We Know Where That Information Is

Have you seen a blue binder?

From his glassed-in perch, the bulldozer operator frowns for a moment at the note in his hand, looks down suspiciously at the guy with the mop of curly hair who is looking up at him hopefully, and then checks the note again. Yup, that’s what it says, all right.

Have you seen a blue binder?

The operator shakes his head, trying to look regretful rather than stupefied. As the guy with the mop of curly hair walks off, shoulders slumped, the operator reaches for a lever. The bulldozer lurches forward, pushing the next mound of garbage into the channel prepared for it, and life at the Saskatoon city dump goes on.  

Flash back two hours. Curly-mop guy is just arriving at work. He goes through his morning routine, dropping off his jacket in his cubicle, turning on his desktop computer so it can run through its own morning routine, and going to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Two sugars, no cream. On the way back, he stops to talk to the other operations research analyst about their latest project. Finally, he settles into his chair and watches as his computer finishes booting up. As he swivels right to drop the black-plastic coffee stir-stick into the garbage can, he gasps involuntarily. The blue binder—repository of the entire corporate memory as it relates to his job and indispensable daily reference tool—is no longer perched on top of his garbage can. The garbage can that, in this crowded cubicle, has served as an extension of his desk since he started this job a month ago.

Flash back twelve hours. The cleaning staff are moving through the office, chatting familiarly as they go. With almost no turnover, the cleaners know not just each other but also the offices that they clean. This evening, as the regular cleaner vacuums the carpet and dusts all exposed surfaces—not many in this cubicle, where every horizontal surface is covered with at least one layer of paper and books—she eyes the blue binder that has been sitting on top of the garbage can for more than a month now.

When it first appeared, she was puzzled. In good condition, it didn’t look like garbage. And so she left it, first for a week, then for two, convinced that one night she’d come in to find it propped open on the desk, or stacked on top of the filing cabinet, giving some sign of being in use. But every night it’s in the same spot. Tonight, after a whole month, she can no longer convince herself that it’s not intended as garbage. And so she adds it to her cart, and hopes that the cubicle occupant won’t be too unhappy with her delay in removing it.

Flash forward twelve hours. Curly-mop guy is stunned. He looks wildly around the office, as if the blue binder might have levitated itself to the top of his desk or filing cabinet. But it is nowhere to be seen.

The next hour is a gerundial blur. Realizing with horror what must have happened. Rocketing down the stairs to the smelly, under-lit dumpsters in the back alley, just beside the loading dock, fully prepared to jump into whatever mess they present. Realizing with despair that they are much worse than filled with a disgusting jumble of waste—they are empty. Today is the scheduled pick-up day and the garbage trucks have been and are now gone. Next stop for his precious blue binder: the city dump.

And so it is that another hour sees him handing up a hand-written note to a bulldozer operator. A bulldozer sitting in what looks like an acre of waste, piled in mounds several storeys high.

Have you seen a blue binder?

By the time I joined them for a summer job, a few years later, this shared trauma had morphed into a departmental in-joke. When anyone referred to anything that even might have been in the blue binder, one of them would nod sagely and speak.

We know where that information is, but we can’t access it.

Flash forward 25 years. The challenges with data retrieval have changed, but the horror of losing data—through a sloppy lack of routine in my case, rather than the sloppy use of a garbage can as a piece of office furniture—seems much the same. This fine August weekend, the geeks tell me that my almost certainly fried hard drive is very likely unrecoverable, having failed catastrophically without anything so considerate as a warning.

In the worst case, will everything be gone? Oh, no. Some of my irregular back-ups will come through. Will enough be gone that it hurts? Oh, yes.

As I stumble out of Future Shop I wonder how long it took my one-time colleagues to find a way to laugh about their loss. I wonder how long it will take me.

 

 

 

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8 Comments

  1. My heart-felt sympathy to you, Isabel. I suffered a similar disaster in July and while the third expert engineered a recovery, the abrasions have not all healed. I wrote a response to Jim Taylor’s recent computer disaster story too long to inflict on him. To quote myself, “Our seductively wide-open communication network has been launched into the cyber sea with holes gored (thanks, Al!) beneath the water line. What started as a convenience for a few scientists rules our working and social lives but, more seriously, runs our infrastructures. It may save time and trees, but paper systems are far more reliable. They also employ more people.

    The more I learn about the inherent hazards of the Internet, the
    more dubious I become about its long-term durability.” I had fair backup; I now have more complete backup, but realize email is extremely vulnerable. I now keep a laptop entirely off-line. I have enough paper and ink on hand to print documents in an emergency, assuming the computer can still run the printer. Not much of a backup, really, if the electrical grid goes down and the banks freeze. Hospital records will be a problem. Traffic lights will fail. Water systems, too. The list is endless.

    Cyrus the Great chiselled his beneficent codes in cuneiform and Moses engraved useful laws on tablets of stone. Only a small fraction of the extant
    million or more cuneiform cylinders have been read and translated, which
    likely reveals something about the lasting value of communication per se
    even when the mode of communication is durable. Only a few hundred readers of cuneiform exist (that many? are these immortals?). Some say the Internet is eroding complexities of language and, consequently, of values. More likely, the Internet is eroding itself, an ouroboros that will swallow civilization tail-first leaving mountains of blue binders right where they belong. What is your Plan B? I’m still working on mine but likely not nearly hard enough.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Laurna – My Plan B (such as it is) is to recover the things I can from extant back-ups, to rebuild where I can, and to do without the rest. Of course, if the heavens open and all my data is returned (I’d take it on stone tablets at this point), I’ll do better next time . . .

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Marion – I think it’s like flossing or Kegels: One knows one should. Where’s St. Paul when you need him? Something about the good I know but do not . . .

  2. Oh, Isabel, I am so sorry. It is like a death in the family, isn’t it? One goes through those stages…
    Twice now, my MACs have died right after completing a book. And now yours… Maybe they hate print books and take their revenge.

    Seems to be the season for computer/HD failures. I turned on my 7-year-old iMAC three weeks ago and it CRACKED! and smoke came out the top. Oh NO! It was 12 (long, anxious) hours until I found out I had not lost my HD or either of my two (2) external HD which were connected at the time of the explosion.
    I was lucky and all three HDs were intact, but I lost 1,500 email addresses. I still have them on 3×5 cards (that’s Index Cards for those of you younger than 40) but it seems like a flood has swept through my life and I am slightly adrift…even still after three weeks.
    The program I used to write my latest 2 books is incompatible with my new HD. But I only remembered I had them on a flash drive after 10 days! One’s mental wiring seems connected to computer failures, too.

    My new lovely iMAC offers me free iCloud but it’s another learning curve I need to ride, along with finding where things are/how things are done now on this new machine.
    It never ends.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – OMG – an explosion! That beats my pitiful endless do-loop of running a disk check, trying to start, failing, trying to repair it, failing, running a disk check . . . and so on. The geeks now tell me that they may, indeed, recover my data. All I will need to do is reinstall all programs, copy email addresses from gmail to Outlook, and set up an automated back-up, dagnab it. I feel your pain, learning a new system. Life keeps throwing curves.

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