It’s never expected when it happens. It certainly never happens when it’s convenient. You all know what I mean. It’s that moment when the blood drains from your face, your hands turn to ice, and your stomach ties itself in a knot the size of Utah. In the same instant the clock has advanced itself two hours as if by the hand of a roguish time lord. “What fresh hell is this?” you ask yourself, followed by “Why now?” And then you do it. You take the silver dagger yourself and by your own hand administer the fatal thrust. You hit ‘save’ again.
I had awakened in the early hours with an inspiration for a “brilliant” way to conduct a facilitation exercise for the class that evening. It would require a substantial rewrite of the instructions along with the composition of six “Type B opening questions.” What that means is immaterial; suffice it to say that they take time and thought to craft. I spent almost three hours updating the document while watching the clock tick away. I had to be on the road to catch the ferry soon in order to be on time for class. I had literally finished the last word of the document revision and hit save when the words before me on the screen turned to a combination of machine language and Chinese. Recognize the feeling? Vaguely hoping that it was a video issue, I administered the deathblow without thinking.
It was not a video issue. I do not know what caused it, but the file was thoroughly corrupted and unreadable. And it was that second save that was my undoing. What I should have done was a “save as” until I had fully understood what had happened. It was a rookie mistake and I take full responsibility for it. There was simply no way to recreate the content of the document from scratch and then draft the exercise materials before class started. I panicked. Then I remembered that I had a backup on DropBox. Unfortunately, the corrupted version had already replicated to the cloud.
Still, all was not lost. I recalled having read or heard that DropBox keeps all versions of a document for the prior thirty days. Bingo! Once I brushed up on how to find it, there it was: the uncorrupted version I had saved minutes earlier. I was lucky. I had not lost a keystroke. It could have been much worse.
There are several important lessons here. The first of these is to have backups. In this day and age, there is no excuse for anyone not to have offsite storage for all of your documents. Okay, I am using DropBox, and I do so in spite of the fact that it does not support local encryption (another issue for another post). And while I do not use it for anything sensitive, I have begun to look into other options. In the meantime, it is dependable, easy, and supports features that I rely on such as 30-day version storage. There are many options for cloud storage, file synchronization, and sharing. The important thing is to have those synchronized files along with some form of version retention.
I also keep two flavors of local backups. I back up all of my data files (including my virtual machines) to a 4TB external hard drive. Also, because my base computer is a Mac, I take advantage of the Time Machine backup feature. I was saved this time around because of my backups.
Another lesson learned from this episode is that when the technology fails, it is best not to panic. Panic will most likely make a bad situation worse, which it almost did in my case. Instead, one should step away from the computer for a minute without touching anything, take a calming breath, and then return to methodically identify the scope of the mishap. When I was growing up, there was a safety mantra “Stop, look, and listen before you cross the street. Use your eyes, use your ears, and then use your feet.” Shift a few words around and it is made to order for our Twenty-first Century conundrum: “Stop, look, and think when technology starts to burn. Check the files, then check the dates, before you hit return.”
The final lesson – and this is an old one – is “save as you go.” Normally, I am assiduous about saving a document after every few keystrokes. I am certainly careful to save at the end of each paragraph when I am writing a rough draft. In this case however, I was working in a white heat to get the documents completed before hitting the road and was not being careful. That much was clear when I read the version list on DropBox. It looked as if I had not saved the document a single time since I had opened it. This was also a rookie mistake.
In the final analysis, there is no foolproof way to protect us from ourselves so I suppose it is wise to summon a philosophical and emotional detachment about it all. Nevertheless, the practice of establishing an intelligent and reliable technical infrastructure – particularly when it comes to file backups – while at the same time husbanding good technology practices can take the sting out of these events more often than not. At the end of the day, this incident was a short but brutal reminder for me. It also got me thinking about crucial points of failure in general. That is why finding the jack and the spare tire in the car before driving home from class next Monday is at the top of my to do list to. The route traverses sixty miles of lonely, single-lane country highway and I am driving it after 11:00 PM. After owning the car for six years, I believe I have ridden the wings of fate a little too long already.
What is your backup strategy? Do you have encryption for your cloud storage?