The Ur-Guru pointed me to this sad post on Refreshing News:
A Calgary man is desperate to get his stolen laptop, with years of work on it, back.
It was stolen from the trunk of his car while he went for a run in Edworthy Park Wednesday night.
John Boldt is pleading for the return of his hard drive, which contains research and notes for the thesis he was writing for his master’s degree in history. He only had three chapters left to write before his paper was complete.
Unless he gets it back, Boldt will have to abandon his dream and quit at the University of Calgary.
“It’s so many years of my life just thrown away,” he says. […] Boldt says if he doesn’t get the data back, he won’t be able to return to the U of C when classes start next week.
I feel for John Boldt. My car was broken into in February, and it’s a terrible experience even when nothing of value is taken. Even if the laptop had been in plain sight on the passenger seat and not in the trunk, that wouldn’t have given anyone the right to steal it.
But how does someone get into, and nearly through, a master’s program without learning to back up his work, especially when it’s so important to him?
Back when I was in graduate school, in the late Eighties and early Nineties, I had all my papers, and then the draft chapters of my dissertation, on floppy disks. This was partly because I didn’t own the computers I worked on, and partly because computers didn’t have much internal storage. But there were always two sets of disks, the main set and the backup set. Always. I can’t even remember who taught me to do that, but the lesson was an old one.
Heck, even when I was an undergraduate using the mainframe as a glorified typewriter, they told us we could get a tape with our files on it. (I never did, but I can’t imagine what computer I would ever have been able to use it with, anyway. It would be easier for me to run my undergraduate honors thesis through a scanner and OCR it.)
Ah—according to Gawker, there was a backup drive in the trunk along with the laptop, and that got taken, too. This additional info makes Boldt look a bit more clueful. Some people do habitually store their backup drives in the car, in order not to have them in the office where the desktop computer is. I’m not sure that would be the best option if you’re a laptop person carrying your computer around a lot, but at least it suggests he was doing something to protect his work.
Many of the commenters on the Gawker post are protesting that the situation seems fishy to them, pointing out numerous ways that the chapters of the thesis could have been backed up and asking why Boldt’s advisor doesn’t have a copy of it. It’s a good question: I certainly gave chapters of my dissertation to my advisor as I wrote them, though I think I had to deliver them in hard copy. Having a printout would be a lot better than not having anything.
Others point out that Boldt had plenty of opportunity to use an online backup service like Mozy or Carbonite or even a tool like Dropbox. A history thesis would almost certainly be a Word doc, probably using a template provided by the university or the department. It might be large as Word docs go if it had illustrations in it, but it would be unlikely to be larger than the 2 GB limit for free accounts at Mozy.
But, as I suspected, Boldt would have had no need to resort to a commercial service if he wanted online backup. The University of Calgary offers all students a service called Webdisk File Storage:
Webdisk is a remote file storage system that allows you to store your files on a IT server making them easily accessible from any computer with an Internet connection. […] Webdisk files are automatically backed up every day, so they can be recovered if they are inadvertently deleted or changed.
So where was Boldt when Webdisk accounts were being handed out?
It’s easy to get sloppy about backups, to say you’ll put another system in place tomorrow, to forget to re-establish levels of protection when you get a new machine. But when you have really critical data, you can’t back it up too many ways or in too many places, and you can’t do it too soon.
And that will be true even if John Boldt turns out to be just as much a fiction as Whiteboard Jenny.