TDot’s Tips #4: Back up. Then back up again.

Posted by T. Greg Doucette on Nov 18, 2009 in TDot's Tips | Subscribe

I think one of the reasons I decided to get my bachelor’s degree in Computer Science was the reliability of modern technology.

Your laptop will never beg you to come visit because you haven’t seen each other in awhile, text you that it’s on the way to the pizza joint where everyone is gathering, and then stand you up when you get to town because “cell reception was bad” (apparently along with the reception of the dozens of other friends at the party it was attending who had mobile phones and could have contacted you on its behalf so you didn’t hang around for nearly 2 hours worried something bad had happened).

Your desktop won’t invite you at the last minute to a University Housing event its throwing, call you various unpleasantries when you decline attending because you’ve got another event at that same time, then (after you’ve rearranged your schedule to be a good friend and make an appearance) ask a mutual friend to ask you to leave since its ex-boyfriend was there and it “didn’t want things to be awkward.”

And they both certainly wouldn’t do it on the same day within a few hours of each other :mad:

No, folks, computers aren’t that capricious. Once you’ve programmed your computer to execute a given chain of commands, it can do so over and over again in perpetuity.  Sure things occasionally fail every few years — I’ve had a couple hard drives die over the past 4 — but you usually get tipped off in advance as startup times slow to a crawl or certain data gets corrupted.

But even when a hard drive fails, the data loss is easily fixed when you have an up-to-date backup.

And you know what else a data backup guards against? Theft.

That was the situation when I got to class this morning.  One of my classmates — who asked me to leave her name out of this blog entry1 — walked up to me, eyes red from crying, and pleaded “Mr. Computer Science, I need your help.

Those first three words are the ones most tech folks dread hearing.  When someone wants an advice on a computer purchase or a minor issue with their browser, they’ll usually refer to you by name. “Hey TDot, what do you think about this particular laptop configuration?” or “Good morning TDot. Can you help me fix this random non-critical issue with my Firefox theme?” etc.

But when someone drops a reference to the CSC degree when they approach you, they’re implicitly elevating you to near-deity status in the hope the added pressure to meet their expectations will enable you to fix whatever catastrophe has befallen them.  In this particular case, my fellow 1L had been saving all of her work all semester — outlines, case briefs, mock exams, the whole shebang — on a single portable flash/keychain drive that had been stolen while she was visiting the law library at a neighboring law school.  There were no copies on her laptop.  There were no backups on an external disk somewhere.  There weren’t even old email attachments she could retrieve. It was all on that pilfered disk.

After scouring her laptop hard drive for anything usable, I found a few corrupted temp files that I was able to extract some text data from courtesy of a couple Unix tools.2  It helped save her from being totally behind now that we’re only 2.5 weeks before finals, but even my best efforts still left her with a lot less data than she originally had.

Moral of the story: back up your data.

And once you’ve backed up your data, back it up again somewhere else. Keep copies on your laptop. Store duplicates on a flash/keychain drive. Open a Gmail account and email files to yourself occasionally. Buy a Mac and use Time Machine.  Consult Google for other options.

Just don’t let yourself be the one forced to start a sentence with “Mr. Computer Science…;)

  1. Because she’s ever-so-slightly embarrassed that she ignored my advice on the topic back during midterms :P []
  2. If you didn’t already know, MacOS X rocks. In undergrad I was amazed at how many CSC folks use Macs.  All of you should convert to them. Seriously. []

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