Total Drek

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Total Drek Public Disservice Message

A while back I posted some helpful little guidelines for graduate students. While they omitted the most useful advice someone can give a prospective grad student,* they did encapsulate a lot of the wisdom I have acquired about graduate school over the years. Nevertheless, on considering the whole thing for a while longer I have come to the conclusion that there is at least one bit of advice that I need to pass on to my fellow graddies. This particular morsel of wisdom is hard-won, so I hope you take it seriously.

What is this advice? Well, simply this: develop a system for making backups and stick to it. And I mean religiously, people.

Okay, allow me to explain. Those of you out in grad school land have a few things in common: you're probably smart, you're probably poor, you're probably short on sleep, and you're probably young. What does this mean? Simply this: you likely have not had the experience of a truly catastrophic computer crash. Oh, don't get me wrong, you may have lost a computer before but, odds are, it was more of a hassle than a real problem. So you lost a couple of term papers and those naughty pictures you took with your significant other. So what? None of these losses are all that devastating and most can be remedied fairly quickly. The thing is, the entire game has changed for you and you may not realize it yet. Consider, for a moment, the sorts of things you're going to do in graduate school: write a master's thesis, write a doctoral dissertation, collect/analyze data, write research articles, maintain gradebooks, and so forth. Losing these items is not a trivial problem it is, indeed, a major problem. What would happen to your stress level if, for example, the harddrive with the only copy of your dissertation went kerblooie? I think we all know the answer to that and it ain't pretty.

What makes this worse for the average grad student is our relative poverty. The pittance we make tends to lead us into viewing the computer hardware as being the valuable part of our work. We may take pains to protect our laptops from bumps or spills because we can't afford to replace the machine. Yet, this is wrong-headed. The hardware itself can be replaced, even if the money to replace it with is difficult to come by. The data on the computer however- theses, dissertations, papers, data, gradebooks, etc.- cannot be replaced, or at least cannot be replaced easily. Once they are gone the only way to get them back, if it's possible at all, is through the expenditure of time. Believe it or not, your computer hardware is a lot cheaper to you now than is your time.

I learned this particular lesson early in my grad school career when I nearly lost my master's thesis as a result of a computer hiccup. And by "hiccup" what I really mean is "when my mainboard caught fire." Given the fact that my apartment reaches kiln-like temperatures during large portions of the year, I actually experimented with one potential solution: rebuilding the computer in a fridge. As it turns out, however, this isn't as good an idea as it sounds. The more permanent solution I have discovered, however, is a paranoid and rigorous system of backups. I will now explain this system for your benefit.

I have two computers: a desktop unit I keep at home and a laptop. The laptop is my primary work computer, as I prefer to work in the office, but the desktop remains part of my working life. Because I use two systems I need to keep copies of my files on each and don't want to have to constantly figure out which computer has the most up-to-date version of a file. So, what I did was this: I made the "My Documents" folder the desktop a shared directory and then mapped it as a network drive on my laptop. This means that, as far as the laptop is concerned, the desktop's folder is a local drive. Once this was done, I then told the laptop to make the content of that mapped drive available offline. What this means is that all the data in the desktop's folder will be copied and kept available on the laptop. I can then take the laptop to work with me, make changes, and when I return at night allow the software to automatically synchronize the two systems. It basically allows me to keep automatic quasi-realtime backups as the desktop backs up the laptop and vice versa.

The problem with this little system, however, is twofold: first, both of my backups will sometimes be in the same physical location (hellloooo robbery and house fires!) and, second, data corruption can fry both copies. What to do? Well, my solution is simple: I keep a large external harddrive in my office and, once a week, make a complete backup to it. The copying takes about an hour to complete but, because of the size of the drive, I can make redundant backups. Right now I have several months worth of sequentially more recent backups stored there. So, in the event that my data is corrupted I only have to back-track until I find a backup where the corruption does not exist.** And if my house burns down, I'm fine so long as the office remains intact.

This system has saved me from several harddrive failues over the years and has contributed a great deal to keeping me sane. There's nothing quite like watching your computer fling itself off of a digital cliff and sit there secure in the knowledge that it isn't holding your entire career hostage.

So, grad boys and girls, take it from your uncle Drek: figure out a backup system, use it, and sleep better at night.

For those two hours three times a week that you get to sleep, anyway.


* "For the love of god, get out now!"

** I'm sure some Apple fiend will want to remind me at this point about time machine. Fair enough, but your gloating isn't all that helpful to those of us with PCs, now is it?

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3 Comments:

Blogger lvlmnly said...

yes. please do this. i have been having sympathetic heart palpitations for everyone in my department who doesn't back up since my hard drive fried two weeks ago. i use the system at lifehacker: http://lifehacker.com/software/geek-to-live/geek-to-live-automatically-back-up-your-hard-drive-147855.php
which i find easy to set up and maintain - the key to actually doing it. please please please don't screw yourself over.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 3:12:00 PM  
Blogger Marf said...

I regularly use computers in two different houses, and I have all my data on both. I also have an external drive that I do occasional redundant backups on as well. I have much the same setup you have.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008 3:26:00 PM  
Blogger Mister Troll said...

Very much worth repeating. And the point about having off-site backups is particularly important.

I've noticed that grad students sort of half-heartedly make backups... until faced with looming deadlines and massive stress levels. And then backups suddenly become unimportant - right at the time when they are most important. Big mistake.

Thursday, February 28, 2008 7:15:00 AM  

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