Backups, Seriously Backups

This topic is nothing new, but just about every month I run into someone who could benefit from this information so here it is.

We all have data that is hard to replace.  From photos of family and friends to tax documents if your computer spontaneously combusted right this second I suspect your heart would sink and immediately you would think of the one thing you know is lost forever.  Having a bunch of CDs or an external hard drive is a good first step but there are 3 major types of failures we need to mitigate to have a truly robust system.

There are 3 types of failures that need to be protected against:

  1. Device Failure
  2. Location Failure
  3. Data Corruption

Let's take these one at a time.

1. Device Failure

This is by far the easiest loss case to protect against.  Get an external hard drive and use time machine for a Mac or Windows built in backup system to copy all of your files from your computer to the hard drive.  Do this on a regular basis and you have nothing to fear from a device failure (I recommend at least monthly).

To be honest though, this is a big task.  Remembering to bring out the external drive day after day, month after month can be a bit of an issue.  Another thing you can do is keep documents that change often in something like Dropbox (affiliate link) or Transporter, these provide sharing services and off device backups.  Also if you have a high speed Internet connection for about $5/month you can get an account with Backblaze (affiliate link, my current solution) or Crashplan to back up all your documents to the cloud.  The primary advantage here is the automation of the process.  Now you really have nothing to worry about as long as you pay your internet and backup bills.  This plan also solves the second loss case, location failure.

2. Location Failure

When I say location failure I mean anything that can happen to the physical location your data is stored in.  Let's say you have the computer and the external hard drive, but both are at home.  Then let's say someone breaks into your house or your house burns down.  These are traumatic experiences and you do not want to compound them with loss of your baby photos or other important files.

There are two options.  If you like the local hard drive option you can store an additional hard drive at a friend or family member's house.  Preferably in a location that would not be subject to the same natural disasters your home could be subjected to.  Or you can use one of the online backup options I have already discussed.

3. Data Corruption

A form of loss that both of the options I have described thus far are subject to is corruption.  Over time files can be miscopied or damaged.  Unfortunately this is really hard for the average user to mitigate.  The systems I know of are complicated and require a basic comprehension of computer science that is beyond me for the most part.

So is there an option?  The simplest solution is ubiquitous backups.  Have more than one system at a time that you update differently.  Do you have an online backup solution? Then manually back up to a hard drive on occasion and store that in a fire safe or safe deposit box.  Do you have local hard drive backups? Try adding archival backups to your system and consider an online solution to assist with the automation of your backups.

If you think about these types of loss and create a plan, like the emergency plan we all have in case of emergency (right?), then if something does happen you can focus on the monetary loss and not the loss of information.  I have found this takes a lot of the emotion out of how I treat my devices and lets me deal with the loss and move forward quickly.

Resources (In no particular order):

Internet Based Backups: 

Backblaze (affiliate link - we both get a month free)

Local Backups:

Time Machine
Windows Backup


Dropbox (affiliate link - we both get an extra 500 MB)

Cool Thing: Hoban Cards

I recently received fun package in the mail.  It was from Evan at Hoban Cards. They do custom letterpress printed business and calling cards.


I have been looking forward to these cards for a while.  What surprised me was that even the unboxing of my new cards felt like a classy and fun experience.  

I love the feel and the look of these cards and can't wait to start using them.  

Head over to their website and help make sure they are around when I need to order a refill!



On Freedom

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

- From "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost

Firstly, to Mrs. Decair, I am sorry I did not believe you about the value of poetry in 9th grade.  Thank you.

Over the last few years I have devoted a lot of thought to the idea of freedom.  What is freedom and how can I have it?  And for a time I came to a decision.

Freedom was having options, the lack of constraints.  This made sense at the time.  Obligations and a job that did not agree with me made my time feel used up by things I cared nothing for.  Freedom seemed to be the lack of those things. The ability to have time.

It took a few years and many failed attempts at projects and businesses to realize what I had done.  I was like the person in the above poem, only as the poem goes on they choose the road less traveled.  I chose no road.  I sat where the paths diverged. Happy that I had options.

At any point I could go down either road, and that was freedom.  But it was shallow.  I found that my dream was to be in a room with a desk and my computer and other tools doing nothing.  Add to that that it is hard to have friends when you are not moving towards something.

What kind of dream is that?  My dream was not good relationships or cool projects, it was a maximum of potential energy.  Fellow travelers (friends) only exist to those that are moving.

Then I discovered what I now believe to be freedom.

Making a choice without coercion and sticking with it.  Freedom is constraints.

That sounds counterintuitive, but the mor I walk down this road the more it seems to be true.  For one I am actually moving again, not sitting at the crossroads.  I have shipped more in the last year and a half, both personally and professionally than I did in the couple of years I felt freedom was options.  I have things I can be proud of and personal growth I can point to, where the past was a time of stagnation.

But ultimately constraints and decisions provide direction and clarity.  Before my issue was not with constraints, but with the ones I had chosen.  I was giving up what I cared about for what I did not.  Good constraints force you to give up what is not important for what matters.

I am not sure I chose the road less traveled, but I chose a road.

And that has made all the difference.

VT Alerts for the Rest of Us

If you live in Blacksburg VT Alerts can be a useful source of information during the school year.  They include alerts in the event of inclement weather or some sort of situation on campus.  These events can impact more than just the campus and at minimum can cause traffic and other concerns at odd hours.

No matter which category you fall into, if you are interested in notifications of town hall events, road closures and other notifications of interest to Blacksburg residence, go here and subscribe to Blacksburg Alerts.

1. If you are a student/faculty/etc at Virginia Tech

You already get VT Alerts to your email address.  Go here to add other notification methods.

2. If you work at a company in the CRC

You can subscribe to a variety of alerts (including VT Alerts) from this site

The CRC also has a text alert service for news and other announcements. Subscribe by texting "vtcrc" to 84464. 

3. Not in one of these two groups?

VT Alerts are also posted to Twitter.  If you are a regular Twitter user simply following this account is all you need to do. 

You can also subscribe to text alerts for that account by texting "ON vtalerts" to 40404 (I assume you are in the US if you are interested in VT Alerts).

In my testing over the last few months this method gets me the alert within a minute of the official channels.


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While I do not offer support for the advice in the post, I am always looking to keep it up to date. Please email me if you have issues with these instructions or if new options become available. 

Better Passwords

This is nothing new.  Passwords are incredibly important, but time and again I find people are using overly simple passwords that provide little to no protection in the event of a hacking attempt.  I have heard everything from song lyrics to complicated to spell words used as "safe" passwords over the years.

 From XKCD


I love how simple and obvious that comic from XKCD makes it.  The goal is to come up with a long password that does not conform to heuristics that can be programed for across the whole population.  Anything you can Google for and find is a bad idea.

The other piece of the puzzle for me is 1Password.  On your local machine you can store all your passwords in an encrypted file behind your strong password developed through the method above.  Using 1Password I have identified all my poor passwords and slowly replaced them.  In cases where I need high security and have access to 1Password regularly I use completely random characters. For the cases where I need to type the password on a regular basis and have it memorized I simply make another random set of words, numbers and symbols.

So please read this article from the people at 1Password about making better passwords, remember this XKCD comic and if you can afford it buy 1Password.  Do that and you will be fine. 

Update: For another perspective on passwords see this post on Coding Horror.

Update 11 Oct 2014: For more ideas on how to protect yourself online please read this post.  I am sad that she wrote it out of personal experience, but it is helpful.