Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Upgrades and Loss

The Wife is getting a little restless with the stay-at-home thing, so she's starting to put out feelers for part-time jobs. I think it's a great idea, since I'm ready to go postal after just a few days at home. A few years, and things would get ugly.

Her resume and cover letter are on a 3.5 inch floppy disk. Our computer doesn't have a floppy drive (memory key, check; cd writer, check; floppy, nope). My work computer doesn't have a floppy drive. Library computers don't have floppy drives. It's remarkably hard to find a floppy drive.

Since the format isn't really all that old, I'm sure I'll dig up something, somewhere. But I can't help but wonder about a larger issue.

I have hardcover books from the 1920's. They're perfectly readable now, if a bit dusty. I've got an embarrassingly large collection of nonfiction paperbacks dating from the 1960's and 1970's, all still perfectly readable. But a disk from 2003 necessitates a freakin' scavenger hunt to be read.

Given that the point of information technology is managing information, this strikes me as perverse.

As the rate of format change accelerates, it's becoming remarkably easy to lose information in the gaps between generations of technology. Each memory upgrade requires a little more forgetting. If 2003 is ancient, what of stuff from the 1990's? 1980's?

Think of all the information effectively lost due to format changes: Betamax tapes, 8-tracks, LP's, reel-to-reel tapes (remember ampex?), 78's, kinescopes, Super 8 mm film. Soon, photographic film will be consigned to the dustbin of history, along with cassette tapes and floppy disks. (As someone who went to college in the 1980's, the idea that cassette tapes are fading from view is hard to process. Sure, they're fragile and cumbersome, they sound like shit and they're never rewound where you want them, but they marked an era! Anyone else remember that annoying 'bloop-bloop-bloop' at the beginning of prerecorded tapes? Remember 'metal' tapes?) Readers of a certain age: remember the floppy disks that were actually floppy? Big, black, 5 ¼ inch suckers that made a satisfying 'whup whup' sound when you waved them in the air? They held about twenty pages of prose, when they held anything at all. (I had a professor in college who couldn't understand why his disks never worked, until he mentioned that he kept them stuck to his refrigerator with a magnet.) Hell, I remember dual-floppy IBM pc's in the college computer center wherein I'd insert the 'program disk' in one drive and the 'document disk' in the other. Of course, I also remember President Reagan. Kids today...

But I digress.

Last year, in an attempt to satisfy my jones for weird-ass music, I signed up for one of those online music subscription services. (It rhymes with 'wahoo.') For a monthly or yearly fee, I could download as much music as my mp3 player could hold. The music came with DRM encoding, which is basically a digital self-destruct mechanism that would kick in if I hadn't kept my subscription up to date. I was psyched about it at the time, since it allowed me to try out the latest offerings from whomever struck my fancy. I couldn't burn CD's, but since I mostly listen in the car, that didn't really bother me.

A few months into my annual subscription, the *$%^(&#%# folks at 'wahoo' decided to double the price. So I'm cancelling, which means losing access to everything I've been listening to for the last year. It's not catastrophic, certainly, but it's slightly unnerving. I knew it was essentially a rental service, but since I didn't anticipate the price summarily doubling, I didn't envision dropping it. Psychologically, I hadn't quite made the switch. Meanwhile, CD's I bought in the early 1990's are still perfectly listenable.

Blogging is a disposable medium too, though I take some comfort in the 'archives' section. At least with blogging, I can always print it out and keep it, if the mood strikes. (It hasn't, but it's nice to know it's possible.) Still, I think of many other blogs as part of my repertoire, and when one of them is taken offline, I'm helpless. There's no blog repository, as far as I know. (Techno-savvy readers are invited to correct me on this one.) If Bitch were to take down her blog, I'd lose a major cultural touchstone. With magazines or newspapers, we at least have libraries. With blogs and websites, not so much.

Future historians will have their hands full. Reading letters from 19th century figures isn't that hard, once you track them down. But how will future historians recover emails from long-lost IT systems? Two or three 'migrations' down the road, how will anything be recoverable? How will they listen to podcasts or audiobooks when the technology used to 'read' them is, itself, long gone? If someone decides, in 2015, to do a history of blogging, will much of the early (current) material even be accessible?

The Wife will get her resume and cover letter back, one way or another. Luckily, it's only going back three years. Much more than that, and we'd have been better off if they had just been typed.

The loss of blogs to the ether is actually a huge concern to librarians. I went to a whole session about this at SXSW and it's discussed quite often in other settings. Once librarians realized that blogs were part of our cultural history, they started to think about archiving. But, they think, in some cases, it might be too late. There is the Internet Archive, btw. You can find a lot of things there that have been lost. (internetarchive.org).
You're way too good at provoking my soap-box jaunts. OK then....

One of the most amazing examples of this is magazines. Not (just) the ones we have now, but the hundreds (thousands, likely) of periodicals published in 19th Century America.

All those famouse authors the humanities people write about? Poe? Irving? Hawthorne? Mencken? Wells? They wrote for magazines, and they read those same magazines diligently, and they corresponded in their pages. Books were a sortof side-effect.

But modern academic scholarship attends only to books, not magazines. The physical issues of the magazines themselves, unless bound and sent to one of a half-dozen libraries, are gone down the outhouse hole these days. Chopped up for the pretty engravings.

We (meaning my wife and I) buy old issues on eBay to try to save them for Distributed Proofreaders, but for the hundreds of issues we've got, there are many thousands lost forever. That represent maybe half the reading and writing that made up the intellectual community of 1860-1910. Just the other day a volume of Potter's arrived; I've never even head of Potter's, and as far as I can tell it was pretty cool, and ran for a few years. So lots of people read it. And contributed to it. Maybe 6000 pages, right there, of stuff that is gone from our picture of what people thought and wrote and said....

So the take-home lesson isn't merely that historians will have a problem. To me, it seems more tragic that future historians will simply forget the channel existed at all. There will be no mention of the IRC channels of the 90s, or cassette correspondence clubs of the 70s, or Ham radio. Because the physical evidence will be too hard to find in the future, it follows that they must've been scarce and unimportant in the past as well,,,,
My research on one fellow ended in the mid-90s. His son had wheeled out boxes of his dad's correspondance from a lifetime and I could see the progress (?) as he moved from typing to computers to fax. And then nothing after 1995. He may have been an octogenerian, but I'm betting he went to email. I'm also doubting that the son ended up with access to those letters, or if he did have it,that he would he have handed over a password as easily as he did the family letters.
My thought on blogging has always been it's like writing your name in the snow. There is no permanence to it and the only people who will see it are those you show it to or stumble across it on their own (links from other sites, etc.)

Maybe I'm not "into it" enough to "get it" but that's my take.
i remember when floppies were 8 inches, used in dedicated word processors from xerox and wang. there's a nice piece in today's wall street journal on the original ibm hard disk drive, built 50 years ago to hold a whopping 5 megabytes of data.

changes in physical formats are important, but so are changes in software formats. i have a number of macwrite archives that i can't open on any modern computer. i've kept my old mac plus on the theory that someday that's what i'll use it for.
Ah, this brings memories.

My dad, a poet and librarian, kept a daily handwritten journal for decades.

He wrote daily entries in longhand, starting in the early 1970s and continuing until chronic illness and disability made it impossible to write around 2000.

He used hardbound journals meant for accountants--with good quality bindings and acid-free paper, but otherwise very simple--just 200 plain-ruled pages with page numbers stamped on the upper corner of each page. (He saved the last few pages of each volume for an index which he created before moving on to the next volume. The margins of each page of his journal had annotations for the subject entries of his index.)

His handwriting was difficult for others to decipher, but when he wanted to be somewhat crytpic, he would write in Greek or Cyrillic alphabets (the words were still in English--just transliterated.) Sometimes he would also write in a special code he had devised. He gave us children the key to the code, though I doubt codebreakers would find it difficult to crack in any event.

He was absent-minded and knew that it was possible to mislay his journal, which he tried to carry everywhere with him in his green bag, in case inspiration might suddenly strike.

About five years ago, he convinced my mother to drive him and his journals over a hundred miles to Alderman Library, the main library of the University of Virginia, where he wanted to donate his journals. There were hundreds of the green bound books. And he had also laboriously transcribed their contents onto floppy disks.

My mother was skeptical of whether the university would be interested. He wasn't famous. He wasn't an alumnus. He wasn't a former faculty or staff member of Univresity of Virginia.

My father, trembling with advanced Parkinson's, insisted that the library WOULD be interested.

My mother, figuring she would humor him, drove him down to Charlottesville.

He went into the library and requested to borrow a dolly, then my mother helped him load his boxes of hundreds of journals and floppy disks onto the dolly, and he laboriously but happily trundled them off into the library.

He sent my skeptical mother off to get a cup of coffee while he waited to speak with an acquisitions librarian about his donation.

When my mother returned, he was happy--apparently he and the acquisitions librarian had had a nice and reassuring conversation. My dad felt his journals would be in good hands.

My mother was still skeptical that the library would actually keep my father's arcane daily scribblings--both in manuscript and transcribed 5-inch diskettes. But she refrained from sharing those thoughts with my dad, since he was so happy about his encounter with the librarian.

To everyone's surprise (except my dad), the library did indeed archive his treasured journals. A few years later, my brother discovered complete and detailed entries in the library's catalog listing them, along with the annotation that access to them was restricted during the author's lifetime to those who had his permission. That had been my father's stipulation.

He was very happy to see the catalog listing for his journal.

My father died this year.

I'm glad those journals still exist in their familiar green bound journals somewhere deep in the archives of Alderman Library in Charlottesville.
"Big, black, 5 ¼ inch suckers that made a satisfying 'whup whup' sound when you waved them in the air?"

Ah, youngsters. Remember the 8" floppy disks from IBM's memory typewriters? You don't? I still have the five that my dissertation was typed on.

But it is an increasing difficulty. I had (have?) a file of multiple choice questions that I wrote and stored in an exam-generating system provided by a publisher. I can no longer get to those questions--over 2000 of them--at all. It's painful.
I went to the same session that Laura did (here's my notes) and it was quite fascinating.

I too have an old mac in a closet with the hopes of recovering a bunch of papers, stories, poetry, and letters from my college days!
Everyone interested in this subject should know about Bruce Sterling's "Dead Media Project,"
http://www.deadmedia.org/ .
From my soapbox:
More (state) governments need to pass open-format laws, requiring their agencies to keep their records in a format that can be read by anyone who can make it through a technical manual, rather than proprietary software that may change or disappear.

Obviously this isn't an instant cure for your problem. But at least it would force the major software houses (yes, specifically Microsoft) to open their formats, and then this would trickle down to you.

The days of worrying about paper tape vs. USB key vs. magazine stock will be over pretty soon, with hard drives cheap enough to store anything and bandwidth cheap enough to back up anything multiple places. But there are too many closed formats out there for people to be motivated to reverse-engineer them all, and that's where our focus should be.
Even if you can gain access to a disk drive, you may find that the disk itself has deteriorated over time. CDs that you burn at home have the same problem - limited lifespan. Good luck with the resume, though.
The Smithsonian is having a heck of a time with this problem. A couple of years ago, they ran across a huge trove of wire recordings containing interviews with all sorts of regular folks--a finding of no small historical significance. The problem? There wasn't a single functional wire recorder in the entire Smithsonian collection. It took a lot of effort to retrieve the sounds. Thankfully, there were a few hobbyists with knowledge of wire recorders and enough broken machines scattered around America that they could cobble together a functional machine.

I've also read that Gulf War I was extensively documented, but Gulf War II documentation has massive gaps in it (at least right now) due to the widespread use of emails. What was once held in (somewhat) easily found documents is now lost in the computers, and is a pain to find. I have faith that someday most of it will be dug out, but it's a massive pain in the historian and policy maker's collective rump.

Then there's all that telemetry data from the moon missions that NASA can't read anymore, because computers have changed so much...
i have a 3.5 drive -- send the disc on over! [seems to me that someplace like kinko's might have the ability to take a disc and save it to a CD. the technology is not really old at all.]

i went to college in the '70's. there was a partial-credit computer class available, and the computers were the size of industrial refrigerators. i believe they used reel-to-reel magnetic tape to store data. my cool young english professor's newly minted dissertation was on punch-cards.

i remember a word-processing machine at one job [circa 1980] that was the size of several modern heavy-duty copiers. at another job [1983 or so], the boss opted for computerized typewriters instead of those new-fangled personal computers -- the typewriter could hold 50 pages of text, period. who needed more, when there were photocopy machines, and secretaries to retype what needed retyping? the next 2 jobs featured those giant floppies that were really floppy; but at the first of those, only the secretaries were allowed to use the computers.

a few weeks ago, a colleague laughed at me for still using CD's to transfer data from one place to another -- she uses a flash drive exclusively. sigh.

in theory, i really believe in keeping hard copies, except i always think i'll print them out later, and then they get lost. and i'm starting to regard my decades-old stash of paper as something that needs to be culled and recycled asap, because there is just too much. [only 5 years ago, when i left a long-time job, i tossed 8 large recycle bins of excess. that wasn't enough tossing.]
This post makes me think of the ancient Egyptians. The vast majority of their writings and correspondance was on papyrus, of which we have very little left, but the vast majority of text we have to study is the stuff they inscribed in stone. This has lead to the skewed perception of a culture obsessed with death. Makes me wonder what archaeologists and historians will make of us :D
So long have I been troubled by this problem...

My octegenarian father-in-law recently acquired a Nero program allowing him to make his cassettes into digital files and has been faithfully ripping his tapes daily since. When his hard drive crashed, he called me to fix it (having already archived all the data to CD, he lost nothing) and then decided just to buy a new computer.

He's not the norm, but all these personalized mix tapes were so meaningful to him, he wanted to preserve them. I know that someday my wife will listen to them, and hopefully I will be able to migrate them to whatever storage system we have for my children (I won't guess, since heaven knows what format it will be...)
This is why most archival institutions don't dispose of original documents unless absolutely necessary (falling apart, mold, etc). Electronic formats have changed so rapidly that they don't pass the 50-year test - will it still be accessible in 50 years. If you think it is hard to find a 3.5 floppy, try finding one for an older, larger, truly "floppy" floppy disk!
If it's any comfort, it's not only "readers of a certain age" who remember actual flopping floppy disks. I'm in my early twenties, and I remember them. From first grade, granted, but it still counts.
Always save a hard copy of something important. End of discussion.
We have a USB connected external 3.5 floppy drive just for this purpose. We picked it up about 2 years ago and it has been a lifesaver. I think it will continue to be a livesaver for a few more years as USB ports seem pretty universal. I wonder if you could google for one.
XML and HTML were actually a response to this problem, as they're stored as plain text in a format that an actual person can read. And the Internet Archive has guaranteed that my kids will be able to read my blog entries no matter how much I may hope they never find them.

I wonder if historians will have the opposite problem with our era: too much information. An excess of data is sometimes as much of a problem as the dearth of it.
By "Library," do you mean the college library? Public libraries usually have older, slower machines, with (gasp) disk drives. Try there.
Might I recommend a simple approach (that unfortunately may not be too helpful now...)

I make it a point to:

1. Check every few years and copy stuff "once again" to essentially refresh the bits--even on CDs and DVDs since they can get "disk rot" as well.

2. When a new technology arrives, move everything from the old to the new, even if you still will keep the old around "for a while." You WILL forget, and then be back in this pickle.

I have many documents that I originally created on the lowly Commodore 64 as ascii files, but have moved from tape, to floppy, to 3 1/2, to CD, to DVD...

Also, consider converting anything and everything to what are (for now) still accepted interface standards. RTF and ascii are good alternatives (with RTF keeping much of the formatting). SGML/HTML is also a good way to store information, since they are a) ascii and b) formatted in a way that one can at least readily decode.

Yes, this is a burden. Yes, it is cumbersome. But imagine if we all had to still use the once ubiquitous 110K (or 300K) 5 1/4 floppy, simply because we all wanted to keep the standard.
If it's any consolation to "those of a certain age," I remember the floppy disks that really did flop. And I'm 20.

But my 8-year-old brother doesn't even know what a 3.5 disk is...and it hurts my brain!
I think the arguement could be made that we are at the point where instead of controlling technology, technology is controlling us. Technology is the magic bullet that every school from elementary to graduate uses as a hook and a banner of superiority. The quality of learning and the ability to learn hasn't really been enhanced except for those students who suffer from disabilities that are aided by technology. For the average student tech systems have become just another expenditure, just another hurdle in the quest for a degree. That the formats change so rapidly is both a blessing and a curse. The computer I bought ten years ago wouldn't even have enough memory to open my email account. But no matter how the technology changes in function, format or appearance, the basic premise still remains: GIGO--Garbage In/Garbage Out. In that I mean that our results are only as good as the information that we, the humans, think up. Remember how by now we were supposed to have this "paperless society"? Instead our mistrust of computers due to rapid turnover has led us to hardcopy even things we don't want and don't need. My sister in law had one of the first Apple computers in her home. We found it the other day. It opens floppies, but is slower than my cell phone on calculations. Such are the problems with technology.
This is not a new problem. Edison drums, nitrate film, you name it, it has achiving problems.
You can buy a 3.5" floppy drive for around $10 at most computer stores. Try http://www.newegg.com.
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