This is Joshua Wehner's archaic Blog


All the best laid plans…

This weekend, Liz is in Chicago with her Mom, doing girly things like shopping. It's not only for Mother's Day (hi mom!) but Liz's Mom's birthday is not far off. Liz has done this just about everything year she's lived in Madison.

So, bachelorized for the weekend, I had big plans. Big Plans, I say.   And none of them worked out quite the way I wanted.

My Big Plans almost always involve computers — installing or otherwise configuring them, usually. (I worry about "growing up" and having to further subdivide my "free time" with real house work — how many men my age dread having a lawn to care for?)

This weekend's Big Plans involved a long-awaited upgrade to a newer version of Linux for Ozzy, my poor old mail server, and a short-awaited upgrade to Tiger for my week-old iBook.

I started with the iBook, thinking that would be quick. In just a week of light use, I'd already worked up to about a gigabyte of data (well, that's cheating, a lot of that was icons, fonts & whatnots copied over from my Mac at work), so just burning a CD was a bit impractical.

And besides , this is why I bought a 250gb external USB hard drive, right? To do backups and stuff.

Excellent! Plug in the drive and start copying files.

Hmmm. That's not working. It seems that several of the files I'm copying have "funny characters". See, the Mac file system lets people get away with putting all kinds of funny greek characters into their file names (along with other "special" characters in the Windows world) and because my external drive was formatted for   PCs (the lowest common denominator), the nice folks at Apple were warning me that some of these characters were going to be lost in the translation.

No problem. I have this drive partitioned into several smaller chunks of data (because FAT32 doesn't like to work on drives larger than 32gb, last time I checked) and at least one of the partitions has no relevant data on it at the moment.

I'll just format it.

Should be easy enough: Open Disk Utility, select the partition, click format… Wait.

Not long into the process, it pops up an error message that said something like, "There has been an error. The underlying system reported an error." Thanks. What error?

No idea. But the drive no longer appears in the Finder or Disk Utility. I can't find a way to eject it.

I realize now that I should have Shut Down the iBook. What I did instead, was power-cycle the drive. Of course, being still very unsure about whatever exactly happened, I can't say with any certainty that this quickie on/off is what did it, but…

When it came back up, the Mac says, "Sorry, there's no readable drive there on the thing you just plugged in. Want to format it now?"

On Windows, of all things, I see a 167gb logical drive (which is blank) and a 70-some gb unformatted area.

That kinda freaked me out.

This is — thank the god of data — only the second major loss of personal data I've had in 15+ years of heavy use of various computers. The first was after a similar weekend-of-installing-things backing my freshman year at Case. Since then, I'd been pretty good about burning a back-up CD, at least once every six months or so, but, since about three years ago, I found that increasingly difficult.

Back then, all my stuff — vital software, vital data, collection of emails, etc — could all fit on one CD. About five years ago, it ballooned to two.

Three years ago, it took four CDs to make a decent back-up — that is, excluding software & mp3s. (I was never really into the mp3 scene, so most of that is rips from CDs I own. Though a few have been downloaded from sites like or They Might Be Giants.)

As of sometime earlier this winter, it was no longer "reasonable" to backup everything onto CDs. I don't (yet) own a DVD burner, but even those would be impractical. Some part of it has been an explosion in my rate of acquisition of new material — new CDs, downloads of old TV shows from the 'net, etc — and some of it is in the explosion of my rate of creation of new material — I'm doing more design work, more code (both on and off the clock) and so on.

Liz, too, was going through a similar explosion. (Astronomical data files can be… astronomical.) She bought an external drive, in part, so she could take her data back 'n forth with her — from home to work to observing trips, etc.

I saw potential — a way out of my data backup dilemna. So, I bought one, too.

But, its never really felt right.

I guess, to me, there's more to feeling "backed-up" than just "Yes, I have placed that file on another fault-prone surface." I want my "back-up" to mean protected , not just elsewhere .

And this weekend, I got an excellent object lesson in why I feel that way.

But, then, only on one level.

Yesterday (Saturday), I was reading this article on the history of the GUI. It was intresting stuff, if a bit stuffy, but later in the article there was a link to a site with a screenshot gallery of old GUIs. I started clicking through old systems I'd used or known or grown up with: GEOS on the Commodore 64, Mac System, OS/2… As I clicked through screen after screen, I got this weird, far-off nostalgia feeling about it. I wanted to find my old Warp disks and install BeOS on something. I wanted to fire up an old laptop I hadn't used in years but still had around for various reasons… just… just for…

That's just it: I don't know why.

I mean, yeah, that's just the spitting definition of nostalgia: A nonsensical pining for lost times of yesteryear.

But, I can't help but feel like these two events are connected by more than just the weekend.

Part of it, may be that I have a slightly obsessive personality. Hey, some of that is a good thing: I think its helped me develop a critical eye for detail. And you can't design anything worth using (even a dorky Web page) without some eye for detail. But… taken to an extreme (like anything, I guess) is bad.

For example, I tend to get "collecty" at times. I absorb information like a sponge (for better or for worse) and I tend to actively seek it out. I read — blogs, news, comics, whatever — for about an hour each morning before going to work. And there's always more that I can't finish in time. I collect piles of links to interesting articles that, usually, just end up cluttering up my virtual desk.

It's like, I don't just want to read something, I want to devour it. Heinlein's idea of "grokking" something in Stranger in a Strange Land really resonates with me. I get that way.

I've always at least seen myself as a generalist. And I think that's an increasingly rare thing in our society. Both because the extremes of modernity push us to specialize, in the way they create new niches and push old fields to new depths (Tim O'Reilly can be — not just a publisher, but a publisher of technical books — but not just technical books, but computer technical books; John Lasseter can be — not just a filmmaker, but an animator — not just an animator, but a computer animator; etc.)

In college, the process of specializing felt like chopping an arm off. I still dread it. I dread the idea that I will gradually whittle myself down into some "core being" — "I am a Web Developer" sounds entirely false to me — but I also dread mediocrity. On some, gut-level, practical response, I know that generalizing in everything is not a long-term viable strategy. These days, its very hard to be Leonardo.

My fear being made manifest now, is that I am forced to choose between these two extremes again: I can't carry everything with me into infinity. The problem with being an "everything glom on to me" kind of pack-rat, is that it eventually weighs you down with all this stuff that you carry from place to place forever . But, streamlining resembles the specialization process that I fear just as much.

If I get rid of my comic books now, then I'll have much less clutter in my life, but I won't be quite the same person, either. That part of me will now be in the past. When these things are with me, physically, they are part of me in the present. But, that's even inherently silly: I can't be all things to all people all the time. I can't be "comic book guy" and "board game guy" and "jazz music guy" and "computer guy" — those are too many part-time jobs for just one person to fill them all. It won't fly; there's too much.

On some level, this is the process of growing older. The gradually whittling down is inevitable; it will happen, it has already happened, it will continue to happen. The practical realities of 24 hour days act as an eroding force of their own.

Maybe I'm not so much fighting it (the erosion), but fighting with myself to document it. To slow it down long enough to examine it, to twist it around in my mind's eye and see where I'm going and where I've been. Such a process shouldn't be so… painful. But it is, in its own way. Maybe nostalgia isn't so much a pain of memory, but a pain of growth — a realization of the passage of time, as represented in this some specific artifact.

Eh. For now, I soldier on: Much of my lost data is still on another old hard drive (the one I swapped out of my desktop machine two weeks ago); my iBook is just fine (though Tiger is too slow; I'm probably switching back to Panther — so, all is for nothing in the end) and all my old PCs will end up on eBay one of these days.

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