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Backing up hard to do, but worth it

This is an edited version of my weekly column for Loose Wire Service, a service providing print publications with technology writing designed for the general reader. Email me if you’re interested in learning more.

Sometimes it takes something like an earthquake to realize that you’re vulnerable.

Once the ground stops shaking and you’ve begun to sense that your life — and those of your loved one(s) — are not in imminent danger, your thoughts turn to the next most important thing in your world: Your data.

Well, of course, that may not be your exact train of thought, but it’s the general direction. So much of our lives are digital these days — e-mails, music, photos, social lives — the first thing we tend to clutch when we’re in trouble is our cell phone/laptop/external disk drive.

Or at least it should be. So what should you prepare for when things go wrong and you need to evacuate, pronto?

Here, in brief, is how to do it:

Whatever can be online, should be. E-mails, for example, should be on something like Google’s Gmail (or Yahoo!, who have launched a new e-mail service that’s at least as generous in terms of storage as Google’s.)

This doesn’t mean you can’t also keep your e-mails on your own computer, but make sure they are also online. Get in the habit of e-mailing important documents to yourself, as well, so you’ve got an extra copy online.

This means you can evacuate in a relaxed state of mind. Well, as relaxed as you can be fleeing a building that is burning/falling/swaying/no longer strictly speaking a building.

Same goes with photos: Get in the habit of uploading your favorite photos to an online photo album service like Flickr (www.flickr.com), because if there’s one thing you don’t want to lose it’s family snaps.

Sign up for the Pro edition if you’ve got the cash and a fast(ish) Internet connection, since at US$25 a year for unlimited storage it’s a reasonably cheap way of backing up.

Add photos incrementally: Just get into the habit of uploading photos to your Flickr account when you upload them from your camera/cellphone to the computer (I’m assuming you do this; you do do this, right?)

Of course, online options are only good if you’re online. And, tellingly, I’m not right now because there’s a problem with the Internet — and quite a big problem, since even my trusty backup connection is down — so you shouldn’t rely exclusively on connectivity.

(The other problem is that as more of us go digital, we can’t hope to store everything online, because there’s so much of it. Our iPods store 60 GB or more these days, which is still impractical to back up online.)

In which case you need to have a hard drive backup. There are several ways of doing this, but here’s the best one: Back up everything on all the PCs and laptops in your house to one big external drive the size of hardback book, which you can then grab as you exit the building in an orderly manner.

Here’s how to do that:

Maxtor offer a pretty reasonable range of backup hard drives — the cheapest are really just hard drives in a plastic casing (good to prevent damage: hard drives are not as tough as they pretend to be.)

Expect a whopping 500 gigabyte drive to cost you less than $200. Attach the drive to a USB port and you’ve now got a seriously large drive attached to your computer.

Then buy a program called Acronis True Image ($50 from here) and make a backup image of all the computers in your house.

(An image is a sort of snapshot of your computer. It’s faster than backing up individual files, but will still allow you to restore individual files or folders if you need to.)

It’s a little tricky to set up but you’ll get the hang of it, since you’re going to be backing up once a week. (Yes, you are.)

If you think this is too much for you and that the only data you really need to save are a few documents, then get a USB flash drive (those little sticks you can put on a key ring.)

Prices have fallen to the point where they’re a cheap option now for up to four gigabytes. I would recommend the SanDisk Cruzer micro, not only because they don’t have removable caps (which always get lost) but because they include software that make backing up important files easy. (Stick the drive in a USB slot and follow the instructions.)

A word of warning: Think hard about what data you’ve got and what you want to save. It’s easy to forget stuff hidden in an obscure folder.

Get into the habit of saving important files — whether they’re attachments, photos, spreadsheets or whatever — into the same folder. It’ll make finding them to back them up much easier and quicker.

Oh, and try not to wait until the building is swaying/filled with smoke/has moved down the street before actually doing the backing up.

Trust me: You can’t count on thinking as clearly as you might expect.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

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Wikipedia: Important enough to whitewash

This is an edited version of my weekly column for Loose Wire Service, a service providing print publications with technology writing designed for the general reader. Email me if you’re interested in learning more.

Wikipedia has gone through some interesting times, good and bad, but I think the last couple of weeks has proved just how powerful it is.

Powerful enough for those who feel denigrated by it to have been trying to spin, airbrush and generally rewrite how history — or at least Wikipedia — remembers them.

Take WikiScanner, cooked up by a young student, Virgil Griffith. WikiScanner does something very simple: It searches the Internet addresses of an organization — government, private, company or whatever — and matches them with any anonymous edit of a Wikipedia entry.

This means that while the edits themselves may be anonymous, the organization where the person is based is not. We may not know who did it, in other words, but we’ve got a pretty good idea of whom they work for.

The results have been surprising. Users of WikiScanner have come up with dozens of cases of companies, organizations and government departments apparently changing entries to either delete stuff they may not like, or making the text more palatable.

Some examples of apparent — none of these is confirmed but the Internet addresses match — self-interested alterations that have hit the news in the last few weeks:

* Diebold removes sections critical of the company’s electronic voting machines

* Apple and Microsoft trade negative comments about each other

* Amnesty International removes negative comments about itself, according to the Malta Star

(My own searches threw up no examples at all of institutions in my current home of Indonesia spinning on Wikipedia. Shame on them. What have they been doing with their time? One Indonesian embassy official seems to have spent most of his day editing an entry on rude finger gestures, but that’s about it. Clearly these people are not working hard enough for their country.)

The point about all this: Wikipedia is often derided as irrelevant and unworthy. Clearly, though, it’s important enough for these people, either officially or unofficially, on their own initiative or at the behest of higher-ups, to rewrite stuff to make themselves or their employer look better.

You might conclude from this that Wikipedia is not reliable as a result. I would argue the opposite: These edits have nearly all been undone by alert Wikipedians, usually very quickly.

(Wikipedia automatically stores all previous versions of a page and keeps a record of all the edits, and the Internet address from where they originate.)

The truth is that Wikipedia has come of age. Wikipedia is now important enough for ExxonMobil, The Church of Scientology, the U.S. Defense Department and the Australian government to spend time and effort trying to get their version of events across. If it was so irrelevant or unreliable, why would these people bother?

Of course, coming of age isn’t always a good thing. A recent conference on Wikipedia in Taiwan highlighted how Wikipedia is no longer an anarchic, free-for-all, but has somehow miraculously produced a golden egg.

It is now a bureaucracy, run by the kind of people who like to post “Don’t … ” notices on pantry walls. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. We all hate such people until our sandwich goes missing. Then we turn to them — or turn into them.

WikiScanner reveals that it’s probably good that such people take an interest in Wikipedia, because it’s clear that the site is under threat from people who would censor history and whitewash the truth to suit them.

Thanks to Virgil and the Wikipedians, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today