Tuesday, February 17, 2009

backing up

Way back when I was starting college, computer were just starting to really make inroads into education. I knew that computer skills would eventually be a necessity, so I signed up for a "Microcomputing Skills" class at the community college, where we learned dBase, Lotus, and WordPerfect 5.1. Ah, the days of DOS. It was less an operating system and more a special magical language, designed to alienate the technophobes and elderly.

One of the first things the teacher tried to impress upon us was the importance of making multiple backups, and we needed to buy disks to store these copies. Feeling like I was on the edge of the future, I eschewed the 5 1/4" floppies in favor of pre-formated 3 1/2" disks. I ended up doing a lot of work at the campus computer lab, and I kept all of my papers on those disks. I would say they became my friends, but at the time, I didn't really care that much about my disks or my work. I was 19 and, as a result, fairly stupid. College was more a way to avoid getting a real job than anything else, and these disks were as valuable to me as the paper on which I'd doodle when bored in class...which was, unfortunately, quite often.

Then I got my 2 year degree and decided to take a semester off. Nearly 3 years later, I realized that there were probably better career options than my job as a water salesman, so I applied to the local commuter college, went back to the pizza place (for the flexible hours and free bread sticks), and searched for my old computer disks. Luckily, I had landed on the proper side of the 5 1/4" versus 3 1/2" debate, so my disks still worked. I only found one of them, but I was fine with that...it did have most of my work still on it.

Going back to school meant that I would be doing a lot of work at the university. I had a brief stretch of owning my own computer...a glitzy, hi-tech 16 megahertz machine that I couldn't get to do anything useful. However, in the two years between buying that computer and going back to school, it was already obsolete. That was fine, though...I was used to working at labs, and they provided me more opportunities to run outside for a smoke than would working at my parent's home...at the time, they were still pretending that they thought I didn't smoke, and I also kept up the illusion while around them.

Anyway, I soon sank into my own college routine...classes in the morning, working entirely too much, then driving back to the university. My nights at the U would be spent either reading on the top floor of the library or typing on some fairly hefty IBM machines in the computer lab, saving my drafts on my prized 3 1/2" and reveling in my hi-tech knowledge of special WordPerfect keystroke commands. I did notice a few new-fangled machines with some weird peripheral that people called a "mouse," but they were more an oddity than anything else. During my occasional breaks sitting outside the lab, smoking Winston Light 100s and drinking dirt-like vending machine coffee, I thought of myself as some multi-class hi-tech scholar/adventurer, pushing the limits of technology unseen only a few years before.

One day during my senior year, I pulled up to the university, trudged across the campus, found an empty seat in the computer lab, pulled out my disk case, went to grab my one disk containing everything I'd written in over three years, and started whimpering as its case fell apart in my hands. Suddenly, I realized that among all the lessons I should've learned in my community college years, the Microcomputer class's lesson of "always make multiple backups" might've been the most important thing I ignored.

Luckily, the lab attendants were well-versed in dealing with panicky students. More than once, I had seen frightened undergrads approach the techies almost in tears because of some work-destroying glitch. I stumbled up to their desk and moaned, "disk...broke...gah...stuff...gone...help." They were indeed able to help me get the disk together just long enough to copy it to a spare disk. From then on, I learned the cardinal rule of computers...indeed, I had it burned into my soul:

This is a lesson I have never forgotten. Nowadays, I keep copies of everything

  1. on my office computer
  2. on my flash drive
  3. on my laptop
  4. on at least one online site
  5. on my desktop
  6. on an external hard drive (for monthly backups)
  7. and even on cds, which I will occasionally burn and mail to an out of state friend or relative

Thus, in the event of a nuclear war, my scholarship would probably survive. I'm still uncertain on whether I deserve such posterity, but there you go. I can never violate the backup rule, and online storage is one of my many weapons.

However, lately my appreciation for online storage has led to weird complications. As more and more online services follow the draconian Facebook terms of service model, this means that ownership of the stuff I've backed up online might be questionable. Does the university own my online class stuff, or do I? Say I post something both to my course website and to a blog, does the university now have to fight with Wordpress or Blogger? If I link to this post on Facebook, who owns it? If I back up this blog on Wordpress, the same issue exists.

Some people think the real solution is to go to open source blogging and social networking. I disagree. I think we should all back up everything with at least three different web companies, so our stuff is owned by a bevy of different, competing companies. That way, we might go far towards pushing Wordpress, Google, Facebook, MySpace, several major universities, and about thirty other companies to all get involved in a major mish-mash of interconnected lawsuits when one of them expresses interest in one of my bon mots. They'll spend so much time suing each other that we, the humble users, will be free from their lawyerly gaze. All major web companies will lawsuit each other into bankruptcy, and we'll be back to fending for ourselves online.

It would be a better world...we would bring a lot of evil corporations to their knees by turning their own terms of service against them! Of course, we'd also have to reintroduce the floppy drive, but no great deed is without its costs, I guess.

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