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Happy defrag

Simple maintenance can turn complicated. Diversions hed: Happy defragmentation dek: a simple maintenance exercise can make computer users fall to pieces. By Michael Finley

For years I was one of those people who puts off defragmenting his hard disk. You know what I mean: running the systems program that rearranges all the strings on your drive so that they are organized together, and not strung out over the surface of the drive.

Supposedly, it speeds up drive access. But it’s time-consuming, especially with today’s 30GB hard drives. It’s too big a job to do overnight. Twenty-four hours is more like it, during which time you can’t use your PC.

PC fitness gurus claim to do it automatically, unconsciously, every week. But I think they are lying, because you can’t run defrag unless all your memory resident programs are shut down, and that requires conscious effort. Things like antivirus, networking, and fax–receiving programs have to be manually shut down. If you try to run defrag with any of these things still in memory, defrag will go to 10 percent, restart, go back to 10 percent, restart, and so on, ad infinitum.

So you’ve just learned something: Experts lie. Don’t you like them a little bit better already?

It is either a sign of a slowing economy or accelerating age that I find my attitude toward defrag changing. Every week I run a diagnostic check, and my PC tells me what a good boy I’ve been. “Hard drive C: is in good working order,” the message will say. “94 percent of your data is contiguous.”

Now, if my hard drive is in good order, I go ahead and defrag it anyway. I shut down my memory-resident stuff, initiate the program (definitely hit Details–half the fun is seeing what it’s doing), and sit back and watch.

Defrag now breaks the drive down into a 50-page mosaic of little squares, corresponding to the clusters on the surface of the drive. The idea is to rearrange all these squares so that the light blue ones are all at the beginning, the dark green ones are in the middle, and the black ones are at the end.

Then there’s the defective clusters, which are white with a diagonal red line down them. Defrag leaves these guys right were they are, because they represent physically damaged parts of your drive. Relocating them would be like relocating a pothole.

If your drive is a noncontiguous jumble, defrag painstakingly tackles the mountain, one grain of sand, one square, at a time. As it examines the square, like a seashell picked up on the shore, it turns it red. An instant later it moves the shell to the front, the back, or the middle of the drive. It can take 30 hours or more to rearrange every square on a neglected drive. Pack a lunch.

If, however, you are a member of the contiguous drive club like me, the transforming happens much quicker, because there are fewer dust bunnies under the bed. Everything is ready to go. You just sit and watch vast sheets of squares flash red and rearrange, like infantry divisions moving in formation on the steppes of Russia. Or a stadium section in which every fan flips a placard to make a visual cheer. A universe of dominoes, ready to fall with the flick of a finger.

It is a meditative task that lulls you into languorous reverie, like washing dishes in warm water, or watching the dryers rotate at the laundromat. Before I became good, I would sit and watch my dark disk defrag for hours at a time. That’s right, blues at the top. Oops, there’s a straggler, throw a rope around him. Here we go little fellow, back to the herd, back to mama.

See, I’ve given up trying to please editors, readers, and clients. Too fractious, and too futile!

Now all I want is to get that good defrag diagnosis.

It’s a really neat feeling.

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