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January 17, 2005

Ask Not for What Laptop the Bell Tolls...

Atrios writes:

Eschaton: So, a laptop committed suicide as I mentioned (won't power up at all). I wanted to pull some important data off the hard drive before sending off to repair-land, so I tried plugging the drive into an old laptop. Hardware was compatible, but wouldn't boot (presumably loaded up with all kinds of incompatible drivers). So, next I tried accessing it from DOS. But, the drive's NTFS and DOS no likey NTFS so that didn't work.

Finally, I found a little laptop-drive-to-USB port adapter online. Tune in next week to see if that works...

Clearly time to back up everything, now, twice.

Remember: a machine has no mind: you cannot sense beforehand when it is about to betray you.

Posted by DeLong at January 17, 2005 04:35 PM

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» Quote of the day from Middle Earth Journal
From Brad BeLong's post talking about the problem Atrios had with his laptop. [Read More]

Tracked on January 18, 2005 10:57 AM

» "This is a floppy disk" from Red Ted Keeps a Diary
I see that Brad Delong is worried about data security after discovering that Atrios had a suddenly dead laptop. I am reminded of the little mini lecture - a nugget of wisdom - that I gave at the start of... [Read More]

Tracked on January 22, 2005 07:50 AM


Just find someone with a linux desktop. Jumper the drive to be backed up as the slave. Insert the NTFS drive when machine is off, boot, insert NTFS module, and mount the drive. Back up to DVDs. No Problem.

Posted by: Pete Coffee at January 17, 2005 04:58 PM

You can also back to gmail.

Posted by: John Emerson at January 17, 2005 05:33 PM

You don't need a desktop. Several Eschaton commenters suggested Knoppix.

I used to recommend to a friend of mine in grad school that she print out her dissertation every week (or at least the new portions) in addition to whatever she was doing for backups.

Posted by: M. at January 17, 2005 05:48 PM

Yes it does. And you can.

Posted by: wood turtle at January 17, 2005 06:50 PM

There's a free download called NTFS Reader that will create either a bootable floppy or a bootable CD that will allow you to pull any readable files from a non-bootable HD. Google for NTFS Reader.

If Knoppix will boot up your laptop, it also works well.

Posted by: Paul French at January 17, 2005 06:52 PM

NTFS reader sorta works, but it's pretty clumsy. Definitely not a fun idea for grabbing a lot of fun.

Posted by: Atrios at January 17, 2005 07:09 PM

you're wrong about that no mind business you know, hardware is evil, especially if it runs an MS operating system.

Posted by: supersaurus at January 17, 2005 07:45 PM

If the machine has a floppy drive (i.e. it is not too new a model), you can try this: http://www.toms.net/rb/ which has a 1.7 MB (nonstandard format) boot floppy. Not sure whether it has an NTFS module. To my knowledge it cannot write to CD/DVD, but you can make your stuff available through httpd on a local network. This is how I retrieved stuff from my broken disk 2 years ago (I had the additional complication that one disk head was broken and I could not access 25% of the surface).

Posted by: cm at January 17, 2005 08:06 PM

Actually, the machines do sometimes give you advance warning that they're about to betray you. The hard disk in my last laptop started making alarming noises one day, then started taking seconds to do seeks... It was a very good hint that I needed to clone that disk NOW and make sure there was nothing I cared about on that disk that wasn't also somewhere else.

But yes, everyone should do their backups and brush their teeth every day.

Posted by: Matt Austern at January 17, 2005 08:44 PM

Hmm, so the last notebook I had that started to go funny on me was an iBook. I got every file off the hard drive by booting it into Target Disk Mode (press T on boot up) and then plugging it in (via a firewire cable) to a working machine.

I had previously thought this was #347 for why you should use a Mac, but I was told that some more modern Wintel machines with a Firewire interface could do this, too. Note that this can work even when you have a partially fried logic board.

But still, it's one more thing about a Macintosh: even when it doesn't work, "It just works".

Posted by: Jonathan.W.King at January 17, 2005 08:49 PM

Most modern hard drives have a SMART system built in (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology) which monitors the hard drive for various errors.

You can run a utility every now and then that queries the SMART system on your hard drive and lets you know how many errors it has seen. I use smartmontools on my Linux system which checks weekly and emails me a report. There are also tools for Windows and Macs.

Of course you should also back up often.

Posted by: Hal Varian at January 17, 2005 09:54 PM

"a machine has no mind: you cannot sense beforehand when it is about to betray you."

That's Larry Niven, right? The one about the Slavers?

[You are correct, and may claim your five pounds...]

Posted by: ajay at January 18, 2005 01:59 AM

I was insanely paranoid when I was writing my dissertation. I had everything backed up 3 or 4 times, and carried a ZIP disk with me.

Posted by: Unstable Isotope at January 18, 2005 03:41 AM

I personally liked Atrios' euphemism "some important data".

Posted by: Hal 9000 at January 18, 2005 06:24 AM

> I was insanely paranoid when I was writing my dissertation.

I think you mean to say you "took reasonable precautions."

My dissertation was in LaTeX and fit comfortable on a 3.5 floppy. I had a couple of backups and felt especially warm and fuzzy when I was traveling and had two copies separated by 3000 miles distance. It's so cheap to make backups and so expensive to try to reconstruct your own work, that there is nothing paranoid about making as many backups as you feel like.

Way back when, I used go on tirades about how silly toys like sound cards were standard on PCs but backup storage devices were options purchased mainly by hardcore geeks. I wore myself out on this one--it's easier to sell people sounds and pretty colors than something as intangible as risk reduction--but I have little sympathy for anyone who complains of losing important files.

This includes me, because I don't always practice what I preach and tend to do critical rather than exhaustive backups. Fortunately, it's pretty easy now to back up smaller files online.

Posted by: Paul Callahan at January 18, 2005 10:01 AM

Remember, a computer has no emotions, therefore it can't betray you.

Posted by: Jarrett at January 18, 2005 10:50 AM

Oh, Jarrett. A computer can certainly lead you astray or deceive you. Betrayal certainly does not require emotion.

Posted by: M. at January 18, 2005 11:22 AM

When this happened to me, I extracted the drive from the broken laptop and installed it as the primary drive on the secondary IDE channel in a working NT desktop system. In order to plug a 2-1/2" drive into a 3-1/2" drive cable you'll need an adapter, which you can get from your local nerd supply shop for about $10. Make sure you don't put the adapter on upside-down, or else you'll blow the laptop hard drive out!

Now that I have a laptop with USB, I bought a 200 GB IDE drive and a USB case. Backing up, restoring, or transferring even multiple gigabytes of data files is easy now; insert USB plug, a new drive letter appears automagically in Explorer ("My Computer") and then just drag-n-drop.

Posted by: W. Kiernan at January 18, 2005 11:37 AM

**Oh, Jarrett. A computer can certainly lead you astray or deceive you. Betrayal certainly does not require emotion.**

I would say that a computer (currently) can do none of those things. Emotiton is not the right word, but something like intent or motive is. A hammer can not betray you. You can use it incorrectly, or the Gods can frown upon you and it can break and poke your eye out or make you miss the deadline, but in any conceivable case the hammer was always just an inanimate hunk of matter. A computer is just a fancy hammer.

What does this have to do with backups? Absolutely everything: don't anthropomorphize tho computer to excuse a lack of backups or a catastrophic error. Be prepared for them if it matters. You're the one with the brain, not the computer.

Posted by: Timothy Klein at January 18, 2005 10:35 PM

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