Monday, February 8, 2010

Digital data

I spent a large part of today categorizing, cleaning up, backing up, and duplicate backing up data.  I hate doing it because it's so time consuming and nobody likes doing work prepping for worst-case scenarios, but every year the amount of our lives that exists in digital form grows, and the risk of not proactively protecting data grows with it.

It's amazing how many Facebook requests I get along the lines of "I dropped my cell phone in the toilet and it shorted out, send me your contact info again!"  This stuff is scary.  I'm sure it happened when the world was on address books (honestly before my time as an adult) but a quick drop in water didn't ruin one of those.  You had to actually lose it.  Even fire doesn't always completely ruin paper books.  Today's world of digital media...if you're not careful (and more importantly proactive), a dropped, lost, or stolen laptop or spilled water, a power surge, or even a big magnet can ruin a drive and destroy years worth of photos and music.  Thumb drives holding huge amounts of data can be lost or stolen very easily.  As digital storage gets denser, we are putting more and more info onto smaller and smaller devices, which tend to be all-or-nothing when it comes to if they are functional or not.

When I was young, a six-inch scratch in a record put a pop every two seconds into fifteen minutes worth of music.  Then an inch-long scratch destroyed 60 minutes worth of music on a compact disc.  If you were lucky, polish, or toothpaste could reduce it to an occasional skip.  Then, that same scratch would wipe out nearly 200 MP3s on a data CD.  Today, dropping a fingernail-sized and impossible-to-find microSD card on the floor can lose an entire music collection.  The good news is digital media has gotten cheaper much more quickly than space requirements have grown (remember when 32 bit architecture first hit it big and before hard drives caught up?), making it fairly easy to back up large amounts of data.  The bad news is I'm worried not enough people pay attention to this sort of thing still.  Hard drives are more reliable than they used to be, but's playing with fire to have one copy of anything.

I still listen to CDs for the most part, which are relatively hard to destroy on accident if properly stored and taken care of, so my expensive but replaceable music collection is reasonably safe.  10 years from now, CDs will no longer be replaceable in the same format they are in today.  However, I have a large number of digital photos, and those are irreplaceable.  It's not practical to print a large number of them out, and even if I did, that'd be like losing the negatives if I lost the original digital versions.  So - I have a mechanical 1 TB external hard drive to keep my photos and other important documents and email backed up on.  I don't leave the drive plugged into the computer (viruses...) or the outlet (surges, wearing out the motors...) Then, I downsize them to a workable resolution for printing 4x6s and store them off onto a flash drive, which is kept somewhere else.  Now, the only way I am losing any more photos than the ones I have not backed up yet is if JPEG format becomes obsolete and I didn't convert the photos - or total Armageddon, in which case, family photos would be the least of my worries.  JPEG at this point has been the dominant format for photos for a very,  very long time.  I think worrying about JPEG going away is as fair as it would be to say that LPs are not good music storage because the phonograph is getting harder to find.

...although that argument isn't entirely silly.  There are real problems with older digital media that make yellowing and cracking of traditional media seem minor.  There are certainly file formats out there that are unreadable today.  I have some programs I wrote going back 15 years that can no longer be run on my computer, making them essentially useless.  Maybe with a lot of effort, it'd be doable, and maybe not.  Most DOS games are unrunnable today without extreme effort.  I'm not sure how backwards and forwards compatible the proprietary Microsoft Office formats are.  If I have a Word 6.0 document, can Word 2007 open it?  What about Word 2017?  Will I be able to find a converter in the future to open it?  Will I be able to patch my favorite computer games up to a playable state in the future if I don't save the patches locally now?  Considering how large patches are today (hundreds of megs sometimes), is that economical?  What about unpopular or short-lived file and storage formats?  I have a ZIP disk sitting in a box of photos.  No idea what's on it.  When was the last time you saw a ZIP drive?  Will that situation be any better in 10 years?  Will I be able to find all the right video codecs in 10 years to play movies I have?  I'm already running into that problem today.  What is the life expectancy of these backup mediums?  We're learning that for CD-RW, it's actually pretty poor.  Gave up on that one for that reason.  I've used 5.25" floppies that were nearly 20 years old with no issue...

Then, of course, there is us and file/data corruption.  Ever accidentally deleted something permanently you needed. or corrupted a file?  I have.  I've screwed up my Outlook Contacts list and calendar syncing it to my PDA so many times it's not even funny.  And that doesn't even bother to address getting that data synced up at home, too.  Sometimes it's just not worth the trouble.  At home, my PDA is my address book.

Lastly, there's the cloud.  Off-site storage is super safe.  People put photos on Picasa or Flickr.  They leave all their financial data and email online.  They are at the mercy of that company to safely store and maintain access to that data.  Granted, significant notice was given, but the death of Geocities a few months ago shows that these things aren't always around forever.  Lose the email address an old account was connected to and forget the password, and you're locked out forever anyhow.  The Google security breach in China makes you wonder how safe our data really is.  They have a ridiculous number of backups that no malicious employee can just get at, right?  How much sensitive data does a hacker have access to if they get into my accounts?  For a Google user (gMail, etc) it's quite a bit.  Keep those passwords secure!

Sometimes I think I worry too much...

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