My important lesson of survival for this digital age – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 2 August, 2014

My important lesson of survival for this digital age
by Peter Tan. Posted on August 2, 2014, Saturday

THEY say a picture is worth a thousand words. That could be the reason my father bought a camera. He very seldom expressed himself openly. The photographs he took of family and friends during get-togethers, picnics and even when we were going about our mundane daily routines was perhaps his way of telling us how much we meant to him.

I remember sneaking his Yashica out of the house without his permission for a three-day Boy Scouts camp when I was 14. I only had the slightest idea on the ways to operate it. After shooting my first 36 photographs, I promptly exposed the entire roll when I absent-mindedly opened the camera cover without first rewinding the film back into the cartridge.

When I owned up to him what I did and related the incident of the damaged film, instead of reprimanding me, he took me through the functions of the various buttons and dials. He even encouraged me to use the camera whenever I wanted. The unequivocal support spurred my interest in taking up photography as a hobby, which I enjoy very much till now.

Fast forward to the present day. My wife and I are hobbyist photographers. We shoot for the joy of being able to freeze a memorable moment in time. Between the two of us, we have taken over 50,000 images with our digital cameras. That does not include the few thousand images scanned from negatives from my analogue cameras. All these are stored in one single external hard drive.

Additionally, in my line of work on disability rights advocacy, photographic documentation is indispensable when it comes to pushing for an accessible built environment. Pictures and videos make it easier to show best practices and issues arising from non-compliance to the code of practice. I have built an archive of such images from different countries.

On the second day of Hari Raya, while looking for images to be used in a presentation I was invited to make, I was horrified to discover the external hard drive could not be accessed. Plugging it into another computer yielded the same negative result.

Losing data from a hard drive malfunction is not new to me but it has never happened in such a massive proportion. That was a three-quarter filled 2TB drive. Other than images, the drive also held files that I needed to use on a regular basis. Calling it a catastrophe was an understatement.

On hindsight, the lack of systematic data management on my part was a disaster waiting to happen. There was no proper storage and backup of crucial files. I had not taken steps to protect my data after previous incidents.

Ideally, important data should exist in three copies and kept in separate locations; the original in the computer hard drive, one in a separate external drive and one in a different location like online cloud storage.

The extra redundancy is to safeguard the data and make sure it is still available in other locations in the event of hardware failure, fire, flood or burglary. This ideal method may not be wholly practical especially for putting the data offsite if the files are large and connection to the Internet is slow. Nevertheless, it is always a good idea to have at least one backup for those just-in-case moments.

The external hard drive still has one more year of warranty to it. Being able to claim for a replacement was the least of my problems. I preferred to have my data intact instead of a new drive any time of the day. The loss of data severely impaired my daily work. Naturally, I panicked.

Before admitting defeat, there were three steps I could do to check if it was indeed a total loss. The first step was to replace the cable. Since that was the only device in the house with a USB 3.0 socket, I had to rush out to buy another cable late that evening. Fortunately, the shop was open in spite of the holiday. My heart sank when the computer still could not detect the drive with the new cable.

The next step was more complicated. It required some elbow grease in dismantling the external casing and plugging the drive directly to a computer. I found a YouTube video on it. It looked rather complicated and difficult, and not something I would want to attempt. Opening up the casing would also void whatever warranty was remaining.

I mulled on proceeding to the third step. Depending on the nature of the malfunction, whether it was software or physical damage to the hardware, it could cost anything between RM300 and RM5,000 to have the data recovered in a specialised clean room facility.

The charge at the extreme end was exorbitant. It would cost more than my entire computer set up with extra cash to spare. I asked myself if my data inside the drive was worth that amount. In reality, the images my wife and I captured are priceless. They collectively make up a 10-year pictorial diary of our journey through life.

I reckoned I could do no worse by exhausting all manners of troubleshooting the first step again by myself if I was going to fork out that amount of money for data recovery at some point in time later. After the fifth attempt at plugging and unplugging the drive, lo and behold, the speakers emitted two familiar beeps that indicated the hard drive was detected and recognised by the computer.

Having learnt a heart-stopping lesson on the importance of backing up data properly and regularly, I got a two-drive network attached storage (NAS) and have been transferring all my files over to it. The same data is written to both hard drives simultaneously. In case one fails, data can be recovered from the other drive.

The unit costs slightly over RM1,000 for two 2TB hard drives. This is a small price to pay for some peace of mind. There is data I cannot lose or do without. These are photographs that hold special meaning to me like my father’s photographs were to him. I was lucky all my data in the external hard drive was intact this time. This scare has taught me the importance to making backups and the dangers of putting all my eggs in one basket.

Everyone who has computer data saved in one location should seriously consider this issue. The two questions they should ask themselves are “How much is the data in my computer worth?” and “Can I afford to lose all the files in the event of a malfunction or disaster?”

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Author: Peter Tan

Peter Gabriel Tan. Penangite residing in the Klang Valley. Blissfully married to Wuan. A LaSallian through and through. Slave to three cats. Wheelchair user since 1984. End-stage renal disease since 2017. Principal Facilitator at Peter Tan Training specialising in Disability Equality Training. Former columnist of Breaking Barriers with The Borneo Post. This blog chronicles my life, thoughts and opinions. Connect with me on Twitter and Facebook.