November 27th, 2004

Zen & the Art of Hard Drive Maintenance

How do you relax? Ask five different people and you’re likely to get five different answers. Some of the more common answers are

  • Listen to music
  • Take a bubble bath
  • Eat
  • Read

I’ve done each of those at one time or another. (In fact, I’m doing one of them right now and did another one of them last night.) One of the most relaxing things I’ve ever found, though, is watching the Windows 98 Disk Defragmenter. Seriously.

Perhaps a bit of history or explanation would be in order. I know most of you are familiar with the concept of “defragging a hard drive,” but let me run through it for those who are not.

Imagine an empty desk or table in front of you. Now imagine that any bit of information you learn is going to be written on a Post-It Note and stuck to the table in the first available slot. So you learn something about aardvarks: it gets written on a Post-It Note and stuck to the table. Now you learn something about the average rainfall in Kansas – it gets written on a Post-It Note and stuck to the table. Now you learn something about constellations, about hydroponics, about the world record for eating potatoes, about bicycles, about the Nile River, about space exploration, about Kevlar – every bit gets written on a Post-It Note and stuck to the table.

Every time a new Post-It Note goes on the table, you also record its position on a larger piece of paper you have in front of you. It will act like a map so you know where to find that info when someone asks you about that topic.

Now let’s say you learn something new about aardvarks. While it would be nice to be able to put the new info right next to the original aardvark info, there’s already something there. So it goes into the next available slot, which just might be a slot in the middle of the table that opened up because you decided to discard a Post-It Note that had the number of that really disgusting pizza place that you ate at last week and got so sick afterwards that you decided to never eat there again.

So now, if someone should ask you a question about aardvarks, you need to refer to your index sheet twice and find the information in two separate spots. How very time consuming!

The exact same thing happens to hard drives – info gets written where it can be written, and it isn’t necessarily all next like-minded bits of information. That paper you wrote on why supermarket clerks should all be trained in the ancient art of kung fu could conceivably be in several different places on the hard drive.

This is where the Disk Defragmenter comes in. Its one purpose is to ferret out where these files are and how they could be put closer (preferably next) to each other. Once it figures that out, it does it. All of the separate bits of your paper will now be in one block, all in a row for easy gathering. Now instead of your paper being in “A1, G32, C7, Q92, and DF102” it might be in “C-7 through C-11.” This supposedly speeds up the computer’s “finding stuff” time and makes it run a little more efficiently. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. I don’t really care. I just want it to look cool while it’s working.

The Windows 98 version of the Disk Defragmenter could be expanded to be a whole screen full of little colored blocks. Different colors meant different things: light blue was a block that hadn’t been moved, red was a block that wasn’t going to be moved, and dark blue-green meant the block was done being moved and was where it was going to stay. As the program went about its business, the little blocks would change colors and jump around the screen, sometimes one by one, sometimes as a group, until they were all either red or dark blue-green and the program declared it was finished.

I find the whole process to be very hypnotic. A very badly fragmented hard drive can take a couple of hours to defragment, and sometimes when I’ve stopped by to check on its progress, I’ll end up watching for a while because it is so transfixing. I get mesmerized by the moving blocks and I find myself relaxing and tuning out anything else that might be going on. I have literally watched the process a half hour at a time more than once.

I started using Windows XP a few years ago. While I think it’s the best version of Windows Microsoft has come up with yet, I’m bothered by one particular thing: they changed the way Disk Defragmenter looks. If I remember correctly, they actually changed it back in Windows Millenium, which might explain its awfulness (Translation: Windows Millenium was one of the worst versions of Windows ever unleashed on an unsuspecting world). Now, instead of a full screen of jumping and moving blocks, I’m treated to two small multi-colored bars: one showing the state of the hard drive before the process, and one showing the progress while the program is running.

Yes, it still shows progress being made, but on a smaller scale. It has no relaxing effect on me at all. In fact, it actually tends to cause me tension, as I’m never sure things are going on. Rather than giving me an indication of how much more work it has to do, it will all of a sudden tell me it’s done. Sure enough, the “what’s happened” bar looks a lot different than the “before we started” bar, but I still feel let down, and I’m not at all relaxed.

Windows 98 is, in computer terms, a dinosaur. You might guess from its name that it was released in 1998, and you’d be right for the most part. Computer years are worse than dog years, with one human year being equal to 10 or 15 computer years instead of 7, so Windows 98 is somewhere around 60-90 years old. Any new computer runs Windows XP, and new computers would actually have some trouble running Windows 98, so Windows 98 is gradually disappearing from the tech landscape, and with it, the Windows 98 Disk Defragmenter. Luckily, at my schools we’re still running Windows 98 on most of the computers, so I occasionally have call to run a defragment. Those days, my friends, are good days.

So take your baths, read your books, eat your éclairs, and listen to your Kenny G. I might occasionally join you. But if you want to join me in watching a hard drive defragment, just be aware that I may not realize you’re even there.

One Comment on “Zen & the Art of Hard Drive Maintenance”

  1. Bob P. says:

    I… I thought I was the only one!

    So this is what it's like, when doves cry… :'-)

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