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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Reformatting the Hard Disk...Twice

In the early days the Personal Computer, a major upgrade was the addition of a 20 megabyte hard drive – plenty of space for programs, files and other treasure.

However, floppy disks were required for sharing files (predates networked computers, and long before WiFi). Several times a during a day I would need a formatted disk to hand-carry a file to someone also working on the same project.

DOS (where we had to type out all the commands) had a program to format disks – put a floppy in the drive, access the program, specify the formatting instruction, and hit enter to begin the process.

The program quickly formatted the disk – but once activated, there was no escape or undo to stop the process.

The early version of the format program assumed the default drive was to be formatted – which, unfortunately, was the hard drive - so when the enter key was hit, the hard disk was formatted, unless a floppy drive was specified...there was a fail/safe message “Are you sure: Yes/No” (which defaults to “YES”) before the formatting begins.

As with many repetitive routines, formatting became a mechanical thing – do this, type that, hit enter. Works fine unless one forgets to change the default to the floppy drive!

When I skipped the default drive step – the computer cheerfully reformatted my hard drive – oh drat!!!! why did I do that? Then I spent lots of time to reinstall all the programs and reload all the files to that newly reformatted drive, pledging NEVER to do that again.


After some time, I skipped that critical step and once again reformatted the hard drive for a second time – I immediately recalled my 'joy' from that earlier time. Now I had learned the lesson and changed my routine to ensure the floppy disk was the target to be formatted. My success was bolstered by a change in DOS requiring the drive letter to be entered and the availability of pre-formatted disks.

Routines that become mindless and mechanical, but have significant potential for disaster, need a proactive fail/safe of some sort – pilots, for example, use a paper checklist to document the pre-flight inspection and preparation.

It is pretty much impossible to avoid the mindless – mechanical human approach to repetitive processes, but designing out the potential of a misstep (or seriously reducing its risk) is a valuable investment in avoiding a catastrophe and wasted resources.

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