On a collision course with tech
Do bad things always happen in threes? And what can you really do to avoid crashes – on your PC or otherwise? Peter Cochrane explains... My summer holiday was going well until I decided to go fly-fishing on Rutland Water. I had just driven off the main highway into a lane to park the car when my car was hit broadside by a 20 tonne beer truck travelling at around 45mph. The driver had unfortunately lost control avoiding another vehicle and skidded 35m across the road, mounted a grass bank, hit my car, ploughed through a fence and a hedge to hit a tree. The good news is that through some miracle no-one was hurt and we all walked away. Thankful to still be here and in one piece and not wanting to drive for a while, I went fly-fishing for the rest of the afternoon, and we continued the holiday without incident. But in the back of my mind was the rule of three: a lifetime's experience has taught me that crashes and unfortunate incidents in general always seem to come in threes - or thereabouts. I hadn't had a car accident for over 16 years and I certainly didn't see this one coming, so I began to contemplate, where are the next two coming from? A few weeks later I was working up in Glasgow when, without warning, my laptop started to exhibit some curious behaviour. Thinking back, I had been aware of a gradual slowing and an increase in the number of spurious events, so it was clear that something was awry. I loaded my analysis CD and checked over the machine to reveal a large number of serious disc errors, featuring catalogue trees and directory files. I repaired them in sequence, but an excessive number of such errors are serious trouble and ultimately, the whole process locked up, leaving me having to reboot mid-repair. Rebooting revealed even more problems which again culminated in a crash, while trying to reboot saw the machine unable to locate the hard drive. This looked like really serious trouble and certainly the worst machine crash I had ever experienced. Was this crash two? Under normal circumstances, I would have had my back-up hard drive with me, but on this day I had flown by budget airline with a strict one-bag rule and an enforced 5kg limit. Even filling my jacket packets with IT accessories (they don't weigh me!) left me short of bag capacity and I had left 50 per cent of what I normally carry behind, although I did have a CD with my conference presentation and I was able to work on it. My principal concern was now my email - I was away from home with no means of getting access and all my business was down. Moreover, where was crash three coming from? It took 36 hours for me to get home and get my machine repaired with all the applications and files restored from back-up copies - except for my email that is. The basic program was working but it just would not boot up from my back-up files. I tried and tried but couldn't win. I resorted to re-starting from ground zero. I was due to fly to the US and had an urgent need to get operational, not to mention the need to get business underway again. My PA had sent an all-points to everyone in our mailing list to divert my mail to her in the interim but even so this was only a makeshift solution. I continued my efforts but just couldn't establish a communication session of any kind with my ISP. Eventually, I called in some help from India to discover that the ISP in California was having problems. Ouch, coincidental crashes - this I really don't like. Very shortly I was up and running and all set for my trip, email and all applications working, but the back-up files would need more time and expertise than I can muster and in the event not entirely critical. I could fly without them. So was this crash three? The day before my trip I was working in my home office when some peculiar things started to happen and my emailer crashed, taking out all of my work and email files for the second time in five days. Everything else was working, except for my basic office functions that kept complaining about being unable to connect to some directory file. With less than 24 hours to go before my flight, I was almost back to square one and I felt like going fly-fishing again. So I took a walk, had a coffee and concluded that this could be another disc failure, which was unlikely, or another OS mangle, but I thought not: it had all the hallmarks of an application failure. I returned home to reload the entire application twice but to no avail! Examining the application CD closely revealed a very slight surface scratch. Could this be it? Surely not! I had a two back-up copies, so I tried one of them and the problem disappeared - I couldn't believe it! I can remember when CDs first came onto the market they would take any amount of abuse but today the plastic coatings and metalisation are far thinner and the medium far more delicate as a result. Despite my careful handling and storage, had I still sustained some damage resulting in crash four? Here I am on the morning of departure with my laptop fully functional, with everything repaired and restored except for 2GB of emails that reside on my back-up servers - they will just have to wait. I have the address book and the latest mails via my PA, so it is more than sufficient and I reckon that's definitely enough crashes for this year. But, just in case, I am taking a standby machine to reduce the probability and, should this really be a recurring hard disc problem, which seems extremely unlikely, I can at least recover by changing over machines. For sure, I cannot afford another series of crashes like this for quite a while and have resolved to halve the time between my back-up sessions. For the past two months I have been driving my repaired car with extra care, always on the look out for a potential crash. I never expected the next one to be on my laptop and never saw it coming - now I am typing and watching the screen very carefully for any anomalies and warning signs. And I do hope the pilot of this plane is also taking extra care! This column was typed by a very tired Peter Cochrane flying to Newark NJ on VS001. It was despatched to silicon.com via the hotel FREE LAN very shortly after landing. What do you think? You can contact Peter by emailing email@example.com. Peter Cochrane is a co-founder of ConceptLabs CA, where he acts as a mentor, advisor, consultant and business angel to a wide range of companies. He is the former CTO and Head of Research at BT, as part of a career at the telco spanning 38 years. He holds a number of prominent posts as a technologist, entrepreneur, writer and humanist, and is the UK's first Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. For more about Peter, see: www.cochrane.org.uk. For all Peter's columns for silicon.com, see: www.silicon.com/petercochrane.