Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Data for the ages

While publishing an obituary for a long-time member in a club newsletter, several people mentioned that he had a regular column in the newsletter years before. We thought it would be nice to share his representative writing with those members who remembered it as well as those who never met him.

During much of that period I was editor of that auspicious publication. I knew I had drafts of most monthly issues. More than that, I knew exactly where the electronic files were; but was afraid they wouldn’t be in a readable format. Amazingly, most of the dated folders contained at least 3 files: allFeb.doc, Feb99_1.p65, and 9902.pdf (

I now had both a Microsoft Word (97-2003) file of the collected articles, as submitted, and a PDF of the finished newsletter. It’s been more than 15 years, but I was able to come up with a readable sample of his writing in just a few minutes.

How did this happen?

1) I could find it. Not only did I keep it in an orderly file structure, but I knew where those files were likely to be. Since home computers first came with hard drives, all my household’s data have been saved to a single logical area on a single physical disc. As new computers and technology came along, the data were migrated intact to the new drive in the same location.

I learned long ago that storage was cheaper than organization. When the PC finally drove my typesetting business into the ground in 1995, I had accumulated 2,000 to 3,000 floppy discs(1) on the shelf with all of my clients’ jobs for almost 15 years; from resetting a headline to an entire catalog or complex form. Any file was accessible if I had a single identifying number, which was often built into the finished print.

2) It was physically available. With every new computer, I copied the files to it. I know that the disc spins and the bits are still readable. For many files, I still have my previous computer, although it has not been powered on for over five years, now.(2) But I use Carbonite, a reliable, online(3), commercial backup service.

3) I could read the file format. By virtue of it’s ubiquity and longevity, Word .DOCs are still accessible by most modern word processors. While I wouldn’t count on Microsoft continuing to support it in another five years (it was superseded with Office 2007 and they are enforcing their standard 10-year end-of-life), there are a number of other programs that read it now. With even commercial software now being delivered by download, I’m also keeping the installation files for software on that cheap storage. Hopefully I’ll be able to reinstall an old version if I need it; as long as the x86 instruction set survives.

If anything, the .PDF format is even more universal than .DOC with many programs, including most browsers, now incorporating a reader. And I can always do a new install of Adobe Reader 9 from my archives.

Non Sequitor:

(1)     Those 3,000 floppy discs represent barely 500 MB of data. That reflects the efficiency of storing data in a time before multi-terabyte hard drives. Some of the documents included design complexity to rival what a good secretary would do in a word processor or the word count of a small newspaper, but it was stored as simple codes that gave the printer instructions as to font, size, style, and location to put on the document. It also did not include any images. The color photos alone in an 8-page brochure today could easily add up to that 500 MB.

(2)     It may sound like a compulsive waste of space, but I once thought I might need to recalculate a tax return from many years previous. Although I had the original CD for the software, it would not install on my new computer. Fortunately, the old computer booted with the program and all its updates as of April 15 of the necessary year. Caveat: I was lucky that the computer booted. Even in mothballs, CDs, hard discs and electronics that have sat on a shelf in the garage or attic can deteriorate fatally. And don’t forget, CD drives are fast becoming dinosaurs.

(3)     Carbonite, and most other backup programs, are usually only for backup, not archival purposes. This means when you delete a file off the source disc, the backup service will delete it from their system as well. (Carbonite will keep files that are no longer on your computer for 30 days and then remove them from their system.)

If you have files that you want to preserve, but may not look at for years, you need to take specific precautions. Some possible options might be:
  • You can keep them on your active hard drive so they continue to be backed up.
  • You can move them to your own offline storage and test them at least annually for accessibility. If you do this, you should replicate them on two different types of media such as CDs and flash drives.
  • Or you could manually copy them to a cloud service that does not sync to a local file, including syncing the fact of deletion. At the moment Microsoft’s and Google’s online storage is free – up to a limit – and can be used without syncing. Remember, though, that even these companies have changed their focus and discontinued services; often with little warning.
  • For the extremely technically competent, some paid backup services can give you detailed control over retention rules. Amazon has such a service that only super geeks are aware of for a pennies per gigabyte per month; but you might have to wait a day or two for them to retrieve your data.

The best solution is probably a combination of more than one of these options. And for the really valuable documents – drafts of your best-seller, masters to your gold record, Howard Hughes’ will naming you – include a classic analog copy: toner or pigment on archival-grade paper. Beware of inexpensive ink-jet printers. Die based inks can fade while pigments used with better photo printers are much longer lived.

To preserve non-text content such as images or sounds for generations without having to revalidate them every couple years, the only option is metal. Photos (still or moving) should be saved as color-separated (not an amateur process) silver on a stable base. Classically this is referred to as “black and white film negatives.” The copper master disc for pressing an LP should be sufficient for audio recordings. This is basically the strategy NASA used when they shot the world’s “Hello”s to the stars.

Unlike my 1990-version PageMaker digital files, all of these analog media should be readily decodable with the basic software built into most advanced terran life. Extracting the audio may be a little more difficult, but even 20th century technology should be able to come up with a way to turn physical squiggles on a disc into the corresponding sound, even without a turntable.

More information:

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1 comment:

Bill said...

A few days after I wrote this, I encountered a podcast at that was relevant. Although it is not necessarily about personal data, it does relate to the problem of reading and interpreting bits saved decades ago.

-- Bill