Column: backing up

 Loose Wire — Just To Be on The Safe Side

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 30 May 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how to back up your files in the case of disaster, theft, stupidity or a combination of all three. But as several readers pointed out, nearly all the methods I suggested have flaws: Backing up to another drive is no good if you don’t take the drive with you — assuming your computer is eaten by Godzilla or your mother sells it in a garage sale while you’re at the mall — or if the drive remains connected and gets eaten by the same virus that destroyed your original data.

 
On-line drives, where you upload all your documents to a Web site, are fine but a bit slow, and you can never be 100% certain the on-line-drive company won’t go bust, or that someone won’t hack into your data and learn all your darkest secrets. Backing up to a CD-ROM is cheap, but they have a habit of corrupting data without telling you.
 
When my laptop was stolen a year ago, I was fairly sure I hadn’t lost much data until I found my back-up to CD-ROM was a melange of zeroes and ones. Not my idea of a safe back-up.
 
My answer to all these gripes is: All true, but maybe we’re addressing the wrong problem. Unless you’re a real data dude, chances are your most important data — ignoring all those thousands of company letters, ageing CVs, letters to old flames and what-have-you that are clogging your hard drive — could be limited to about 100 megabytes. (Doesn’t sound like much? Remember that 10 years ago that was a big hard drive for most people.)
 
What I suggest is this: Work out what your most important documents are and save them to one easy-to-remember folder. Weed it out ruthlessly. Don’t worry about contacts and calendars and stuff like that if you have a Palm or Pocket PC, since they’re already duplicated on PC and hand-held devices (and if they aren’t, you should be ashamed of it, at your age). If all this weeded data comes to more than 100 megabytes, you can always compress it into a zip file, which works particularly well with bloated document formats like Microsoft Word. For this try WinZip from www.winzip.com, or the more complete PowerDesk from Ontrack International at www.ontrack.com that I mentioned a few weeks ago.
 
Now for the neat bit. A couple of years ago a Singaporean company called Trek 2000 International (www.thumbdrive.com) started selling mini-drives about the size of your little finger, which they called ThumbDrives (don’t ask; probably they all have small thumbs down there at Loyang Industrial Estate). These sleek little gadgets look like a small lighter and slot into your USB port. After installing some software, depending on what kind of operating system you’re using, you have a new drive.
 
When they first appeared they were pricey but now with competition from elsewhere they’re pretty reasonable: I picked up a 128-megabyte M-Drive from Taiwan’s Star King Technologies for about $80. And Britain’s Targus does a more expensive 64-megabyte model, which retails for $120 and looks more like a magic marker.
 
All models, however, are well designed and fit easily onto a key ring. Which is exactly where I suggest you put it once you’ve backed up all your important data. Now you have a copy of all your most important stuff with you at all times — as long as you don’t lose your keys or get amnesia.
 
There are other options: If you have a gadget that hooks up to your PC, such as a camera, MP3 player, Pocket PC or Palm, chances are you can store data on the flash card that comes with it. Hook the gadget up to your PC and you should be able to read the contents of the flash card as a separate drive. In most cases you can now put anything you like on it.
 
In the future this will be how most of us store all our stuff: M-Drive promise a 2-gigabyte version in the near future, and while it may not be that cheap, knowing that a back-up of everything you hold dear is locked into a little finger in your pocket may be worth the expense.

Column: Deep Purpled

Loose Wire — And Now, I Show My Age

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 16 May 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 
I was drinking beer backstage with the guys from Deep Purple the other day (I’ve always wanted to be able to say that) when I got to thinking: Technology has transformed pop music in the past 20 years, and at the same time, nothing’s changed at all.
 
Admittedly, this thought followed two and a half hours of Black Night, Woman from Tokyo and Smoke on the Water (anthems that were injected straight into the drinking water at my school: If you didn’t know the lyrics of Child in Time you ran the risk of being beaten up or, worse, forced to listen to the whole 10-minute song), so I might have been hallucinating. But when you see guys — three of them in their mid-50s — adopting poses unchanged since 1972, you’d be forgiven for thinking that popular music is a static beast: Guys with long hair in uncomfortably tight clothing jump around stage wielding electric guitars; audience goes crazy, waves arms with lighters aloft, burns fingers, goes home happy.
 
But beneath all this there’s been a seismic shift in how music is composed, played, recorded and performed. Nowadays you’re just as likely to attend a concert by a disc jockey, a hybrid DJ-musician or just a guy with a couple of laptops and a mixer. And you’ll hear people talking about the rise of interactive music, where nonmusicians in the audience are just as likely to contribute as the artists themselves. Music, we are told, has been liberated from its traditional paddocks of proficiency and performance. I’m not sure it’s that simple, but almost.
 
Since the demise of my incredibly talented — but contract-deficient — 1980s band, Puzzled But Dancing, I’ve dabbled with synthesizers and home recording. My first synth, as we pros call them, was about the size of a laptop. Instead of keys, the Wasp — made by now-defunct British company Electronic Dream Plant — had a two-octave pad. It was so sensitive that with the slightest condensation it would spew random notes that would make Deep Purple’s Jon Lord proud, but which were somewhat embarrassing during a gig. Such analogue beasts are museum pieces now: You can emulate them on your computer with programs called softsynths. Reason by Sweden’s Propellerhead Software (www.propellerheads.se) mimics a whole studio in real time. At $400 it sounds steep until you realize you’d spend that much on one piece of real equipment.
 
Composing has changed a lot, too. I could afford only a four-track recorder and spent hours trying to cram tracks together without them sounding as if they’d been recorded through rugs. The advent of a standard called MIDI allowed us to link keyboards, synthesizers and drum machines and store music as data, in the same way word-processing software lets you fiddle with a document.
 
This wasn’t easy: Ten years ago I was still messing around with a piece of DOS software called Cakewalk trying to harness my growing synth collection, but I spent more time trying to get the machines to talk to each other than actually making music. (With hindsight this might have been a blessing.
 
Still, once instruments could be hooked up to computers, music was quick to break out of its elitist confines. With software anyone could create music out of anything, without training or expensive gear. More than 900,000 people now use Cakewalk daily. In an interview in the May issue of Wired magazine, British composer Matthew Herbert describes how all the sounds in his song

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come from doing everything to a frappucino and caramel latte except drinking them (

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).

 
Purists, no doubt, will groan. But there’s room for everybody. Deep Purple will be around for aeons to come, though the line-up will probably change, as older members are replaced by their grandchildren or robots, but elsewhere technology will pioneer new forms of creativity we can only guess at. If someone who thinks a semibreve is a fancy name for a thong can make sounds from a laptop that entertain us, and make us dance, then who’s complaining? The only constant will be that anyone who picks up a guitar for the first time will still try to play Smoke on the Water. Which is probably no bad thing, since I know the words.

Column: Panic attack

Loose Wire: Read This, Then Panic

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 9 May 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

 
Ever fire up your computer, only to hear weird whirring noises from your hard drive — or nothing at all? Only to then hear another sound, as your stomach starts churning with dread — a little bit like food poisoning, or being in love, only worse. Suddenly your life starts flashing past, only this time it’s not when your brother or sister threw a box of Lego bricks at you when you were five, but when you last backed up your data to another device, and the horrible vision of what your future would look like without any data in it. It’s happened to all of us, and it’s not as bad as it sounds. Things could be worse.
 
Yeah, right, I have to say that for legal reasons. Of course it couldn’t be worse. Nine out of 10 doofuses (read incompetent computer users) never back up their data. At least that’s my experience: in fact the figure is more like half, according to surveys conducted by Iomega, a storage company. (Sure, they would say that, because they want you to buy their stuff, but I figure that’s evened out by the number of folk who lie in these kind of surveys because they don’t want to look like doofuses.) The sad reality is that we don’t really back up often enough and well enough, so that when a computer crash does come it hits us like a locomotive. So how do you avoid this?
 
Actually, it’s relatively easy. But you have to be disciplined about it. First, separate your data — document files, spreadsheets, pictures of your newborn — from your programs and create a folder on your hard drive called “Documents” or “Data” or whatever, and then subfolders according to what the data is: Letters to Mum; Letters to bank manager; Letters to bank manager’s mum; etc. With me so far?
 
Now you need somewhere to back this stuff up. Here are the options:
 
CD-ROMs: Many PCs and laptops come fitted with CD-ROM drives that allow you to create CDs. With blank CD prices so low this is not a bad choice. The only problems are that you’ll end up having a lot of CD-ROMs sitting around, most of which you’ll have been too lazy to label properly; and also that the CD-burning process is pretty unforgiving — if you use your computer while the CD is being created, chances are the resulting CD will be unusable.
 
On-line drives: If you have a fast Internet connection you can save data at a secure Web site like X Drive (www.xdrive.com) for a reasonable fee. If you are a Mac user, there is free storage with the Apple Web site’s iDisk service (www.apple.com/idisk). This is good if you’re on the move a lot, or are afraid a burglar is going to steal all your back-ups, or you live in an earthquake/forest fire/flooding zone. No point in backing everything up, carefully stashing it in a drawer and then finding your house and drawer have burned down, been horizontally rearranged or moved a few blocks down the canyon.
 
I’d put my money on an external drive: These are hard drives just like the one inside your computer but, you guessed it, they’re outside. With prices tumbling, you can now pick up a 20 gigabyte drive that runs off the USB slot on your computer for $200 or less. About the size of a TV remote, they’re easy to stash, and they’re fast. Iomega have just launched a very sleek-looking range of drives that use USB version 2.0, which should make them even faster.
 
Now all you need is to do the actual back-up. For this I would recommend Second Copy from Centered Systems ($30 from www.centered.com), which is extraordinarily easy to use, or the slightly more complicated Network File Monitor from AAR Software (a Lite version is $20 from www.aarsoftware.com). Work out how often you want your data backed up (no harm in doing it every day if you’re the nervous type) and then let the software run — best when you’re asleep or at the gym, since it always hogs resources. If you’re really nervous, try Iomega’s QuikSync (www.iomega.com), which will monitor the files you’re using and back them up every few minutes: This definitely slows things down, so it’s advisable only for the certifiably paranoid. No, of course I don’t use it myself.
 
Hang on a minute, what was that noise?