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You Can Always Go Back, If You’re Prepared

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
August 2008 Issue
July 7, 2008

You Can Always Go Back, If You’re Prepared

Digital pictures and digital music. My life is stored in bits on my laptop hard drive and an iPod. I can’t remember the last time I had film developed and my last music purchase was a hard-to-find jazz track downloaded from Amazon.

My life is definitely digital. Memories are convenient… and at risk.

I was thinking about this while watching the residents of Big Sur and Santa Barbara try to gather their belonging to flee fires. Like the victims of this summer’s horrible floods in the Midwest, these families sometimes had only minutes to gather important possessions.

Losing pictures of my wife, my family (including the pets), and special moments from our lives would be devastating.

I realize the Valley is extremely “safe” when compared to many other locations. We don’t have hurricanes, tornado seasons, or horrible fires. It is easy to forget we should protect our digital memories.

For photos, there are some free ways to both share and protect important memories. Yahoo’s Flikr ( remains the most popular free photo site. You create a free account to upload photos to online albums, which you can share with “the world” or with specific people. Similar sites include Photobucket ( and Shutterfly (

Even if your computer dies a horrible death, your photos will be online. Most free services are supported by users ordering items based on their stored digital pictures. You can create albums, scrapbooks, and even t-shirt designs and have the finished products delivered. If photos are really important to you, nothing beats a real book to share with friends and family.

If the worst ever happened, you could replace a physical scrapbook in a few days. That alone might be reason to have old photos scanned and uploaded to an online service. There are some images I would never want to lose, like photos of my grandparents.

Putting photographs online via a free service does not worry me at all. But, I am very hesitant to use other free services. Google Docs ( allows you to create or upload Word, Excel, and PowerPoint compatible files. You can even share these files with other people.

Maybe it’s a bit paranoid, but I would never upload or create a spreadsheet of student grades on Google. The legal risks are simply too great. I also would not post any of my business documents online.

It might be a great backup, in theory, since any computer with an Internet connection could retrieve the files. Businesses are using Google Docs, enabling the sharing of documents and encouraging collaboration. But, I worry about security. Former friends or coworkers could do a lot of damage, unless you remember to change passwords often.

Most of us don’t choose great passwords, either. This means services like Apple’s MobileMe ( or Carbonite ( aren’t as secure as many imagine. I told a coworker I could guess her online account within ten tries. People often use the names of pets, children, and spouses, followed by birthdates. Even a mix-n-match effort is pretty easy to guess. Sure enough, I guessed her password in three tries. Since most services give you three before locking you out… she changed her passwords. (A long password with random letters and numbers is more ideal.)

No, beyond my photos, I am paranoid. I turn to more traditional backups for my teaching and business data.

There are three types of backups, as I see it: archival, recovery, and serious disaster.

I make archival backups of student papers, grades, and other teaching data each semester. I copy documents to a CD-R and file the disc with any physical papers from the semester. So far, I have only had to retrieve one file after more than a year, but it was there on a CD.

Never delete data without testing the archive backup! I test my school backups on my laptop and on a desktop system. Only then do I delete the files from the laptop.

Recovery backups are for those silly “oops” moments. Even with a “Recycle Bin” or “Trash Can” it is easy to “empty the trash” only to discover you deleted your great unfinished novel, your child’s history report, or your spouse’s recipe collection.

Our recovery backups are made to external hard drives. They have prevented serious heartache, especially when I lost two projects for my doctorate. Yes, that can cause panic.

No storage is perfect, but when my laptop died, I was working again within 24 hours!

Every document had been stored to an external drive using automatic backup software.

As long as my computer is on at 10 a.m., backup software copies the newest files from my laptop to an external drive. The drive was under $200 and worth every penny. My desktop computer uses Apple’s Time Machine, which updates every hour, automatically. You can find files from an hour ago, a week ago, or even last year as long as your external hard drive is large enough.

Real disaster recovery means being prepared for anything. It means having copies of your data “off site” in case the unimaginable does happen.

When people ask, I still think CD-RW and DVD discs are great for disaster recovery backups. The disks are small, light, and easy to store.

A single-layer DVD-R disc can store 4.7 gigabytes (GB) of data, while a dual-layer disc hold 8.5 GB. As long as I am not storing photos or music, every other data file I have on my laptop fits on a single DVD-R. My files are stored in a single “Documents” folder, which makes creating a backup painless.

I make two DVD-R backups of my important documents each quarter, storing one near my computer and one “off site” but easy to retrieve. Some good locations include my campus office, in a locked drawer, and among my music CDs in my car.

Why store a backup in your car? Think about it: in a disaster you are likely to drive to safety. You might have to leave computers, printed records, and much more behind. Yet, when you do need it, there will be a CD or DVD with your important records.

I cannot imagine having to flee my house, but it is a lot worse to imagine losing my digital memories.


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