Yanking a Flash Is Disastrous Occasionally and That’s Too Often

Bad move, though everyone does it: Yanking a flash drive without giving the proper command.

It’s easy. No bad effects are seen. You think.

But I’ve seen problems. I used a public library. I’d plug my thumb drive into a public computer, use it a while, walk away for a few minutes, come back, and soon discover that my file was badly chopped up. Pieces were missing that seemed to start and end randomly. It was the file I had open but it wasn’t the paragraphs I’d been working on. It was probably a megabyte or two of text, turned into Swiss cheese with so many holes you’d feel cheated. I’d take it home, open a backup that usually wasn’t so new, and labor for ten minutes to three hours pasting in and fixing the mess. And I’d do it again on various days. Finally, I had enough of this. At the library, if I had to step away for a few minutes, I’d pocket the flash and come back and I never had to fix it again there. Lesson: When I stepped away, someone was yanking the flash and putting it back. Thank you for putting it back, whoever you were, but I don’t know why you’d pull it out, but what’s more important is the lesson I learned. They must’ve been pulling it out without the proper command and I was doing it right. I realized one librarian got it wrong and I explained it to him.

Different library, different problem: I’m using a public computer. I ask a technician for help. She reaches to pull out the flash. I put my hand over it. Please don’t just pull it out. She asks, “Privacy?” No, I say, “Saving.” She doesn’t understand it. We go back and forth. I don’t remember if I explain about using a command. Eventually, we go to her desk. She asks to borrow my flash. I agree. She inserts it into her machine. She looks at her screen. She pulls my flash and hands it to me. I didn’t see her typing a command. I take it home. It never worked again. It was dead. I had backed it up the night before, so I only had to remember what work I did at the library, and I chalk this up to experience, hers. A while later, her supervisor tells me not to use flashes at the library. The library sells flashes for use at the library, so I continue using mine (a replacement), without incident. Years later, the techie is apparently gone and I explain to the supervisor why not to pull a flash out, with reference to the techie probably not understanding. She, the supervisor, seems to accept this.

You’ll get away with it most times. But if electricity to the flash is interrupted at the wrong instant, that can kill the flash. Once it’s dead, I know of no way to recover anything from it. The technology is similar to that of a BIOS. A BIOS can be updated. The process of updating a BIOS is called “flashing” the BIOS. Instructions for doing so typically include making sure that electricity to the computer is not interrupted while flashing it, or you could lose the entire BIOS, which will then need replacing or your computer won’t work, and replacing the computer could require replacing the system board, which can cost a few hundred dollars (never mind the expensive ones). Note that simply using the computer does not come with instructions to make sure the electricity is not interrupted, because usually the worst that will happen in that case is that you lose unsaved work, which, usually, you just recreate (while annoyed). But for flashing a BIOS not interrupting electricity is a bigger risk.

The other bad effect is the mangling of files. I don’t know if the folder structure can be mangled this way, but I wouldn’t care to chance it. But mangling of files can have a delayed reaction. You may remember children’s cartoons in which a nice animal walks off the edge of a cliff without realizing it, keeps walking forward, happens to look down, discovers there’s no ground, screams, and falls out of sight. That’s not unlike what happens to your files. Your flash looks fine. Two weeks later, you open a file, and what’s this? And you didn’t make a backup? And you don’t remember what was there? And no one else has a copy? Gee, sorry about that.

A bunch of computers under your control? People using them will tell you the computer is broken and they need their files back right now, a tinge of panic in their voices. You’re not allowed to just hand out Prozac, so tell them ahead of time in an educational minute people will listen to because you're nice as nerds go, how to pull it out.

How to pull it out: Give a proper command. Maybe the Eject command (a program’s Save As dialog, Open dialog, or another window for navigating folders and files will typically have an Eject command). Maybe reboot (warm reboot) or restart (meaning a machine restart). Maybe shutdown or halt. If you give an Eject coommand and the machine tells you it can’t do that because you still have a file open, you may have to quit all the programs using the files that the flash still has open, like a word processor. With experience with your own machine, you’ll learn which ones those tend to be. The Eject command might be in a menu (menubar or right-click context) or might be represented by an icon next to the drive in a list of drives. Your screen should tell you when it’s safe to remove the drive by hand. Rebooting usually does not require that you quit programs because rebooting automatically quits almost every program anyway, and so does shutdown or halt. Logging off from a session or an account may or may not be relevant; that depends on your operating system, so, if you don’t know, assume that a logout is not enough and use another step.

If your flash has an LED, see if the LED is on or blinking, in which case either give a proper command or wait till the LED is off. If your flash has no LED, be conservative and wait. If you’re not sure but your computer is off, after a shutdown you can pull the flash out.

Solid-state hard drives are another story, but likely similar and a bit more reliable.

With all this, you’re only talking about remembering a step or two and taking an extra minute. You’re saving yourself a load of grief and work. Only a geek will believe you, but you are.