15 - A Backup Plan

15 – A Backup Plan

Posted on Posted in Academic Articles, GalenNewsLetter

15 – A Backup Plan

A little over a year ago, this series began with a bang… almost literally, with the sudden and tragic death of my home computer’s graphics card. A few weeks ago, almost exactly a year later, both my motherboard AND my hard drive also resigned, as if in sympathy.

Both motherboards and hard drives are designed to be reliable, and for long-term use, therefore I want you to understand, when I describe this situation, how very unlikely it is for them both to call it quits at the same time. It’s like winning the anti-lottery. It’s like opening the only Wonka Bar without a golden ticket. It’s like having a black cat cross your path and then being hit by a meteorite made of other black cats from outer space. Well, maybe it’s not that unlikely, but it’s right up there.

When my motherboard began to malfunction, making the computer impossible to use, I took it to the repair shop, (because I am NOT the “I.T. Guy”) and I thought to myself, “Well, at least they will be able to recover the data from my hard drive.” Sadly, this was not to be. According to the technician, when he looked for data on my drive it was completely blank, as if it had been formatted.

The glass-half-full side of this is that because I teach a significant number of my courses online every semester, a lot of my files are spread out across the hard drives of my office PC, my home computer, the laptop I use to record video files, and on Galen’s servers where I’ve uploaded work for my students over the years. As a result of this, I was able to recover quite a lot of my University-related information.

I didn’t get everything back, however. I had spent the December break before classes began putting together a lot of material in order to get a head start on this Spring semester, and this was all stored exclusively on the drive that was damaged. As a result, I’ve been playing catch-up on some of the very courses I’d hoped to have running smoothly by this point, and some of my plans to update and enhance a couple of modules have had to be delayed. Also, a number of files related to my personal projects are only fond memories at this point, of interest – in Monty-Pythonesque parlance – only to historians.

My thoughts on the matter, as I finally succeed in getting back on track, are that any instance in which I’m unable to recover my information is an opportunity to remake it, better than it was before. Of course, I have the luxury of time; nothing that I need to recreate is critical for this particular semester except for my head-start work. If this had happened to a student, especially once the semester had begun, he or she might not have been so fortunate.

Had I been a student, without the benefit of having my work on several computers, I would have been coping, not only with the emotional impact of having to re-do certain tasks from scratch, but the actual loss of a significantly higher amount of information. At least, the volume of information I cannot retrieve is small enough that I can remember the basic ideas necessary to reconstruct, and even improve them, but if the additional pressure of deadlines had been applied, this might not have been sufficient to reproduce the work.

Many of you have probably heard of “Murphy’s Law,” which states, “Anything that can go wrong will.” We are fortunate if we escape a potential corollary to that: “Anything that can go wrong will, and at the worst possible time.”
The truest antidote to bad luck is preparation. While I do have backups of most of my work, I have not, until this particular life lesson, had a regular schedule of making them. I have since committed to making monthly copies of any new files, or updates to existing files, in my Galen folder, my Documents folder, and a few other specific directories.

This should ensure that, with any future calamities, I will never be too far behind.

I also recommend that you, as a student, do likewise. I think it is a good idea for you to at least get a USB stick, if not an external hard drive or even a secondary computer, and make sure that all the work you’ve done for Galen so far is located in more than one place. One thing that makes the process of creating backups is to have your files organized – and this is a good idea in general anyway.

When I was an undergraduate student, I confess, I wasn’t the most organized with regard to my work, at least not the programs I would write for my various computer related classes. I essentially had one big folder into which I dumped all of my files.

As a graduate student, I was employed part time as a research assistant for a couple of government organizations who shall remain nameless… but it was quite the eye-opening experience. I had to learn new software, a new programming environment, and the dynamics of creating software in a team. This may sound like a bad espionage joke, especially in today’s political climate, but our team consisted of a Cuban scientist, an individual of French descent, an actual Russian, a guy from India, and a Belizean (me) writing code to allow cellphones to track people’s movements for the U.S. Government. And back then, the phones were not as “smart.”

The major source of culture shock for me, however, wasn’t in regard to the individuals, but the development environment. This is nothing against my professors at college, but the fact of the matter is, they never really emphasized the need for organization with regard to the storage of the files we used in programming. Most of my assignments only required a single file program anyway, and so when I was introduced to a professional coding environment, I had to learn (quickly) about the importance of subdirectories, packages, and applying a new version number to every update I made to the source code. Another thing I had to learn was the importance of applying the right software tools to the task I was attempting. At one point I produced a three-page flowchart of the program I was working on in Microsoft Paint. I actually got quite good at manipulating individual pixels… but there were much better programs I could have used to generate my diagrams, which would have provided me with neater, better looking, and faster results that would have been easier to edit in the event of any alterations. I’ll tell you more about the importance of the right tool for the job some other time.

Even if you don’t have a background in programming, you can probably figure out that the above paragraph describes a fairly involved process that requires a skill set I hadn’t practiced very often as a college student. As a result of my experiences, now that I am a teacher myself I make an earnest attempt to impress upon my students the importance of preparing for what they are likely to encounter in the workplace. At the very least, I recommend that they have a separate folder on their main computer’s hard drive for the work involved in each course, and if any of my fellow faculty members who read this feel inspired to reinforce this in his or her own classes, I think that would be helpful ☺.

If this is done, not only will it be easier for students to locate things (I recently had a student, who shall remain nameless, submit a quiz paper late because he couldn’t find the location in which he had saved his file) but it will make creating and restoring backups a lot simpler.

I recommend that you set up a schedule, a regular time like once a month, or once every couple of weeks, that will prompt you to copy any changed files or folders that have been updated (you wouldn’t need to copy over folders from previous semesters, for example) to a USB, or other secondary location. If you really want to make sure you have alternatives, you may even consider having your most important documents printed out and stored in an actual “folder” somewhere. And yes, I know we’re moving away from paper – and that’s generally a good thing – but a lot of Belize’s official paperwork is still just that.

As it turns out, today is my “backup day,” so I am off to send this very file, and several others, to my secondary hard drive. While we can never guard against every eventuality, we can certainly minimize the risk to ourselves, and our work, with just a little bit of prevention.

P.S. In case you were wondering, the Cuban wasn’t a missile expert, the French guy wasn’t a spy, the Indian student wasn’t in charge of tech support, and the Russian wasn’t a hacker. Well, ok… he was kind of a hacker

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