If you're reading this on your own computer, chances are you've had a computer crash in which you lost data you cared about. Just be glad you don't have a horror story like the one that Duncan Mowatt and Krystal Wellman share.
Mowatt and Wellman have an apartment in Seattle. He's a graphic designer, she's studying interior design. It's just Duncan, Krystal, and -- here's the problem -- a few million ants.
"Where we live, there's a constant ant problem," he said. "They're pretty much unkillable."
One day, while he was out, she saw a little procession of them, climbing to the top of a bookshelf and disappearing. She decided to investigate.
What was on top? Duncan's wireless router, which allowed them to go online from anywhere in the apartment. Next to it -- it seemed like a good idea at the time -- was his backup hard drive, on which he had saved years' worth of freelance design work.
Krystal picked up the box -- and found the ants had set up their colony inside. They spilled out, all over her, ants and their eggs, and -- well, we will spare you the details.
Trying to get free of the ants, he says, she threw the drive away from her. By sheer bad luck, it crashed into his laptop, which was sitting on a shelf, plugged into its charger. In one rotten moment, he lost the backup drive -- and the original.
"I probably lost a year's worth of my portfolio," Mowatt said. "I lost tons of music, including some that I'd composed." He had to call old clients to reconstruct a sampling of what he had lost.
This story is obviously extreme, both in the amount of data lost and the gross-out factor. But it tells us a bit about life in the digital age.
In generations past, if your house flooded while you were away, what did you try to salvage first? Family photos, letters from loved ones, jewelry, heirlooms -- the things that made your family unique.
Today -- to a surprising extent -- many of the things we value are stored on computer hard drives. The jewelry may still be in a strongbox or in a drawer, but you'll look for your laptop as well. If you have a digital camera and you're like most of us, you only print a small fraction of your favorite pictures. Your computer's hard drive has a lot of stuff on it.
Keep Backups in a Safe Place
Data backup services have proliferated online. They charge monthly subscription fees or have upfront costs, but they are convenient.
Alternatively, you can copy your data onto a backup drive, discs or a flash drive, but it's important to be consistent, and it's also a good idea to keep the backups in a safe place, separate from your computer.
Frank Reilly was working as a computer consultant for a recycling company and, on the second day there, he tripped over the machine that stored most of the firm's accounting data.
"Next thing I knew sparks were flying out of the box's power supply and people were screaming about lost work," he said.
He asked the office manager how they backed up their data, and says he got a blank stare.
Unlike most of us, he knew how to get data out of a damaged machine, he says, but it took him all night.
By the way, Duncan and Krystal, whose story we told at the beginning of this piece, are still very much together -- but they've had other computer woes. Duncan says Krystal's laptop was stolen two weeks before she was supposed to get her degree, and in it was most of her school work.
"She was supposed to graduate in June," he said. "Now, she'll graduate in September."