Offsite backup has given me an enormous sense of well-being

Every few weeks, I see someone else on Facebook realise too late that a laptop is not something you can rely on always being around. Whether it is through theft, hard-drive failure or a knocked-over coffee, information on a laptop is very vulnerable to being made suddenly unavailable. I have a number of ways of backing up important information, and I use them sporadically, when I remember / have time / can be bothered. I used Syncback for a while, which did work well but relied on me remembering to plug in the external hard drive and leave the computer turned on at the time that the backups were meant to happen. I bought wireless network storage to try to make it easier, but still I found that backups were often out of date. I bought a new laptop and didn’t bother installing Syncback so then I was completely unprotected. My partner also bought a new laptop and was loading it up with music and photos and asking “what happens if it breaks”. And all the time, I wondered what good any of these backups would be if my canal-side house flooded or if someone broke in and took it all. In the last few months, though, I have found two methods of protecting my files that just work and both have simplified my life and given me an enormous sense of well-being.

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A few months ago I discovered Dropbox as a way of getting miscellaneous files onto my iPhone. It’s free, you install it on all computers you use and it behaves like a normal folder on any all of the computers. The special thing about this folder is that it is always exactly the same on all computers. It’s brilliant. I routinely use 3 different computers, and they all have Dropbox installed. I store any document that I am working on in my Dropbox folder, so wherever I access it I am seeing the latest version. I have recommended it to a friend working on a thesis, who had been emailing copies backwards and forwards, and lost the latest version when her laptop died. She could retrieve a version that was a few days old from her emails, but with Dropbox she could have logged in to the web interface from any computer and found the latest version. The free edition comes with 2GB storage.

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I am a longtime listener to the This Week in Tech and This week in Google podcasts from Leo Laporte. One of his sponsors is Carbonite, so each week I get another reminder of how important off-site storage is and a little pitch for the benefits of Carbonite. I finally decided it was worth a try and signed up. They offer 2 weeks for free whilst you check that it works for you, and then it costs $54 a year to back up one computer (same dollar price applied in the UK). It works by securely copying the contents of specified folders to a server somewhere far, far away. If your laptop goes kablooey, you can install Carbonite on a new computer and restore some or all of these folders to your new computer. They warn you that the initial backup can take some time (I backed up 25,000 files making 23GB of data to transfer) and they are not wrong. After a couple of weeks my backup was complete and now it just keeps it up to date in the background. Whilst having a bit of an explore I realised that not only is Carbonite keeping my backup current, it is also keeping an archive of previous versions of files. So this means that when I delete an entire folder of photos by mistake, or overwrite one document with another, I can go to Carbonite and restore the files to how they were before I messed up. And if the house ever floods or I leave my laptop in a pub, I know that the insurance can replace the hardware and Carbonite can restore the really valuable stuff. My partner as now also installed Carbonite and her backup is well underway. It really does take quite a while the first time though, so patience and a little bit of faith is required. Once you see the little green padlock telling you that the backup is complete though, I assure you that you will sleep a little more soundly. Links:

Using Google Forms to gather website feedback

It seems like for almost anything you want to do online these days, Google provides a way to do it. It might not always be the best way, or the neatest, but it is likely to be good enough, and it is likely to be free.Recently a friend was building her first website for a while, and realised that the way she used to build a voting form was out of date. She was building a flat HTML site, not using a content management system. If she had been using something like WordPress or Typepad, she would have been able to choose from a number of plugins or widgets that would have done the job, but she didn’t have that option. I suggested two approaches.

  1. Use a service like User Voice that lets you embed their code in your page. This has a free version that allows a limited number of votes per month.
  2. Create a Google Docs Form, and gather responses in a Google Docs Spreadsheet.

She went for Option 2. Here’s how it worked. (This assumes you already have a Google Docs account. If not, you can sign up for free.)

  1. In Google Docs, choose New > Form.
  2. In the Edit Form screen that appears, you can give a title and description, and enter the questions you have. You can choose from text, multiple choice, a scale, a list or checkboxes, each with a question and help text.
  3. I’ll not go into detail here, because the process is pretty straight forward. Have a look at the video to see the steps.
  4. Choose More actions > Embed to get the HTML you need to show the form in another web page.
  5. Copy the HTML and paste it into your site.
  6. Users can now go to that page and fill in the form. Their responses will be saved in a Google Spreadsheet for you to review at your leisure.

Screencast of the whole processAs an aside, this is the first time I have created a screencast using Jing. Next time, I’ll try not to make it so enormous, and make fewer typos.Let me know what you think, either about the use of Google forms for gathering feedback like this, or about screencasting tips.

Twitter in plain english

This is a useful explanation of the way people use Twitter.  I use the same line myself when explaining something like Facebook.Before using it, friends have said that they would rather contact someone in real life than through Facebook, not understanding that Facebook IS real life. If you think Twitter is full of people telling each other what they’re having for breakfast – you’re not wrong, but you might be underestimating how compelling that can be.I liken it to the conversation that used to happen over the garden fence, in the corner shop or waiting for a bus. It’s the little snippets that add depth to the relationships that enrich the face to face or deliberate contact when it happens.

[Common craft]

Blogging the election

The Oxford Internet Institute is running a series of Blogging roundtables. They are open to anyone, and I went along to the first one earlier this month.Kevin Anderson, blogs editor at The Guardian, was speaking on “Blogging the election”. A podcast of the talk is available here.Kevin referred to a number of studies to back up his claim that blogging increases participation in the political process, although it is not possible to tell which came first – are bloggers more likely to be political activists or are political activists more likely to be bloggers.More interesting to me were the ideas about how blogging and other forms of user-generated content are changing the political process, and making politicians and the press more accountable.Doggedly pursuing their own agendaPorkbusters, who aim to “blog the waste out of government”. They used crowdsourcing to track down a senator who was blocking legislation, by a process of elimination. Since the talk, there has been another similar case where The Superdelegate Transparency Project has been tracking down who the Superdelegates in the Democratic convention are going to vote for, and whether or not it reflects the votes from their state.Keeping stories runningThe news cycle in the USA is notoriously fickle. Some stories run and run. Some are a flash in the pan. And some just never make it into the mainstream. Blogs are being used to keep a story rumbling along in the background until something shifts and the mainstream media decide it is worthy of attention. An example of this is Talking Points Memo, which pursued a story about the Bush administration firing attorneys. This eventually broke in the mainstream press and led to the resignation of the Attorney General.In a similar vein, blogs follow up on what has been reported elsewhere, and challenge the facts and assertions. Pressthink was given as an example of this.If we are talking mass appeal, however, you can’t beat YouTube. This has been used extensively in the election by campaigns and enthusiasts. Speeches given by the candidates have been uploaded and some have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. The music video style remixes – millions. Have a listen – it’s inspiring in a very non-specific way.How does this relate to technology, education and learning? Well, mostly it is just inspiring, but it also demonstrates some great use of collaborative technology and some exciting examples of where new creators of content and new activists are challenging the status quo.