Friday, November 05, 2010

Alas! My Chapter Was Eaten By Binary iPad Demons

(What follows is a very self-indulgent blog post filled with a geeky stream of iPad and Mac app names. I felt like writing it. I have no other explanation.)

My children laugh at my paranoia, but I am always worried about data loss. Losing gigabytes of family movies in a hard drive failure can do that to a person. Or misplacing ballots… I usually take severe precautions to keep my data intact, but it seems I am always a victim of the random data glitch. That's what happened to me the other day. Poof. Chapter Six disappeared after it was shaping up so nicely.

When I switched over to writing my novel on the iPad (because my daughter rudely stole my sexy, matte-black MacBook), I found myself adrift in a sea of useless note taking apps and Apple's word processor, Pages. On the Mac I used CopyWrite to write my novel, DEVONthink to gather all my notes and data, and then saved all the data onto an encrypted disk image that I regularly backed up onto a USB drive I carried around with me. I even wrote an Applescript that would automagically recognize the USB drive when it was inserted, then update the disk image copy and auto-unmount the drive. It also whistled Dixie and polished my shoes. I had a sweet setup. Even when I discovered Scrivener and started altering my workflow, everything fit seamlessly into my backup system.

Then I bought the iPad. Unlike the Mac, or Linux or Windows for that matter, the iPad had a closed ecosystem. I could only run apps available in the appstore. Jailbreaking the iPad wasn't an option for me. I was determined to make my new writing system work, however. WriteRoom, the unfancy text editor for the Mac, had an iPhone version. This could sync to my Mac mini (which could become my new writing station), but it looked horrible on the iPad. I stuck with Apple's Pages and ended up emailing myself any documents I wrote (or copying and pasting with Pastebot). Then MyWritingNook came out for the iPad and I was a happyish camper. All documents synced to a Google server and I could access them from a web browser on my Mac.

Over the past six months, more and more writing apps have been released for the iPad and now I have my pick of many excellent choices, but they all seem to have one major problem: they live in the cloud. For you non-geeks out there, cloud services are basically web sites that offer to hold your data for you. You access your data with a client. This allows you access from any computer or mobile device that can run their client. Dropbox is a popular cloud storage service, for example.

The problem with cloud clients, however, is that sometimes they get out of sync with the mothership if they use local copies to work from. When this happens, it usually means you have updated a document in two different places. MyWritingNook used to make me jump through hoops to sync the most recent version to all the other clients. It usually meant I had to compare each version manually, pick the best one, do a rain dance, then delete the wrong one from the other clients one at a time. Then I could force the clients to sync to get the official version.

Only geeks would bother with this. Regrettably, I am a geek. Instead of chucking the iPad for a pen & paper notebook, I did the dance.

Then MyWritingNook fixed their syncing system; they made the syncing smarter. I tried it out yesterday when I was alerted that for some reason a chapter of #snkrz was out of sync. I was given a choice to compare versions within the app and choose which one I wanted to keep. Admittedly, it was very slick. Too bad it replaced the version I wanted to keep with the version I wanted to delete. Whoopsies.

I didn't hit the wrong button. I compared and recompared, and read and reread. The app even made sure I was sure by asking me to confirm the change. Then it burped.


So now I've decided that the cloud isn't so nifty. This whole mess could have been reverted if MyWritingNook allowed me to backup my files locally. I could have restored an earlier version from a backup. So now I'm saying "sayonara" to MyWritingNook and embracing other apps that utilize Dropbox. I have my eye on Elements and PlainText. Both have word counts and basic features for writing on the go without interruption. I won't return to Pages because it has a lot of fancy overhead for marking up text that I don't need, and although it supports reading and writing from WebDAV folders, it's an awkward process.

Yes, I have my own unix WebDAV server running on my four year old Mac mini. I also don't have very many friends. Fortunatley, my wife loves me. She doesn't understand me most of the time, but she loves me. Or humors me.

Let's change the subject.

To make sure I don't lose any more revisions, I have taken the following precautions. I put my local Dropbox folder in my WebDAV folder allowing me alternate access to those files if Dropbox goes down. This will also mean that my Dropbox is backed up hourly by TimeMachine. Because TimeMachine drives can fail (TM is very hard on hard drives), I also use Chronosync to mirror the Dropbox folder onto my Drobo drive, which has four redundant 1TB drives. Next, I'll be adding the Dropbox folder to my USB drive's Applescript so I can have a physical copy on hand at all times. Rain dance is optional.

All that being said, I wish there was an easier way. Also, I wish I had a magic wand. Now I have to rewrite all the words I lost.

Follow me on Twitter for my ADHD escapades at @SplinteredMind or my novel writing project over at @DouglasCootey. And if you're a glutton for punishment you can friend me on Facebook as well.