Better Safe Than Sorry

Mar 14 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Today's Chronicle of Higher Education includes an article about a student, Jessica Osuna, who must recreate her dissertation:

A doctoral candidate in ecological sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, Ms. Osuna was not naïve about safeguarding her work. She ran automatic backups of her 15-inch MacBook Pro onto a small external hard drive. Then every other day or so, she copied her work onto a one-terabyte hard drive that she kept locked in a safe, in case of fire. But whoever burglarized her home busted open the safe and took that drive, too.

As an MD, I never wrote a document as extensive as a dissertation. My father, a historian, recalls working on his around 1960. He typed everything in carbon copy. The original could then be used for editing, and the carbon copy stashed in his refrigerator. No, carbon copies are not temperature-sensitive; that was the most likely location in an apartment for his papers to survive a fire.

I feel very protective about the work I do now. Dropbox solves many of these issues. This service provides "cloud storage." A 2 GB account is free; larger storage can be purchased for an annual rate. You secure your documents with passwords, but public and shared files can be established at no additional cost. Apps make the service truly cool. You install them on any computer - Windows, Mac, or Linux - and anything you edit in your Dropbox folder automatically gets updated in your account when you have an open internet connection. Apps for iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, and Android mean you can view  or edit your files almost anytime, anywhere.

Say I work on a file at home on my netbook. After I save it in the Dropbox file, the file automatically updates in the online account. The next day, when I boot up my desktop system at work, Dropbox automatically updates the same file on the desktop system.

You can see a video about the service here.

Of course, I have more redundancy in my current system than most people. I leave a terabyte hard drive plugged into my work computer. It automatically backs up everything on my hard drive, including the Dropbox folder, during my lunch time. Since accessing my office requires several swipes with a secure ID card plus one old-fashioned key, that provides another layer of back-up. Just in case.

I learned my lesson about back-up in a less dramatic way than Jessica Osuna. A few years back I got a new laptop for work. It did not like the antivirus software our university provides. Even though my department's technical support guy documented the issues and wanted to get me a copy of the competitor, the powers-that-be wanted to see for themselves. In the meantime, I found a virus and suffered the blue screen of death. Since I had just switched laptops, I only lost 1 document. Since that time, I have backed-up religiously.

I need to open my Dropbox now and get some real work done.

9 responses so far

  • Tracey S. says:

    Wow, that's horrible! When my dad was doing his dissertation, likewise before computers were in common use, his department's cleaning lady "accidentally" threw away 6 boxes of library books, papers, references, draft documents, and computer punch cards. He had to start nearly from scratch except for what he had been working on at home over the weekend.

  • Gary Beck says:

    Thus the reason for saving in more than one location. I have mine saved in at least 3 places. I'm still a little concerned about the safety of some of these online sites like DropBox. It's the paranoid freak in me...but that's why I have at least 3 copies of my dissertation.

  • jc says:

    A colleague and I were working in our offices on a weekend. We were 3 doors apart. He got up to copy some stuff down the hall, and came back to his laptop missing from his desk. I remember hearing the elevator door open and close, but I thought it was my colleague. He lost his entire dissertation. All I heard were screams for about an hour. The thief took his laptop, backpack, backup drive, and ipod. I am so glad I didn't get up to pee. Nothing like that had ever happened before.

  • WhizBANG! says:

    I have nothing quite as extensive or valuable as a dissertation in my files, but I have enough stuff I would need to recreate that it would be a major pain-in-the-ass time sink for at least a few weeks.
    I heard a guy on the radio criticizing the Fukushima reactors for not having enough "redundancy" in their tsunami protection (in retrospect, no shit). I'm guessing anything important needs redundant back-ups.

  • My laptop failed this past fall while I was writing my dissertation. Luckily I made hourly backups onto a small, portable external hard drive, had my dissertation file also on Dropbox (which backs up every time I save my document), and every other day I'd save a copy on one of the lab's computers. This way I only lost about an hour or two of work as opposed to days. Prior to this, though, I was mocked for saving my dissertation in so many places.

  • Ty-bo says:

    I have a few friends that specifically have the others set up to be off-site server hosts. Not a bad idea if you've got some networking-savvy friends, I suppose. (Maybe I should ask about it more.)

  • becca says:

    Why didn't you write this post a month ago? Before littleone killed his second laptop... the one with my dissertation on it. Harddrive is currently at geeksquad. But it's gonna cost me two grand.

  • Anita says:

    Why would you leave anything that valuable in such a theft-magnet as a laptop computer? Having only one copy on something that is so easily stolen, or that can easily have its hard drive catastrophically fail... Why would you do that, when it's so easy (relative to the pre-computer age) to protect them? God, people, take care of yourselves! Don't expose yourself to that much trauma!

    I email the current draft of my dissertation to myself every few days, and I've also emailed myself every other electronic thing I have (notes, sources etc.). Sort of a free DIY version of "the cloud" or Dropbox. If you're paranoid about people reading what you email yourself or save at some network, then password-protect it (that's easily done in Word) first. If you're REALLY paranoid about that, then get yourself a couple of USB thumb drives and hide one in your office, one at home. Then all you could lose is the work you've done since the last time you backed it up onto your thumb drive. A thief can't burglarize your home and office simultaneously.

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