I'm not the only one who looks at the technology leaps of the last 20 years and sighs at how our computing obsessions make us look vulnerable and pathetic when a battery or Internet connection goes dead.
So much for self-determination and the daring individualist.
But is it possible that Windows 7 saved my job? I was feeling anything but irony a couple of weeks ago after a big power transformer in my neighborhood exploded and blipped the power off and on a few times before finally going dead.
My battery-powered laptop carried on, but when the power returned, I was alarmed to find that my home office desktop PC -- where I store nearly all of my notes, interviews and stories -- would not start up. All it would do was hang and restart over and over despite safe modes, boot disks and "rescue" programs that could only offer to erase the drive with all of my files and start over.
No way. I was on deadline with a feature article due to my editor that very day for a magazine that was shipping to the printer within the week. An expensive photo shoot for that story was happening almost as I sat there, panicked and fuming like a child.
Yes, I had file backup on the Web through my security provider, but the account number and password and my only way to find them was in the files on the dead drive. (In the end, my backup plan was also flawed.)
I figured that the meltdown had only ruined the boot files that start up the computer. I took out my screwdriver, extracted the hard drive from my PC and bolted it into an external drive plugged into my Windows XP laptop. The drive clicked like a metronome and stopped. An ominous white "X" appeared inside a red circle on the screen saying that the drive was corrupted and the files could not be read. None of them. No "explore" or "view folders," just "volume cannot be accessed." I tried the same thing on another XP-Pro machine and played with the drive's jumper settings, but it all led back to the same deadly white X.
Panic began to build as clarity set in. For me, this was worse than the dream where you wake up on exam day to find that, for some reason, you never attended the class you were about to be hugely tested on. I couldn't even rewrite my article from scratch because all my interviews and notes were in the same folder as the missing story.
I contemplated how my employer might react to my emerging vision of a glossy magazine cover and six blank pages inside. Considering the likely consequences, I ran out to buy a new PC, with hopes of finding and reconnecting to my lost files through my backup provider. The new box, chosen in short order, came with Windows 7, which had come out just the week before.
I'd carried the broken hard drive in a coat pocket just in case, but the lines at the geek service counter and the face at the desk, a fellow who stared back and forth between unmatched connectors in each hand, told me this was not going to be a solution. Barring that, I was prepared to fly my crippled disk in a styrofoam ice chest like a heart transplant to the best diagnostic recovery center in the world to chase my fleeing deadline.
Hours later on this completely wasted work day I was chatting via the Web on my new computer to a nice lady named Lakshmi who reinstalled my security software and looked up my saved files. But when she finally brought up the menu, we found that my last backup date would contain early interviews for the article but not later ones, nor my notes or the file I'd spent three days hacking into a near-finished version of my increasingly-overdue story.
With Lakshmi's help, the download started but nothing had been transferred in the first 15 minutes. With a final sigh and what the hell, I reinstalled the dead hard drive into the external box and plugged it into my new Windows 7 computer. It whirred and clicked and stopped again. But this time, a new menu popped up saying Windows 7 could not read my files but could give me options to repair the drive bit by bit or jump straight to problem areas. I raised a trembling index finger and clicked the first option. For the first time all day the drive spun up to full speed, and over the next 10 minutes that felt like an hour I clutched the arms of my chair as Windows 7 fixed and restored my disk with each and every original file.
It was an hour past midnight and I had a story to finish.
I'm still not entirely sure what happened, and like nine-tenths of the world I have a distant, codependent relationship with Microsoft. Thank goodness I never got a box with Vista, but I have put a good half-million words on the Web with their other products. They're not the most media-friendly bunch and, like everyone else, I have busted on their late releases and weaknesses even as I marvel at the durability and dominance of others. Anyone out there use Excel? SQL Server? It's anathema to detractors but they are dominating again in collaboration with SharePoint, innovating in health care with Amalga and so far Windows 7 is better than XP, though I'm still getting through it. They'd much prefer that I replace my ancient version of Office -- Redmond giveth and taketh away. But in this case, the evidence so far says Windows 7 saved my lunch, maybe my job, I give them credit for that and that's all I am going to say.
Don't bother to flame my retrieval strategy. I have a big new backup drive, a new cloud provider that checks for new files every day and a battery-backed power supply that shuts down properly when a step-down transformer explodes. In my line of work and probably yours, doing otherwise is kind of like being a policeman and leaving your gun at home.
I feel safer now, but boy, there are days when I just hate computers.