In the chronology of my Spanish trip going haywire, the hard drive dying came on May 5, after me getting COVID and after the cat sitter locked herself out of my apartment, but before an airline kicked me out of the airport despite following all the recovery rules, and before the second airline lost my luggage.
The drive was a relatively new four-terabyte SSD, and 75% of its contents were the 100,000+ files that encompass the book: the writing, the high-resolution photos, the typesetting, the database of keyboard stuff, all the newsletters and various mini projects. It was all there until one moment, without any warning, it wasn’t.
I won’t keep you in unnecessary suspense: there was no real danger. I backed everything up just before I left, and even the hard-to-replace photos I took earlier on the trip were immediately duplicated into sets put in different wallets and suitcases.
Still. I’ve done a million small things during the trip’s quieter evenings – photo processing, minute adjustments, tiny rewrites, and so on – and the notion of having to redo all of them felt daunting. Besides, I wasn’t sure I kept track of them all, and it’s a really unpleasant feeling to face something not being done while remembering having done it. (Or, don’t ever let Schrödinger and Zeigarnik have a baby!)
Besides, without the drive, what would I do with myself during what ended up being nine more days of COVID isolation in Madrid’s increasingly stranger and stranger hotel rooms?
In 1999, a girl I had a crush on told me that all the stuff on her hard drive had disappeared. Her dad was messing with the computer the day before, but – just like dads sometimes do – he turned clueless first and unapologetic second. My crush’s stuff was all there until one moment, without any warning, it wasn’t.
And so I packed up my favourite tool of that era, a pirated copy of Disk Editor, and went on a 5-hour train trip to see her.
I became so enamoured with Disk Editor that later I had a column in a Polish games magazine called DDT: Diskeditor Dream Team. But that’s a very different story.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I had an inkling that turned out to be accurate: computers are lazy enough that they don’t often truly delete stuff. They just keep the stuff where it is, but remove the signs pointing to it. Recreate the signs, and you can get it all back.
It worked in 1999, as I carefully calculated and recreated a partition table from scratch. Twenty-three years later, in a hotel overlooking Madrid’s beautiful park I was no longer allowed to visit, I was hoping this would be the same story. The drive still seemed to be working, after all, but instead seeing its contents, I was greeted with a litany of error numbers so high they should not possibly exist:
com.apple.DiskManagement.disenter error 49218
File system verify or repair failed. : (-69845)
Storage system verify or repair failed. : (-69716)
Tools evolved since 1990’s Disk Editor, and on my third hour scouting the internet, I learned about one that could help me: DMDE – yet another piece of software with a heart of gold married with the user interface of asbestos.
I found my way through the strange menus and dialogs. The progress bar was useless, but there was activity. And an hour or so later, the important parts of my book seemed to be back back, each and every file – particularly all the new ones created during the trip.
I breathed a sigh of relief, and immediately invoked a script to put my book together again from its components. An hour later, I compared the output with the previous run from when the drive was working perfectly. I expected two identical PDFs, but I was in for an unpleasant surprise. The book came with two extra pages.
When I mentioned in April that the book was complete, I meant complete complete – not just all the words reviewed and proofread, not just all the 700 photos secured, cleaned up, and captioned, but every word and every photo having their precise location within the 1200 pages of the book.
This was important. Decades of reading and creating websites had me used text and images just flowing together without too many restrictions. But print is different, bound by rigid rectangles of pages, and so many rules to follow that I’m still learning about some.
There are not only widows, orphans, but gradations within them. Letter spacing has to be flexible, but not too flexible. You can do everything according to rules, and the two facing pages can still feel bad, with more arbitrary adjustments needing to be made.
The automatic tooling built into InDesign only goes so far. I put together a(n) (over)complicated system that solved many issues InDesign couldn’t – I wrote about it last year – and the hundreds of little things that couldn’t be laid out automatically I figured out by hand. Among them was one principle I imposed on the book: every chapter needs to end in the bottom right part of the spread. Not too high so it didn’t feel inelegant, and not too low since that would suggest the text continues on the next page.
The last time I assembled my book everything was in its correct place:
But now, having recovered the files from the troubled drive, the book somehow gained one spread of two extra pages.
I scrolled up and down the new PDF to find what was the difference, and soon realized that the end of chapter 6 now looked like this:
What the hell happened? Was the restored drive not fine after all? Did the script that I used get malformed? Did my writing? The files holding the photos? The files holding the book? Did InDesign update itself in the interim with some small change that threw everything out of whack? Was it just bit rot?
This was an awful outcome, a shade of an indeterminate gray. But luckily I brought with me a physical prototype of the book, printed and assembled not so long ago. I could compare the before and after. And soon I figured it out, although I had to look very, very carefully. See if you can spot the difference yourself:
Yes, it was just a one-letter fix – a new comma – which I must have absentmindedly done one day, and I never re-ran the book compiling script because, well, how much of a damage could one character make?
But the paragraph this was happening in was tight enough that the new character pushed another word to a new line, and that cascaded through 20 subsequent pages into something much more serious:
Here, you can see how the one fix pushed subsequent paragraphs further down and down (I indicated some matching paragraphs with arrows so they’re easier to spot) causing the last page to overflow
Here’s the funny thing. The history of typing is filled with one-letter typos with profound consequences. Even in just recent years, we have seen Google’s typo render Chrome OS machines unusable, and other typos led to a huge internet outage, made a popular browser less secure, and a few people in China fired (if not worse). Sixty years ago, a simple typo caused America to lose its first interplanetary spacecraft, although I am not sure if the “shit commander” 1944 typo story from Soviet Union is actually real, as people question everything from the outcome to the premise. (But then again: could a tiny typo start a war? Did one already cost us our democracy?)
This was my own version of this story, a typo fix that scared me in one hotel room when I wasn’t already my best self. Even with my documenting habits, I probably fixed it just before going on vacation, and subsequently forgot about it.
I bet this cascading effect – a small change pushes the line to be longer, then the paragraph to be taller, then some lines to drop to the next page, and then a new set of two pages needing to be added to accommodate that – was well-known to hardened typesetters. But it was relatively new to me.
The fix was easy. I rewrote the paragraph slightly so it stopped overflowing, and the book was back to the hard earned 608 pages, a number itself a confluence of a few hard limitations of printing (books are printed on much larger pieces of paper that are then folded and cut, and – long story short – 608 divides neatly by 32).
My first hard drive was a 32MB beast. It sounded great – none of the characteristic 1990s clickiness, but soft “meep meeps” of an earlier generation of a mechanism. It was an upgrade over the floppy disks I used before, but it was almost as slow as those, and constantly on the verge of running out of space. My love-hate relationship with the drive took a sharp turn towards hate when it gave up its life one day in the early 1990s. All of my early PC programs – the tank battle games, the first attempts at the Tron light cycle games, the multimedia computer encyclopedia I laboured over that won some award in primary school – were there until one day, without any warning, they weren’t.
There was no recovery. This was a true mechanical failure, and the backups… what backups?
It might have been this moment that made me more interested in preserving my data, learning Disk Editor, saving stuff on CD-Rs and then in the cloud. Perhaps that loss was the first building blocks towards me becoming an amateur archivist. The girl would later break my heart, but no library ever did.
In the chronology of my Spanish trip going haywire, the hard drive dying came on May 5, after me getting COVID and after the cat sitter locked herself out of my apartment, but before an airline kicked me out of the airport despite following all the recovery rules, and before the second airline lost my luggage. All of these things straightened themselves out over time. I fixed the drive completely in due time, the cat sitter found her way in, and I made it home. My COVID was mild and, hopefully, without any longer term consequences.
Eventually, I was reunited with the luggage as well. But it took a week. At one point, the airline asked me to file a form describing the luggage precisely, presumably in case its barcode fell off. They asked for a type, color, and something that would help identify it from the outside. But – just in case – they also asked me for something unique hiding inside. Something no one else could possibly have.
I smiled and wrote “A prototype of my book Shift Happens, orange spine, two volumes, 608 pages each.”
This was newsletter №32 for Shift happens, an upcoming book about keyboards. Read previous issues · Check out all the secret documents