PermaLink Do you still have a gramophone?12/31/2007 02:31 PM
After the loss of a lot of images from 2005, I started thinking about the nature of media and its preservation.  If I were you, I'd take the blue pill now.

I went looking to collect all my digital images into one big heap and resolve all the duplication and general clutter that shows up when you have (as I do) somewhere around 40,000 digital images to keep track of. In doing this, I discovered that somewhere along the way, nearly all my images from 2005 had disappeared completely.

I'm willing to blame Windows, as I had for years an XP machine that had a media reader built in, so I'd usually snarf images off the various digital cameras onto that machine for safekeeping. When it ate itself this year, I think it probably took a lot of images with it. Prior to 2005, I'd usually copied everything onto the file server in multiple places, and after 2005, I usually put things in iPhoto and then made backups of it. Fucking Ballmer, eat my ass, your product blows.

But back to the lost images themselves. I can't say there was anything absolutely earth-shaking on those images, but I just hate losing stuff in bulk because, well, you never know! I do know that I have no images of my ex-girlfriend, Terry, or the trip we made to Manhattan in early 2005 to see Chicago and Wonderful Town. Nor of her at New Year's Eve 2004-2005, all black-dress-and-sparkles at the Turf Valley Resort. And until about ten minutes ago I had absolutely no images of Stacey, the woman I dated that summer and into fall, and the pictures from the last trip my father made down here before he died. Stacey was arguably the most beautiful woman I ever dated for any serious length of time, and there was one series of pictures that were just astonishing. I did find a backup of those at work, though not every one of them. I found exactly one picture of my 25th reunion. There might be a few more if I look hard enough.

On the way into work today, there was a talk show on the radio, and one of the things they were talking about was time capsules and the way in which people seek to preserve "now" for some indistinct "future." In light of the recent loss of "now" and "recent past" in my life, I started wondering... just how well can we preserve media so that it's usable in the unforeseen future?

Stop. If you just thought, "well, just burn it all onto DVD," please leave this site at once. We have a lovely parting gift for you. You don't understand the problem.

The problem with media is, it ultimately has to be readable by humans in some uncertain future. And when you start making that readability dependent upon very rapidly-changing technology, you jeopardize the ability for that information to ever be reused.

Do you have any of the following in active use in your house right now?

- Gramophone
- Edison phonograph
- Paper stock ticker
- Paper tape punch and reader
- 8" floppy disk
- 51/4" floppy disk
- Exatron Stringy Floppy
- Mechanical music box using replaceable music disks
- Kinescope
- Wire recorder
- Belt-based Dictaphone
- Recording telegraph
- Telex machine
- Morse code key
- Color-Wheel color television
- UMatic videotape recorder
- 8-track tape recorder or player
- Turntable capable of 33 1/3 rpm
- Turntable capable of 78 rpm
- Turntable capable of 16 2/3 rpm
- Computer running the Pick operating system
- A nine-track computer tape drive

Yeah. See what I mean? A lot of people have 78s. A lot fewer people have something to play them on, and without the technology to interpret recorded media into a form usable by human ears and eyes, the media is completely useless.

This means that if you're going to save media, you have to do it using these guidelines:

  1. The media has to be durable enough to make it through the period of its own obsolescence and well into the next golden age of Whatever Comes Next so that it can be transferred to the Next Great Medium.
  2. The media has to be readable by technology you expect to be around as long as you expect the medium to be usable and valuable
  3. If not, you must include the technology to decode the media along with the media itself
  4. In addition, you must not assume that anyone in the future will know how to operate said technology, so you must include operating instructions which assume absolutely no existing knowledge.

See why just dumping everything to DVD isn't the solution? DVDs, particularly recordable ones, have a known finite shelf life. What's more, even if you were to bury a crate of DVDs and a DVD player in some time capsule, my experience has been that the player will die just from sitting unused, rendering the media useless as well. Sure, you could include a copy (on paper or anodized gold sheets or whatever) of the technical spec for the DVD format and hope that some future civilization will simply choose to build a DVD player in order to view your home movies from 2008, but I wouldn't bet on it.

In some ways, the Egyptians had it right: put everything down in viewable symbols on big rocks. Sure, some of the rocks won't survive, and you'll puzzle a lot of people for years and years before they figure out what your symbols mean, but eventually, they'll do it, just because humans are curious as long as they don't have to build a lot of new/old shit to make your information known.

Basically what I'm saying is, our entire dependence on digital media is dangerous and will one day lead to the disappearance of "modern society" the day the electricity goes off or the day the last guy who knows how to make a VCR dies.

Analog is better than digital. This is why they sent an anodized-gold record up into space, not a computer tape.
Hard substances are better than soft. This is why we can still figure out what's written on Egyptian tombs but nobody can seem to find the plans for the Saturn V rocket.
Human-readable is better than machine-readable. Machines might not always be around.

Here's an exercise for you: suppose you're in charge of a time capsule. Something that will contain an enormous portion of modern knowledge. It's to be buried and dug up in a thousand years for people to laugh at.

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1. lane01/08/2008 11:44:32 AM

You have a good point. I bitch and moan about my wife printing her pictures out, but, when the boot sector on her graphics drive ate itself, she's still got that 20 gigs worth (ok, it was awhile ago)

My first job was at NIST and I was tasked with the job of converting all the 8" 180k Tektronix floppies that had 'data' to the shiny new 3.5" HP system. Twas not fun.

2. Wild Bill01/01/2008 09:16:40 AM

A very serious issue - and one that many large corporations and academic institutes are wrestling with as we speak.

For instance, at Edinburgh University (a long time ago), during a project to re-record all old tapes onto new medium for posterity, they found a very very old tape. One that didnt work in ANY of the readers they had. So they took it along to one of the older members of the computer department. And he placed the tape between two sheets of paper, and sprinkled iron filings over the top. Agitated, and looked for patterns. Repeated till he found the section of tape where it had started writing (the 'lead in') and using a ruler, measured the distances between the lines.. From that he was able to deduce the tape density, and therefore the original tape device used.

Now *thats* hacking. This guy grok'd tapes for sure.

Now moving forward, lets consider the storage medium we want to use. Hard drives are now relatively cheap and robust. So an exernal 500gb USB2 drive might be a good start.

All the information you put on that tape has to be put on with all the programs required to read that information. Original source code is good, too. (Thank god for open-source software). Perhaps an ISO image or two of some operating systems, so the finder can bootstrap up something. Of course, we're assuming that they'll have a device capable of plugging in and understanding USB2. So why not throw an old laptop in there, one already set up and running. Best make an image backup of that hard drive.

Now this seems ridiculously expensive and overblown, but we have to put ourselves in the position of your potential great-great-great grandchildren (ignoring your child-free status for a moment - we have to find someone who gives a rats ass about you...). And they find the time capsule.. But their modern - say 20th generation on computing devices - just dont understand this piece of junk.. This is where the bootstrapping comes in handy...

---* Bill

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