It might not happen. But, then again, it might.
You've just put the finishing touches to your masterpiece novel, or that screenplay you just know that Fox will snap up in an instant. And... it's gone.
Your word processor locks up, unable to open the file. Or, Microsoft Windows presents you with a monstrous Blue Screen of Death (BSOD).
Try as hard as you might, you're unable to get the word processor to open the document again. Or your computer just flatly refuses to start up, no matter how many "fixes" you apply from Safe Mode.
What do you do?
Well, so long as your computer system isn't completely done for (or "screwed," as a technician might put it), then your problem is one of data loss and recovery. And there are several measures you can take -- either to remedy the situation once it occurs, or to guard against it in future.
I and my laptop never go anywhere without what I call my Office-on-a-Stick. It's a USB flash drive holding all my essential documents, and portable versions of the software necessary to open them.
Got an iPod? With a little USB cable? Then you can use the device for data storage. Copies of your essential data files may not show up on your playlist, but they will be accessible to your desktop or laptop system. So, your media player can serve as an alternative to a dedicated flash drive.
Once you have a stick, you can load a selection of software on it as well. The products described here are all free, and can be run directly from a flash drive.
Floppy Office is a collection of tools, including a simple word processor, spreadsheet (for tracking those submissions), PDF file creator, and photo editor. It ships as a Zip file, from which the individual components can be extracted onto the USB stick.
The download link from the developer's website is a bit dicey, so you can get it from here: http://www.majorgeeks.com/Floppy_Office_d5645.html
AbiWordPortable is a free word processor, similar to Microsoft Word, but built specifically to run from a USB stick. There is a minor quibble, in that its text display can look a little crowded at first, depending on the screen resolution of your monitor. Try setting it to Times New Roman, in 12-point type. AbiWord handles text well, and opens most Microsoft Office-type text documents.
The download link for AbiWordPortable is http://portableapps.com/apps/office/abiword_portable
Easy. Just mail stuff to yourself.
If it can be formatted as an attachment (by Yahoo!, GMail, or whatever), then it can be sent to your inbox. Compose a meaningful reminder as the body of the message, and use a provocative subject line to inform you of what it is. Flag the message, if necessary.
The files you send will be there, on your mail server, ready to download, if you need them.
Not only is this a useful fall-back in the event of a system failure, it can also be convenient if you are on the road (sans laptop), and need to make online submissions, or alterations to your website. Speaking of which...
You do have one, don't you? Assuming you do, your Web host should have provided you with a generous capacity for storing files. It's unlikely that you will use all of this space for your site content, so you might as well upload copies of your vital documents there, as well.
There may be some restrictions as to the file formats your host can accommodate. But, with the diversity of site content these days, you should be able to store most kinds of data online in this way. [Editor's note: You can also usually upload almost any sort of file that is saved in a zipped file, and store it on your server. However, Mac users should be cautious of this option, as zipped files can destroy some types of Mac data.]
There are services on the Web dedicated to keeping copies of your files online for you. Most will charge you for this privilege, but some offer free storage plans.
eSnips storage gives you 5GB of free space. The site at http://www.esnips.com also has a social networking and file sharing aspect. You can upload photos of yourself, create a personal profile, and flag the documents you store there for showcasing in various communities, such as Writers, or Photography.
Social networking is also a feature of the humyo.com service. Their site at http://www.humyo.com [now SafeSync] offers a free storage capacity of 10GB, along with the opportunity to set up secure shared folders for documents that you want to collaborate on with others.
Most word processors (and a number of other applications) will have an AutoSave or Automatic Backup feature, which can usually be found in the "Tools" or "Options" menu. You can specify the interval (5 minutes, 10 minutes etc.) at which backup copies are made of any documents you currently have open.
In the event of a system crash (or if you make unwanted amendments to a document that you wish to reverse), the "File" menu of the program will give you the option to "Revert to Last Saved Version" of the file, or something similar.
Laptop users are often warned to turn such features off, as they impose an additional strain on the battery. But you should look at this in light of the potential cost to you (and your livelihood) of losing vital files. [Editor's Note: Pay attention to this one. I actually wiped out the most recent version of an entire book manuscript, after having spent several hours making final formatting changes. I hadn't backed it up to an external drive yet. I made a change that cut the document down to a single page that I meant to save as a separate file -- and saved it as the manuscript instead. Thankfully I was able to track down the last automatic backup and retrieve my manuscript. You may never need to use this -- but you will go down on your needs in thanks if you do!]
The Windows Recycle Bin holds onto your files once you delete them. Assuming that you haven't emptied it out, you can restore them to their original location. To do this, click on the Recycle Bin icon, and choose "Restore" from the pop-up menu.
Even if you have emptied the Recycle Bin, all hope is not yet lost. When files are deleted in this way, they do not disappear from your hard disk entirely. Unless you perform a "secure delete", by pressing [SHIFT]+[DELETE], or by using a data-shredding program, the information still resides on a portion of the disk, under an assumed name. It will stay there until it is overwritten by any new data that you save to file.
Undelete software works by reassembling this information into the original files -- so long as no significant portion of it has been overwritten. A major caveat, here. Once a file has been deleted, the chances of fully restoring it with software alone are not that high -- especially if you have performed other file operations since the first files were lost. Having said this, there are products available for data recovery.
MediaDoctor retrieves information from damaged CDs, DVDs, or computer disk drives. It has a simple interface that gives you a choice of which medium you want to read data from. Once you choose, it does a quick scan, and presents a list of files that are recoverable. MediaDoctor is free, and can be obtained from http://www.freewarezoom.com/archives/mediadoctor
Pandora Recovery focuses on restoring deleted or corrupted data from computer hard drives. The software includes a Wizard, to guide you step-by-step through the scanning and recovery process. The program does restore files quickly, but occasionally gets confused with exact filenames. It can be downloaded from http://www.pandorarecovery.com.
Pandora Recovery is freeware (ie., it costs you nothing). During installation, the program will give you the option of a new toolbar for your Web browser and / or setting your Internet homepage to one of the major search engines (Ask.com). You can, of course, opt out of both.
MediaDoctor and Pandora Recovery are also available from the Freewarefiles website, at http://www.freewarefiles.com
You can enter the product name in the Search box on the Freewarefiles homepage, or type "data recovery" as the basis for your search, if you want a full listing of all the software currently on offer.
For Windows users (and there are a lot of us out there), the System Restore service can also be a life-saver. As the name suggests, it restores your system to a previous state (when, presumably, everything worked).
From your Start Menu, use the following sequence (Assuming you don't already have a System Restore entry there):
Start - All Programs - Accessories - System Tools - System Restore
When the service fires up, follow the guidelines to either "Create a restore point", or Restore my computer to an earlier time".
I recommend creating at least one Restore Point each week. You can do this on the same day you're diligently backing up essential files to your iPod, uploading them to your Web host, or whatever.
The important thing is to have copies of your vital documents somewhere other than where you (or your computer system) are - and in a form that can be gotten at easily.
Incidentally, folks, my own laptop nearly expired, just as I was laying the groundwork for this article. Monstrous BSOD, and all. So, I know whereof I speak, and can vouch personally for each of the recommendations I've made above.
Let's be careful out there.
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