Seven Rules for Saving All Your Stuff
Stoic advice for the non-hoarder.
In my digital libraries I have at this moment, 124,783 photos. I have 1848 music albums. I know these things because as a data guy, I pay more attention to where my bits and bytes reside. I have 39.9 terabytes of local storage at my fingertips. The most important of these digital properties are redundantly backed up in two different clouds as well as separately in some of those terabytes. Every essay I’ve written online back to March of 2003, reside on cloud properties I rent, but have backups locally. So if I want to know what I thought about the Terri Schiavo case, or the GEICO Caveman or the invention of Android, I can go back and read my own words. Ever since I communed with the original digital hipsters at The Well, I have taken their motto seriously. “You own your own words.” Facebook knows what you said 6 years ago about Donald Trump. Do you? Here’s what to do in order to be self-possessed.
The most important thing about backing up important files is that you do it yourself, fairly often and redundantly in different media. That way, over time, you’ll have opportunities to rescue data that is important to you, and then you’ll have practical experience.
I have been doing this digital thing for about 30 years. I have used everything from magtape to 8 inch floppies, to ZIP and JAZ drives, to CDs, DVDs, memory sticks, external hard drives and USB devices. I’ve used RAID NAS, and a couple generations of cloud services. The most important thing I’ve learned is that when it comes right down to it the things you value most, you probably don’t even have digital copies.
It was 1989 when I first went through this exercise. There was a fire two doors down from my apartment. Persnickety crank that I am, I already had prioritized what I was prepared to lose in a fire, and what I could not bear to lose. My priority was my written diary and personal photos. I had it all in four milk crates and was ready to evacuate in under 10 minutes. Everything else, books, records, cds, clothes — were all replaceable.
Rule #1 Go through all of your stuff and see what’s irreplaceable.
Pretend you have a $1,000,000 fire insurance policy and your house burns down. OK. Whatever you can buy a better new version of is basically disposable. Actually, insurance companies (and police departments) would like you to go through this very exercise. If you have lived through a home burglary or fire, you’ll know this. Everybody should know exactly where that irreplaceable stuff is. My silver framed wedding picture. My autographed bass guitar. The cuff links from my wedding. My dad’s original black nationalist writings. Rousseau, my plastic dinosaur. My spelling certificate from the seventh grade.
Next, you would think official documents and stuff would be pretty valuable, but in fact it’s mostly sentimental. Tax returns, death certificates, citizenship papers, passports, birth certificates, check stubs, medical receipts, degree certificates. All on record somewhere else. Disposable. Inconvenient if you don’t have them, but really… that’s only because you’re in a hurry and you didn’t plan. Admit it. And I have to say, if I had been divorced, or lost custody of my kids, those papers I probably wouldn’t want around.
The big pain in the neck is scanning your important personal papers. Just do it. Once you’ve done it, print them out again and store them in boxes. Now you have originals, digital copies and physical copies. Store the physical copies at a relative’s house. If you don’t have any relatives, rent a big safe deposit box at a bank (preferably a bank downtown) and put the most personally valuable ones in their vault. I have nothing that critical; Storage Etc handles a dozen square feet for me 3 miles down the road.
Now with your digital copies, buy an external hard drive and dump them all over into them. Next buy a premium account with Evernote and send them all into Evernote. Obviously you want to use PDF. It’s probably the most robust digital version of anything, although JPG is pretty damned good as well. Next backup your spinning hard drive with Backblaze or Carbonite. Finally put the most important, important sentimental docs also into Dropbox, Amazon S3 or Backblaze B2.
That’s for documents. Next for pictures.
It shouldn’t take long to scan all of your prints. If you have color slides, they are the most troublesome. If you have super 8 or 16mm film, Kodak has an (expensive) processed to digitize all that. I would also search around for a local camera shop that converts Hi8 and VCR tapes to DVD. That’s expensive but worth it. Movies of your kids are priceless, no matter how insipid the action. iMemories is the market leader but I did it myself.
I’ve converted thousands of my own and my father’s photographs. I have to say that unless they are 8x10 or larger prints, then once they are scanned, that’s the best format. So don’t bother getting reprints, you’ll enjoy them more online anyway. For those exceptions, there is Shutterfly. Remember redundancy. Make your favorite pictures gifts to other folks. We make picture calendars and Christmas pictures every year and send them to friends and family. Funny how those show up 15 years later. Right now Flickr is the best service for my money. Google + screwed up what was wonderful about Picasa, and Amazon is coming up with a new service. Apple photostream is a brilliant idea, well-executed, but when you get into the tens of thousands of pictures, performance falls flat. Adobe Cloud is the master of the realm. Also not cheap.
Rule #2: Prioritize what is irreplaceable.
It will turn out that ‘all of your digital stuff’ will fall into the area that Nassim Taleb calls ‘Mediocristan’. Basically there will be a predictable bell curve distribution for the number of digital assets you will find irreplaceable. For example, if you pick your favorite movies, chances are you’ll have anywhere from 50 to 200. But you are very unlikely to have 2000 favorite movies. Similarly you are very unlikely to have 20,000 favorite songs or 10,000 favorite pictures. Your entire library might be that big, but not your favorite, irreplaceable ones.
The good news is that your favorite movies and songs are probably going to be other people’s favorites as well. So movies and songs are likely to be disposable. So is software, except for the stuff you’ve written yourself.
All that said, I’ve got over photos all over the place redundantly, but about 2300 that I keep redundantly in Dropbox, Flickr, on DVD, on USB flash drives and in S3. All of them are synched to my phone, and some fraction of them I’ve posted to Facebook and in my blog. I have it covered.
Rule #3: Be Redundantly Redundant.
If you don’t eat a Big Mac on a regular basis, you’ll forget what a Big Mac tastes like. But you probably won’t forget because there’s a McDonalds everywhere. You should periodically visit your favorite digital assets just to make sure you can. I like looking at my resumes from college and pictures of my self 30 pounds ago. I like listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and I could watch the Fifth Element another hundred times. (Multipass!) There’s no point in stuff being digital unless you checkup on it. Go eyeball those CDs you burned 10 years ago. Mount that old Porsche Design 150MB hard drive. See what’s on that old memory stick.
All the code I write gets cloned to Github and to an external hard drive. Carbon Copy Cloner is perfect for this. I’ve never found anything better. Well, rsync but that ‘s industrial.
Rule #4: Review and Recycle.
Put old media into new media. Put new media into old media. Look at those old Grand Canyon pictures, are they really so precious? Your priorities change. You should overspend on your redundancy until you get to the point where you know you have too many copies of that one song and it’s costing you too much money to store it. Then you reprioritize again. See if there’s a better storage deal out there. This is the way to keep your costs down. Sentimentality has a cost. It’s good to know what that cost is.
Rule #5: Plan for the Disaster.
After the disaster happens, are you really going to care about all that stuff? Maybe you could admit that somebody else has a better collection than you? Have you really had a garage sale forced on you because you were desperate for money? Then you know that #3 wood you used to hole the Par 3 at the municipal course is actually only worth about $20 bucks.
I learned these lessons because every year without fail for about five years straight, one or more of my hard drives would fail. I got really good at using recovery utilities to get data out, which is why I have thousands of songs titled like Recovered_00493.mp3. And oh by the way, the open source MP3 guys were right all along. So remember that the open source stuff lasts longer. And also do NOT waste your money on anybody’s NAS. If you think RAID5 will save your bacon, think again. (Up your’s Iomega!). Just check around for what people charge for recovering hard drives. It’s highway robbery. The NAS technology has gotten a lot better, but I recommend that you get a simple Western Digital external hard drive and leave it at that. Backblaze publishes a study every year on hard drive reliability. That’s the bible.
The point is that your computer is going to crash. Get familiar with how disaster recovery software works. Since I’m a Mac boy, I use Time Machine. I don’t care about the stuff on my Linux boxes. They’re replaceable.
Rule #6: Do it yourself, plus the Rich get Richer.
The best kind of redundancy is the kind where you can depend on other people’s self interests being aligned with your own. Find the big dog market leaders and place bets on their technology, but be smart about it. Pay attention to where other people are placing their bets. Amazon right now is a sure thing, and over the past 3 years have kicked Apple’s ass when it comes to storing your music. But before that, Apple’s iMatch was boss. If you don’t care about hi-fidelity, just use the streaming services, but don’t get mad when they stop streaming your favorite old songs by that one band. Keep some CDs. Right now I say Qobuz and Tidal are the best because I really care about hi-fi audiophile quality, but you can’t go wrong with Spotify or Apple. Flickr is great for pictures, but pro photogs like other services. Don’t follow the crowds, follow the pros, but keep doing it your own way too. A little paranoia goes a long way when it comes to disaster planning. It might even change the way you look at everything.
Rule #7: Expect Failure, and get over yourself.
If everything you did were so precious, people would line up to do this crap for you. Ask Bruce Willis if he has enough pictures of himself and his ex-wife. I know right? Every system fails. This is all about cost/benefit analysis. But in the end, we all die, and your surviving ex-wife is going to do things in your house that would set your teeth on edge. So recognize it’s all small stuff. Except for this ashtray.