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This happened again after I rebuilt the system from scratch. Fortunately, I had a backup image stored on a usb hdd, that I recovered with Clonezilla.


It appears that my problem was caused by an improperly constructed "dd" command, which I was using to wipe a usb stick that had stopped working.

PLEASE DO NOT USE ANY OF THE FOLLOWING UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING

I had constructed the dd command as follows:

dd if=/dev/zero of=sdb  #Where sbd is the usb stick.

Apparently the result of this was to fill all the available space on "sda" with zeros.

I believe the dd command should have been constructed in the following manner:

dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/sdb

I suspect this would have saved me a lot of grief. The next time I try this it will be from a LIVE distro and I will be sure to have a recent backup image.