Wednesday, 28 May 2008

"Call for Backup!"

Long ago, I did a lot of computer programming. I mean, I was never one of those guys busily coding my little piece of the next release of WordPerfect or Super Mario Brothers. I generally wrote programs to solve research problems, so I was my own user. My clients just wanted the results, not the program.

When I say long ago, I mean I first learned to program in FORTRAN. Back when they used punched cards. And cuneiform tablets. The machine I learned on was an IBM 1130. It lived in a heavily air-conditioned room, took up more space than a pair of SUVs, and boasted an astounding 8K of memory, which is a little less than the memory on today's average microwave oven.

I do less programming nowadays, but my thinking is colored by decades of interaction with computers and the consequent belief that eventually they—and their associated magnetic media—will screw up. When writing in Word, my fingers click ALT-F-S (file save) as a nervous habit, even though they now have AutoSave.

It’s all too easy to lose the information on a given computer. So I backup my writing on my laptop by transferring it to my desktop computer in case something happens to the laptop. But what if the house burns down? (That happens around here.) So I also back up things by dumping them onto a memory stick that I keep in the glove compartment of my car.

But what about the evil bastard who sets my house on fire and steals my car? Or the case where the CIA decides to obliterate my novel? Or the problem of a meteor strike centered on our street?

I’ve occasionally e-mailed backups for friends to store on their computers for me, but that gets tiresome for the recipient if done very often. So, I signed up for an online service called MediaMax, that lets you store things on an external server somewhere. Problem is, it’s a hassle to use, and stores things in a format that makes it hard to retrieve or update particular files or groups of files. The concept still sounds like a good one, but…

Does anybody out there have an online storage service they can recommend? How do you handle the problem of backing up your work? Or do you just trust in the universe and follow your bliss and that sort of thing??


Tim Stretton said...

I'm obsessive about backups. If I lost the 65,000 words to date of The Last Free City I'd shoot myself.

I work primarily from a memory stick which goes everywhere with me. Whichever computer I am working on, I then copy the file to the hard disk. Since I am promiscuous where PCs are concerned, that means I have a backup no more than two or three days old on all three home computers and the work one.

I also email myself the file relatively frequently, so it's always in the sent mail folder of my gmail account.

Seems to work!

Aliya Whiteley said...

Yes, I email whatever I'm working on to myself when typing up, and have a memory stick on my keyring.

Since I write longhand, I always have the original paper copy as well. If I could read my own handwriting.

Brian McGilloway said...

Hi Dave
If you haven't already seen it, you should take a look at this and weep in sympathy:

I write on my lap top, which I take with me anywhere I'm likely to write. As with Tim and Aliya, I also back up to a memory stick. I have yet to e-mail myself a novel, though I have done with short stories I've written. Now you've alerted me to this whole area, though, the OCD part of me will have twenty copies of each new book made and hidden around the house.

Tim Stretton said...

Bloody hell, Brian! That's a horror story.

I lost half a (crap) short story once. That was bad enough.

For whatever reason, people can't be told about this--they have to wait for it to happen to them...

Matt Curran said...


I think I'm already there with that whole OCD thing... I currently back up to both a memory stick and a portable hard drive, and if someone was to ransack the house they would find half a dozen backed-up CDs in various places around the home. And two back-up CDs at work too.

And laptops... Yes, two laptops with more back-ups on them, and both of these laptops are "clean" machines i.e. I don't import files and they are never hooked up to the internet.

I've also trained a troupe of chimpanzees to copy whatever I write in case all these measures fail. There's been some mishaps - one of them managed to type out the entire works of Shakespeare by accident - but now they're coming along fine.

(Before anyone asks, I had a computer mishap when I was a child. Scarred me for life, it did.)

David Isaak said...

Arrghhh! Brian! What a godawful tale! That's Shakespearean: he did it to himself.

As to twenty copies hidden around the house. What if the house burns down? Yeah, okay, it's wetter over there. But still... What about that meteor? What if one of those twenty copies is out of date, and you copy it on top of your latest?

Matt--have you ever read the old short story--I think it's called "Inflexible Logic"--about the guy who finally puts a hundred chimpanzees in front of a hundred typewriters?

Tim--I can't put my faith in e-mail as a long-term storage device, because I've has some pretty weird things happen with e-mails over time. Like having the server crash. What I need is something more on the order of Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

Aliya--Well, you're the one who's destined for immortality. Because your handwritten pages can be displayed in the British Library, alongside James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, the Magna Carta (that's Latin for Magic Carpet, right?) and the other goodies. Brian, Tim, and me? Can you imagine a glassed-in display labeled "The actual memory sticks of three early MNW authors..."

Anonymous said...

There is the Wayback machine, which a colleague told me is a permanent online storage for everything on the internet. I couldn't make much of it myself (I was looking at it from the point of view of a journal editor wanting a repository for online-only Supplementary Information a few years ago). Here's a Wikipedia article about it:

From the perspective of a journal editor for many years, I have read time and time again about people who have stored data on some digital format that has become obsolete or has degenerated. (I think I have some floppy disks in my attic.) Nowadays, journals have scanned digital archives, but we scan and store DVDs of our issues, complete with high-res, print-publication quality figures. But nothing is future proof except possibly ink on paper, I suspect.

Neil said...

I have stuff longhand too, but generally not in a really cheap notebook where all the pages fall out, so that's not so good.

Gmail almost has an infinite amount of storage.

Michael Stephen Fuchs said...

David, you're quite right that you need offsite backups. Each day's writing of mine gets uploaded immediately. (To my server that hosts, but xdrive will work equivalently for you.) To do otherwise is to say the day's work is expendable. Your hard drive will fail, only a question of when.

Versioning also isn't a bad idea, for when you rewrite something that was better written in the first place (or delete something and want to bring it back). But I don't suppose I expect anyone here to use CVS . . .