Some Time Machine backup-volume trial and error

The Mac-maintenance task that has taken care of itself for most of the last four years brought itself to my attention Wednesday, and I wish it had not. Two days of troubleshooting later, I think I once again have a working backup routine–but I still don’t know what went wrong here.

My first hint that Apple’s Time Machine backup system had shifted out of its usual orbit was an error message Wednesday night reporting that my backup volume had become read-only, making further backup cycles impossible.

The drive in question, a 2-terabyte Seagate portable drive that I’d bought in 2018, seemed too young to be suffering from disk corruption. Especially since other partitions on this hard drive remained readable and writeable.

So I opened Apple’s Disk Utility, selected the Time Machine backup partition, and clicked “First Aid.” Several minutes later, this app returned an inscrutable, no-can-do result:

The volume Time Machine backups could not be repaired. 

File system check exit code is 8.

Well, then.

Disk Utility’s help was of no help, reporting “No Results Found” when I searched for that error message and shorter versions of it. Googling for “check exit code is 8” yielded nothing at Apple’s support site (a fruitless result confirmed by Apple’s own search) but did surface a data-recovery firm’s explainer that this was “one of the most frustrating file system errors to encounter, and it is difficult to know if you are experiencing a logical or physical fault on the hard drive.”

Trying to repair the volume a few more times with Disk Utility–a suggestion in a Stack Exchange thread that seemed worth testing–didn’t yield a better outcome. An attempt to copy the entire Time Machine volume to the partition that I’d created on this Seagate drive last year to usher my data from my old iMac to my current Mac mini stopped early; Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper app was less informative than usual, saying it “Failed to copy files.”

Then I realized that I was looking right at a short-term answer: wiping that no-longer-needed iMac disk-image partition, then making it my new Time Machine backup volume while leaving the old Time Machine partition alone. After a timeout to unplug the drive and then plug it back in, without which Disk Utility would not reformat the partition, this fix seems to be working. But just in case, I’ve also plugged a 1-terabyte SSD into my Mac mini as a backup to my backup.

It would be great if Apple would provide clearer explanations and more usable fixes to disk errors like this. But considering that Time Machine’s starfield file-restore interface hasn’t changed since it debuted in 2007, I will not stay up late waiting for those updates.

Weekly output: Comcast-TWC, disk corruption

BARCELONA–One of the nicer things about this line of work is having to go here for Mobile World Congress. I’m in this city through Thursday to cover that show and see what it tells me about where the phone business is headed; look for my first take on that Tuesday at Yahoo Tech.

Yahoo Comcast-TWC post

2/18/2014: The Comcast/TWC Merger: As Big Cable Gets Bigger, Your Bill Will, Too, Yahoo Tech

Yahoo got an excellent value for their money with this column–at least in the money-per-word sense. It ballooned to 1,500 or so words as I kept writing; after some pruning, it still clocked in at 1,341 words. Biggest surprise since the column posted: no reader e-mail on this issue at all.

2/23/2014: How to salvage data from a hard drive, USA Today

This week’s question came from a reader I’ve known online since Post days, and whom I finally met in person last year; I was glad I could provide useful suggestions when he asked for help with a failing hard drive. There’s also a tip about using a wireless router to host a backup volume, leavened with a warning about a remote-access vulnerability in one well-regarded model that I happen to own.

On Sulia, I questioned Comcast’s “fastest in-home WiFi” sales pitch, suggested the FCC’s passing reference to investigating barriers to municipal broadband was the most interesting part of its revived net-neutrality agenda, mocked some impressively ill-targeted ads on Facebook, complained about United’s primitive routine for cashing in a discount companion-travel certificate, and then complimented the airline for providing a workaround through its Twitter customer service.

How Windows (may have) killed my laptop

Little-known fact about me: For the past two weeks or so, I haven’t been able to use the ThinkPad I bought last summer. Here’s what happened, in 10 painful steps.

1. Months after successfully installing the Customer Preview of Windows 8 in a separate partition of my  ThinkPad X120E (and somewhat regretting that it required me to wipe out Lenovo’s recovery partition), I finally got around to trying to install the Win 8 Release Preview Microsoft shipped at the end of May.   At the tail end of a seemingly-nominal installation, the Release Preview installer, it got stuck at the “Finalizing your settings” screen. After waiting a few hours, I forced the machine to shut down and got a prompt at startup saying that Windows would undo the RP installation and return me to CP.

2. Because I am an idiot, and because I was getting fed up with some networking problems in Win 8 CP, I decided I’d try installing Release Preview again the night before I was heading out to San Francisco to cover Google’s I/O conference. Once again, the installer couldn’t get past “Finalizing your settings”–which is a funny place for Win 8 RP to halt, since it doesn’t preserve any of your settings in the first place.

3. Because I’m an idiot, I then tried wiping the Win 8 partition and doing a clean installation. The results were much worse:

4. After yet another restart that night–which by now counted as “early morning,” I got as far as the setup screens where Windows 8 asks you to set a live.com user account. It said mine was already in use on the machine. Trying different usernames only resulted in yet another stall

5. With no Win 8 system available and less than six hours remaining before my 8 a.m. departure from National Airport, I gave up, reverted to Windows 7, and resented its slower performance all week long.

6. Back home, I took yet another stab at installing Win 8 RP in early July. I got the same failure: a bogus report that somebody else was trying to use my Windows Live account on the system. (By then, I had gotten a few sympathetic e-mails from a Microsoft publicist promising help from people on the Windows team, but I never got more than an initial, friendly “what can I do to help?” response from them.)

7. For reasons I don’t remember precisely, I elected to switch back to Windows 7, saw that the system had a round of updates to install, and thought I’d proceed with them. Bad idea: The installation failed, leaving the computer unbootable in two different versions of Windows.

8. Successive attempts to use the disk-repair tools in Windows 7 failed; a Lenovo troubleshooting utility came up, complained that it needed me to log in, and demanded a reboot with an “Okay” button. No, it’s not okay. The disk-repair tools on the Win 8 installer’s flash drive didn’t do any better.

9. Because I’m not a complete idiot, I had a complete drive-image backup of my pre-Win 8 system (plus incremental backups from mid-July). But I can’t recover it: The Win 8 installer flash drive said it couldn’t restore a 32-bit disk image–even though there’s nothing bit-specific about that job. (Sometimes I think the only way the 32- and 64-bit editions of Windows could get along worse is if Microsoft farmed out the development of each to the Israeli Defense Forces and the PLO.) Edit, 2:43 p.m. And as of this morning, booting up the laptop yields the results you see in the photo above.

10. A 32-bit version of the Windows 8 Release Preview installer then said it couldn’t restore an image from an earlier version of Windows. So now I need to generate a Windows recovery-tools flash drive from a 32-bit version of Windows 7. And thanks to Microsoft’s unwillingness to offer a download of that program, this job apparently either requires a machine with CD or DVD burner or a painful amount of monkeying around with DOS commands.

But things could be worse. Wired writer Mat Honan, one of the smarter observers of technology around and one of the more decent human beings on the Internet, had somebody break into his iCloud account and use its remote-wipe feature to nuke his MacBook Air, iPad and iPhone–while also laying waste to his Twitter and Google accounts. So I’m not going to whine too much about this self-inflicted wound. Besides, I can always install Linux on the machine.

Epilogue, 10/21: In case anybody was wondering how this turned out, I was able to generate a USB-based, 32-bit Windows 7 system-repair volume using Into Windows’ directions. My only hangups involved having to disable Parallels Desktop from sharing USB volumes with OS X, followed by the exceptionally long time it took to format this USB flash disk in NTFS from the command line. Things worked as advertised otherwise, and I once again have a working Windows laptop–ready for me to try out Windows 8 once again when it ships next week.