Friday, November 30, 2012

We Are the Miracles Other People are Praying For, or, Thoughts from the data recovery trenches

Recently (OK, it was at 4 a.m. today, so I was a little punchy after a lot of hard work) I had the transformative experience of being an agent for good for a change. A friend of mine, a woman in her late 80s who is, shall we say, not a "digital native," had managed to overwrite not only her life history in Microsoft Word but also the backup file. When I say "overwrite" I mean that she had probably pressed Ctrl+A followed by spacebar, thus converting 400-odd pages of carefully wordsmithed prose into a single space character. If she had pressed Ctrl+Z (Undo) at that point, or if she had closed the file without saving, I wouldn't have anything to blog about today. However, what she did was to save the file under its existing file name. Ulp. Then, 9 minutes later, apparently seized with panic, she saved the file again, thus destroying the automatic backup copy. Double ulp.

There is plenty of "undeletion" software to recover deleted files. Undeletion is simple, since the metadata (file name, time, date, etc.) are not destroyed. Unfortunately, that's not the situation I faced. When my friend saved her file under its existing name, all the metadata were transferred to the new file, and the old data were left in a state of limbo, drifting aimlessly in the hard disk's hundreds of gigabytes of unallocated space. To recover data from the unallocated space, one needs special "carver" software (I used Photorec) and a lot of patience.

When I first spoke to my friend yesterday, she was distraught and was relying on me to do something. The most recent partial backups I could locate were way too old to be useful, and though she had some hard copies, they were out of date and would have required many hours of painful retyping at a minimum. So, when I informed her today that I had, indeed, managed to recover something that looked very much like her 414-page memoir data file, she was in tears. From her point of view, it was a miracle!

Most people wouldn't call it a miracle. I knew exactly what I had done, and it wasn't rocket science. True, sending the hard drive out to a data recovery service might have cost a lot of money, but no single step had been particularly difficult or had required anything outside my skill set.

Then it hit me . . . just because I didn't think it was a miracle doesn't mean it wasn't a miracle. From my elderly friend's point of view, it most certainly was a miracle. I felt privileged and deeply humbled to have been placed in the right place at the right time to engineer her miracle.

And when a natural disaster hits people elsewhere in the world, or a personal crisis hits someone we know, we may find ourselves in a position of being able to answer their prayers.

We are the miracles that other people are praying for!