Ode to Backup

Backing up your files is probably one of the most important things you could do. There is nothing worse than the feeling of loosing everything once your computer is on the fritz (I have received dozens of frantic phone calls asking how to, or if I can restore files). There are many commercial, shareware and freeware backup programs that are capable of accomplishing appropriate backups.

XCOPY has been included in the Microsoft® OS family since the DOS days. This little command prompt program copies file and folder information based upon the selection of a number of parameter options. This utility is lightweight and consists of a simple executable file. This is actually what I use for incremental backups of my personal system.

Open a command prompt and type xcopy /?. This displays a list of the xcopy.exe parameter options and their meaning. From the command prompt you can easily type in your xcopy command with the necessary parameters and you’ll be on your way. Personally I have a small batch file called backup.bat. This eliminates a lot of typing and the need to remember the options. This batch file is simple but extremely effective in giving me copies of the files I need. It consists of one line:

xcopy *.* c:\wutemp /S /C /I /M /F /R /H /K /Y /EXCLUDE:exclude.txt

My backup.bat file is located in the root of my profile directory, for this example we’ll say C:\Documents and Settings\BP. If you follow the parameters you’ll notice that I copy all the changed (archive bit set) files to C:\wutemp. This batch file will process the current folder and with the appropriate parameter set (/S) all subfolders as well. Once the backup batch is complete I them manually copy the files to DVD. If you are running a ‘full’ backup you would remove the /M parameter option.
I am fairly structured and organized when it comes to my files. I try to get everything that I need somewhere within the tree of my profile directory. Most applications these days store personal information in the Application Data of your profile directory or allow you to specify a ‘storage’ location. A lot of applications also store temporary or unimportant (unimportant in the sense of need to restore files in the event of a need to recover files) files in your profile directory as well. This is where the /EXCLUDE parameter comes into play. After all, it is really wasteful both time and space wise to back up all those temporary files.
My exclude.txt file looks something like this:

\DOCUME~1\BP\Start Menu

This is just an example on how I use XCOPY to back up my important files on my personal computer. In my opinion this is fast, lightweight and effective when it comes to storing those must have files. I hope this gives you some ideas on how you could possibly implement a simple backup solution.

What’s in a word?

Language is truly a fascinating form of communication. The way individual words have meaning and that those same words can be put together to form sentences is ingenious. Have you ever thought about the origin of language? Who came up with the different words and their meanings?

A few years ago I started browsing through the dictionary for additional words to add to my vocabulary. The English language is comprised of an abundance of words, some of my favorites include: malodorous, pusillanimous, recreant, fustigate, nescience and panjandrum. (There are many more, however, that would force this to display well beyond physical limits.) Through my journeys I was elated when I had come across the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Not only does this site contain a searchable dictionary and Thesaurus, but it also includes a Word of the Day. What better way is there to increase your vocabulary?

The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is available online and you can also subscribe to the Word of the Day list and have the word delivered to your e-mail daily. The listing includes the word, its definition and a sample use of the word. I have entries in my Word of the Day email folder that date back to 2003. I am one that actually tries to use the word of the day in my normal course of action. I look forward to seeing what word appears each morning.

I highly recommend subscribing to the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day. It is a great way to pick up some of the neat words within the English language.

Conditional Format

Spreadsheets are a great tool for analyzing, manipulating and ‘testing’ data. Over the years there have been significant advances in spreadsheets that allow for a lot more functionality. Based upon my interactions, I feel comfortable in saying that most people are unaware of and/or greatly underutilize many of the functions and features found in most popular spreadsheet applications.

I often find myself importing thousands of records from databases into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet for some random ‘quick and dirty’ analysis or output. Once in Excel the possibilities are almost limitless when it comes to the representation of this data, whether it’s via pivot table, charts or just a plain old on the fly filtered list.

When viewing thousands of records it is more often palatable and easier on the eyes with some sort of visual record cues. For example, let’s say we’re looking at a list of customer invoice records, which are sorted by customer. Ata quick glance, by default, all the rows generally look the same. Without intense scrutiny the data sort of, blends all together. What about some sort of visual separation by customer? Excel does have Grouping and AutoFormat, however sometimes the grouping can be overkill. All those ‘+’ and ‘‘ can become overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong grouping is great for adding fast subtotals. The AutoFormat is nice for shading; however it shades on alternating records. What if you wanted to shade groups of records? One answer.. Conditional Formatting.

Conditional Formatting allows you to specify cell properties based upon certain value or formula information. After playing with it a bit, one can see that it is really quite useful. For my scenario:


    1. Sort your list
    2. Insert what I call tend to call a ‘Helper Column‘. This column is typically hidden, and used to indicate when there is a change in a specific value, i.e. Customer. I prefer to put this column as the first or last column in the data set. For this example we will use column A.


    1. Type the following formula in the first data row. We’ll start on row 2 because row 1 is our ‘header’: ‘=MOD(OFFSET($A2,-1,0)+ OR($B2OFFSET($B2,-1,0),0),2)‘. Basically what this formula is saying is alternate 1 or 0 in this cell A2, based upon B2 being different than B1. (The $ before a cell RC value indicates that value is constant (will not change) when it is copied to another cell.)


    1. Copy (or use Fill Down; Ctrl + D) the formula down the entire length of the data set. There are a number of shortcuts that make this easier (Mental note: discuss some quick keyboard navigation another time).


    1. Select the entire data set including the ‘Helper Column‘, making sure you have the upper rightmost column active, A2 in this example.


    1. Select Conditional Formatting… from the Format menu item.


    1. Change condition 1 to ‘Formula is’ and enter ‘=$A2=1’. We’re only going to apply the format if the cell value is 1. The ‘Helper Column’ should be alternating 0 and 1 on a change in Customer.


    1. Click the Format button


    1. Select the Pattern Tab


    1. Choose which color to fill the cell with when the condition is met


    1. Click Ok to close the Format dialog


    1. Click Ok to close the Conditional Format dialog.


Your spreadsheet should now be shaded by Customer.
This is just a simple sample of using the Conditional Formatting feature of Micrsoft Excel. There are a number of other properties that can be set based upon value or calculated formula that greatly enhances the representation of a data set in Excel.


My Send To

The ability to right clicking on a file or folder in Windows Explorer and selecting ‘Send To’ to perform some action is a great time saver. What better way to quickly e-mail a file to a colleague There is a downfall to the limit the default options leave you. There are often times when I want to copy a file or folder to another location for backup or distribution purposes. There are also times that I’d like to quickly print and unopened text documents.
Under Windows you can add your own choices to the ‘Send To’ menu option. This is surprisingly easier than one would expect. In order to do this you first need to make sure that you have explorer set to show hidden program or system files. Next, browse to C:\Documents and Settings\\SendTo. Once you open the Send To folder you will notice that the other send to shortcuts. Place a shortcut to your favorite folders or printers (I find it easier to just drag and drop printers into this folder) in the SendTo folder to have it appear in the list.

Straight to the Prompt

Even in the world of Windows it is often necessary to perform tasks via the command prompt. Along with the console applications that I have created, there are many other command line utilities that I use. Often, these utilities need to be run within a specific directory (a.k.a. folder). Instead of opening up the command window and changing to the desired directory, I find it much easier to open up Windows Explorer, right click on a folder select a menu option and have a command window open, already changed to a selected directory (similar to New Date Folder). This option is not a standard part of Windows Explorer but can be added rather easily.

1. Open Windows Explorer
2. Select Tools –> Folder Options
3. Select the File Types Tab
4. Select Folder from the list of Registered file types
5. Click on Advanced
6. Click the New… button
7. Type Prompt in the Action field
8. In the application field you can type one of two lines:
command.com /k cd %1
cmd.exe /k cd “%1”
The difference between the two is that the first option will browse with short file name and the second with long file names.
9. Keep clicking the OK button until you are back to Windows Explorer

You can now right click on a folder and easily get to a command prompt in a selected directory.

As always, proceed with caution when changing file types or any system setting. Basically, if you are uncomfortable doing this type of stuff then it might be best if you consult someone that has a high comfort level in making these types of changes.