The biggest loser: Pam's community service announcement

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I am happy to announce that I have bestowed a new title on myself today:  The world’s biggest loser.  Ok, to be fair, not an all-around totally clueless loser, but in the case of not having a file backup plan in place for my main computer, I win the prize!

Last night, after I tucked the kids into bed, I went to my iMac and prepared to start my evening’s work.  I immediately noticed that my Outlook email was running really slow, but because I run Parallels software in my Mac environment (which basically allows me to run both Mac and Windows at the same time), I figured I would just restart and everything would be ok.

But it wasn’t.

The whole computer was running slow, so I did a manual shutdown by holding down the power key.  Then I restarted.  But instead of my main screen coming up quickly as it usually does, I got a pale grey background with a folder icon with a flashing question mark inside.

I knew this wasn’t good.

After a few more attempts at restarting, I shut the thing down and went to bed.  If I am cranky, a good rest helps, so maybe my computer felt the same.  It has been a couple of busy weeks, so maybe it just wanted the night off.

This morning, it was more of the same.  A couple of times I was able to get to my hard drive, but it was exceptionally slow, and by the time I was able to access a folder to start the backup process, my whole system would freeze and the restart process would repeat.

So after spending an hour with tech support on the phone, I drove my ill iMac to the Apple store.

The “Genius” (their term for in-store technical wizard) behind the support desk poked around and said “It appears you have a bad hard drive.”  Followed by “but you do have your files backed up, right?”

Herein lies the community service announcement.

No, I didn’t have my files backed up.  I did a weekly backup to an external drive on my old PC, but when I got my shiny new iMac a couple of months ago, somehow I was blinded by a combination of slick marketing messages, which promoted the Mac environment as being much more stable than Windows, and good old fashioned stupidity. I thought “It is a Mac, it won’t crash!  I’ll figure out a backup plan later.  Now, I am much too busy.”

One of you aspiring entrepreneurs should start a virtual business where as soon as someone utters such a thought, a large, concentrated electrical shock strikes them in the forehead.  Such thoughts should not be allowed to cross the minds of seasoned professionals such as myself, but alas they do.


Not tomorrow or next week, but right now at this moment.

Some of my Twitter friends (@fildawg, @braveterry, @rickg and @SherylSisk, who among others have held my hand through my Mac breakdown) recommend the following resources:

If all this seems too much, hire the smartest person you know to figure it out for you.

You never expect your hard drive to fail.  I know I never did, not on a brand new computer!  But technology fails.  And when you put food on the table by the intellectual property you produce, you better have a plan to keep it safe.

If you have a business providing technical support to others, you should create a service offering for backup assement, installation and maintenance that you will advertise to all of your customers.  Use my stupidity as a lead-in to your marketing message if you need to:

“Dear _____:

What would you do if your hard drive crashed this minute?

Pamela Slim, the author of a blog I read and who really should know better given her smart technical friends, had this happen to her today and almost lost her mind.

If you don’t currently back up your files, I would be happy to assess the best service or product for doing so.  I will help you set it up on your computer and will put a process in place to ensure it happens on a regular basis.

If interested, call me at 555-1212 or email me@don’


-Smart Independent Technical Professional”

Bad marketing copy maybe, but you get the point, right?  Some people don’t back up because it seems too difficult and time-consuming.  If you know how to do it, help someone out of the goodness of your heart or to make an extra buck.  It is worth it!

The final chapter

I was told by the Mac Geniuses that despite the early dire predictions, I will be able to retrieve my data.  I purchased an external drive which they are configuring for automatic backups as we speak, and I will also use a couple of remote backup services on a regular basis.  I am so thankful to get my data back that I will even hand-copy my files with a pencil on a legal notepad if need be.  As Malcolm X said (referring to revolution, not computers of course) “by any means necessary.”

They say that those who know better do better.  Now we both know better.  Let’s do better.

Back that drive up!

Filed Under: Managing your business

23 Responses to “The biggest loser: Pam's community service announcement”

  1. Shoot! The *only* reason I do the things you recommend is because the organization I first worked for out of college (waaaay back: a B.S.E.E. in ’84) was (and is) VERY careful with their data. It was NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and they back up everything. Multiple times. In multiple locations. Redundancy is built in to almost everything – checklists, equipment, even the computers on the Shuttle: IIRC tThere are four general purpose computers that are constantly “voting” on whether they’re in agreement. Extreme for us Mac users (sorry PC folks – no TimeMachine for you 😉 but reasonable with lives at stake.

    Good luck!

  2. Mitch says:

    Pam, one word: GOOGLE. I stopped using Outlook two years ago when a virus killed my contact database and 4,000 emails. Microsoft is dead to me! (Although some of the undead applications still stalk the night on my PC.) I use Google for mail, calendar, document creation and management, and as much else as I can. If Google crashes, hundreds of billions of dollars crash too, so at least I’ll have company. And I back up everything on an external hard drive as well.

  3. Ahmed says:

    We target success, but we should have a plan for failures, they do happen. And I think, PCs are not yet mature when we still suffer data loss from a single disk failure when there are redundant technologies such as RAID that should be in every PC. Or how about the net as a storage? Welcome back Pam.

  4. Zviki says:

    I can truly understand. My MacBook Pro died on me about two weeks ago, so this makes us crash-buddies 🙂

    While it is in the shop, I worked on my PC. I had my most important files backed-up with Mozy, so I could continue working (until my PC died that is).

    It was an interesting exercise: switching from Mac to PC for a week. I managed to get some work done. You can read more about it in my post:

    Wow Zviki, and I thought I had a bad week with just one crash!

    I am glad to read that you will be getting your Mac back with hard drive intact.

    Here’s to a better week for both of us!


  5. Oh, I feel your pain, this happened to me years ago.

    Redundancy is good is good. I use Time Machine to back up constantly to an external hard drive, plus Jungle Disk for daily backups to Amazon’s storage service (so cheap you can’t believe it), plus I use Super Duper to back up weekly to ANOTHER hard drive, making a bootable clone of my MacBook’s startup drive.

    I figure the odds of all three failing at once are low. A really important point: make sure one backup doesn’t live at your office. What if the building burns down? Thus things like JungleDisk are great, the data is far away.

    I have used Mozy on PCs and loved it, but last time I checked it was in beta for the Mac and it was so bad I gave up. I was never able to complete a backup of my data with it. Maybe they have improved it, and when it’s out of beta I’m sure it will be fabulous like the Windows version. For Windows users I highly recommend it.

    If you’re using Parallels (& keeping data there), be wary of one thing – to your Mac, your entire Windows drive looks like a giant data file. So you can’t restore individual files from it, and every time you change anything, Time Machine makes a gigantic backup of the whole file that contains the data that Parallels uses to create the virtual drive.

    If you are keeping data there, I’d recommend removing the Parallels files from you Mac backup and running a separate Windows backup in Parallels. Or, do what I do, which is store no data whatsoever there – when I am running a Windows app, it’s accessing data files in the Mac file structure, which are then backup up normally. (If you have Outlook this is basically impossible, but you could use something like Mozy, or run some Win software to back up key files like your Outlook .pst files over into the Mac directories, where your Mac backup would handle them normally.)

  6. Pam,

    WOW, not so good… I’m thankful that with me using a PC I haven’t been fed the lie that macs are just “good to go” and never have problems.

    I’ve had a few close run ins… And was backing up my photos to DVD, however I’ve been using a neat tool for backups.

    I recommend it to PC folks. It’s trial until you use it a ton it’ll yell at you and the upgrade to pro is worth it.

    I backup all my photos after a photo shoot however my weak link was remembering to backup the edits, resized photos, and final “for client” files to the second Hard drive. Alwaysync is great because it only backs up the CHANGES, and it’s not in a proprietary Zip style format like what ghost would do.

    Thanks for the blog post, I’ll point my mac friends here when they start to get lazy.

    /AcmePhoto (flickr, twitter, etc)

  7. Thx for the cautionary tale. I have a backup system, but right now it involves crawling under my desk to retrieve the usb cable–not ideal. Easy to change and I’ll be keeping my backup hard drive plugged in from here on out. Also need to think about a virtual solution as well…

  8. Fred Nelson says:

    Pam: I feel your pain!

    Nobody appreciates backups until they need them. For years my customers have questioned the need for any backup at all!

    Great advice in the posts here, I recommend BOTH an external drive AND and off-site backup service since you can never have too many backups.

    The praises of “mozy” are well founded – I use that for all my workstations. Additionally, I use “intronis” for my server. I combine that with external drives on the machines that “matter” which are backed up daily.

    The best thing is that once it’s all set up it runs by itself!

    Some consider me paranoid, however I’ve had too many disk crashes in my career to be anything else!

    As you reflect on this – consider this an inexpensive lesson since you ultimately got your files back from your original disk!

    That might not happen next time!

    Take care (of your data),


  9. Alicia says:

    Oh Pam,

    Thanks you for the nudge – I’ve writing this on my new laptop that I’ve had for a few months now, and have NOT backed up – yikes.

    And I have crashed more than one hard drive, so I should now better.

    But with a 3 year old, a 7 month old, a home, a husband, and a business, I’m BUSY.

    Of course, I wouldn’t have the business without my computer, so I’m backing up right now, both online and to an external drive.

    And your cracked me up, too!


  10. Ha ha ha!!! Ho ho ho!!!! Hee hee hee!!! That’s funny!!! Errrrrrrrrrrrr… uh, I setup people for backup and yet, often, turn my automated backup off, under the guise of “performance”…

    To date, in 20+ years of computer work, I have never lost a harddrive that had data that was not backed up. But that is mostly dumb luck – because I have gone (remember, I do this for people) months at a time without backing up.

    Right now I am synchronizing to my offline service – Pam’s pain, our gain.

  11. Steve J says:

    It’s a lesson learned! Certainly a useful reminder that all businesses need a contingency plan for when things go wrong. Whenever I start something new with a business, one of the first thoughts that goes through my mind is “what happens when this fails”.

    Of course, whether we end up taking the steps to prevent it or not is another story!

  12. Oh Pam! I feel your pain.

    I lost everything on my flash drive last year but thank goodness it was only about 2 hours of “new” work since I’d backed up two weeks previously.

    And of course, I did just as you did, and wrote about it to my mailing list!

    Now I’m neurotic about it (as you no doubt will be too:))

  13. Hey Pam, I am so sorry you had to go through this horrifying experience. I have been working with computers all my life, and luckily enough never experienced data loss. Yet I am well aware it’s a time bomb just waiting to go off, so backing up is a must. I was shocked to find out that DVDs and CDs are far less reliable than we think, so using these for backup is not a great option.

  14. Oh sis, how aggravating and stressful! Is your book safe? I became anal about backing my book files when I was writing.

    Sounds like another chapter for your book: how to safeguard your business files.

    But, don’t be so hard on yourself. Sh!t happens!

    Plugging in my external hard drive right now.

  15. lilalia says:

    My heavens, you win Brownie point for being able to articulate your problems/disaster so well. I suffered a breakdown of a external drive that had all of my documents on it, that I erased from my Mac so I could make space (without saving the files on a second drive). I was a babbling idjit for days afterwards. I feel your pain.

  16. Aaron K says:

    Ahh Pam, that’s a real bummer and I’ve felt the same agony before. I have one word if you’re running OSX 10.5 (Leopard) and that is TimeMachine.

    Get an external drive and keep it plugged in. Your Mac will be backed up automatically forever on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

  17. You have to use Outlook? I feel your pain 😉

    Online backup is nice, but it’s vital to have a bootable backup on an external hard drive. You want to be able to keep working without missing a beat, and you want to be able to restore your whole environment in one unattended step.

    Bootable backups are also useful when you want do a major OS or software update. Do a bootable snapshot, THEN update, and if the update stinks you can easily roll back.

  18. Bado says:

    The absolute best, and easiest backup solution for Mac will stun you at how easy it is.

    1) Get an external hard drive, it must be FireWire. FW 800 is faster, obviously.

    2) Get the $29 program SuperDuper

    3) Set SuperDuper to smart update to your external drive every night, After the 1st time, it will only do changed files and should take less than 20 minutes. It runs automatically so nothing you need to do.

    4) Restore when needed (this is the best part):
    If you need to wipe drive, or put a new on in, no problem.

    Reinstall OS X.

    When it boots, it will ask if you want to transfer user files from another Mac or another partition on this Mac. Choose “Another Partition” and tell it to use your external drive (this is why it has to be FireWire… this won’t work with USB drives for some reason)

    OS X will start transferring over the user files (not the whole drive, and not the OS X stuff)

    When the transfer is done, you log in. Your computer is EXACTLY how you left it. Your files are on your desktop in the same place, your bookmarks, cookies etc are all still there, saved passwords still there, applications you installed etc.

    It’s literally like you never wiped the drive and started fresh.

    The first time I did this, I was shocked. I went from wiping my disk, to back to “my” system, in full, in under an hour.

  19. Well, I guess that means the extensive email I did actually send you went kaput. (umm big scary question,, did you back up your email mailing list on your server,, or shudder,, was that it?)

    Please do get something like or any of it’s kin. A good friend who is a photographer was robbed and lost everything including people’s wedding photos (sad story). My wedding gift was a year of Pro Mozy (hers was the next month).

    Start fresh, start happy (and back it up.)

    You have all of our sympathies.

  20. Jonathan says:

    One word: Mozy. Definitely the most painless Mac backup solution.

  21. So sorry… oh my gosh, that is painful. None of my files are backed up regularly, so I guess I am tied in the biggest loser contest.

    On the bright side, if there is one, I suspect that in the future we’ll all be working online more and more (Gdocs, etc.) which will minimize the need to worry about backups.

    But of course I know that doesn’t help now. My condolences. 🙁

  22. Oh, Pam. I *was* that loser. We all are, or will be, unless we undertake what you’re doing now.

    Macheads: I’ve been there, and I’m standing behind Nathan Bowers’ reco of SuperDuper and the bootable clone:

    That plus TWO external drives (one onsite, one off, to be rotated in as often as you need for your sanity), each marked with an expiration date two years in the future, so you remember to replace them. Hard drives die, including backup drives. And they are supercheap, compared the cost of data recovery.

    And to reiterate before I sign off, computer users come in two varieties, very much like the motorcycle drivers my mom used to warn me about: those who have crashed, and those who will.

  23. Ah, Pam, I so feel your pain. I lost almost half of an ebook I’m trying to get finished on blogging for lawyers, without a successful backup. I was able to recreate it but not without a whole lot of anguish and effort. (Now if I can just get it out of the hands of the editors…)

    And I am still laughing, fifteen minutes after reading “” (But you’re not a loser. Just fallible, like the rest of us. Which leaves me oddly comforted, truth to tell.)