When life hands you lemons, drink more tequila

I just don’t know what it is, but I seem to be having a bad case of disk rot here. I’ve just had my fifth boot disk crash in a year and a half. (Other hard disks have failed as well but the boot disks have been the most painful.) I felt like I’d mined all the satisfaction out of this experience that I was likely to have after just the third disk crash at least, but, nope, the universe seemed to think I needed more experience with this. It’s not been just hard disks; I’m on my third motherboard, too. New RAM, new processors, almost everything. It really sucks.

Okay, so what have I learned from all of this? There are several things I want to pass on to you:

  • Always use an offsite backup system. It’s not just enough to have DVD copies of critical files, because the DVDs are of necessity always out of date. You need to have a good online backup system that automatically backs up critical files whenever they’re updated. I use Carbonite these days. There are other online backup systems that cost about the same and are probably just as good, but I’ve been pleased enough with Carbonite. There’s a referral program, so if you want to do that, I can officially refer you so that you and I get extra free months. Ping me and we’ll do it.
  • Don’t depend on the offsite backup system exclusively. I’ve got my email files backing up with Carbonite every night. This ought to be enough, right? Apparently not: on the most recent disk crash, when I went to recover my email, it turned out that the email had not backed up correctly to Carbonite in the last throes of the hard disk’s life… and the munched information overwrote the good information and ~poof~ no more email files. Fortunately, I had a disk-to-disk backup from November 27th, so I only lost about a week’s worth of responses and had to resift a bunch of email. More time lost, but not a complete disaster. The moral of this particular story, though, is not to depend on one single backup method. I survived because I had things backed up to another hard disk. I’m also considering putting together a small RAID system just to keep a complete immediate backup of everything. It’ll only cost about $400 and will be Yet Another Layer of backup.
  • Have physical backups that aren’t part of something accessible online. I might not have lost nearly so much email if I’d been burning things occasionally to DVD. Normally, I do this every week or two to make a permanent image of email and other job critical files, but the computer was giving me too much grief and I was relying on the more electronic versions. Mistake. But I’m also reminded of my very first hard disk crash ever, back in 1987, when I was writing my very first book. I was copying the current chapter file off to a floppy disk every hour or so (I’d just leave the floppy in the drive and copy when I hit a breakpoint). I’d copy all the files off at the end of the day and carry the floppies upstairs with me when I left the office. And lo! I lucked out: the hard disk I was using crashed and I was able to restore the files on the floppy to the other hard disk and no data was lost and only a few hours of writing time were compromised. Files these days take a lot more than the capacity of a single floppy, but the principle’s the same: for a project you’re working on, copy short-term files to a flash drive or a CD or DVD and carry them with you when you’re away from the computer. For large blocks of files, get a cheap 1T hard disk in an external enclosure and use that to do a file slurp of everything and then save that at a friend’s house. If you’re robbed or your house burns down–and trust me, both things have happened to good friends this year–your files will still be recoverable from the drive at your friend’s house as well as the Carbonite backup.
  • Run a lot of anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. The purpose of most viruses these days is not to randomly damage your computer as it used to be 15-20 years ago, but rather to avoid detection and enslave your computer for use as part of a botnet. Nevertheless, not every piece of software is perfect even if it’s intended to work without a ripple. Anything that tampers with the operating system can cause problems. Spyware is much more common and it’s not nearly as benign, ironically. Spyware can and does slow down your system. It also can be an open door to much nastier software (such as the aforementioned viruses). There are several free anti-virus programs for home users such as Avast, Panda, and AVG. (Panda also has a rootkit detector you may want to try.) Many other programs are available for a free trial, but I stay with Avast and AVG because they’re free and they work fine. For spyware, consider Ad-Aware and Spybot. There’s no reason you can’t have multiple spyware detectors on your system and it’s been my experience that different programs are better at catching some things than others. Do I think that I lost hard disks to viruses or spyware? No, I’m fairly sure that this was all hardware-related. But I’m not absolutely sure. And I know that as soon as I stop testing for viruses and spyware, I’ll get hit by them.

My overall tip is if you find yourself saying “I don’t have time to back up my data,” stop immediately and back up your data. Disks fail for all sorts of reasons and none of them are pretty. Every time this happens, it takes me the best part of a week to recover all the programs, all the configurations, all the settings, and all the links, even when I haven’t lost any actual data. And I’ve usually lost at least some data–bookmarks, links, and so on.

The one thing out of this I have not learned is any really good new swear words, and believe me, I could have used some. (Although I want to be really clear that, now that I am hopefully past all of this problem, I don’t want to have this happen yet again just for the opportunity to learn more words.) I am best reminded of one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes: “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

Believe me, Mark Twain was $%*@#$_)^!!! right.

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