The day after Steve Jobs died our studio PowerMac started to show signs of failure. It wouldn’t shut down, it wouldn’t start up, kernel panics, etc. My first instinct when things are going to shit in computer land is to back everything up. It was also a good time to reevaluate my backup system.
We Are Cyborgs
Like it or not, we are all cybernetic creatures. Without machines, most of us would be barely functional. We use a combination of computer chips, hard drive and flash memory, user interfaces, global networks, and space satellites to help us communicate, navigate, think, remember, calculate, and create.
Artificial systems are slowly learning to protect themselves. Apple’s Time Machine is a good example — it’s a backup system you don’t have to think about. But we’re not entirely there yet — at this point in our technological evolution we still need to put some thought into how to protect our data (extra-brain memory).
A good backup system protects against:
- Human error
- Electronic failure
- Natural disaster
- Willful destruction
In terms of qualities, a good backup system is:
- Capable of tracking multiple versions/time snap-shots
- Easily verifiable
Auditing My Own System
For a long time my own backup system was pretty good, but I think it’s beginning to show signs up age. Here’s what I do:
- After every work session I backup to either an external hard drive, or to Dropbox. Dropbox is a great free service — it’s basically a folder that automatically synchronizes on multiple computers, as well as a network copy. It’s a also a good way to get something from my Mac to my PC (or vice versa) without using a flash drive.
- Once a week I use SuperDuper! to make a copy of the entire hard drive for both my Powerbook and PowerMac, to an external disk. SuperDuper! only copies the files that have been changed, and it creates a mountable disk image so restoring is incredibly easy. I’ve used it both to do partial and full restores. Great product.
- Once a quarter I make a DVD-R backup of all the studio and Loöq Records work for that quarter, and give the DVD-R to Spesh so he can store it at his house.
I know my system works pretty well. It has saved my ass a number of times.
The most frequent cause for going to backup is human error — I’ve done something to mess up a file and I need a clean copy.
Hard drive and/or motherboard failure is inevitable — it’s just a matter of time before any given machine dies. For me, that’s the second most frequent cause of going to a backup.
I’ve only had my computer stolen once, and it was traumatic even with a complete backup. I had Prey installed on the machine, but it didn’t kick in (I think because the thief wasn’t able to login into my user account). When I bought a new Mac and restored from my SuperDuper! image, Prey reported the new computer as missing. I received a theft report including a snapshot of my music studio and my location on GoogleMaps. So I had to toggle my stolen computer to “not missing” on Prey’s control panel.
One friend has had his laptop stolen out of his car twice, both times while getting coffee. He’s one of the smartest guys I know — you’d think he would have given up coffee by now.
I’ve been fortunate enough, so far, to not have my house catch on fire, flood, or be leveled by an earthquake. If one of these things did happen, I’m sure I would be happy to have a backup at an external location. Thanks Spesh for wrangling that growing pile of DVD-Rs.
One advantage to using some form of non-magnetic media (like DVD-R) for your backups is that your data would survive an electromagnetic pulse weapon. Granted, this is an unlikely occurrence, but better safe than sorry.
How Can I Improve My Backup System?
The main flaws in my system are:
- A lack of automation. For me this isn’t a big deal, since I’m fairly organized. Still, sometimes I miss a week or two, and if I got unlucky in terms of timing this could hurt me. An automated system would be better. I’ve considered switching to Time Machine, but this doesn’t help me on the PC side. Anybody have a recommendation for automated PC backup for a laptop? Preferably something that doesn’t involve a tape drive.
- A lack of version snapshots. For important historical versions I make a manual backup copy, but multiple historical versions within an automated system would be superior. Once again, Time Machine does this. I’m starting to convince myself, at least on the Mac side of things.
I’ve shied away from automated backup in the past because I’ve seen systems like that fail. You think your backup system is automated and working perfectly, but when it comes time to restore, you realize some setting was off, and you’re fucked.
Don’t Forget to Protect Your Wetware
Backing up your data won’t help you if you severely injure your brain or get progressive dementia and forget you own a computer. Strokes can also cause brain damage.
- Wear a helmet while riding motorcycles, bicycles, and other wheeled objects.
- Protect against brain inflammation. Eating celery and green bell peppers, which both contain luteolin, can help.
- Eat apples and pears to protect against stroke. Olive oil, tea, and dark chocolate are also protective. If you have a stroke, there are possible benefits to taking aspirin immediately.
- One form of vitamin B3, niacinamide, may protect against and even reverse Alzheimer’s Disease.