My digital world is beautiful, in large part, because I have been able to collect and protect the memories and experiences of a lifetime. I have huge electronic piles of my own writing, sound files from when my son was growing up, a massive library of accessible books, along with thousands of old radio shows and other valued mementos. I have recordings of my brother and sisters singing "The Signs of New Math" in the mid-1960's and I have oral histories of both my parents. I have audio recordings of lectures, plays, and some of the many speeches I have delivered. My large trove of small treasures has moved from reel-to-reel tape, to cassettes, to floppies, to writable CDs, and finally to hard drives.
When it comes to protecting my precious memories, I worry quite a bit. Bad things happen to good data. When I studied computer science, we were constantly reminded that there were only two kinds of computer users; those who have lost data and those who will. In my world view, there is no absolutely secure way to store information. If you write everything to a hard drive, it will fail. If you copy it to a second drive, the transfer will fail and leave you with two corrupted disk images. If you have successfully duplicated your primary drive, there will be a fire, a break-in, or a nuclear mishap. In almost every backup scheme, there are numerous points of potential failure.
Still, I love my stuff. My digital archive is made up of more than 100,000 files and takes up nearly a terabyte of storage. I feel a parental instinct to protect each precious little bundle of bits. I may not know them all, and I may not have any idea of their future impact, but I will protect them at any cost. Well, not any cost, but I will do the best I can.
For many years, my data backup scheme has involved three external single terabyte drives. One drive is my primary repository with my complete digital archive that I connect to a desktop computer for exclusive access to any of my old files. Another of the 1TB drives sits in a desk drawer, and the third drive rests securely in my safety deposit box at the bank. Now, take a deep breath. Once a month, I copy everything from my primary drive to the one in my desk, and assuming that works, I take the one from my desk and make it the new primary. The old primary, then gets swapped out with the one in the bank vault and I bring the old bank copy back home, copy the new primary to it, and put the old bank drive in my desk. OK, breathe. At no point in time am I leaving all copies of my data in one place and at no time am I without at least one good backup that is no more than a month old. If a drive gives any hint of a problem, or when they reach three years of age, I replace them right away. I had even selected a safety deposit box five feet above the vault floor -- just in case of floods.
The downside to my scheme is that I would seldom see my digital gems. Leaving heirlooms in a vault may be effective, but you don't get much pleasure by not looking at them. My strategy might work if I enjoyed sitting at a desk and being tethered to an external drive, but I don't. These days, I live by iPhone. My iPhone 6S Plus with its glorious 128GB of storage and all-day battery is the center of my networked universe. I do all my reading, writing, and research on my iPhone, connected through my ear pods and Bluetooth keyboard. My iPhone is always with me, warming my heart inside my shirt pocket.
As much as I love my iPhone, I understand that it cannot be the central store for my lifetime of memories. First, it does not have the capacity. Second, I would not consider carrying my life savings in my wallet, and it is imprudent to assume a mobile phone would be any safer. All I really want is for my data to remain secure and always be accessible, from anywhere at any time.
When cloud storage first became available, I thought it might become an effective part of my long-term archival strategy. As a step in that direction, I chose to use Dropbox as a means to make a portion of my treasured data available on all of my devices. Back then, moving every bit of my data into Dropbox would have been too expensive. At that time, I was not going to pay the exorbitant price to move everything I possessed into the cloud. However, a bit more than a year ago, Dropbox storage prices dropped precipitously. I suddenly had access to the full terabyte of space that I so fervently desired. The downside was that to make this scheme really work well, I would need to store my entire terabyte of data in the local Dropbox folder on a properly outfitted computer. Unfortunately, I did not own such a machine.
The last time I bought a computer, I chose something shiny and light. Without really considering future storage needs, I decided to purchase a MacBook Air with the beautiful 512GB solid-state drive. Although sleek and gorgeous, this machine could never hold my terabyte of precious storage. Sadly, as my iPhone later took center stage, the elegant MacBook Air fell out of favor and now gathers a light dusting of guide dog dander on its brushed aluminum.
Even at my age, I still have drives and desires. My head remains in the clouds. I have spent much of the last year fantasizing about a new computer, one that really could become the central hub for my digital treasures. I coveted a machine with much more than a terabyte of internal storage, plenty of USB ports for my external drives, and capable of functioning well in my trusty backup scheme. And, I wanted a Mac. I did not want or need another laptop, and I did not want to spend the money on a Mac Pro. I sure did not need the large screen of an iMac. I focused on the small footprint and smaller price of the Mac mini.
I love Santa, especially when he is me. This year, my alter ego brought me a new Mac mini. What a surprise! I chose to go with the slower i5 processor with only 8GB of RAM because I wanted a reasonably priced machine and I did not need one configured to do high-end video editing. I also included the 2TB Fusion drive in my new toy. However, I should have thought more carefully about what else I might wish to attach to my new Mac mini. I had plenty of keyboards and external backup drives, but I never even considered a video monitor. Output devices for the visually dependent are not things I often think about. That was an oversight.
To my credit, I had thought about the HDMI video port on my new computer. Just before ordering the Mac mini, I saw an article that suggested that if the HDMI port was not in use, then the graphics processor would not engage and all software instructions would have to be executed solely on the central processing unit. Bottom line, if the Mac mini did not see an attached monitor, then it would actually work slower, not faster. I purchased an HDMI dongle that would trick the machine into believing that it was indeed shipping pretty pictures to an external monitor, thereby engaging the graphics processor to provide gazillions of additional computational cycles for other tasks. Is this really true? I have no idea, but it makes a great story.
Confidence in my technical skills is often undeserved. I went to work on setting up my new Mac mini. Once I got the machine talking, I decided to start making changes. I trusted me, I'm a professional. I wanted to increase the volume of the sound output. I knew there were easy ways of doing it, but I could not remember the simple keystrokes. With total self-assurance, I barged into the preferences dialogs and very quickly did something not so good. I am not sure how I silenced my Mac, but I successfully rerouted my sound, all of my sound, into oblivion. No sound, no VoiceOver, and no monitor. I had created my own sensory deprivation tank and I was really stuck, floating in the dark, salt licking at my wounds.
There are times when it is downright handy to have a son, home for the holidays, who studied computer science in college and loves the Apple ecosystem. Unfortunately, Richard's help would be limited because he needed a video monitor, the monitor I chose not to buy because I happen to be the only blind guy in the immediate family. It is a tad embarrassing when you have to go to the Apple Store the day after Christmas to buy an item that could have been bought two days earlier. We picked up an HDMI to HDMI cable so that we could connect my mute Mac mini to our living room television. When we got home, Richard took over my computer, acting like an older brother who wants to ride your new bike first. Unsurprisingly, he salvaged the mess I had created and a new, and talking, Mac mini took up residence in my office.
My next task was to transfer the entire terabyte of priceless data to my new Mac mini and successfully copy everything into the cloud. I have also completely rebuilt my Dropbox storage space and enabled two factor authentication. Although I'm too old to have questionable selfies stored on the net, I do want my small treasures kept private and safe for a very long time.
My Mac mini not only serves its purpose of being my central data hub, it is a fun accessory for my iPhone. It has a delightfully small footprint, is very quiet, and has all the ports I am ever likely to need. Now, when I copy my Dropbox folder to my revolving terabyte backup drives, I do not have to disconnect my Time Machine or any other peripherals. Along with my files, I am definitely feeling more secure.
I cannot say with absolute certainty that nothing will ever compromise the integrity of my small treasures. Protecting digital assets is an ongoing battle. However, I do believe that my current backup strategy does a very good job of securing my valuable files and gives me total freedom to enjoy a lifetime of memories through my iPhone. With the primary dataset on my new Mac mini, a synchronized copy in the cloud, along with the rotating collection of three backup drives, I am hopeful the data will last at least as long as I do. And, perhaps much longer.