Losing it–a non-chemical dependency

“My name is Steve Caplan and I have a problem…”

Isn’t that what they say at alcoholics anonymous? Well, that’s what I’m told they say–you’ll have to take my word for it.

Almost 3 weeks ago my office computer gurgled, made a weird grating noise and died. Or at least went into a coma. Since that day, my work-life has been a series of frustrations and I’ve been forced to close my office door to prevent some rather volatile cursing from escaping the confines of the office.

My computer is an Apple–and while, believe me, they are far less likely to crash and die than the rival computer types, they are far from immortal. Luckily I backed up nearly everything–emphasis on “nearly.” My Endnote library with approximately 5000 papers in it–gone with the wind. Cost for recovery by an external company–nearly $2500. “Forget it,” I said. “I’ll make a new library.” Papers worth their weight in gold…

I’m told that the information technology staff (very dedicated and skilled people, I might add)–who are entirely overwhelmed by their workload–was designed to mimic companies with a ratio of 1:250 people. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s probably close. The problem is that in a company, I would assume that there would generally be one computer per employee, and being a company, I would further assume that most of the computers and applications would be the same.

Not true for academia. First, for a lab of about 10 people, we have over 20 computers. I myself have a PC and 2 Mac laptops at home–actually a 3rd old Mac laptop (8 years old and still running, but not fast enough anymore). We have a computer per person in the labs, + computers hooked up to various pieces of equipment that include scanners, a Nanodrop spectrophotometer used mostly to measure protein and DNA concentrations, and a confocal microscope. Obviously, between Mac and PC, individual use and equipment use, we have a wealth of different applications. All necessitating an Information technology (IT) expert who can be available to troubleshoot when trouble (frequently) arises.

When my computer drive gave up its unix-like soul, I realized again how dependent I had become on these machines and the technology behind them. I reverted to a “nothing” lacking all power and feeling altogether paralyzed. Completely handicapped.

In the US, the issue of computers at academic institutions is a funny thing. Grant money given to the researchers (from NIH and most funding agencies) cannot be used to buy computers, computer equipment, IT services, etc. The reason? Each institution negotiates an “Indirect Cost” with the NIH–usually a very high percentage (45-70%) of the researchers’ grants–that goes to the institutions supposedly to support facilities and such. Including electricity, telephones, office supplies, and computers. But I am digressing into politics, and don’t want to. Not now.

All I do want to say is that I felt as though I was “losing it” these past few weeks, with grant deadlines, paper revisions with references that couldn’t be formatted, and all the frustrations of waiting in limbo for a solution. And I am not an especially patient person–at least for this kind of thing.

While I had nearly everything backed up, it turned out to be getting the new programs installed, talking to each other and running properly that was the biggest hurdle. But if I hadn’t had my things backed up, I would really have been up the creek without a paddle. Probably with several holes in the boat and no life jackets either.

So please remember to back up your data! As an IT guru said to me: “There are two types of computer users: those that have lost data, and those that will lose data.” Don’t let it happen to you!

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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24 Responses to Losing it–a non-chemical dependency

  1. Grant says:

    I wrote a few articles (not quite a series) aimed at academics backing up their data using Apple’s Time Machine over concern about how much they stood to lose if they didn’t do a proper backup. I’m lucky in a way that I lost a project as an undergraduate and have never quite forgotten typing the thing back in by hand in a huge all-day + all-night session to meet the deadline the next morning. (In those days the “last” backup of software were print-outs of the code…)

    • Steve Caplan says:


      I’m told that the time machine can really save time, as it backs up programs and intermediate versions all along the way. I need to update my tech skills and look at that.

      Thanks for the tip–I’ll look for your articles.


      • rpg says:

        Time Machine has pulled my arse out of the fire on a couple of occasions…

      • Grant says:

        One of the points of my articles are that Time Machine, while very easy to use, actually has limitations and is NOT a complete solution.

        You need proper storage of all versions of a file and off-site storage of the back-up. You make manually make Time Machine cover this, but it’s prone to error as you’re then using a DIY add-on.

        (Don’t get me wrong, TM is excellent and way, way better than nothing. Excellent to get consumers who might otherwise do nothing to save their stuff. But IMHO it’s not enough for really important data like a lifetime of research work.

        • Grant says:

          ‘You make manually make’ should read ‘You can manually make’ – did a word juggle and didn’t pick up the error – sorry.

        • rpg says:

          I don’t think I was advocating TM as serious backup. It’s awesome for accidentally deleting shit but for serious, wage-related stress, you need off-site dynamic angels.

          • Steve Caplan says:

            @grant and RPG

            In any event, turns out our IT service will not allow TM use (not allow is too strong, but definitely don’t recommend) because any computer-related storage has to be encrypted according to the new regulations. This in itself has been a major complicating factor, even for basic scientists such as myself who never see patients or even patient samples. Nonetheless, it’s a campus-wide rule and even portable drives (key-chain style “jump drives”) and eventually CDs and DVDs will need to be encrypted.

            So I guess TM is a moot point.

          • Grant says:

            rpg – precisely. (I was replying to Steve’s comment addressed to me actually, not you.)

            Steve – can’t see how they could stop you using TM, really, as it backs up to your own external drive not something on their systems. (Excuse putting this reply here, but there’s no ‘reply’ link after your comment.)

          • Grant says:

            Should have added – I understand the issue with patient data (I’m wary of that issue on contracts as I don’t want to expose myself to legal liabilities, etc.), but it’s a pity the political correctness / legal stuff are making things awkward.

  2. cromercrox says:

    Oh gosh Steve, how dreadful. Sympathetic manly hugs from across the pond. I spent much of yesterday upgrading to OS-X Lion, and my various iGadgets to iOS5 specifically so I can take advantage of iCloud. Long ago I repurposed an old offline HD to run Time Machine, and the last time I visited the Apple Store I bought 500Gb extra HD storage. And I have an account with Dropbox. Even this belt-and-braces approach might not be enough, I fear.

    Mrs Crox kept all her contacts in Outlook in her old job, but when she left her old job and her company let her keep the PC, her tech support ceased and the PC was soon overrun with viruses. I did what anyone would do in that situation – I took the PC, destroyed the HD, and we bought her a Mac. Several months down the line Mrs Crox has secured a freelance contract with her old firm, and needs her contacts book. Guess who’s name is mud? Fortunately a nice web guru at her old firm retrieved her old contacts book and sent it to her as a document…

    • Steve Caplan says:

      That’s the problem-even with perfectly backed up data, restoring settings, communications between the various programs–even getting the hookup with the printer–were enough to really make me wonder if I should look for another occupation. But what occupation is immune to these issues? And I’m useless at everything else (maybe this too…)

  3. rpg says:

    ‘whose’, Henry.

    (sorry, after your Facebook pedantry, I couldn’t help myself 🙂 )

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    Don’t know where the reply button disappeared to–you’ll have to ask RPG. As for encrypting, this country is enmeshed in a hysteria about protecting patient data, student data–you name it. You’re absolutely correct about the huge waste of money, time an manpower–not to mention the restrictions imposed on basic research all in the name of “caution.” But as is, I am not allowed to purchase an external drive on my own, so if it comes from the university, it would have to be encrypted–which I’m told is problematic for TM and other backup programs. I can (and do) manually move data very frequently to a (supposedly) secure server–but again, when my hardware crashes, I am left without e-mail contacts, painfully collected bookmarks and various other things that one can’t remember to back-up. Back to square one.

    • Grant says:

      Don’t know where the reply button disappeared to–you’ll have to ask RPG.

      Perhaps there is a depth setting for the nested comments on the forum (?) to prevent them from nesting into silliness (they turn into silly skinny things if nest too far…)

      re: the policy – sounds as if they’re swopping one evil for another: in encrypting the stuff, they’re making backups trickier, risking that instead – ?!

      For bookmarks, etc., if the whole system is backed-up they ought to get backed-up too. An issue when backing up support files containing bookmarks and the like is that they are often stored in special directories within the application software’s “support” directories, rather than in the directories holding user’s files.

      • Laurence Cox says:

        Basically, encryption gives you protection against casual eavesdropping: whether that is someone losing (or having stolen) USB sticks, CD/DVDs or laptops. Here in the UK there have been quite a few cases where unencrypted data has gone missing. Perhaps the worst was in 2007 when our HMRC (equivalent to your IRS) lost the details of 25 million child benefit claimants including names, addresses, National Insurance numbers (like your Social Security numbers) and bank account details on two CDs they sent to our National Audit Office. The head of HMRC resigned over this, so you can appreciate the seriousness.

        I am surprised that your University isn’t providing you with network storage for all your data. Computing power and data storage should really be treated as a utility like electricity and telephones.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          They are now providing storage space (at least for moderate users such as myself) on a protected server. The problem for me is not so much the data–as I am pretty disciplined in manually moving data to the server every week or so. The problem is primarily with the loss of time in getting all the problems up, running and talking to each other again. And this isn’t something that saving on the server really helps with–it takes IT manpower.

          • Laurence Cox says:

            I assume you meant “programs” and that “problems” was just a Freudian slip.

            The general rule in using servers is that you keep ALL your data on the server and only bring the data back to your PC to be operated on by programs. Treating a server as a backup device isn’t really making the best use of it.

            Am I right in assuming that you have many “home-brewed” programs that rely on finding the data in certain places? There are ways out of your problems, but if you have a number of different operating systems (Windows, MacOS and Unix at least to judge from your comments) the easiest way may be to make friends with someone in your University Computer Science Department. I suspect that they could make a good student project out of it.

          • Steve Caplan says:

            Yes–a Freudian slip! Although programs=problems in many cases.

            We don’t actually have a computer science department, as the medical school is a separate campus in Omaha, Nebraska. The main undergraduate campus is actually 50 miles away in Lincoln, Nebraska. The other issue is that the systems are set up so that really only authorized IT people can help–because they are the ones with administrative privileges and can install programs etc. Quite a complicated scenario.

  5. rpg says:


    There’s a nested depth setting. You can control it. Some of us turn nesting off altogether.

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