I tried what Apple calls an "Internet Recovery". Connected to WiFi (through a hot spot on my phone, because my machine couldn't see the network), the machine starts up by downloading a bare bones operating system from the Internet, then you can use Disk Utility to repair files. Except that Disk Utility couldn't even find my hard drive. Bad news.
Nothing I could do about it with the time left in Barcelona, so I waited until I was home on June 14th to take my machine to my local Mac service guy (yes, we have one in my little hick town, and yes, he's good). He popped open my machine, pulled the hard drive and stuck it in an external case. Disk repair told him that not only was the drive sick, and the system files corrupted, it couldn't be repaired. Why?
Turns out the hard drive cable had failed -- shorted -- and done damage to the drive. Apparently (for complicated reasons) not an uncommon problem.
Today -- 17 days after dropping it off -- I got my machine back, with a new 1 Tb hybrid drive (my old drive was a 500 Gb conventional drive with only 200 Mb on it). Because only the system files were corrupted, my service guy was able to put on a new Operating system, and clone all my data so I didn't have to restore it from my backups.
From this experience, these things I learned:
- Backups are good. I use Apple's Time Machine to do automatic backups, and now have a dedicated 2 Tb drive to back up to. Because I had backups, I was never worried about lost data, and the work I had done in Barcelona was immaterial.
- My machine is my "right hand". My phone is good, but can't hold a candle to the utility of my machine. I have a long list of "things to do" built up over 17 days because I needed stuff on my machine to do it.
- Backups are good and essential, but... how do you get at them? If my machine had died totally, I could have restored all the data from the backup. But in that 17 days, I had a urgent need for some files from that back up. It was tough to extract a file or two in Apple's Time Machine world. from a machine other than the one they were backed up from (that's a security thing). In the end, I got my service guy to recover them from my hard drive and mail them to me.
- I have older machines I keep around for doing certain things. But my 2006 iMac has such an old operating system that it couldn't open my GMail properly, and such old copies of Word and Excel and other applications that I couldn't open recent files. It was useless for me to try to use it as a "back up machine". My iMac is thus really not very useful anymore, despite its pretty and big 17" screen.
- Karen's 2010 MacBook Air became my lifeline -- but it has an 11" screen, which was a real limitation doing some things I needed to do, and I noticed how slow it was, especially rendering my 29 page Friends Annual report full of pictures. And it can't handle things like AirDrop to get photos off my phone.