How to Avoid Losing Computer Data

The following speech was prepared and presented by Richard Thripp of Toastmasters of Port Orange, FL on 2014-10-08, in fulfillment of Competent Communication Project #2: “Organizing Your Speech” in the Toastmasters curriculum.

A presentation of ideas regarding avoiding losing typed work on webpages, backing up computer data, and the format and compression of data.

Good evening fellow Toastmasters and guests,

Tonight I would like to talk about some basic concepts regarding computer usage and steps you can take to avoid losing data.

Have you ever filled out a form on a website only to have everything you typed vanish due to accidentally pressing the back button or some other glitch? This can be avoided by careful consideration and planning. If you are typing a long report, get into the habit of typing it in another program such as Notepad or Microsoft Word and saving the file regularly using the Ctrl + S keyboard shortcut. Then, when you have finished typing, you can copy and paste the results into the website, with the Word file serving as a backup. For users of the Mozilla Firefox web browser, there is also a free extension called Lazarus Form Recovery that saves all text you type in the browser, so you can retrieve it after a browser or operating system crash, server timeout, or other problem.

Backing up your computer files by making duplicate copies of them on other devices is critical, not only due to the risk of hard drive failure, but also viruses, software problems, and user error. For a backup to be effective, it must be updated regularly and stored on a different device—for example, it must not be stored on the same hard drive or a partition of the same hard drive. When updating your backup, care must be taken to ensure you are not deleting or overwriting previous versions of files that you might want to recover later. One piece of software I use to back up my files is called SyncBackFree, which allows you to configure options regarding the types of files to be backed up, and also to synchronize files based on variables such as file size and the “last modified” timestamp. Synchronization is also available, and is useful if you are actively making changes to the files on two devices, such as your home PC and a USB flash drive. For simplicity’s sake, I do not use synchronization, but rather edit most of my documents and school files directly from my flash drive even while at home, and thus use the software to perform a backup from my flash drive to my internal hard drive or other device at all times, which means my flash drive is treated as the authoritative or master copy. When using powerful software such as SyncBackFree, you should be careful to understand the interface and review the files that are going to be changed before proceeding with the backup, since it is possible to make a mistake and end up overwriting the data you intend to preserve.

In principle, you should also always have at least one copy of the files you intend to preserve NOT connected to your computer, in case a bug, virus, power surge, or curious toddler manages to delete both copies of the files. Thus, it may be necessary to have three copies of important files, with no more than two connected to your computer at any one time. I would also recommend looking into online backup, as it is increasingly becoming an effective option, especially for people who merely backing up documents and spreadsheets, rather than many gigabytes of photos and videos.

The final concept I will discuss is data formatting and compression. While you may think these are only of interest to computer science students, in fact they are quite important to the literate computer user. Consider that you are preparing a poster for work that you would like to both display in print, and distribute by email. A common mistake is emailing the same file you intend to print—this wastes many megabytes of space in each recipient’s email inbox. In fact, you should create a separate file to send via email, which can simply be the original file resampled to a lower resolution and saved with more compression.

Over-compression is also a common mistake. One example of this is misuse of the resolution and quality settings on your digital camera. As a new digital photographer in 2004, for several months I made the mistake of choosing the one megapixel resolution setting instead of two megapixels on my camera. My logic at the time was that the photos look the same anyway in slideshows on my monitor, and that I had only a small memory card and small hard drive in my computer. I regret this decision whenever I look at these photos, and wish I would have used the highest resolution setting on my camera and bought a larger memory card and hard drive earlier. Additionally, monitor resolutions have increased since 2004, so one megapixel photos do not even take up my whole screen now. When working with data, this is a very important principle to keep in mind—you can always remove data later, but you can never restore data that has been destroyed or was never recorded in the first place. Thus, it is wise to avoid making irreversible changes to any original file. Thanks to the abstraction that is the digital world, we are fortunate to be able to make perfect copies of digital files and perform our experiments safely.

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