Flash Disks Kill My Morning Productivity

You know those mornings, those mornings where you have a list of things to do, ready to feel accomplished. Then when you show up, something goes wrong, and before you know it you’re very own principles are thrown up against your productivity, and all of a sudden, you are fighting to save the world and make fundamental systematic changes so as to prevent such problems in the future but at the cost of actual results today?! Yeah, this morning has been one of those mornings.

I got into the lab this morning ready to work. I had web development to do, some personal programming projects, some computer imaging, some Mephaquin Dreamin’ layout work and of course, prep for the lesson I would be teaching at 2pm. A busy day, which is good, because I never got into a work groove this week and really needed one. Walking in and expecting Njau to be teaching the new refrigeration students, I was shocked to see a bunch of random students playing games. I walk into the lab office and Njau and Omiriba are there, so I ask what’s going on. Turns out we are getting guests tomorrow, so all students have been withdrawn from classes by the officer side of NYS so that they can cut grass, paint marker-stones and in general fatigue themselves in the name of serving the nation youthfully… hooyah!

Great! I thought, even more time to get my work done today. Wrong. That’s when the tidal wave hit. A teacher came in and asked a simple favor that I show him how to copy files from CD to his flash disk. Easy. Wrong again. Halfway through the teaching lesson problems started cropping up. His flash drive stopped letting him copy files. Odd I thought. We were using the new Lucid Lynx Ubuntu installation, and usually Linux is very conservative about how it handles file transfers, meaning, if something was wrong, then something was REALLY wrong.

Then my own flash disks started showing the same problem. This is where my to-do list got thrown aside. It was all too much to be coincidence; I had a systemic problem on hand and I hate systemic problems. Instead of hack solutions, I must solve the whole problem from the root cause. It’s a huge productivity-waster on my part. I did try to at least parallel process: get the teacher’s files transferred when possible (the small problem) while also researching what was going on overall.

The immediate root problem was that Ubuntu was flat out rejecting the flash disks. That’s no good. The Ubuntu advice: find a Microsoft Windows computer and use it to fix the disks because the typical flash disk is actually best fixed using Windows. Thankfully I keep a couple Windows machines around, so I was able to fix the problem there. It was simple corruption on the flash disk. The teacher returned to his transferring, but I was still not satisfied.

Why, all of a sudden, was Ubuntu having trouble with flash disks. Upon further observing the operating system interaction with the disks, I have come up with a hypothesis: when you choose to, “eject,” or “safely remove drive,” on what is actually only a partition on the disk, it keeps writing data to the flash disk. I get this impression because the on-disk indicators are very active upon attempting one of these types of removals. Thus, for your average flash disk, physically disconnecting it is a recipe for disk-disaster. Sectors will corrupt out the wahzoo, which will in turn force Ubuntu to reject the disk as unusable.

By safely removing the drive, there is no visual indication that you can actually physically remove the drive safely and if you do physically remove it, you run the risk of actually causing more harm to the disk than if you just pulled it out when your on-disk indicator lights indicated an idle state. If you tell Ubuntu to safely remove the whole physical device, the indicator lights do not constantly flicker and in fact they shut off as would be expected, thus indicating your ability to actually safely remove the disk.

When it comes to my own data, I am very conservative, and discovering this behavior prompted me to begin fixing all my flash disks (I use four on a regular basis) to use a more stable file system than the traditional FAT. Of course, this kills compatability with non-Linux-based computers, but that is becoming less and less of a problem as I mostly interact with Linux computers these days. Of course when I converted one of the flash disks, I lost over a gigabyte of usable space on the partition for an unknown reason, prompting me to convert it back to FAT, ick.

The time it took to figure this all out while also helping the teacher and subsequently writing this blog post killed the productivity of my morning. Thankfully I remembered my music player today so that at least I can listen to tunes this afternoon and evening when students come in and play games and watch videos and listen to music and generally create such a cacophony that I can’t concentrate for the life of me. Hopefully there are no systemic problems that turn up after lunch.

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