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Learning from Stupidity

By synergexadmin, Posted on July 9, 2010 at 5:56 pm

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I'll be the first to admit that I've done some really stupid things in my life.

Like the time I decided to paddle a canoe across a mile-wide river even as threatening clouds loomed on the horizon.  Or the time I got stuck on a hike by taking a "short-cut" which involved shimmying around an overhang, leaving me suspended over a 70-foot drop to some very sharp, very hard rocks below.

Then there was the time I remoted into a production Alpha server and decided to shut down TCP/IP for a few seconds. Now that was fun; I figured my first month on the job was also going to be my last.

But all of these dumb moves — and many others — have at least one thing in common: Though I learned something, everything was over so quickly that I never had much time to worry about the repercussions.

Not so, yesterday.

My laptop had been causing me more and more grief lately, so I decided it was time to re-install the OS and start from scratch. I wasn't in a huge rush, however, and I had other things to do anyways. So it took me several days to complete my preparations for the wipe, during which time I methodically moved files from my laptop to a backup device.

Yesterday, before lunch, I declared my system ready for reinstall, and pulled the proverbial trigger. I reformatted the hard drive, installed a clean copy of Windows 7, and then ran Windows Update to get everything up to snuff. Success! I was really rocking, and I realized that if I hurried, I could get a full backup of my "clean" build before I left for lunch. So of course, I did something incredibly, unbelievably stupid.

Lesson #1: Do NOT destroy a completely valid, disk image backup to make room for a "fresh" disk image backup.

Turns out that my backup device — a 300GB external drive — was getting a little full. I'd been faithfully (more or less) doing disk image backups for quite a while, with the most recent being dated just last Friday. But those files were just SO BIG and I really needed the space for a new backup set.

My rationalization was pretty solid: I'd backed up copies of only those files that I needed, they were all organized well, and I had ISO images of all the programs I was going to need to re-install, so what's the point in keeping a backup of a system I'm never going to use again anyways?

Plus, I really needed the space.

So I deleted the disk image backup, started a new one from scratch, and went to lunch. Upon returning, the backup was complete. Moving right along, I quickly copied my well-organized backup files into place, and started with software installations.

Someone upstairs was watching out for me, however, because the first software I re-installed was a tiny little program that allowed me to access very special, very important and very irreplaceable encrypted files. And though it installed without a hitch, I quickly found that the encrypted files it opens…

…weren't there.

They weren't in the folders I'd copied back to my laptop, and they weren't on the backup drive. I searched network drives, network computers, and even checked a USB flash drive just against the chance that I'd momentarily lost my mind, transferred them there, and then forgotten about it. Perhaps the worst problem was that I had specifically made sure that those files had been backed up two or three days ago, and I knew everything was ok.

Hadn't I?

I finally gave up on locating them the "easy" way, and started downloading software that scanned hard disks to recover deleted files. After trying five different freebie versions, each of which were dismal failures, I'd almost given up hope. So just before midnight, I gave in and downloaded a try-before-you-buy piece of software called File Scavenger.

The demo version offers the ability to scan a hard drive and locate darn near everything that was ever on it and not overwritten, but only lets you recover 64K of a file before it asks you to pay. Knowing I'd happily pay the $49 if it worked, I downloaded and installed it. Upon running it, however, it looked as if it was going to take at least a couple of hours to scan whatever was left of my hard drive after the format/reinstall, so I decided to retire for the night and get some sleep.

Lesson #2: You can't sleep when you've probably just lost something that's irreplaceable.  (It's the Not Knowing and the What-If's that will keep snapping you back to full consciousness…again and again and again.)

Early this morning, I was back at my desk, with the knowledge that if the scan that I had left running was going to find something, it would have done so by now. I watched the ribbons bounce around on my laptop's monitor. I probably stared at them for a full minute before steeling myself for the worst, taking a last sip of coffee, and moving the mouse to break the spell of the screen saver.

There they were. I almost couldn't believe it. All three of the large, encrypted files that contained countless (or at least, well in excess of 150,000) other files.

Lesson #3: When pulled from a wallet too quickly, a credit card can cut through the pocket that holds it. Sometimes, it's safer for your wallet — and easier on you — to try the Pay-For "premium" solution before you waste hours hunting down the free alternative.

It was the fastest online purchase I've ever made. And within 30 minutes, I'd recovered all three files and confirmed that they were intact and had all of their information. I'd also backed them up (again) and re-confirmed their existence on the backup drive. I then put them on the hard drive of two other computers. Gun-shy? Absolutely.

But I've got to say, this software is amazing — and not just a little scary, too. While doing my scans of my laptop's hard drive, I found a lot of stuff that shouldn't be there. Like stuff that's been deleted for years. Doing a scan of my backup drive, a networked drive personal drive we use to keep copies of pictures, music, movies and (eek!) bank account information, and my little USB flash drive, I found lots and lots and lots of stuff that simply shouldn't be there.

Lesson #4 (Unintended): Deleted isn't deleted until you make it so.

Turns out that NTFS is really, really good at keeping your files intact even after they've been deleted — or even subjected to a quick re-format. FAT32 is as fragile as crystal by comparison, but still has the potential to leave a file intact long after you've deleted it. And while most everyone who's reading this already knows to use a disk utility to overwrite "unused" disk space before getting rid of a drive, remember that until you do, the data is likely still there.

And by the by…did you know that most printers and copiers have hard drives in them? Think twice before you donate or sell them, because the person that takes them off of your hands may have File Scavenger (or something similar) in their possession! With what I've learned — and now purchased — it brings a whole new world of (shady) opportunities to the table. For instance, my neighbor down the street actually has a bunch of printers sitting in his yard under a big sign that says "Take Me I'm Free" (no kidding). It's suddenly tempting to pick them up and take a little peek inside, but fortunately (for both of us) I don't have the time right now, as I'm heading out the door on holiday in only a few short hours.

Now, if only I could just learn

Lesson #5: Don't post a blog entry about your stupidity where the director of your department is likely to read about it

I could be reasonably sure that my job is still secure when I return from a well-needed vacation…

And yes: I'm going to Disneyland.


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