You know how Scott Geller and many other safety experts urge you to step boldly forward and talk about your close calls? Well, in the name of a learning experience with indirect safety applications, I’ll share this one with you…

Returning from lunch one afternoon not long ago I flicked on my trusty Mac G3/233 without thinking. Just like turning on the lights or popping in a CD. I failed to notice at first that my monitor looked like a 1950s TV test pattern. Hey, who stole my desktop? I stared at a small floppy disk icon and a flashing question mark in the middle of a dull gray screen and knew I was in deep… waters.

Damn. The beige hard drive sounded like a hair blower with emphysema. Wheezing clicks and more wheezing. A computer’s death rattle. There had been signs of trouble in recent weeks, maybe months, I’ll admit. Frozen screens. Restarts. Crawling under the desk to pull the plug and reboot. Warning messages: “insufficient memory to complete task.” “Close windows.” Risk communicator Peter Sandman calls these yellow flags — indicators of possible trouble down the road.

Transparent flags

Sorry Peter, but yellow flags are like yellow stop lights — you slow for a moment, glance both ways, then rev up and blow through. I’d been blowing through yellow flags for some time with my trusty, six-year-old Mac G3/233. I knew I was testing the outer limits of its dwarfish 2 GB hard drive (the G5 comes with at least 160 GB). Pushing my luck? Sure, but who really thinks very long about the worst that can happen? Especially with deadlines and all that. You understand. You have your excuses, too.

After turning on and off the Mac, oh, maybe 20 times, the stupid question mark that wouldn’t die got to be too much. I pulled the plug and sat there thinking: so when was the last time I actually backed up the hard drive? Found some zip disks dated 6.18.04. Of course, that’s a lifetime ago in digital time.

Two days later (seemed like a month), Tom the computer doctor paid a house call. He pulled the hard drive from under the desk and observed what looked like smoke stains on the rear vents. “How long have they been there?” He pried off the outer shell and enough dust filled the air for both of us to reach for respirators, had any been handy. Good thing OSHA leaves us home office workers alone. Tom was stone-faced staring at the innards. I could have been looking at a “Magic Eye” trick puzzle for all I could make out.

“Gotta take this back to the shop,” said Tom. “Honestly, that clicking noise, it doesn’t sound good. If I can save anything I will. But the drive might be too far gone, I think.”

The dreaded phone call

Tom left and I put the dreaded call into the boss. After all, it was only the entire history of ISHN on that hard drive, plus every article submitted for 2005. “I won’t even give you the lecture,” he said. That’s exactly what you need to hear from management when you come forward with a big-league screw up. Thank you very much. The boss even called back that night, afraid I might have driven off the Walt Whitman bridge.

Others were less diplomatic. “You know better than that, Dave,” said one ‘friend.’ “Gotta back up, man.” Not to get defensive, man, but according to my March issue of Popular Science, computer users experience around five million incidents of significant data loss. So there.

Why is it that screw-ups, safety or otherwise, shrink us down to feeling like five-year-olds again? Nothing wrong with some “frank corrective feedback,” as Dr. Geller would say — but it’s easy to see the benefits of not reporting a problem. Except in this case, someone would’ve called me on it when the April issue failed to materialize.

For only $150 I could have bought an automatic back-up device that saves everything you’ve got every night. My ‘friend’ advised me about his purchase months ago. Coulda, shoulda, woulda… the loser’s language. And that’s what you’re fighting when you debate reporting a close call or worse — that loser label.

Suddenly proactive

Tom called the next morning to say he was surprised he was able to resurrect the hard drive — and the rest of 2005 for the magazine — through a series of deft moves that I couldn’t follow without a translator. He returned my old G3/233 and said who knows, you might get another six months or a year out of it. Sure. One near publishing catastrophe is enough.

Dr. Geller is right about the value of close calls as “positive” learning lessons. Tom wasn’t even out of my driveway and I was in the car, heading to Staples for 20, 30, 40 zip disks, whatever it’d take to save every last word stored inside that beige box. Overkill? Sure, just your typical, natural knee-jerk reaction to a close shave. You see it all the time in safety.

Later that night I left a message with the boss. “About that Mac G5 with 160 GB hard drive, we need to talk.” Funny how a close call makes you so much more proactive.

— Dave Johnson, Editor