John C. Dvorak is known as a curmudgeon to many, as he is not someone who is frequently found in a good mood in his opinion pieces. He is, however, always delivering the truth, unvarnished, brutal, but necessary.

This week he speaks about data from the past. He talks about things like old television programs on 2″ videotape, originally recorded on machines from a company that many under 35 don’t recognize – Ampex.  He also speaks about the data that is being lost in the form of pictures, where the film negatives are becoming totally unusable, or the media that is lost to us because it is deteriorating, or else we have no way of using it on modern equipment.  He mentions 5¼ inch floppies, which Microsoft thought should no longer be supported, but I also think of many QIC (Quarter Inch Cartridge) tape formats, where lots of data was archived, yet not many of  these are recognized by many of today’s computer users. This is amazing, as it has been less than 10 years since I stopped using my Travan (another type of tape backup) drives, and I know by talking to some of my friends and clients, they are still being used by some.

Perhaps this is the reason why some are so reticent to change operating systems – each iteration of operating system seems to lose as much, or more, than it gains. How difficult would it have been for Microsoft to continue to support a simple device, widely used by so many for so long, like the 5¼ floppy?  The routines were already there in Windows 2000, why should they have been dropped in Windows XP?  There are a few others like this I could name. Yet I am not only blaming Microsoft; it is not solely their fault.

Beyond disappearing formats, there are those items that are still in use, like optical discs, which we are finding that the media is less than “usable forever.” (Those alive, and able to read, back in 1983 might remember the Sony ads speaking about the ultimate durability of the CD, where Sony spoke of the audio being like sitting at 7th row center [in the symphony house] forever. We know now that was more than a bit optimistic, and that was with stamped CDs. Burned CDs are considerably less rugged.)  Dvorak speaks of his old CDs burned from around 1995. Since for most, the cost was relatively high back then, I would imagine that the data committed to those 1x (150 kbps) burns was fairly important. Many of those failures that Dvorak speaks of are no doubt due to inferior dyes, discovered so over time.

What do we do about this?

Many might say “Nothing”, because they simply don’t care. I would say that it might be time to start going through those items on the shelf, and deciding what might be necessary to copy to another format, or simply another of the same medium, but at the beginning of its useful life.

It is not that people are not thinking about this problem, for it was not two days ago that I read another article, where the people involved were speaking of archiving most everything with additional CRC (cyclic redundancy check) data, from the very start. Not a small bit, but enough to correct more than the simple one bit per byte errors commonly provided for.

It has not been two months since it was revealed that computer memory is not as reliable as once thought, and that we really should think about going back to 9 bits per byte, at the very least. This seems to be falling on deaf ears thus far. For many, ignorance does seem to be bliss.

Is all of this going to fall on deaf ears until something catastrophic happens? I certainly hope not.

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Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even.

Horace

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