Magazine | July 21, 2014, Issue

Apocalypse-Proof E-Mail

Lucky Lois Lerner: I couldn’t lose old e-mails if I wanted to. Let me explain.

First: I hate e-mail. Loathe it. Oh, it was fun at first, back when AOL was training everyone for the day the Internet arrived. Now each day is a fire hose of e-mail, with the ones you want to read interspersed with notices to appear in Spanish court to face charges (viruses, every one of them, and besides, I was acquitted); spoofed messages from apple.com that actually redirect to a place where you can buy knock-off penis pills if only you hand over your credit-card information to people who lied to get your click; blast e-mails from political organizations from the left and right, each equally convinced that the flood of Huns pouring over the horizon can be stopped if only I contribute; an e-mail from Amazon asking if I wouldn’t mind answering a question about the belt I bought a few months back, which makes you wonder what sort of question someone might have, and how you could possibly help. Does it have holes? It has Holes.

It’s like having someone gong your doorbell every three minutes with a telegram.

At work I find I can reduce my inbox by searching the term “For Immediate Release” and sending it all to Trash. The only time “For Immediate Release” gets my attention is when we’re talking about Abu al-Murder getting out of Gitmo.

But I save them. I save them all.

Not because I want to; not because I wish to leave the future a record of the daily tsunami that hammers the levee of a modern man’s mind. It’s just the way I’ve set things up. I have a program that periodically downloads all the e-mail, which is then compressed into a wad of hurt and automatically archived on my computer.

Ah, but you say, your computer could crash, and the servers on which the e-mails reside could be struck by lightning, and their backups could be corrupted by a power surge, and an asteroid could strike the moon a glancing blow, sending chunks of rock streaking into the atmosphere — most would burn, but a few could get through and hit the archived servers at the precise point where e-mails of people under congressional investigation reside. It’s possible.

Yes, it is; the drives could also be ruined by a sudden plague that swept through a flock of pigs flying overhead, causing them to crash into the car of the one fellow who knew how to retrieve the data from a 1966 tape-based IBM mainframe that controlled the IRS e-mail backups. But: My nightly backup regimen sprays the archived e-mails on a local network-attached server, which in turn backs them up on a mirrored disk, just in case the main disk gets clicky and decides to die.

All well and good, you say, but if a fire took your house, then the data would be lost. True! That’s why it’s all backed up to the Cloud, because nothing says eternal security like a puffy thing that blows away.

Anyway. Years ago I put some crucial data on a Zip disk, which was capable of holding an unimaginable quantity of data. 100 MB. There are graybeard nerds in the audience who surely know: That’s an awful lot of ASCII Cindy Crawford pictures. One day the disk began to clack upon insertion. You went on this new thing, the Internet, and typed words into Yahoo! or Alta Vista, and learned that the Click of Death — oh no, there’s a term for it — meant the disk was probably useless. Ever since then I have regarded all storage media as a gouty old rich man regards his chorus-line paramour: You have to assume eventual faithlessness.

So the local backups and the cloud backups aren’t enough. Once a month I clone everything on a hard drive I keep in a locked drawer offsite. Now: If someone walks past the location testing out a Pentagon super-magnet capable of picking up tanks from a distance of two miles and flipping them over like hapless turtles, the drives will suffer.

So I burn critical data to CDs. Of course, CDs degrade at the same speed as the morals of a European vacationing at Ibiza — and in both cases it happens sooner if you leave them in the sun — so the CDs must be duplicated every so often. When I do this, it’s a reminder I should also visit the safe-deposit vault where I have a small hard drive containing the mission-critical data, because the interface has changed from SCSI to SATA. Also, kill me now.

I don’t do all of the above to save e-mail; it’s part of an automated, pathetically anal-retentive regime to protect family photos, movies, and everything I’ve written. (I also print everything off, in case of EMP, and store the copies in a box with candles and matches, so they can be read at night if electrical civilization takes it on the chin.) I do it because the pictures and movies and words mean something to our family. The e-mails get dragged along for the ride. They matter only because I back up everything.

I believe the IRS did what I do, and more, because they’re the government, and the idea that a massive institution is more lackadaisical than a guy who wants to save his daughter’s birthday pictures — well, it’s preposterous. So there had to be some catastrophic failure.

I should note that somehow the unflattering photos got trashed and purged from all backups. Oops! Now how did I do that.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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