My work day had a bit of an unplanned interruption today. I shut down my computer to head from the home office to a nice quiet coffee shop for a change of scenery and a little time off the Internet to get some research done.

When I booted up in the coffee shop I noticed that all my personal settings were gone for some reason. All my data was there, but every single preference in every single application (including registration keys) were missing. I looked in my preferences folder in the Library (a Mac thing, way better than a registry) and everything seemed to be in place, but anytime I opened an app it would overwrite the old preferences with a new preference file.


Repairing disk permissions (a Mac thing, not so cool) and some other routine fixes didn’t work, so I scooted home to my backups. I copied over my 2-day-old preference files from a backup and that seemed to do the trick for most apps and my desktop/startup items. A few things are still hinky, but most of it’s normal. The one bad problem was my blog software (Ecto). Ecto seemed to lose all settings even after the fix, including all my drafts for future posts. Big bummer. A half hour later I was able to dig up some of the other settings files, replace those from 2 days ago, and everything seems fine.

Backups are good. Nightly backups are better, and I think I’ll be even more diligent from now on.

That said, this incident raised some questions in my mind.

Even assuming I had a complete backup from last night, or a current differential, I was still looking at an uncomfortable loss of data from just the morning. I’m realizing that on any average day I produce a fair volume of data throughout the day. From calendar entries to emails to blog posts. Losing that hourly data won’t kill me, but would still be seriously annoying. Also, it was a VERY manual process to restore my preferences.

I’d like to see more continuous backup software; and not just backups of documents/photos, but of settings and other system information, all with a granular restore. Time Machine in the next OS X looks like a good step in this direction, and I hope Apple includes settings in the backup schemes. I’ve played with a few Windows system restore settings, and while those do a good job of restoring your system you tend to lose a lot of the hourly data. That might be motivation to keep data on a separate partition from system software and settings to better enable granular restores.

All of which is a real pain for us laptop users. As it is I own AT LEAST one external hard drive for every PC/Mac, not counting my small NAS. That’s a lot of drives and a lot of manual backups, and I don’t backup on the road. Eventually I’d like to have all my home systems automagically backup on the network every night, but that has to wait I can move to gig Ethernet and get a bigger, faster NAS.

This is well beyond the average home user’s capabilities. As our entire lives and family histories move to fairly unreliable PCs (and Macs; they lose hard drives too) we could be destroying our social records. Despite constant warnings I still can’t get ANY of my family members to reliably backup their digital photos.

I look forward to the day where no PC or Mac ships without an extra drive just to backup data. To operating systems that scream and kick their feet until you agree to backup to magnetic or optical media. To the day where all of this is transparent to the average user.

Maybe System Restore and Time Machine will solve the problem. But I doubt it.

There has to be a better way to preserve our digital lives.

(sorry for the less-than-insightful rant, but I’ve been on a backup kick lately. We really don’t pay enough attention to backups in the consumer world- even us hard core geek consumers)