August 21, 2006

Trust no one.

Posted in Work at 11:21 pm by India

On Thursday afternoon, the day Mr. Mac Tech was supposed to come upgrade my computer, I made some backups. I felt kind of silly doing it, but I justified my paranoia by telling myself I’d need copies of some of my files for Friday, when I’d be working on someone else’s computer. And you never know which book someone will ask you an urgent question about, so I sorted my job folders by date and backed up all the ones that had been modified since the day I started. I also backed up my Firefox settings, address book, Entourage database, and a bunch of other miscellaneous crap. Three full CDs. And then I printed out a file listing for each and stuck them in my desk drawer. To the desktop I downloaded the installers for Quicksilver, TextWrangler, and Print Window.

You can see where this is going, I’ll bet.

Five o’clock on Thursday afternoon came and went, but Mr. Tech didn’t show up. My teammate said maybe he was watching to see when I logged off the network, so that he wouldn’t interrupt my work. I thought that was unlikely but shut down the computer and lingered some more, checking proofs. Around 6:30, I finally bailed, leaving a note asking him to install those three applications that were on my desktop if he did the upgrade before the next morning.

At 8:45 a.m. on Friday, my computer was still untouched. I checked e-mail and puttered. Around nine, the tech called and said he was sorry he hadn’t come; he’d been out sick. Did I want to reschedule, or was now a good time? I told him to come on up, and then I shut my computer off again and started gathering things to take into my colleague’s office. I thought Mr. Tech would be working on the computer in situ, and while I didn’t want to seem like I was trying to keep an eye on him, I did plan to pop in from time to time to, y’know, build our relationship. So I was disappointed when he came up with a wheeled cart; it hadn’t occurred to me that this would be an inpatient procedure. Oh, well. As he wheeled my G5 away on the gurney, he asked, “Oh, do you have any browser bookmarks or anything like that?”

“Yes, but I backed them up to CDs.”

“Oh. Great!”

Then I decamped completely, taping a sign to my office door to say where I’d gone. It was a quiet day; only one person came back to the isolated cubicle where I was sitting. My colleague’s computer was even more temperamental than my own, and I pretty much gave up on checking my webmail, after restarting the browser for the eighth time. I did manage to crank out most of a design, and I checked one set of proofs, but otherwise I felt stalled.

This morning, I came in to find my desk still empty, as I’d expected. My teammate arrives about a half-hour later than I do, so I hastily checked my e-mail on her computer and then retreated to my own useless desk. When she came in, I asked if she had any proofs I could check, and she gave me a big, fat thriller about Navy SEALS and Osama Bin Laden. My favorite! While I was getting my desk in order to work on that, two heads popped into my doorway—first, that belonging to my boss, immediately followed by that of the Geek of Geeks. They stepped in.

At this point, I would like to present a musical interlude:

So, of course, seeing these guys’ faces, and having watched the video above, the first words out of my mouth were, “Did it die on the operating table?”

“Not exactly,” GoG began, but then he went on to explain that, well, yes, pretty much, exactly. Mr. Tech had accidentally erased the hard drive. Everything was gone. (“Everything” being all the job files from my predecessors—approximately half of the books in our catalogue—going back several years.) GoG was going to see what remaining sparks of data he could scrape off the platter, and what he could restore from backup, but, well, the backups hadn’t been happening as regularly as they were supposed to, and . . . and . . .

When I told them that I had backups of all my active jobs and some other recent work, their faces lit up. “Bless you!” I think my boss said. “Trust no one,” I replied. GoG said I would have a working computer by 1 p.m., and that they would do everything they could to get my data restored ASAP. He may have mistaken the devious gleam in my eye for anger, as he went on to say that he was appalled that this had happened, and that they took this sort of thing very seriously. Mr. Tech had been “terminated,” in fact, this apparently having been merely the most spectacular in a string of offenses. I felt bad about that, but meanwhile I couldn’t help thinking of the leverage this would give me in my modest—really! so modest!—requests for customization and upgrades in the future. GoG encouraged this hope by saying that I should not hesitate to ask if there was anything he could do to make it up to me. “I’ll make a list,” I said, not attempting to hide my glee. Then he leaned around to inspect my monitor and said, “At the very least, we can get you a new keyboard.”

“I’d rather have a two-button mouse,” I quickly said. He asked if I’d like to try a Mighty Mouse. When I expressed skepticism, he said he’d bring one up, and if I didn’t like it, I should let him know exactly what I wanted, and he would order it for me. So then I said, “Well, really what I’d like are some utilities I’m used to having—software—but I’m sure you have rules about what you can and can’t install.” He said they could probably get it, even if they had to buy a couple of licenses. “Most of what I want is free,” I said. He told me to e-mail him a list . . . as soon as I had access to my e-mail again, he added with a visible pang.

Once GoG had returned to the operating room, I resumed my proof-checking. Tedious; the same careless PE over and over. My boss kept looking in to see if I had a computer yet. One o’clock passed. Two o’clock. Around 3:30, having nothing else serious to do, I went down to the Shake Shack for a frozen custard. (Waited maybe fifteen minutes, because the “express” line cashier kept pulling people from the burger line, even though there was hardly any burger line at all. Harrumph.) Today’s flavor was blueberry crumble. Not as good as the fig, which is Thursday’s flavor, but pleasant. I ate in the park, and when I went back up to my office—Lo! There it was! A computer, with my e-mail inbox open on the screen. Also, a shiny new keyboard and the promised Mighty Mouse.

Of course, the computer was returned to me with no soul. A blank. A vegetable. I copied back the files from my three precious backup CDs, thereby restoring my Firefox bookmarks and e-mail archives. Then I went through each of the preference panes to adjust what settings I can adjust without an admin password. Tomorrow I’ll e-mail GoG my modest list of software requests, and we’ll see how long my credit with the IT crowd lasts.

So. LET THIS BE A LESSON TO YOU, my friends: Back up!


  1. Elisabeth said,

    I learned the “Back up”-lesson the hard way. One week before my holiday was supposed to start I managed to erase all my current work from my hard drive. (Without any help from the IT-dept.) And OF COURSE without any backup. With heaps of books almost finished that I had to redo from scratch …

    I’m still suffering from my loss, but boy do I back up my work these days … ;-)

  2. India Amos said,

    Oooh, dreadful. I can’t say that I’ve learned the lesson myself—do as I say, not as I do—but I did have a bad scare at the beginning of this year when the hard drive on my relatively new PowerBook failed. I had backed up a lot of stuff about six months before, when I installed Tiger, but nothing since. Using Data Rescue I was able to save my more recent files, but it was touch-and-go for a while. Fortunately, I don’t do very much freelance work, so all I would have lost was all my photos, my diary, a million e-mails, my entire iTunes library, . . . you know, everything. I still don’t have a reasonable backup system at home; I just throw important files into GMail or onto CDs from time to time and hope for the best.

  3. Elisabeth said,

    I used FileSalvage and was able to rescue some files, but of course not the ones I was really hoping for. That would have been more luck than I deserved, I guess … The hardest part was accepting my loss, and start doing the jobs over again. In addition to making my holiday one week shorter of course. That hurt the most!

    I don’t even want to think about losing all my images and emails and music … Horror!

  4. India Amos said,

    The other big backup inspiration is file corruption. I can’t tell you how much work I’ve lost to Quark’s suddenly refusing to open a file that it saved quite happily an hour before. For that reason, whenever I get a new installation of Quark—as I just did—one of the things I do as I go through the settings is to ask it to make auto-backups. I have it keep the last three versions, in a separate folder, and every few months I go through the folder and delete all the backups from completed jobs. Those dupes have saved my ass many times. It’s not half as good as InDesign’s crash protection, but it’s far, far better than nothing.

    And I’ve never met anyone else who uses that feature.

    Seasoned designers tend to look at me blankly, in fact, when I say anything about default settings, preferences, or—god forbid!—H&Js. Does anyone else actually look at all those options? Do you change the preferences in any of your applications? Because the defaults, in many cases—especially in MS Word—are moronic.

  5. Elisabeth said,

    I change preferences all the time … Default settings is not doing it for me! ;-)
    I haven’t used the auto-backups in Quark however, mostly because I tend to work with quite heavy documents and my poor old G5 is running out of space. And once I fill more than 2/3 of the hard drive it really starts giving me a hard time.

    But I usually have at least a couple of versions of the document lying around. After all workin with Quark has made me a bit cautious.

    BTW I have had a great time reading through your archives! It seems we do a lot of the same work, and that you too know your way around your harddrive. Most designers I work with is terrified of messing with their computer. Or maybe they just don’t find it as much fun as I do … Hehe.

  6. Judith Astroff said,

    Backing up, as you have noted, is only half the fun. I work in a very large company (not editorial) and most of our package software is held on a LAN with scheduled backups. Last summer, the LAN crashed and the tech group needed to restore files for a design package everyone was required to use. So of course, the responsible parties discovered that while they had faithfully backed up the data every night, when they tried restoring the data, it didn’t work.

    Was this a surprise? Well, yes, as they’d never tested the process! I don’t know that any heads actually rolled, but some must have gotten kicked a bit on that one.

    By the way, although I’m not in an editorial position of any kind and don’t use the packages you discuss, I love reading this blog. My appreciation of book design decisions has sharpened considerably. Thanks for all the insights. And welcome to my corporate world.

  7. India Amos said,

    Yeah, my documents tend to be “light” these days—not a lot of graphics—and at my last job, we stored most of our hugeous art files, as well as all our completed jobs, on external FireWire drives . . . which were themselves not backed up, giving our days an exciting edge of adventure. Woo! But having most of my active files on an external drive did leave my local hard disk free for my own backups.

    In theory, we were supposed to work on a local copy and back up to the external drive when each pass was done. In practice, however, we often worked directly on the supposed backups. Since several people might make corrections to a given book over its lifetime—or even in a single day, if it was a rush—it sometimes happened that we made changes to the wrong version, or that an earlier file would be copied over a later one. We tried to prevent this through our file-naming scheme (e.g., “FabulousTitle(1),” “FabulousTitle(2),” “FabulousTitle(fin),” “FabulousTitle(fin2)” [for correx to blues], and “FabulousTitle(ptg5)” [for reprints]), but mostly we relied on the obsessive checking of timestamps. Any request for a reprint file always referred to the date and time shown at the top of the last known printout.

    Version control is a bitch.

    I’m sure I would enjoy your site, too, if only I could read Norwegian! I did check out a lot of your links, though. It’s been particularly thrilling to see this site written up in other languages—Dutch! Catalan!

  8. India Amos said,

    Whoops—you jumped me in the comment queue while I was trying to find that Catalan design blog, Judith.

    Does anybody have a backup system they like? I mean, aside from Carbon Copy Cloner?

  9. Derek said,

    I’ve heard raves and more raves about SuperDuper! – haven’t tried it myself, though, as I’m sticking with my high-tech method of periodically dragging my Documents folder from one hard drive to the other. (By ‘periodically’ I mean ‘whenever I’m reminded because of a scare’.)

  10. Elisabeth said,

    Hehe. Writing in Norwegian obviously make my blog unreadable for most people – apart from Norwegians that is. But almost all links leads to sites written in english. ;-)

  11. India Amos said,

    Yes, I’d noticed. But all the same, it’s not fair, as you know all about what I do, but I can’t decipher a thing about what you do. Tell, tell!

  12. Elisabeth said,

    That is true. ;-) Let’s see … I’m a graphic designer working in one of the big publishing houses in Norway. I’m responsible for the childrens/youth books, both insides and cover. This is of course too much work for one person, so I use a lot of freelance designers and illustrators.

    The work is fun, but there is a lot of it … In Norway we have quite a short production time for each book. Right now for instance I’m working on books that will be in the stores next month. My publishing house has a lot of really nice picture-books, and I feel fortunate that I get to work with so many talented illustrators. (If you don’t mind reading a bit of norwegian, I can send you a copy of one of them.)

    Before I started working here I used to be an illustrator and worked freelance. And I also worked as a web designer for a really short period of time. But I missed books and paper. Not to mention the fact that once a book is printed, it is a real thing that no one can change over the week-end because they had some extra time, and thought they had a good idea … Hehe.

    So, now you know a little bit more about what I do. ;-)

  13. India Amos said,


    You are probably aware that the traditional turnaround time here, from receipt of manuscript to bound book, is something close to a year. That’s been getting shorter (much shorter, at some houses), and there have always been rush books, but the only time I’ve ever heard of a U.S. publisher crashing a book through in anything close to a month is when it’s a disaster or scandal tie-in. Like, there may have been some books about 9/11 that were in stores by October 11. But the expense to produce such a book is prodigious—rush charges all around—so it must be something that’s definitely going to sell in the millions. Come to think of it, the report of the 9/11 Commission was such a book; W. W. Norton got to publish it only on the condition that they had it in stores within some impossibly short amount of time.

    Right now we’re doing a couple of rush books, but I believe they’re due in stores no earlier than November, and the manuscripts started coming in several weeks ago (most were copyedited piecemeal). They’re probably much longer than yours, but none of them are illustrated.

  14. Elisabeth said,

    One month is insane, I know. And we do try to have more time, but autumn is always crazy, because most of our authors and editors want the book to be in the stores around september/october. And if an illustrator gets the manuscript late, the illustrations are finished late, and since the printers have only so much time, we are the ones that try to make up for all the time that other people loose on the way. :-p

    But of course the book is in work a lot longer than one month. We have a “rule” that says that from a manuscript + illustrations are handed over to our production dept. the finished book will be in stores 8 weeks later. Printed, bound and hopefully with all the text in the right place. ;-)

  15. India Amos said,

    Eight weeks is still mad tight. Do the jackets/covers, at least, go into production earlier?

    And here’s some information about the publication of the 9/11 Commission report. I wonder if Norton ever recouped its costs.

    On the topic of schedules, for three years I’ve been recovering from the sickening nightmares caused by the following anecdote, from Teresa at Making Light:

    I’ll admit, there’s been one feature of the Harry Potter phenomenon I’d just as soon have skipped. Title before last, Scholastic badly underestimated how many copies they were going to need, and had to scramble like crazy to get more made up in order to cover their orders.

    The printing and binding plants always have some excess capacity to sell to publishing houses that are running late, or for some other reason have gotten themselves stuck behind the eight ball. Printing operations don’t do this out of kindness. Rush rates start at 200% and go up from there.

    But when Scholastic underprinted the Harry Potter before last, the effect was unprecedented. Tor’s head of production sent a memo around saying that for the next six weeks, nothing could be late: Scholastic had sopped up every last bit of excess capacity in the industry. As far as I know, that’s never happened before. Naturally, it happened when I was diving toward the finish line on the worst-jinxed book of my career.

    Nothing could be late? At the time I was working at a company where everything was late. For seemingly every author event, books had to be drop-shipped from the printer. We must have paid rush rates on half our jobs—but at least we got our books. (Not surprisingly, it was not a place that ever tried to track profit/loss on individual titles.) I can’t imagine what that publisher did at the time Teresa’s talking about; probably their whole season got bumped [shudder].

  16. Elisabeth said,

    Some do, some don’t. Often marketing need the cover quite early, so those covers are started early, but then again, before the insides is finished there is no way of knowing how thick the spine will be, so the last corrections are always last minute.

    I don’t know how many books you do each year?

    I usually work with around 80 new (norwegian) titles in addition to paperbacks, special editions and co-productions. Everything from board books to novels, both fiction and non-fiction. Hm … I’m starting to understand why it never feels as though I can spend enough time on each project.

    We have had the “Harry Potter” thing happening here aswell. But right now we have a worse problem. There is only one binder left in Norway, and all printers are depending on them. At the same time there is a big reform(?) in all school books this year, so most of their capacity is prebooked. We do also use a few printers in other countries, but then we have to add time for shipping and customs and all that.

    On the bright side, there is no such thing as rush rates here, since everything is rushed.

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