Ten Seconds, Identity, and 20% Memory Loss: Why You Need Backups

Ten seconds and an ethernet cable.  That's what it took K.C. and I to lose our memories, and for my assessment of my own skills to fall from "technical God" to "what the hell am I doing anyway?"

Perhaps I should back up a bit.  You'll soon see why this statement is funny.

Delivery

My wife K.C. and I bought a brand new iMac as our primary home machine. I know, I know, Microsoft developer buys Apple machine, bring on the jokes. But this iMac is really, really nice, and it works with all our other stuff.

In our family, I'm the "technical" one.  I work on computers all day, so I am expected (not without reason) to know all about them.  K.C. is not a Luddite by any means, don't get me wrong, but she's got an artist's eye and I've got an engineer's. We compliment each other.  Plus, I looked forward to a problem I could solve.

It fell to me, as the "technical" one, to transfer 330 gigabytes of photos, videos, audio, and documents from our ancient Dell machine to the new iMac.  Ten years of media, from before we got married, through the birth of our kids, to vacations, to the last audio we have of K.C.'s grandmother, to buying our house.  All of it needed to get off the Dell and onto the iMac.

Laptop coding programs
Photo by Tirza van Dijk / Unsplash

I figured this would be easy, which should have been the first clue.  Apple publishes a tool called Migration Assistant which purports to be able to do this kind of transfer for you. I installed this on the Dell, but I could not for the life of me get it to run.  We really didn't want to spend the $100 paying for the migration from the Apple Store (ironic considering the $3k we spent to buy the computer), or to buy a portable hard drive that we were going to use once, so I was attempting to get this done as cheaply as possible.

In a flash of determination, I ran to the local electronics store, bought an ethernet cable, hooked the two machines together, remoted into the Dell from the iMac, and started doing a transfer.  K.C. keeps all of our media files in a well-defined folder structure, so all I had to do was move a few root-level folders and we would be done very quickly.

As I watched the progress bar fill slowly to 100%, my confidence increased.  I had done it!  Now we could junk the old Dell and get on with our lives.

The next day K.C. decided to clean out the old Dell.  We wanted to give it to her father to use as a backup machine. She asked if we were OK to delete the media off of it, and I told her it was fine. Ten seconds later, I realized that we should probably keep them, just in case, but by then it was too late.  No big deal, I thought.  We've already got them all on the iMac.

Don't we?

Six days passed.  K.C. noticed something late one night: several pictures that should have been in a specific folder were just missing.  The folder structure was correct, none of the folders were missing but there weren't as many media items as there should have been.  I cannot rightly describe to you, dear readers, the sinking feeling, the pit, that opened up in my gut.

Diagnosis

Not everything made it.

As near as we can tell, about 70%-80% of our memories survived the transfer. There is no rhyme or reason as to what made it and what didn't; the only commonality we can find is that more recent stuff was much more likely to have been lost.  

And yes, we should have had another backup.  And yes, we shouldn't have deleted the source.  And yes, we did a lot of things wrong.  Hindsight is depressingly amazing, and thoroughly unhelpful.

Save Yourself
Photo by Serrah Galos / Unsplash

We spent two nights scouring the photos and videos, searching for what was lost. All of our media from our kids' births were there, but the recent trip to California we'd taken was missing more than half of the photos K.C. had taken with our DSLR camera.

20% may not seem like much.  But how do you value 20% of your memories? Especially when you're not even sure what was missing?

We took the Dell to Geek Squad in the vain hope that they could restore it.  They could not.  A trip to a local data-recovery store yielded the same result.  Now we were stuck, stuck with the knowledge that we were missing parts of our lives.  But which parts?  And how the bloody hell did this happen in the first place?!

Despair

I took this really hard.  I'm the "technical" one, it's my job to be good at stuff like this. If I am not that guy, what am I?

As with any true disasters, there's never just one decision that leads to the terrible result.  The thoughts you have in the moment when you discover the error are not a fair representation of your actual skill, or indeed, have any true impact on what you are.  But in the moment and for days afterward, I was convinced it was my fault, my doing.  I was convinced that I caused our collective loss.  To be fair, I kinda did.  But I didn't need to be so hard on myself about it.

That was the trick.  I had to let go of the nagging responsibility that, as the "technical" one, it was my job to fix the problem I had caused.  I tried to fix it, tried my damnedest, but there was no fix available.  It simply couldn't be undone.

In absence of a solution, I needed something else: I needed to forgive myself.

I know how corny this all sounds, believe me, but forgiveness is difficult for me.  I get caught up in finding the answer to a given problem.  I am the guy with the answers, or at least that's the mask I put on.  I want to be the problem-solver.  I want to be needed, appreciated.  Sometimes the problem just cannot be solved. When this happens, I am forced to admit something which is difficult to utter: I am not always the guy who can fix everything.

Discovery

We did, finally, get a bit lucky.

Green rope meshwork
Photo by Clint Adair / Unsplash

One of the brilliant things about living in such an interconnected world is that sometimes we have backups without even realizing it.  My wife is a big user of Facebook, and it turned out that much of what we lost was stored there, in albums and dated posts.  We are in the process of retrieving this data now, and let me tell you, it's an amazing feeling.  It's not going to replace everything, but it helps.

I'm still the technical one.  Problems like this are still mine to solve.  My skills aren't diminished, despite the screwup and despite my own impostor syndrome. It sucks losing 20% of our memories, but we got much of it back, and the truly important things are still here.

I wish I knew how this happened.  I never will.  And I'm gonna have to be okay with that, with what we lost.  We both are.

Moral of the story: back up your systems!  Now!  20% of your memories is priceless. Don't lose it.

Ten Seconds, Identity, and 20% Memory Loss: Why You Need Backups
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