my folly might help somebody else prevent a similar mess.

I shudder when I think of the fix I’d have been in without that handful of helpful, on-the-ball, generous friends.


Did I do anything right? Not much.

Partitions. I set up the computer so that my created data and my settings were on two different partitions, separate from the operating system. While that doesn’t seem to have made a huge difference here, it does make it harder for a crash to destroy everything. And it is easier to back up those partitions even while failing to back up the system.

The operating system itself. Mint Linux. In this case version 19.1 Cinnamon. User friendly and gives lots of control. I can re-install it easily myself if it goes haywire, and I can install it easily on another computer without worrying about licensing fees, permissions, or nannying from outside forces who believe that they, not I, should control my machines. The problem in this case was not the OS, but having such an easy-to-work-with operating system meant I could quickly verify that this was a hardware issue, not a software issue.

Encryption. Well, anyhow, it would have been a good thing, had I had an updated, parallel system running on another good quality, fully functional system.


So there it is; a classic example of “do as I say, not do as I do.”

To sum (and a memo to myself):

  • Do full system backups. Do them frequently and on a regular schedule.
  • Have a parallel system designed to swing right into action if the primary fails.
  • If you encrypt, back up your keys and make sure your parallel system is also fully ready to encrypt and decrypt.
  • Keep key contact information where you can access it.
  • Think out various contingency plans before you need them.


Now I’m sure that readers more tech-savvy than I will have lots to add, particularly about ways and tools to make all this (and more) workable.


  1. david
    david October 18, 2019 5:10 am

    Thanks Claire. This is certainly a useful PSA, and I’ve already copied all my ‘usual suspects’ and even myself. It’ll take me a while to apply it all, but it’s Highly Useful information. I for example was backing up to a high volume thumb drive – which I’ve misplaced and couldn’t find now if my communications depended on it.

  2. Steve
    Steve October 18, 2019 6:47 am

    Yeah, thanks, your saga arrived as my computer said “scanning and repairing drive 27% complete” when I booted up yesterday. .it finally started an hour later. Googling around, I find this is computerese for “ I’m dying, back me up”. I have a Win 8 15 y.o. HP tower, doesn’t owe me anything at this point. I bought a plug in HD months ago to do my first backup 😕but you know how it is. Today is backup day, then a few files to memory sticks, then Spinrite, which I down yesterday at a small discount since I was in their records from decades ago. It is not quite as easy to run as a few years ago, needs to boot from a cd or usb drive annoying if your clunker goes to hd first. Maybe our computers are part of the failing community. Good luck.

  3. jolly
    jolly October 18, 2019 7:34 am

    An ancient “headless” tower or desktop can be used as a backup machine using rsync or some-such. Just make sure you get alerted if the backup dies..The cost of older machines with massive hard drives is so cheap nowadays…but they DO use electricity and can be noisy.

  4. Val E. Forge
    Val E. Forge October 18, 2019 8:51 am

    Remember, the computer is a labor saving device designed for your convenience.

  5. Comrade X
    Comrade X October 18, 2019 8:58 am

    Kinda comes down to the ole; Two is one and one is none methinks.

  6. larryarnold
    larryarnold October 18, 2019 3:05 pm

    There’s a long, involved joke about Satan and Jesus getting into an argument over which was the better computer user, so God sets up a contest. They do this and that and the other thing, and just as they get to the finish line the power goes out. When it comes back on Jesus begins printing out results.
    “How can this be?” Satan asks.
    God answers, “Jesus saves.”

  7. Jim B.
    Jim B. October 19, 2019 4:09 pm

    Regarding a backup computer, consider getting a Raspberry Pi’ that you can take and use anywhere there’s a monitor. They just came out with an updated one. Best of all, they come with a card for storage instead of a hard drive, although you can add one if you so desire. And if anything happens you can swap out to a backup one. Best of all they’re cheap, compared to the big guys. It’s what I’m thinking of doing.

  8. William Teach
    William Teach October 20, 2019 5:47 am

    Good post. A standard disk hard drive has a limited lifespan of access. I had the same thing happen with my last laptop, a slow die. Unfortunately, by the time it starts really happening, it can be too late. I lost a whole bunch of movies that I had on the hard drive (many were shrunk to be able to watch on phone/tablet). It blew up the whole intricate setup I had for playing Duke Nukem 3D (love that game). I was able to save most stuff. Thankfully, I had a backup of some documents on a thumb drive, because lost lots of them, and would have lost several years of tax returns and my resumes.

    And now I have a solid state external hardrive that I sync now and then for photos and songs (I have about 1,200 songs) and documents.

  9. […] Living Freedom has some good advice to protect against your computer dying (my 2 cents: get an external hard drive, preferably a solid state one, and backup every few months. More if you are saving a lot of stuff. I lost a bunch of stuff when my last computer saw a slow HD die-off) […]

  10. S
    S October 21, 2019 6:31 am

    Once a year or so I try restoring files from a backup. To go from feeling smug after a disk crash because you backed up last week to finding out that the backup is corrupted or otherwise not right is pretty sickening.

    I replaced the hard drive in my aging laptop with a solid state drive. A 500 GB drive is presently about $75 on Amazon. Add a $10 USB to SATA adaptor for copying the disk to the SSD. The Samsung SSD I bought included free software for the transfer, it was easy and fast to make the copy. Swapping the disk took about 20 minutes, most of which was time spent figuring out which tiny screws I needed to loosen.

    Now the machine boots in about 2/3 of the time and is noticeably faster for many tasks. I’m much less worried about disk failures.

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