Wednesday, March 09, 2005

My life is on my non backed up hard drive

Yesterday, I read this interesting piece by Bruce Sterling discussing the fact that he has recently moved from Austin, Texas (where he has lived for many years) to Los Angeles where he is a visiting professor at a design school for a year, and he describes the fact that he no longer needs as many possessions as he once had, because a lot of the important stuff has been digitised.

When I was formerly a Texan author-journalist type rather than a Californian "visionary," I naturally lived like a pack rat. Then I drove my hybrid electric across I-10 to the gloriously unfurnished Pasadena pad over here, and I suddenly realized that I can thrive with something like 8% of my former possessions. Not that I've lost them. Basically – and this is the point for SXSW-I attendees – they've all been digitized. They got eaten by my laptop.

There's an Apple Store a block away, where Mr. Jobs is selling iPods like Amy sells waffle-cones when it hits 105 degrees. So, where're all my records and CDs? They're inside the laptop. DVD player? Laptop. Newspapers? I read Google News in the morning. Where're my magazines? I read Metropolis Online, I write stories for Where's my TV? I got no TV: Compared to Web surfing on broadband wireless, watching a TV show is like watching ice melt. I tried real hard to sit down and watch a television dramatic episode recently – it felt like watching Vaudeville, with a trained dog act and a guy juggling plates. TV is dying right in front of us. It's become a medium for the brainwashed, the poor, and the semiliterate. Where's my fax machine? Laptop. Mailbox? Laptop. Filing cabinet? Laptop. Working desk? Laptop. Bank? Laptop. Place of business? Laptop. Most people I deal with have no idea I'm here in California. They'd never think to ask me. Why should they? They send e-mail, they get what they want, game over.

My laptop is even a library now; I've taken to reading books as e-text. For instance, a freeware, public domain version of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Silverado Squatters. This is the amusing real-life tale of a sci-fi novelist (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc.) marooned in 1880s California. Stevenson shows up in an abandoned California mining camp, where he immediately sees and uses his first telephone. The good folk of Cali, these grizzled miner 49ers, are already hip-deep into high tech telecommunications.

As a rather itinerant and fairly tech-savvy person myself, I recognise this. My whole life is in my laptop, too. My television has barely been switched on in a year. (Here is a huge way in which younger people are different from older people - they don't watch television). Oddly, though, I haven't given up on television as an art form, but I have modified the way in which I watch it. For series television, I now buy the DVD sets of complete seasons of television series and watch them on my laptop. Television changed as an artform in the 1980s. Prior to that most episodes of most series had stand alone plots, whereas since then there has been much more continuity from episode to episode. (Steven Bocho is usually given a lot of the credit for this, although it may have been an inevitable reaction to the widespread adoption of the VCR). This works okay in the modern age of VCRs, PVRs, repeats and the like, but I think having the whole season on DVD at the same time is actually a better way to watch modern TV series. And the laptop makes it much easier to squeeze into the spare moments of my life. And I have a much greater choice as to what to watch and when.

And for watching sport on television I either go to a pub or I tend to put the game in a window at the top of the screen on my desktop computer, which has a digital TV card in one of its PCI slots. What would be good would be some way of watching lvie sporting events in a window on my laptop screen while I was travelling, but we are not there on that one yet. Some kind of digital TV card for a laptop (problematic with the sort of antenna one needs I think) or high speed streaming service over some sort of wireless internet connection would be useful. I am sure we will see it, but not immediately

But all my music, all my correspondence, things like details of airline bookings and insurance policies, address details of my friends, various pieces of personal writing that are of value to me - they are all on my laptop hard drive. If hard drive failure were to occur, it would cause major problems for me. And hard drives fail far more often than any other computer component, particularly laptop hard drives that get jostled around and suffer more physical shocks than desktop drives.

Which is slightly scary, because it isn't backed up at all. This is bad, but I fear not especially uncommon. Backing up a laptop hard drive is a nuisance. My laptop doesn't have a DVD burner (although my next one undoubtedly will), and CDs and (heaven forbid) floppies aren't really big enough. I could backup over my home network, but this is pretty slow too. I could unplug the laptop hard drive, plug it into my desktop and then copy at IDE connection speeds, but this is too much of a hassle to do regularly. Or I could get a large external USB or Firewire hard drive and backup to that.

Oddly, I also bumped into this article yesterday afternoon. It was a response to the fact that Fujitsu yesterday announced a 120Gb 2.5 inch hard disk for laptops, the largest yet available in that form factor. The argument is a little curious - it first gives one of those "Who on earth is going to have 120Gb of data on a laptop?" and then proceeds more to an argument that having drives that big will encourage people to put too much data on them and cause greater disasters when the hard drives fail, and the lack of easy backup solutions makes having big laptop hard drives bad rather than good. I can't really agree with this - I can think of plenty of cool new audiovisual applications that will work better with 120Gb than 60Gb, and the fact is that a great deal of data in this world isn't backed up, laptop or desktop. The author of the article does suggest an interesting solution though. Installing two hard drives in a laptop with a RAID-1 configuration. (This means having two drives with identical data on them, so that if one drive fails you simply save the data from the other).

I'm not sure that this is terribly practical though, because putting a second hard drive in a laptop would use additional space and would thus make the laptop bigger and would also cause the laptop to use more power, defeating some of the purpose of having a laptop by making it less portable. And there is an easy backup solution for laptops - the abovementioned USB external hard drives and regular backups. The fact is that the only reason most of our laptop hard drives have not been backed up is because we couldn't be bothered. Crippling our machines because our drives haven't been backed up strikes me as silly. The solution is instead to improve the quality of our backups, which can relatively easily be done. (On the other hand Toshiba has recently announced a 1.8 inch 80Gb hard drive and a 60Gb is already shipping, two of which would take up about the same space as one 2.5 inch drive. However, that would give up the improvements that could be gained in terms of size and power consumption by using only one 1.8 inch drive. Some subcompact laptops do use 1.8 inch drives for this reason).

Which leads to the question of what I should do myself. I could buy a USB external drive and backup my laptop hard drive regularly. Or I could move my life - all my archives of e-mail, documents I have written, addresses, important documents and everything else over to the desktop computer, add a second hard drive and RAID-1 to the desktop, and be absolutely secure.

But this is far less convenient than using a laptop for this. And I have to remember to transfer stuff that I develop and put on the laptop over to the desktop.

Sounds like work. But hard drive failure would be a disaster.

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