"This is a floppy disk"

January 22, 2005

I see that Brad Delong is worried about data security after discovering that Atrios had a suddenly dead laptop. I am reminded of the little mini lecture - a nugget of wisdom - that I gave at the start of classes this year.

After going through the syllabus and explaining to them why email'd assignments only exist if they get a reply from me stating that I received and printed their email, I gave some variation on the following. (look below the fold.)

In semesters where I remember to give this talk, the students tend to have many fewer data troubles, and usually about 1 in 40 will go up to me at some point and thank me because they survived a data failure that semester.

That reminds me of something important. I used to work in IT, and one of the things we worried about was data security. A modern hard drive is an amazing device. It is about the size of your hand (hold out hand), it holds an incredible amount of information - multiple movies, huge music collections, data, notes, programs. It is also not perfectly reliable. Between 3% and 5% of all hard drives fail in the first three months (a number I pulled out of my ass, but don't tell the kids) - they are complicated devices. Of the drives that survive that burn-in period, most have a design lifespan of 5 to 7 years. A few last for 8 or even 9 years, but as a rule of thumb, if your hard drive is more than five years old, you are living on borrowed time.

So, back up your data. The data protection rule is to have at least two copies in at least two different physical locations. It does not really matter how you do it - floppy disk, email it to yourself, upload it to the university server - so long as you back up. I back up my entire project to a CD every few months and have my wife keep it in her office. That way, if the house burns to the ground, all I lose is what was in my filing cabinets. I also back up each draft to a server after I revise, and also regularly print out drafts to scribble from. If the hard drive died, I would lose a few hours of work.

An aside, it is a very good idea to print out your rough before you revise it: not only does it give you something to work from if things go wrong, but your writing looks very different on paper than it does on the screen. You get a better product if you edit on hardcopy. I digress.

(Take a floppy disk out of my pocket and hold it up, thumb underneath and fingers on top - the grip is important.) This is a floppy disk. It costs about 30 cents. It is a wonderful device. It can hold everything you write over an entire semester - drafts, homework, comments, notes, everything - in one little package. They are great for keeping a backup for your data. Floppy disks are also very fragile. If you leave it out in the sun, the data may be damaged. If you put your floppy next to your friends super-sized stereo speakers with the magnets from hell in them, your data may be damaged. If you let your kid brother stick it to the refrigerator with a magnet, it is guaranteed to be wiped out. It is also physically fragile - if you happen to have it in your hip pocket when you sit down (squeeze hand together until floppy case breaks with a sharp SNAP) it can break.

(Reach into pocket and bring out another floppy disk.) This is a second floppy disk. It also costs 30 cents. Have I made my point?

Posted by Red Ted at January 22, 2005 10:34 AM | TrackBack

Ummm, my laptop doesn't have a floppy disk drive. May I store the files on my iPod?

(Then there's the true story of the grad student who lost the only copy of his master's thesis off the back of his motorcycle while taking it to his typist.)

Posted by: NewMexiKen at January 24, 2005 05:48 PM

Well, I suppose I could have used one of those little memory sticks for the demonstration. But they cost a lot more than 30 cents each.

Posted by: Ted K at January 24, 2005 06:04 PM
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