From the workplace · Technology

Backing up

I have just started reading “Shakespeare’s Local” by Pete Brown. It’s about the George, a pub near London Bridge that can trace its history back 600 years. It’s more about beer and London history than about Shakespeare, but it seemed appropriate to start reading a book with Shakespeare in its title as we approach the 400th anniversary of his death. Dickens definitely drank in the pub, and possibly Chaucer and Shakespeare did too.

As usual with non-fiction I headed to the back of the book, to check for sources, acknowledgements and whether there’s an index (there isn’t). In the acknowledgements the author notes that he started writing the book in January 2011, and in October of that year his laptop was stolen. He writes: “It contained every word I’d written by that point, most of which was the detailed history of the George compiled from press cuttings, online newspaper searches and previous historical accounts”. And he hadn’t backed it up. He lost everything he’d written and had to start again.

This has never happened to me, but I do spend a disproportionate amount of my time backing up content. I say “content” because it’s not just computer files. Cherished recordings and videos exist in multiple formats (as well as in computer files much of the time). There’s still a handful of videos going back to the 1990s that I don’t yet have in a digital format. Until 2014 our wedding video only existed as VHS cassettes. There are five copies, admittedly, but we still needed a VCR to watch them. On our wedding anniversary in 2014 I connected our last working VCR to a recordable Hard Drive (which has subsequently died) and created a DVD of it. (My “Technology Sucks” pieces, here and here, go into rather a lot of detail about Hard Drives.) When I have created a digital copy of cherished content (AVI or MP4 format) it ends up backed up onto multiple drives, maybe as many ten times (as documented in “Version Control”).

Many of us no longer print out our documents. Clearly Dave Brown, drafting his lengthy book about the George over several months, hadn’t printed out his work so far. I haven’t printed out any of these Blog posts, but as long as WordPress is a going concern these words will be stored there for anyone to read, and this Word document in which I draft my pieces (titled BLOG_Drafts.docx, and now containing over 126,000 words) has been backed up in around ten different places: USB sticks, external Hard Drives, my netbook and various Cloud locations.

Only once have I have lost some of my drafted words through not saving a file. It was over 20 years ago. I was writing a manual (about Lotus Ami Pro of all things) and had found a quiet room at the training company where I worked. The room contained the Desktop PC I was working on and a printer, both plugged into the wall sockets. A woman who worked in the Graphics Bureau at the same company came in, in a hurry, looking for a printer. She explained who needed it, scrabbled round on the floor to unplug it, and unplugged (you’ve guessed it) the computer I was working on, while I was halfway through saying “Let me just save [my file …]”. In those days AutoSave didn’t kick in every 10 minutes and it was probably 20 minutes since I had saved the file. I had to redraft that 20 minutes’ worth of work, but not before she had said, “It’s not my fault”. I have a preference for taking people’s words literally so replied, “Technically it is your fault: you unplugged the computer”, but that’s about as far as it went. In over 20 years of using computers most days that’s the most redrafting I’ve had to do: 20 minutes of “lost” work, because someone else unplugged my computer. I haven’t forgotten it, as you can see. Now, it’s time to go and back up these files. It’s two days since I did it last.


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