Month: July 2006

Heaven, Hell, or Houston

Gwen and I took off for Houston this past weekend to catch the Body Worlds exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Pretty mind-blowing stuff. I’d taken an anatomy class and dissected critters, but there’s something different about seeing actual cadavers, opened up and perfectly preserved, being able to walk around them, seeing how everything fits together, seeing healthy organs next to diseased ones. That sort of thing. Makes me want to take better care of myself. The exhibit is ending there soon, so make plans now if you have any interest.

We spent the night at the Hotel Derek (which apparently people who go to Houston know as a trendy type of place), and I goggled at the $5 water at the minibar. Makes me wonder about the economics of these hidden costs. The hotel only permitted parking via valet service; this was the first time I’d ever used valet parking, which has always rubbed me the wrong way. The current popularity of it mystifies me; its presence at suburban locations with empty parking slots 20 paces away from the front door astounds me.

At a friend’s suggestion, we had dinner at a sushi joint called ら, which was fine if you like dance clubs. The sushi was tolerable, the wait was long, the decor was chic, and the music was much too loud to permit conversation. Just to be unHoustonian, we walked there from our hotel, about 10 blocks down Westheimer.

Saturday we went to the Menil, which was also very worthwhile. They had an exhibit of surrealist art (nothing by Dali, but plenty by Yves Tanguy, who I discovered is very, very similar). For whatever reason, the surrealist exhibit was very dimly lit; I was reminded of a Dali at the Art Institute of Chicago, “The Invention of the Monsters,” which had faded so that one of the figures originally on it was completely lost, and I wondered if perhaps surrealists were notorious for painting with shitty paints that faded easily, which would explain the dim lighting. It occurred to me this would be an interesting technique to use intentionally, so that the original image changed over the decades to reveal something completely different. Perhaps something on the theme of Ars longa, vita brevis.

Driving out of town, we got a little bit lost, but happened upon the Art Car Museum. Sadly, we were running short on time at that point, so we decided to save it for a future visit.

As as Austinite, I ridicule Houston almost as readily as I reminisce about Austin-that-was. That’s not entirely fair: there’s a lot of cool stuff in Houston, and despite the atrociousness of its sprawl, the center of town is much more of a real city than Austin is. Still, it falls in the “nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there” category for me.

Zooomr

andrea poi 05

I’ve been using Flickr to host my photos for some time, and I’ve been happy with it. And it’s one of those rare websites that seems to have established itself almost as a public utility among many people active on the web, so it seems it would be hard to dislodge. But then there are these new kids at Zooomr. Jeremy is intrigued, and as he puts it, “I’m just not sure I’m willing to give even $25 to anyone [Flickr] whose parent company might take a cavalier attitude towards helping people into prison in China.” And, shoot, Zooomr is giving away free accounts to bloggers, so what the heck.

This is an oldie but a goodie, a picture of a friend I don’t get to see often enough, on the occasion of her first burn. The smile says it all.

Mobile backup

A friend taking an extended road trip just had her car stolen, with her laptop and everything else in it. That sucks massively. It got me thinking about the problem of maintaining backups and having access to them in a situation like that.

My home computer is a desktop. Currently I have it hooked to an external drive, and backup software runs in the wee hours every night to copy my home directory to the external. At some point in the near future, I hope to get a network-attached storage drive, so that I can A) liberate a little desk space, and B) move the backup away from the computer, in case something happens the computer. Admittedly, I’d only be moving the backup about 15 feet away, but a black box wedged into a cramped closet is much less likely to attract a thief’s attention, and if the roof collapses or something like that, fifteen feet might be enough. That’s what I’m counting on, anyhow.

But what about when you’re on the road? You need a backup medium that you keep separate from the laptop but still have ready access to, that is reasonably fast, and perhaps most importantly, is convenient to use. What are your options?

Before you can decide, you need to get your priorities in order. Some files are more critical than others; some change more frequently than others. Assuming that you will need to make compromises, you want to make sure the most current and most critical files are the most readily available and most frequently backed up.

Exclusive of media files, my home directory is about 5 GB. I’m guessing that about 1.5 GB of that is actually cache files and other digital ephemera, so to recreate my home directory, I’d need to be able to store about 3.5 GB. This would exclude all applications, music, videos, and photos. In reality, I could probably cut this in half by omitting a lot of archival files, though to do that I would need to reorganize my hard drive considerably. I’m lazy, so let’s stick with 3.5 GB as a target.

So, what are my options?

iPod
It just so happens that I have a 4 GB iPod Nano (rumor has it that these will be bumped to 8 GB soon). This would just accommodate me, plus a few hours of music or whatever. A hard-drive based iPod would have no trouble at all; in fact, I could store my home directory even with most of my media files on a 60 GB model. The potential problems here are that I would need to be scrupulous about keeping my laptop and iPod separate, and the temptation to keep music on the iPod, even if it cut into my storage requirement.
Network
My web-hosting company gives all its customers 20 GB of storage and webdav access. Webdav is pretty cool, because it lets me mount my network storage just like a hard drive on my desktop. A really, really slow hard drive, but there it is nonetheless. If high-speed connections could be taken for granted, this would be the ideal option—putting my storage in a remote datacenter that has its own redundant backups etc. But high-speed connections are hardly universal, and even when present, the upstream rate can be pretty slow. Backup software generally only backs up files that have changed since the last backup, but even with only 10 MB to back up, over a 128-Kbps upstream line, that will take at least 10 minutes (allowing nothing for communications overhead). In terms of convenience, this can’t be beat, assuming the connection is there. Make sure the remote volume is mounted and let the backup run. This is the only option that can be run unattended and still keep the backup volume physically separate. Having it on the server means I don’t need to even use my own computer to get at it; better still would be to have it in some web-readable format so that I could read it from any computer with a web browser. Thanks to Google, a lot of people are moving in this direction anyhow. I’m not entirely comfortable with that, and I get benefits from programs that run right on my computer that I’d be unwilling to give up, but perhaps if I had a more mobile lifestyle, I’d make a different tradeoff. And I do essentially do this already with my photos, by uploading them to Flickr.
Optical storage
Most newer laptops can burn to CDs at least, and in many cases to DVD. A single-side, single-layer DVD can store 4.7 GB, so I’m in the clear there. The drawback here is convenience: you need to go to more trouble to insert the disc, set up the burn session, burn the disc, label it, put it away somewhere, hope that it doesn’t get scratched before you need it, etc.
Flash drive
While this is technologically equivalent to the iPod Nano (and comes in the same storage sizes), I see a few key differences: there’s no particular temptation to use the flash drive for music, and you can hook it to your keyring. For this reason, I like this solution best for the most critical and current data: if the drive is on your keyring, you’re less likely to leave it connected to the computer. Well, I’m less likely, anyhow. This does require me to launch the backup manually, though.

I can imagine a multi-layered approach where I use a thumb drive as my primary backup for working files, bring a DVD that I burned in advance with some critical applications, occasionally burn a CD or DVD with photos (possibly snail-mailing it home), and occasionally upload my very highest-priority stuff to the server when I can take advantage of a fast connection.