Monday, August 22, 2005

Painless backup (without boring myself to death)

I've been typing on computers, more or less continuously, for more than 25 years. I started on the DisplayWriter, IBM's semi-successful answer to Wang's word processor, which we had in the house for a while (my father worked for IBM). Then, through school and various newspaper jobs, there was a Kaypro with CP/M and WordStar, a Radioshack TRS100, an Apple IIe, an IBM PC, a PS/2 and a long string of generic 386s and 486s.

Every word I typed into those machines, except for a fraction on yellowing paper, is gone forever. This isn't a great loss, admittedly. My reports on the ping-pong tournament at MIT and the planning commission in Springfield, Vermont, didn't advance human knowledge much. And if I threw an insightful question at Jack Kemp, Michael Dukakis or Jesse Jackson during the 1988 presidential primary in New Hampshire, it was accidental and promptly edited out.

But there are things I want to keep: my music, photos and some personal writing (the forum for which has varied over the years). Retaining data, through rapid technology changes, companies that come and go, and changing technology fads (5 1/4 floppy disks, anyone?), isn't rocket science: Decide what's important, maintain at least two copies (preferably far apart) and keep the bits in a format that isn't going to be forgotten down the road. Unfortunately, I'm not a rocket scientist and have lost countless files that I cared about. I spent years writing a weekly column in the 1990s, for example. A Google search turns up five hits, only three of which are actual columns. And they're not even very good ones.

One of the reasons I've lost so much is that I hate backing up my data. It is so incredibly boring that I've spent about two days writing that last sentence. I just can't bear it. The only way I've found to keep my stuff from disappearing at the next move, natural disaster or mouse-click-too-many is to make backing up a side effect of something else I want to do.

For example, my photos are on my hard disk and on Flickr. I just want to share my photos with my family, friends and the occasional complete stranger. The side effect is that my photos are in two different places, separated by about 6,000 miles (London and someplace in California). Similarly, my music is on my hard disk and the MP3 player du jour (currently an iPod). I just want to listen to my music on the Tube. Keeping my Led Zeppelin collection safe from hard disk crashes and house fires is just a nice extra.

Keeping documents is a little harder. Fortunately, in a fit of total madness one week a few years ago, I learned rsync. It took me days of hairpulling. But by the end of it, I learned to set up an automated process that keeps the downstairs computer in sync with the upstairs one. [Update: here's a good recent explanation of the process. That's basically what I do.]

And anything really important, I email it to myself on gmail, in searchable text. Et voila! My stuff is in two places -- on my hard disk (at least once) and in Google's server farm, someplace on an earthquake fault line. I feel safer already.

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