BitDepth#833 - May 08

A corrupted OS leads me to reexamine my backup systems after a complete reformat of my hard drive.
Nuke and pave
Don’t wait until your drive gets to this stage to have a data and software restoration plan. Photography by Mark Lyndersay.

Three weeks ago, I had one of those experiences that popular folklore suggests you won’t have if you enter Apple’s ranch of weeping unicorns, the Macintosh.
Without warning, my operating system went quietly haywire. It wasn’t a fatal problem, just a monumentally annoying one. Every single menulet, the tiny icons that fill the menubar of a Mac from the top right of the screen, disappeared and the whole bar began to flash erratically.

It was an annoying visual, but a real problem for my workflow. I hang a lot of useful tools off that space and I couldn’t work with the Mac in that state.
After running repair software, reinstalling and then mucking about in the UNIX substructure of the OS, I finally caved. The OS was irretrievably broken.

After years of herding this OS all the way from version 10.1 and across at least four different Macs, it was time to start over from scratch. Well mostly. If you use software like Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper, you can make a standby copy of your installation to reference after you get to the blank slate of a fresh installation of the system.

But there are compelling reasons to use Time Machine, the built in backup system built into recent versions of the Mac OS. Time Machine is an incremental backup system that cleverly adds only what’s changed to its backup of your computer’s data. If you choose a drive for your backup that’s at least three times as large as your computer’s storage and have moderate data turnover, the solution can run for years.

Despite these precautions, whatever failed in my OS made a hash of both backups, skipping critical data that’s now gone forever. I can’t find any e-mails for the last year and a half, though the seven years before that are intact.
Piecing together the tiny bits of lost information has been one of those lingering irritations, like a burr in your shoe that only hurts when you walk in a particular way.

This unusual and unique situation allowed me time to turn off software which requires online activation, something that’s easy to forget when you can’t make use of your computer.
After completely reformatting the drive with a clean install of Mac OSX, I’d essentially returned the system to its factory defaults.

This is scary business. Now, all the settings and data that I’ve accumulated over years of use are gone.
Or is it? Apple has an elegant answer for this problem and this feature alone is an excellent reason to include Time Machine in your back up schemes. On rebooting a fresh installation of the OS, a setup wizard offers to restore your data from a Time Machine backup. This single feature shaved days off the time it took me to restore the Mac to a usable state.

Many computer users stick to two or three major applications to get their work done. While a good word processor and Photoshop have their place in my working day, I employ dozens of cheap, single purpose software products that work quickly and efficiently to do things like check grammar, watermark photos and upload client files to the web (that’s three right there).

I maintain a list of serial numbers for all this stuff, but even that listing proved to be out of date, and some of the original e-mails with the software activation codes had disappeared during the restore.
Fortunately, even smaller software developers maintain automated systems online that will resend missing serial numbers to owners in good standing.

If you’ve cracked all your software, you may find all this easy to do, but I doubt it, plus you’re missing out on the warm glow of software support reciprocated.
This is also where the utility of the Mac App Store comes to the fore. Reinstalling software bought off the store is a quick, effortless experience. Choose the products you want to reinstall from the store interface, click a few buttons and your software is restored.

There are fewer and fewer tools available to reliably diagnose a wonky Macintosh and we’re some distance from the elegant reliability of Norton Utilities 2.0 and MacTools. I’m currently using
TechTool Pro, mostly for intermittent volume rebuilds, though you may prefer Disk warrior.

Resorting to a nuke and pave solution isn’t normally the Macintosh way, but on the rare occasion that it becomes necessary, it’s reassuring that Apple has worked to make restoring a Mac to its last usable state so straightforward.
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