Sunday, 3 April 2011

What would you rescue first in a fire?

Put yourself in this position: you come back after a weekend away. Your housemate meets you at the door with some bad news – the house has been burgled. Your computer’s gone. What’s the firs thing that comes to mind?

Yup – your thesis. My desktop had gone, and the extremely ancient laptop, and the only thing I could think of was, where’s my portable hard drive? Gone too, as it turned out. Three copies of your thesis? Not enough, if they’re all in the same house. I was standing looking at my desk, not allowed to touch the mess, hoping desperately the hard drive was under an unlikely bit of paper. It wasn’t.

A year ago, I heard of a friend of a friend who had obsessively backed up her work on four different computers in her department building, spread across different offices in case of theft or computer virus. The building burnt down and she lost everything.

Every research student I knew reacted in the same way to my news – sympathy, and then as one friend put it ‘pseudo testicular-retraction’ as they all backed up their theses onto multiple disks and pen drives, then went to bed with their USB pens under their pillows. Five separate people asked me if I’d heard of Dropbox, a free internet based storage system ( Two pointed out there was a university back up service provided (yes, there is, and I recommend looking into yours, because most universities have them, but I hadn’t been able to install the virtual network onto my PCs, so I couldn’t use it). My supervisor turned pale, and asked what I’d lost.

In some ways I’d been very lucky in the break-in. Only electrical goods had been taken. Nothing irreplaceable, nothing of sentimental value. Only my thesis.

Of course, I’d paid careful attention when I’d heard that story of the girl who lost her thesis in the fire. It’s when I first became obsessive about emailing all my documents to myself. In my uni email account are any number of folders marked ‘data recordings’ ‘transcriptions’ and, most thankfully, ‘chapters’. As it worked out I hadn’t even lost the odds and ends of half written beginnings of things, because I tend to forget my USB drive, and therefore email things between the department and home. It took me a while to sort through the entire sent folder (my habit of never deleting anything has also been vindicated, it turns out), but I got there. So when you find yourself in my shoes, or the shoes of the girl whose department burnt down, what will you be feeling? Despair? Or suitably smug?