When “It Just Works” becomes inoperative

Last Friday, I discovered that I couldn’t synch my iPod with my MacBook Pro. The iPod thought it was connected, but the Mac didn’t; oddly enough, I was able to synch my iPhone just fine.

Rebooting the iPod didn’t help, so I decided to reboot the Mac. It didn’t want to go down gracefully for some reason (it kept complaining about programs not ending), so I finally brought up a terminal window and typed “sudo shutdown -r now” to force a reboot.

That was a mistake. I got a big Do-Not-Enter sign on the screen. Repeatedly. So I booted the install DVD and ran Disk Utility to verify the drive — it had no complaints.

Back to booting the disk — this time in Verbose mode (press Apple-V right after the power switch, keep it pressed until the bong sounds). The first attempt was a complete failure; it couldn’t load mach.kernel. But I persevered (it’s not like I had a choice), and got farther — to the point that I started seeing “disk0s2: 0xe0030005 (Undefined)” errors on screen, each of which was accompanied by a long pause.

A quick visit to Google told me that the disk was failing if not already dead (which undoubtedly explained my many spinning beachballs and failures to shutdown over the past few days). So I decided to go home and see if I could rescue any data before taking the machine into the shop.

At home, I connected the system to my Mac mini and brought it up in Firewire Disk Mode (press and hold “T” right after powering on) and managed to recover most of my home directory before it was time for my appointment with a Genius at the Apple Store.

The Genius asked me what I’d done and then suggested I try a reboot while he watched, not in verbose mode. 15 minutes later, the system was up. He then suggested I:

  1. Take the machine home without rebooting
  2. Make a copy of the disk on an external drive
  3. Use Disk Utility to write zeros on the hard drive so that it would assign alternate sectors
  4. Reinstall the OS
  5. Move data back to the machine
  6. Get on with my life

He was half right.

I used SuperDuper! to clone the drive. It took three tries, extending well into Saturday night, before I was able to get a complete copy made.

Then I ran Disk Utility in “secure erase” mode to zero out the drive, reinstalled Leopard, and started the long process of moving things back from the external drive. I was suspicious of the integrity of the copy, so I didn’t move any binaries back, just my data — that meant reinstalling many programs and getting them back up to date (Microsoft Office 2004 was especially pernicious, requiring me to run the updater at least 8 times).

But by late Sunday, I was finished.

On Tuesday, though, I started seeing spinning beachballs again. By Wednesday morning, they were frequent. And a perusal of /var/log/system.log showed more “disk0s2: 0xe0030005 (Undefined)” errors. So I knew I had to have the disk replaced, which was going to be a problem, because the Genius had told me that it would take 4-7 business days, which would extend into an upcoming trip.

The machine was out of warranty, so I could have fixed it myself, but life is too short for that. And since it was the company’s machine, not mine, I really wanted to take it to an authorized servicer. But 4-7 days was unacceptable. Fortunately, there are alternatives to the Apple Store, listed right on the Apple site.

I called the closest one, ClickAway and was speaking to a tech within a few minutes. He said that they’d happily install a new drive (which they’d sell me or I could pick up at Fry’s) the same day. And they’d try to recover the data, or they could sell me a SATA case for $25 so I could do it myself (and then wipe the drive afterwards).

And they did just that. They even installed Leopard for free, saving me the trouble of doing it from the DVD. And they finished two hours earlier than they’d estimated. And the price of the whole process, including the SATA case and a larger drive than I’d originally had, was just about the same as just getting the drive swapped for an identical drive at the Apple Store.

I still had to reinstall and reupdate my software again and put my data back on. But I’ve gotten good at that.

Lessons Learned:

  • Backups are good.
  • Backups before the drive fails are better.
  • Even if all your “important” data is on multiple machines, backups are good.
  • Image backups are very good.
  • Geniuses are not always right.

I now also have a Time Capsule, which is busily backing up my Mac mini as I speak (I’ve already backed up the MBP). I wish the mini were close enough to connect it through a cable, because an over-the-air backup of 300MB takes a very long time.

And I’ve registered my copy of SuperDuper!
to make image backups easier in the future. $27.95 is cheap insurance — and I already have used the program to save my butt, so it’s even retroactive insurance (hey, it works for Warren Buffett, so why not for me?).