Friday, 28 October 2011

NaNoWriMo #06: Back Up, Back Up, Tell me what you're gonna do now!

It was 1983 when I chose my options for O' Levels in third year of high school (for younger readers, I was in year 9 and they were more or less the same as GCSEs). 1983: the year before Mark Zuckerberg was born and a whole 12 years before Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at university. Of course, there were lots of other (more significant) things that my O' Level choices preceded. However, I opted for Computer Studies, so these seem the most pertinent.

I don't want to get bogged down in techno-babble here, so I'll just point out that when I was finishing my O' Levels (May 1985), computers didn't have hard drives. True enough, Commodore released the 128 PC that year, which came with a MASSIVE 128K of RAM and a ROM slot, but you know what school budgets are like. We couldn't afford new computers, or even such luxuries as floppy disc cloners. We could only just afford a floppy disc each and our computer room was equipped with 8 mismatched, ancient computers (an Acorn, a BBC, a couple of Commodore 64s, a Sharp MZ something or other and 3 Sinclair ZX Spectrums).

For my Computer Studies coursework I created a searchable recipe database - you know the sort of thing - you tell it what ingredients you've got and it finds recipes that include these:

banana AND baked beans AND egg NOT soap

It's a simple Boolean (logical) search which scans the data entries looking for those containing all three of banana, baked beans and egg, but not soap and, let's face it, most recipes don't, but then I haven't yet seen one with banana AND baked beans in it either.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? The current OCR National Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) in ICT includes a database task within it - one miniscule task! Nowadays we have Microsoft Access, MySQL etc., all nicely pre-programmed, idly awaiting our inputs and queries. And we have hard drives. And pen drives. And 'The Cloud'. And email. And wireless transfer. And...

Cut to the interesting part: my recipe programme worked perfectly, although I couldn't tell you a thing about how I managed it, considering that nowadays my knowledge of BASIC extends to little more than this:

10: Print "Hello world";
20: Goto 10;

It was the final week before submission and I booted up the Sharp MZ whatever, my favoured computer, ready to do one final tweak and tidy. I inserted my floppy disc and turned to my pages of handwritten code, glancing over them whilst I waited for the disc to load.

Except it didn't.

I tried another machine (the C64s were OK - we had one at home and it was fun to play on, after the 10 minute wait for the game to load), then another and another, but to no avail. The disc was corrupted. My coursework was lost. Forever.

The only backup I had was the hard copy - pages and pages of pencil scrawled BASIC, scribbled out, arrows all over the place. Even if I'd had a full complement of code monkeys at my disposal, there was no way they'd decipher that lot in time to save my O' Level. In the end it was all I had, so that's what the exam board got and in return I got an E. Pathetic.

It's little consolation to look back and know there was nothing I could have done. And yet, whilst it would have been nice to get the O' Level, it was the best lesson I ever learned about computing: back up everything.

You'd be amazed how often students tell me they've lost their work, because it's no longer on their user drive, pen drive or other singular location to which it was saved. Sometimes it's an excuse, but often it's not and there really is no excuse for that, not with pen drives, hard drives, CD burners, Google Documents and so on. You can even email it to yourself at a different account (or the same one - it'll be in your 'sent' mail then). This isn't intended to be an exhaustive list of backup options, which would be lengthy enough to win NaNoWriMo and then some.

That's an awful lot of preamble to make a simple point, I appreciate, but picture this: you're well into NaNoWriMo (or any other writing project), with thousands of words under your belt already. Suddenly your document corrupts or simply vanishes.

"Phew!" you say, "I'm glad I saved my novel on my pen drive too!".

Back up your novel, at least once a day and preferably in more than one location. Also Save regularly - CTRL+S / cmd+S should be second nature to a writer. You really can't overdo it; even losing 100 words is 100 words too many. Do you want that A*? Or will you settle for an E?

I thought not.

10: Backup "novel";
20: Goto 10;


  1. Nige just pointed out that readers might not know I'm a teacher.

    I'm a teacher!