Sunday, January 8, 2017

CHKDSK to the rescue!

Last Thursday evening, the 2 TB system disk on my primary Windows machine decided to fail, developing a number of unrecoverable media errors.

It wasn't immediately obvious that it was a hard disk failure: the machine would boot, run for a while (2 minutes? 5 minutes?) then it would lock up and stop running and eventually shut down.

I was able to bring up a document or two, but it wouldn't stay up long enough for me to bring up the Windows Event Log or any other sort of diagnostic tool.

Eventually I realized that the most likely cause was a media error on the system disk, and recognized that this wouldn't be a trivial task to recover from. Luckily, I have some other machines in the house that I can use, so I wasn't totally dead in the water.

Typically, when you develop bad blocks and other media errors on your hard disk, particularly to the point that the device itself can no longer quietly re-map those bad blocks to other sectors on the disk, you're looking at total data loss.

Which was unfortunate, because I didn't actually have a backup of this disk. Yes, I know: oops.

So over the weekend, I began trying to understand what was really wrong with the machine and what could be saved. I booted into the BIOS, and ran the various self-tests and diagnostics that come with this particular Dell machine. They confirmed that (a) the system disk was returning I/O errors, and (b) the rest of the computer seemed to be fine, from a hardware point of view.

It turns out that I had a second internal hard disk already installed in this computer, so I (with the power down of course) disconnected the main system disk from power and SATA, and popped my Windows 10 DVD into the DVD drive and installed Windows on the other hard disk.

Yay! Now I at least had a functioning computer again.

I had already placed an order for a replacement storage device, but I was intrigued by the fact that the machine had still been able to boot from the damaged system disk on Thursday: perhaps there was some faint hope that I could recover my data?

So I carefully re-connected the damaged disk to power and SATA, having made sure in the BIOS that it would NOT be the boot disk, and started back up again.

Then, from an Administrator CMD.EXE window, I fired up:


And I went off, to take the dog for a walk.

And watched some football.

And my son came over and we talked about his life and how things are going.

And, eventually, after about 3 hours, the CHKDISK completed!

I was astonished; I hadn't really expected that.

So I plugged one of my external USB backup drives into the machine, and opened up the damaged drive in Windows Explorer, and lo and behold!

I was able to see files!

As quickly as I could, with my fingers crossed and my toes crossed, I selected all the most important files (4 years of digital pictures, various documents I'd written, some backup copies of data from my wife's machine, and so forth), and copied them all to the external drive.


Anyway, I'm mostly back up and running, although I've got a lot of software to re-install on this machine.

It's interesting that much of the stuff that I care about, is no longer the sort of problem that it would have been, even just 5 years ago: my email is all in the cloud, my Steam saved games are all in the cloud.

And, of course, my eight years of writings about my life and interests are in the cloud, as well: on this blog!

Other than some various files that I don't particularly want to save in the cloud (tax documents, etc.), the files that would have caused me the most trouble to lose were my VirtualBox images. I haven't yet had time to verify whether I successfully recovered those, but I'm hopeful.

In a way, completely starting over with a computer like this is a bit like moving house: it makes you think about what you really need to keep, and what you can throw away. There's a saying that, after you move into your new house, if should happen that there are some moving boxes that you haven't opened, and it's been 6 months, well, you can just throw those boxes away.

I'm not really that person; I find it very hard to throw things away.

But I understand the motivation behind the sentiment. Declutter!

Meanwhile, I'm sort of doing the same thing with my office environment. At my last job, I spent my entire 7 years in the same physical cubicle, never even moving once. That's really rare, at any company, and especially in the chaotic world of Silicon Valley high technology. Seven years was far and away the longest amount of time that I had ever spent in the same cubicle in my entire 35 year career; I think the second longest time I ever spent in a single cubicle is much closer to 2 years than to 7.

So, over those 7 years, I of course accumulated a vast amount of junk. I tried to throw most of it away, of course disposing of the company materials that had languished on my disk and bookcase and in filing cabinets: pile after pile after pile of documents full of hard, anguished work, which I was convinced I might need to refer back to, "sometime".

Even so, I still brought home more than a dozen shopping bags. Many were full of books, my professional library that I've accumulated over the years. But there were pictures, children's art, coffee cups, backup eyeglasses, spare clothing and jackets and umbrellas and whatnot, and lots of odds and ends that didn't fit into any easy category but I couldn't just immediately throw away.

So here I am, entering the new year. I have piles of stuff in the garage, which I'll have to sort through, and decide which things to take to the new office. And I have piles of files on my recovery disk, which I'll have to sort through, and decide which things to retain on my new computer.

Check back with me in 6 months; I wonder if I'll have even opened them all, much less decided what to keep and what to (finally) throw away.

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