Worth 1,000 Words? Okay. But $2,700?

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Monday, October 13, 2008

What is a memory worth?

That's the question I asked myself when my computer sounded a little death wheeze a few weeks ago and then stopped working. This is the laptop I bought just before we moved to England two summers ago, the laptop on which I kept all the photographs I took during our European year.

The laptop I never backed up.

I had a bad feeling immediately, the way you sometimes get flooded with an unpleasant foreshadowing after catching sight of a new mole or feeling a strange lump. Thousands of photos, I kept thinking, never backed up.

Apple looked at my laptop for free but didn't have any luck coaxing it back to life. A place in Landover said they'd had success with a noninvasive method that, if it worked, wouldn't cost more than about $300.

Three hundred dollars for all those memories? Of course I'd pay that.

But that didn't work either. My only hope now, I was told, was to ship the computer to a company in California. There, highly-trained technicians dressed in spacesuits would take the drive into a pristine clean room, carefully disassemble it and then use laser beams and black magic to transfer the data to another drive. The cost: up to $2,700.

It was here that I paused. Almost $3,000. That could buy a nice vacation. That could pay a month's mortgage with plenty left over. That could buy two brand-new laptops. Of course I wouldn't pay that.

But then I thought: What is a memory worth? And to get even more elemental: What is a memory?

My Lovely Wife and I have rented a car and driven from Oxford to Gloucestershire to see a Roman amphitheatre. The old amphitheatre is made from huge earthen berms, and now, covered in thick, tuffety grass, it resembles a giant, green bowl. The late afternoon sun is slanting down as Ruth and I walk arm in arm. I hold my camera at waist level and snap a photo of our elongated shadows. We look like stilt walkers striding across an emerald sea.

The family is in Pompeii, giddy with the sense of discovery. We've traipsed down dusty roads and into shattered houses, and now we find ourselves alone in the remains of an old bakery. It's dotted with what appear to be odd stone beehives. No, we decide, proud of our amateur archaeology, they're for grinding grain. I rest the camera on a wall, set the timer and hurry to join my family huddled around an ancient millstone. Snap! That will make a nice Christmas card, I think.

We're in Rome, at the Coliseum. It's the first day we've had rain on this trip, and we're all in bad moods, me most of all because I sense that no one else is quite as interested in the Coliseum as I am. "Do you want me to take a picture of you?" asks my wife. I stand overlooking the arena floor, my face set in an insincere smile.

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