Can you hire a computer mentor?
January 17, 2015 1:00 AM   Subscribe

I always thought I could learn whatever I needed to learn about computers, but as my life has gotten more complex, and computers keep changing, I find myself with over 12 years of email from school and three jobs, and more and different kinds of stuff coming all the time. I see four big things I'd like to do with my computing environment (home, work, phone, cloud) but I have no idea how to get started or what is the best way to do this. I need a computing mentor.

In 1994 I got online for the first time. Pretty soon I had a web page, and then in 1999 a web log. In 2000, I installed Linux on an old Toshiba laptop and taught myself LaTeX so I could write a master’s thesis (in anthropology; if it were in the sciences, I’d have no excuse). Over the years, I’ve always been curious and willing to spend the time needed to learn how to install new software, add a command or two to Emacs to update the web log, or sort my research materials. Three jobs later, I have started to realize that I can’t keep up. Maybe it’s me, or maybe there’s something about personal computing that has changed, or both. I am surrounded by devices, and it’s true what they say, it’s an ecology. This is my habitat. If I were taken out of this environment, I’d be gasping for air. Yet I’m not in control any more. I have about 12 years of email stored on disk (and backed up), several gigabytes of multimedia (mostly audio), a growing collection of notes, PDFs, and references, and work files in a directory tree whose branches are as wide and dense as a banyan. I want to be able to take care of this environment for the next 30 or more years. Who can I turn to for help? Where do I find a personal IT advisor? What can I ask of them?

I see basically four goals in the near to middle term:

The first is to have a reliable and regular system for backing up my files in cloud storage and locally. I have a time-machine-style backup app for one hard drive. Another hard drive which holds media needs to have a similar system, but to an external drive. Additionally, I have a manual system for archiving current work files, and this includes a second manual step of syncing the archives with cloud storage. I’d like this to be streamlined and perhaps combined with the backup process.

The second is to create a searchable archive of old email. I have emails from 2003 to the present, but all stored in different locations and formats (mostly mbox and Maildir). Plus there’s my current work email, which is stored on an Exchange server, some of which has been automatically transferred to the Online Archive. I’d like to download it all and drop it into the lifetime email repository on a regular basis. Ideally I could search the full text of this database and browse the length of it.

The third is to create a place to store and regularly access research data. This is now many audiorecordings in MP3 and WAV format, but I would also like to add scans of documents. I would like to be able to search the metadata and browse this material, adding annotations.

The fourth goal is to create a library for other people’s writing. I see myself moving to ebooks more and more. In the future, I may destructively scan all my paper books. I need a place for all this to go and, as with #3, I’d like to be able to search metadata, browse and add my own notes and tags. My quickly growing bibliographic database could also be a part of this.

When I think about working on any of these items, I have a sense of the first steps, but many leads turn out to be blind alleys. A lot of what’s involved is a mystery. In the near future, there will be software that will be able to index and integrate these collections on its own. A photo collection manager will figure out when you have taken a picture of the same building, or realize that one picture in the collection is of a book you own, or recognize faces. Will I be able to use all the cool new stuff that’s coming soon on all the data I’ve collected and notes I’ve written in the past? My intuition is that I am talking about create a set of private MySQL databases on my own desktop computer or on rented space on a remote server. I see myself logging in from one of my client devices - laptop, phone, work computer - and having any changes automatically available everywhere. Maybe that’s the long term goal.

So, who can help? How do I ask for this help? I see myself taking a computer genius out to coffee and she or he gives me a few books to read, and I give her or him a few tasks they can knock off for me, and then I get an invoice. But can someone really do all this stuff?
posted by rschram to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
When I think about working on any of these items, I have a sense of the first steps, but many leads turn out to be blind alleys. A lot of what’s involved is a mystery. In the near future, there will be software that will be able to index and integrate these collections on its own. A photo collection manager will figure out when you have taken a picture of the same building, or realize that one picture in the collection is of a book you own, or recognize faces.

OK. I'm an oldie and I have no fricken clue about up-to-date issues around cloud storage etc. But I am pretty sure much of this exists now. EXIF data, Evernote and iPhoto can achieve a lot of these things. Add to them IFTTT, and much of your ongoing filing, storage and most importantly, retrieval, can be automated.

If your profile is accurate, go talk to the School of Information Technologies. Put an ad on their literal or digital notice board; ask a lecturer for a student recommendation. You want someone who is up-to-date with data storage/cataloguing/retrieval options. You are looking not for a 'computer genius' (technical), but an information (data) manager or better still, a digital organiser (method).
posted by Kerasia at 3:36 AM on January 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Maybe you could give Google Helpouts a shot?
posted by oceanjesse at 6:19 AM on January 17, 2015


I think I would look into whether there is a computer users' group in your area and go network.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:48 AM on January 17, 2015


I am a computer mentor lady and I work out of the local Adult Ed program which is at the local vocational high school. If you have one near you it might be worth seeing if they have classes but also seeing if there are people who teach there who might be otherwise hireable for some basic stuff. I will occasionally help people with concrete finite problems at their house for the cost of dinner and/or some cash if they're not ongoing problem folks (people who will basically take a "you touched it now you are tech support for me forever" types). I'd also check the library for the same thing.

And, to your actual questions, #4 is one I do and I use Calibre. It's good because in addition to having some pretty good metadata capabilities, you can also use it to remove DRM from content (if that's a concern) so it makes it easier to, for example, transfer your Kindle content from computer to computer.

I'll also tell you what I tell other people I work with a lot. A lot of what is going to eventually work for you depends on your own personal organizational strategy. I can not help people who are not organized become organized (there are different people who do those jobs and it's more personal assistant type stuff) but I can help you use the tools you have to get thigns organized the way you want it. So think a bit about what a solution would look like to you and ideally you can find someone who can help you find the right tools to make that happen.
posted by jessamyn at 8:51 AM on January 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


I might try taskrabbit or contact a local college for a computer student to help out, offer to pay $25 an hour
posted by momtips at 9:30 AM on January 17, 2015


Thanks for the advice, everyone!

A lot of what is going to eventually work for you depends on your own personal organizational strategy. I can not help people who are not organized become organized.

I would say I'm a pack rat. I used Zotero for a year and now I have over 2000 sources. It's all organized and searchable, thanks to the software. I like the idea of drag, drop, read it later... That's the goal. Wasn't that what Google has been trying to teach us all?: Never delete anything.

Yet it's not just about objects, it's also traces of past activity. Even stuff I only use once is still worth keeping, especially if storage is so cheap. For me the ideal is keep everything and then search and index it later.
posted by rschram at 10:47 AM on January 17, 2015


1. For the backup, I've been pretty happy with Backblaze. I don't know how well it can handle multiple drives; I keep all my stuff on my laptop's hard drive, and don't accumulate much video. (They do have a page that makes it sound like it will totally back up your external drive for you.) It runs in addition to Time Machine, so I have both a local, versioned backup, and an off-site unversioned backup.

Oh yeah: and remember that you don't have a backup until you've tested restoring a few files off of it. I have pulled a few test files off of Backblaze and verified everything was OK.

I can't speak to your needs to archive working files on a regular basis; that's not a thing I do as my working files tend to be kinda small.

3. Most of my notes live in Evernote nowadays. Whether or not this will work for your research data I have no clue. It does fit the criteria of "available on all my devices", though.

I have no suggestions at all for 2 and 4. Good luck!
posted by egypturnash at 7:25 PM on January 17, 2015


There seemed to be some interest in the general situation, so I'm posting this development in my thinking:

Schram, Ryan. 2015. “Prearchiving: Helping Librarians and Researchers Collaborate on Archiving and Public Dissemination of Research Materials and Correspondence.” Ryan Schram: Notes on Anthropology, Melanesia and Cultural Change. January 21. http://schr.am/2i.

Comments and suggestions are welcome via MeFi mail or email. Thanks, again, for the stimulation.
posted by rschram at 5:10 PM on January 20, 2015


Nick R. is a very sharp dude, so you are getting advice from good people.
posted by jessamyn at 5:33 PM on January 20, 2015


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