Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

backup strategies

Here's an odd post by Gina Barreca about a student of hers whose completely un-backed-up computer died. Everything was lost: documents of all kinds, photos, email, etc. Barreca's response: See, this is why you should print everything out. (Everything? Even the photos?)

Barreca says she pays for a backup service, though she seems to make a point of emphasizing that she doesn't understand it: "one of those companies which (I am told) will keep my stuff safe in the ether or the cloud or the memory of one really smart guy who’ll be able to recite everything I have on my hard-drive." So what she really relies on is "filled-to-overflowing filing cabinets of paper and shelves of hand-written notebooks."

Is that really the most appropriate response? About a month ago my computer died — as I mentioned in an earlier post — and I would have been completely miserable, indeed would be completely miserable for some time to come, if I could only rely on paper copies of everything. (Everything textual, that is: I don't think anyone could seriously suggest printing out high-resolution copies of every digital photo they've taken, and few would suggest burning every song they own to CD.) The best possible scenario for making materials useful to me again would be to scan them to PDF and use OCR software to make at least some of the text readable again. But this would take countless hours and would lead to highly imperfect results.

What I did instead: I had my whole computer backed up to an external hard drive in my office, my entire home folder backed up to Amazon S3, and my essential files backed up to Dropbox. So while I was waiting for my new computer to arrive I used Dropbox on other computers to keep working, and when the computer finally did show up I just transferred the whole contents of my previous computer to the new one. Using Apple's Migration Assistant, I set it up one afternoon when I left the office, and had everything in place when I got back the next morning.

And Barreca thinks it makes more sense just to print everything out? 


  • Just one more example of how she is often wrong. Because print seriously isn't reliable as a backup. You should copy EVERYTHING by hand in permanent ink, except for the digital images, which obviously should be done in oil or in pastels, depending on the emotive presence of the subject.

  • I know, right? I used watercolors for a while as my photo backup plan — boy, did I live to regret that.

  • I'm really flabbergasted. If one does have print-outs, what about the effort you then have to take to retype them up? To rescan pictures? What if your office burns down? What about the types of files that it's not even realistic to print out? I'm thinking of all the image and signal processing data and computing code I've got stored. It's ridiculous to think of printing that stuff out.

    I'd argue that if you don't understand your backup system, then you don't really have a backup system.

  • If I lost everything I'd be tempted to become a luddite and peel apples for a living, although I'd sorely miss getting my fill of great Barreca advice.

  • I think I used to have a colleague who printed off and filed hard copies of nearly every email he received. I do not know what he did with them, but they were always on the departmental printer. That wasn't you, was it Alan?

  • David, that colleague continues his familiar printing practices. Since it was his name on those emails, not mine, as you perfectly well know, I find your question highly disingenuous, sir.

  • Sir, I would never have looked at the actual content of those emails. I simply saw their format and wondered, "Which Brit lit scholar would do such a thing" as it was clear to me ONLY a brit lit scholar--someone fond of archives and labyrinthine libraries filled with old letters--would endeavor to make such an archive of correspondence.

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