Help me create order out of electronic chaos
August 17, 2009 7:22 AM   Subscribe

My electronic life is in total chaos - I have multiple copies of word and powerpoint files (usually all with the same name) on four or five different USBs or varying ages, a network drive (in multiple places), a laptop, work pc, and ifolder. I need to sort it all out! Is there any software that can help me find multiple versions of the same file across all these different places, work out which is the most recent and then delete/archive the rest? Going forward, what is the most sensible way to start again with an organised structure for file management and keeping everything synced between various computers (have a mac at home and pc at work)?
posted by janecr to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You'll probably want to do your first sort of what's going on manually rather than trust a computer to pick for you. That way you'll avoid picking the file that has the most recent timestamp instead of the file that has that section you worked on and put down, etc.

One of the first things I would do would be grab everything off of thumbdrive one to a directory on one of the machines, and zip it. Repeat for every thumbdrive. Then throw away all the thumbdrives except the biggest, or if they're all small (<4>
I'm only in the windows world, but here is how I manage things across several a home desktop, home laptop, office desktop, and usb thumbdrive:

I use synctoy between the home desktop and the usb thumbdrive. Synctoy does what you want: you specify pairs of directories, and (in one option) it looks for changes in one and applies them to changes in the other. There are, no doubt, similar programs for the mac.

I use synctoy between the office desktop and the usb thumbdrive.

In both cases, syncing is the last thing I do before I leave home for the office, or the office for home.

In my case, the laptop doesn't store any data, ever. When I do work on it, it's on files on the desktop using network shares or, if I'm traveling, on the thumbdrive. But even here, syncing between the laptop and usb thumbdrive would be trivial.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:49 AM on August 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I guess you could use Hazel on the Mac to organise your existing stuff, but it would involve some pretty complex rules, and you'd have to get all the stuff in one place on your Mac. (On preview, I think ROU_Xenophobe is right - I'm not sure I'd trust Hazel or anything else computery to do this as well as a real live person would...)

As far as the last part of your question goes, Dropbox is the best way I've found to keep stuff in sync across multiple machines/platforms - you just install it on your computers and forget about it, and everything stays in sync, as well as being available on the web (where you can also access recently deleted files, which is a godsend if you accidentally trash something).

For organising, I depend entirely on filenames, and just chuck everything into big general folders. If a file is called dd-mm-yy-[general tag]-[specific project name]-[unique file name].txt it's very easy to search for, and you can set up Smart Folders on the Mac (presumably there's a Windows equivalent) so all files with [project name] in the filename are gathered together. Hazel takes care of organisation, moving old files in my Documents folder into monthly archive folders, deleting unopened files of certain types that are more than a month old from my Downloads folder, &c.

The main benefit of this approach is that you never have to faff about moving files from one place to another (eg. from a temp directory to a project folder) or even remember where they're kept, and whatever computer you're on, you'll be able to search out the file you want quickly. Also, it's great if you're disorganised (I am too) since you only have to remember your naming scheme, and the whole thing just takes care of itself.
posted by jack_mo at 8:09 AM on August 17, 2009

Dropbox is life-changing. It will solve all your problems.

But that's step 2. Step 1 is to keep a backup of all the different versions of all the files somewhere just in case, even after you've sorted them and picked out what you want to use going forward.
posted by Nonce at 8:11 AM on August 17, 2009


1) Create a new folder on your hard disk. Let's call it REORG.
2) In REORG, create a subfolder for each source (your current hard disk, each USB key, etc.). Name them clearly.
3) COPY the files from each source to the appropriate subfolder.
4) Use a program such as DupKiller to find exact duplicates (regardless of file name) that occur in REORG. It does more or less exactly what you want.
5) One duplicates are eradicated, reorganize REORG according to your needs, eliminating the source subfolders.
6) When happy, eliminate your original hard drive documents, and replace with your new REORG contents.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 8:49 AM on August 17, 2009

Step one is indeed making a backup of everything, by USB drive, with your directory-preserving compression format of choice. Step two, in my opinion, is importing everything into a revision control system. I like subversion but darcs, mercurial, bazaar, git, and cvs are also popular choices. All of these will let you maintain multiple versions of a file, with annotations describing the differences, and branch/merge to handle those situations where you tried something for a while separately and then integrated it back into the main project. For text or file that can be represented as text, they can also show changes between two versions, line by line. And finally, you can synchronize between any number of locations.

The only catch is, revision control systems are usually written for programmers and potentially large project, so the documentation will cover lots of complicated tricks. Don't be intimidated; you can get going in half an hour if you just want to do basic things.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:06 AM on August 17, 2009

On the first question, back up everything to one place and archive it to CD/DVD before you do anything else. Then sort by hand. Blue_wardrobe's suggestion for how is good.

On the second question, I'll nth Dropbox if your work will allow it to hook up to your work PC as a transit system. If you already have .Mac/.Me or whatever it's called this year, you can use it as an offsite drive in the same way, including from your Windows computer at work. I've had good success with this in the past.

Version control may well be overkill for what you need. I've worked with it as a tech writer and it's designed to work well with code. That's not to say it can't work for Word and Powerpoint documents, but setting it up and maintaining it may require more work and developing more technical expertise on your part than you want to put in. (My husband's in CM/RE, tech people, so I have heard it already. I get that it's good for you, but the effort of maintaining a personal system isn't always worth it.)
posted by immlass at 9:54 AM on August 17, 2009

What you're describing is essentially phylogenetic tree construction, applied to digital files. You have a set of organisms (files) with a genetic (binary) sequence. You wish to group them into related species and estimate their age from the geologic record (filesystem timestamps) and molecular clock (rate of revision). From there you'll take the step of selecting the most recent file as a representative.

I know of no tool that actually applies this mapping, and it's generally a computational beast. Tools like dot plots can be used to cluster files into expected groupings, if you don't have something reliable like filenames. It's going to be a pain to unify the document structure, but likely, you can get away with doing a search on a given file name and sorting the results by date to find the cluster of files and a representative.

Tools like Unison, Sharepoint, SVN and Dropbox all perform a basic task of keeping files consistent across multiple computers, modulus extra features.
posted by pwnguin at 11:56 AM on August 17, 2009

Windows Live Mesh. Syncs files on Windows, Mac, etc. You also get 5GB of online storage for free, plus you can view all your files online.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:30 PM on August 17, 2009

I am a happy user of SugarSync. I put everything in my Magic Briefcase and it is synced to every computer I own and backed up to the interclouds.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:46 PM on August 17, 2009

Thanks for all the advice. Dropbox is, indeed, life changing!
posted by janecr at 9:07 AM on August 21, 2009

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