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It’s well known that you should back up your data. If your hard disk crashes, it can be a major problem to recover your information. On my Mac I use Time Machine with an external hard disk. This is better than nothing and very useful, but is still a problem if something happens to my home office, e.g., a fire. So additionally I use Jungle Disk to back up my key data nightly to the Amazon storage cloud. It’s cheap and gives me some peace of mind. I could keep going with this, and use additional remote storage schemes, but you need to stop somewhere. Another advantage of the Jungle Disk solution is that I have access to the backups of my home files wherever I am in the world.

In addition to data, I routinely have backups for the applications I use. Not the same application, but other software that more or less does the same thing. For example, on my home machine I can use Lotus Symphony,, Apple iWork, or Google Documents to create and edit documents. I don’t have, nor need, Microsoft Office for the Mac. Until recently I had NeoOffice but the current quality of Symphony and made it unnecessary.

If something goes wrong with one of these applications, I can switch to another. If one does something better than the others, I can use that. It only works if I can interchange data and, without getting into the whole story, is why I’m so bullish on standards like ODF.

Things can go wrong with software when something changes in its environment (e.g., an operating system update); when it itself is changed, updated, or corrupted; or when something it uses gets updated or breaks (e.g., an extension or plugin). This happened to me last week with the FireFox browser.

I use several extensions with FireFox, although some are still installed though they get little action. Last week I restarted the browser and accepted the proposed updates to several extensions, as usual. They were installed and I didn’t think much of it. Later that day I discovered that GMail wasn’t working, and it was complaining of a loop in the URL address redirection. I was having this problem on my desktop machine but not my laptop.

I Twittered about the problem and I got one response that someone else was seeing the same problem, but others were not. I was very busy that day and so didn’t have a lot of time to debug the problem. I just switched to the Apple Safari browser and got on with my life. I use Opera as an alternate browser in this way as well.

Had I set out to debug it it, I would have asked myself several questions:

  • What changed on my machine recently, especially anything concerning FireFox or GMail?
  • What did I have on the machine that worked vs. the machine that didn’t?
  • Has anyone else reported the problem and found the solution?

Because I was in a hurry (and not too proud), I began with the last item. I did a web search and discovered that last week’s update to the GMail Manager extension for FireFox was the problem. I uninstalled it and, voila!, the problem went away. I didn’t use that extension any more and, in fact, for that reason I didn’t have it on my laptop. Even if it gets fixed, I’m not going to bother reinstalling it.

So make sure you have backups for your data but also make sure you have alternative ways of working should your usual applications decide to stop cooperating.


  1. That’s OK for us scientists, but you cannot really say that to the New York Stock Exchange, or the Internal Revenue Service, or American Express, or all the hotels on the Strip in Las Vegas.

    Actually, probably you can say it to them, and it’s important. But they usually want to lay off the ‘risks’ to specialists in those fields, they just want to get on with their businesses.

    It feels like a hierarchy, with “Government and Big Business” at one end, and “Home Users, Hobbyists, and Schoolchildren” at the other.

    So what are we supposed to do ? Take the USS Enterprise on a 5-year mission to boldly go where no man has gone before, or take your kid on an outing on the “Information Super-Bicycle-Track” that we call the Internet ? Star-cruisers have this habit of colliding with Radio Flyer pull-alongs. Should we just say that we all have to share the ‘roadways’ in the modern world, and handle the occasional wreck that happens along the way ?

  2. Good article. I use Jungle Disk for both my Windows and Linux laptops. I’ve got my daughter using it for her MacBook too. I’ve been using Google Reader for my RSS feeds since August of last year after I lost all of my bookmarks for the umpteenth time. I have not had the exact same issue as you with Firefox, but I’ve had other buggy Firefox issues. I continue to prefer it. I only use Microsoft Office 2003 when I have to and until recently used for much of my word processing, presentations and infrequent spreadsheets. That’s changed over the last six months or so as I’ve found myself using Google Docs more and more. I recently wrote about this change on my site. I feel a bit more secure as my important documents are in either Amazon’s cloud or Google’s. Still there some things like Drupal modules and themes that still lie around my desktop and I know I should be spending time backing them up too. Thanks for making me think a bit more about what I’m doing.

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