how i backup

(Apologies in advance for the wonkiness of this post. Feel free to skip it if backup plans aren’t your cup of tea.)
Backing up your computer: You know you should do it, but you don’t. I only got religion a year or two ago, but now I’m pretty anal about keeping extra copies of everything. (The thought of my digital life — including every email I’ve sent or received since 1993 — disappearing is shattering.) Here’s my system, presented in the hopes that it might be useful to someone.
My computer: I’ve got two internal hard drives, a 160GB boot drive named Huey and a 250GB drive named Earl. Earl holds my MP3s; Huey holds everything else. It’s a Power Mac G5 running 10.4.7.
The most important content on my computer is my email. It’s also the part of my computer most likely to change from day to day, so if I lost a few days worth of material in a disk crash, email would be the most likely to be lost. So:
First Line of Defense: A nightly backup of my email on Huey to Earl. I do it with Email Backup, a dead-cinch-easy way to automate the process. (It looks like it’s just a front end to a cron job, but hey, it’s free and one fewer step.) This way, if Huey goes belly-up one day, I’d lose at most one day’s worth of mail.
But what about the rest of Huey? There’s tons of important stuff on there. Or what if Earl goes? So:
Second Line of Defense: A weekly backup of both Huey and Earl to external Firewire drives. I use the great SuperDuper for this, since it’s perfect for incremental backups. (In other words, you don’t have to recopy the entire hard drive each time you back up — SuperDuper can tell which files have been updated and copy only those.) Huey and Earl each get their own backup drives (250GB Porsche drives named Speedy and Dorian). And the backup drives are bootable — meaning that if Huey suddenly dissolves, Speedy can take its place in less than 30 seconds.
A lot of folks would have SuperDuper do its backup automatically. But that would require me to keep Speedy and Dorian powered on and mounted all the time. I don’t like that idea for a couple reasons: It would put a lot of wear on the drives and it would leave the drives to something external and bad (hackers, lightning, etc.) that could screw up my computer.
Instead, I leave the external drives turned off. But I set up my Yahoo! Calendar to send me an email at midnight every Sunday morning reminding me to backup. All it takes is turning on the drives and a couple clicks in SuperDuper. On average, it takes about two minutes to backup Earl and about 20 to backup Huey. But you can go on merrily working while it works.
So, I’ve got a complete backup of my entire computer that’s at most a week old. But…that backup is sitting in the same room as my computer. What if my apartment catches fire? What if burglars break in and steal my computer — without thoughtfully leaving my backup drives behind?
I hope to eventually get a completely off-site backup in here. Even broadband speed isn’t fast enough for reasonable online remote storage of 500GB of stuff. I’ve thought about backing up my MP3s to offsite DVDs, but damn does that sound daunting. (At 216GB, it’d take 47 DVDs at the moment.) I could buy another set of backup hard drives and keep them at my office. But I’m not there yet.
So, again, I fall back on the backup that’s most important to me:
Third Line of Defense: A monthly backup of my email to Amazon S3. For those unfamiliar, S3 is basically online disk space that Amazon rents out to anyone who wants it. (“It gives any developer access to the same highly scalable, reliable, fast, inexpensive data storage infrastructure that Amazon uses to run its own global network of web sites.”) There are a million potential uses for it, but backup is one of the most obvious.
Accessing AWS directly takes a lot more programming mojo than I have. But a program called Jungle Disk provides a usable front-end (for Mac, Windows, or Linux). On a Mac, at least, you log on to the web space as you would a normal local server, and you copy and paste in the Finder as you would anything else. Jungle Disk handles the actual uploading. (It’s a goofy Mac app — normal interface cues don’t work — but it’s wholly functional.) I get another email from Yahoo! Calendar on the first of every month reminding me to backup.
(A hint for Apple Mail users: Zip your mail directory (~/Library/Mail/) before you upload it. Apple Mail stores each message as a separate file for Spotlight purposes, and all those tiny files really add to the size of your upload and the time of your backup. And if you really want to get everything email-related, you should also backup ~/Library/Mail Downloads/, ~/Library/Application Support/AddressBook, and ~/LIbrary/Preferences/
Now, Jungle Mail is dog slow. It takes almost an hour to upload my complete email archive, which compresses to about 130MB. You can’t do incremental backups, so it wouldn’t work well for huge data stores. But it all happens in the background, so you’re free to do other things. (Like write this post, for instance.) And it works. And if a dirty bomb explodes in my closet tomorrow, my email will be safe on some server in Seattle.
One incredibly small caveat: Amazon S3 isn’t free. They charge for both storage space and upload bandwidth. But the prices are laughably cheap. My bill last month: $0.07. The month before: $0.05. At this rate, my total outlay will reach one American dollar sometime in early 2008.

more cheating stories

Here’s my story from Saturday’s front page:

The Texas Education Agency is leaning toward severing ties with the company it hired to look for cheating on the TAKS test, in part because the results have generated negative publicity for the state.

The agency also has some concerns about some methods used by the company, Caveon, officials said.

“I don’t have a lot of confidence in them anymore,” state Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said. “Right now, I’m sure not inclined to ask Caveon for anything anymore.”

And here’s my story from Sunday’s front page — also about cheating, but probably much more interesting to the casual reader:

It’s the sort of case you might expect Encyclopedia Brown to tackle.

Two kids seem to have cheated on Professor Harpp’s final exam. Can he prove the culprits did it — before it’s too late?

But when McGill University professor David Harpp suspected some of his students were up to no good, he didn’t hire a boy detective for a shiny new quarter. He did the job himself.

He devised a statistical method to determine whether two students were copying test answers from each other. He found that, on a 98-question multiple-choice test, the pair of students had 97 answers exactly the same — including 23 wrong answers.

Confronted with the evidence, the students confessed.

To the untrained observer, it may seem strange that cheating can be reliably detected with statistics, formulas and math, as Texas officials have hired an outside firm to do. But decades of research around the world have produced methods that prove quite effective at smoking out cheaters in ways even the best proctors often can’t.

With a sidebar, another sidebar, and a graphic.
Unfortunately, I failed in my attempts to work Bugs Meany into the narrative. (I’d also like to point out that Encyclopedia Brown was preceded — by several years! — by Brains Benton.)

ceausescu’s last speech

Amazing video of the last public speech of Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator. For those who don’t remember that amazing stretch in 1989 when all the eastern European governments fell, Ceausescu was probably the nastiest of his cohort, and he was the only one to fall violently.
Quoth Wikipedia:

On the morning of December 21, Ceauşescu addressed a mass assembly of a hundred thousand people to condemn the uprising of Timişoara. Speaking from the balcony of the Central Committee building in the usual “wooden language”, Ceauşescu delivered a litany of the achievements of the “socialist revolution” and Romanian “multi-laterally developed socialist society”. The people, however, remained apathetic, and only the front rows supported Ceauşescu with cheers and applause…

As he was addressing the crowd from the balcony of the Central Committee building, sudden movement coming from the outskirts of the mass assembly and the sound of what various sources have reported as fireworks, bombs, or guns broke the orderly manifestation into chaos. Scared at first, the crowds tried to disperse. Bullhorns were used to spread the news that the Securitate was firing on them and that a “revolution” was unfolding, and finally the people were persuaded to join in. The rally turned into a protest demonstration and in the end a revolution emerged.

Ceauşescu, his wife, as well as other officials and CPEx members panicked, and finally Ceauşescu went into hiding inside the building. The live transmission of the meeting was interrupted, but the people who were watching had seen enough to realise that something unusual was going on.

The reaction of Ceauşescu couple is memorable, as they were staging futile attempts to regain control over the convulsing crowd using phone conversation formulas such as “Alo, Alo” (“Hello, Hello”) or Ceauşescu’s wife “advising” him how to contain the situation: “Vorbeşte-le, vorbeşte-le” (“Talk to them, talk to them”) and to the crowd “Stati liniştiti la locurile voastre” (“Sit quiet in your places”); finally Ceauşescu allowed himself to be directed inside the Central Committee building by his underlings.

Here’s the video of that last speech. The gunfire starts shortly after the 1:00 mark. The look on Ceausescu’s face is priceless. The video seems to show the government taking control again after a few minutes; it’s unclear whether the move indoors cited above takes place in the middle of this video or after its end. I don’t know Romanian well enough to tell what the crowd is chanting later on, but it seems largely supportive and not particularly revolutionary. Not that it mattered: He was shot dead four days later.

Then check out this cell-phone ad that parodies the speech:

Finally, some good photos of the revolution and its aftermath.

confederate constitution

The Confederate constitution, compared side by side with the American one. Useful for debunking claims that the Confederacy’s intellectual foundation was “states rights” or some such nonsense.
For a while now, I’ve been threatening to write a long boring post about the Dunning School of historians — the ones most responsible for the fictional account of the Civil War that is still taught in many public schools today. (If you were taught that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, but instead about states rights and tariff policy — or that Reconstruction was just a den of corruption until the Redeemers came along — your head has been screwed with by the southern apologetics of the Dunning School and its peers.)

poor, pathetic nauru

A great Economist piece on the sad tale of Nauru, the most pathetic nation in the world. I remember reading about Nauru when I was about eight years old — there was a two-page spread about them in one of the volumes of the Childcraft encyclopedia I had when I was a kid. (For the record, if you’re trying to build a powerhouse dork from the ground up, giving them Childcraft is an excellent start.)
Anyway, the Childcraft article on Nauru was all about the island nation’s usefulness to Western corporations as a massive phosphate mine. (The piece in question would have been written in the 1970s, when the phosphate wealth still flowed and Nauru’s grand bargain with the world seemed wise. As the Economist piece shows, it didn’t turn out that way.)
Nauru’s perhaps the best example of what Captain Cook wrote after seeing what Western contact had done to traditional South Pacific societies: “It would have been far better for these poor people never to have known us.”

one more cheating story

Had another story on the front page today. It’s about (surprise, surprise!) cheating:

All 699 schools suspected of cheating on the TAKS test will face a state investigation, the Texas Education Agency announced Monday.

Sort of. The word “investigation” can have many meanings.

For some schools, investigations could consist of little more than an exchange of letters. It remains to be seen how thorough investigations of 699 schools would be possible, given constraints of time and staffing.

And state officials still have no plans to seek the additional test data that would make a detailed investigation possible. For example, the state still does not know which students have the most suspicious test answer sheets.