It is with mixed feelings of intense relief and exhaustion (physical and mental) that I write this post. Those of you that frequent this blog may have noticed a falling off in the rate of posting lately. There was. Last Tuesday night, in a selfless effort to protect me from malware that can exploit a long standing vulnerability in the Windows operating systems (all versions), the Microsoft Corporation decided that I needed to have my computer updated. I believe in defaults, so my computer permitted the automatic update.
I went to bed with a working computer, having put it into “hibernate” like I always do, so that I can reawaken it rapidly in the morning, when I want to carry on with my creative endeavours. I woke up to a computer that could no longer even boot up. It just repeatedly crashed and restarted.
What followed was an agonising four day outage, where I was completely cut off from many of my vital creative tools (expensive software that was only on that machine). My work was locked away and might have been unrecoverable. In the worst case scenario, I was facing weeks of rebuilding, re-installing, re-licensing and all of the stress and argument that goes with trying to convince vendors of applications that you are not simply trying to make a shifty copy for your mate.
Fortunately, I had access to other computers, so I could research the problem and find solutions. Most of the solutions were bad. Much of the discussion was the blind leading the blind. Microsoft was strangely silent on the matter.
I went through panic, stress, depression, distractedness and contemplated the loss of work I consider to be irreplaceable. Maybe it isn’t, but that’s how it felt. It was emotionally devastating. I happen to have training and experience in computer technology, so I am considered to be an adept, but that also sometimes increases your fear and dread. You know how stupid the industry can be. In any case, I cannot imagine how awful finding your once working creative tool as a brain dead piece of junk in the morning can feel for artists that have no technical training. It must feel like hopeless helplessness.
What was abundantly clear from the episode was that the computer industry does not value your work or time at all. They bear no responsibility or liability for the consequential loss of amenity or creative output. It says so in their EULAs. It’s how they act and behave after the problem arises. You use their crappy software at your own risk. If something they do prevents you from accessing your data and the expensive applications you have bought, that’s just tough.
The problem turned out to be the fact that the auto update software does not shut the disk drive down properly when the computer has been in hibernation. That results in what looks like a disk corruption and the boot code refuses to boot with a disk drive that is corrupted. It might be a virus!
So, because a programmer at Microsoft did not even consider, let alone test, what happens when you update a computer that is asleep, they caused the disk drive to appear to be corrupted and then their own code protects against that problem by refusing to start. The remedy was to find some devious way to run a command prompt (this was exceedingly difficult to discover and well hidden). After that, Microsoft’s own disk repair tools repaired their own corruption and all was well. The whole process took eight hours of solid effort by me and considerably more research.
This is my proposal for a change in the law, as it relates to End User License Agreements. I would like legislation to come into force that says for each and every Gigabyte of creative work affixed as data in a computer that is lost due to a stupid, negligent programming error by a company such as Microsoft, a Gigabyte of their source code is randomly deleted from their code repository. Why should they value their creative output and intellectual property as more valuable than mine? Let them figure out how to recover irreplaceable and expensive programming just like they made me have to figure out how to recover my work.
Better still: for each Gigabyte of our creative output that is destroyed by one of their programming errors, a Gigabyte of source code becomes open source under the creative commons license. That way, their proprietary secrets will be revealed, the more cavalier they are with consequential loss and the sooner we will be able to diagnose and remedy their crappy code for them.
But not just for them, for all of us!
My advice for artists is to install security updates manually. Turn the auto update off. Deliberately keep system restore points (you have to do these by hand, it seems – the automatic ones were not there on my machine, when I looked). Always have weekly backups made with the backup software on your computer and also backups that require no restore to run (i.e. file copies on removable drives that you can take to other computers). Keep all your application installers and license keys on removable drives. Be very careful when using the Hibernate mode.
None of this should, of course, be necessary and all of it could easily be automated, but it isn’t. You have to do it all pretty much by hand. You have to know how. You have to be disciplined to do it at all and to keep doing it at intervals.
We’ve got to reign these vandals in, but it’s going to take some time.