Library of Congress releases recommended format specifications
Jun 24th, 2014 by Isaiah Beard

592px-US-LibraryOfCongress-BookLogo.svg

 

For a very long time now, preservationists have been looking for someone to take a leadership role in defining a set of standards for the types of file formats we should be using to keep our collections safe.  In the absence of such an authority, many organizations have resorted to developing their own standards (Rutgers, for instances, has its own guidelines for digital preservation outlined on this very site), or deferring to specifications already developed by other institutions or partnerships.  As a result, while there is some general consensus about what we should be doing, there are occasionally differences and disagreements here and there.

The Library of Congress, too, has been working on this issue as well, and today they’ve taken some steps by releasing a set of recommended format specifications for a variety of object types.  These guidelines are useful in that they provide a baseline to go by, for those who are trying to preserve their content, both in the analog and digital realm.

blog post discussing the recommendations has also been posted, including an acknowledgement by Ted Westervelt, the head of acquisitions and cataloging for U.S. Serials - Arts, Humanities & Sciences, that the LoC need to ramp up its digital preservation initiatives.

There is no point pretending that the Library is collecting digital content on the scale and scope with which it is collecting analog content.  We would like to and the specifications are one step to help get us there, but we are not there yet and it will take some time and effort.  However, the specifications are meant to engage with the world outside the Library.  And, inside the Library and outside it, no one is under any illusion that digital content and analog content are two separate and unrelated spheres and never the twain shall meet.

On putting old software out to pasture
Apr 7th, 2014 by Isaiah Beard

Three generations of Windows operating system versions.  Upper left: Windows 8.1, the current release from Microsoft. Upper right: Windows 7, its predecessor and likely upgrade candidate for most Windows XP users. Lower left: Windows XP, whose support from Microsoft ends today.  Lower right: the Virtualbox control panel, where each of these virtual instances are controlled off the host computer, a Mac.

Three generations of Windows operating system versions. Upper left: Windows 8.1, the current release from Microsoft. Upper right: Windows 7, its predecessor and likely upgrade candidate for most Windows XP users. Lower left: Windows XP, whose support from Microsoft ends today. Lower right: the Virtualbox control panel, where each of these virtual instances are controlled off the host computer, a Mac.

Tomorrow marks an important milestone in the lifecycle of computer software, and should be a day of concern for perhaps hundreds of millions of computer users worldwide.  April 8, 2014 is the final day that Microsoft will provide extended support for its aging Windows XP operating system.  Although Microsoft has not been providing any new features or functionality to this operating system since 2009, tomorrow’s deadline means that the company will also cease to provide important security updates to Windows XP going forward.  This potentially means that users still running the OS could be vulnerable to security risks such as viruses and malware. Although a great deal of new software titles already require a version of Windows that’s a bit more recent, it is expected that support will further decrease dramatically after tomorrow.

Read the rest of this entry »

When copiers aren’t copying as they should…
Aug 12th, 2013 by Isaiah Beard

German researcher D. Kriesel discovered that certain characters are being modified by Xerox copiers, when documents are scanned to PDF.  In this example, the meanings of numeric figures were altered when the Xerox system changed out the number “6″ and with the number “8″ in multiple locations. The cause appears to be faulty compression settings, causing similar-looking characters to be overlaid and repeated in an effort to reduce the size of the scanned files.

 

Over the past week, there has been a great deal of buzz in the IT community about a discovery by a researcher in Germany that certain Xerox Workcentre copy/scan stations are altering the content of documents scanned to PDF. In particular, attention has been focused on the Xerox WorkCentre 7535 and 7556 models. Kriesel found that “patches of the pixel data are randomly replaced in a very subtle and dangerous way. In particular, some numbers appearing in a document may be replaced by other numbers when it is scanned.”

According to Xerox, a software update is coming to address the issue.  From their official statement:

We continue to test various scanning scenarios on our office devices, to ensure we fully understand the breadth of this issue.  We’re encouraged by the progress our patch development team is making and will keep you updated on our progress here at the Real Business at Xerox blog.

We’ve been working closely with David Kriesel, the researcher who originally uncovered the scenario, and thank him for his input which we are continuing to investigate.  As we’ve discussed with David, the issue is amplified by “stress documents,”  which have small fonts, low resolution, low quality and are hard to read.  While these are not typical for most scan jobs ultimately, our actions will always be driven by what’s right for our customers.

There are still points of contention, however. Read the rest of this entry »

A teachable moment in personal data preservation
Apr 26th, 2013 by Isaiah Beard

 

 

An all-too-coomon sight: $3,000 worth of stealable student laptops sitting unsecured.

An all-too-common sight: $3,000 worth of stealable student laptops sitting unsecured.

It’s the time of the semester in most universities where nerves are frazzled, sleep is lost, and sadly, lots and lots of laptop thefts happen.  Where I work at the Alexander Library, the end of every semester brings throngs of students cramming for exams and finishing final projects, and they invariably bring their laptops, smartphones, and tablets with them.  Unfortunately, many are tempted to leave those devices sitting unsecured on desks when they step out for a break, despite repeated warnings not do this. Predictably, we also get the most reports of pricey electronic being stolen around this time of year as a result.

Having your expensive laptop or mobile device stolen is a humbling, stressful experience that even I have fallen victim to. However, the monetary loss of the hardware can pale in comparison to the value of the data inside the device.  Personal data can be stolen, resulting in anything from embarrassing disclosures of personal details, to outright identity theft.

Even worse: if you were working on something highly valuable to you, and you don’t have a backup copy anywhere else, the results can be devastating.

Currently circulating around social media and even local news is a photo of this flyer, posted around the Rutgers campus about a week ago:

LostLaptop

My heart goes out to this person. Their entire academic career is now on the line because of a thoughtless criminal act.  And sadly, this isn’t the first time academic data has been lost to a theft: in Oklahoma, a similar “reward” was offered by a researcher wanting her critical data back as well.

Consider also that even if you’re vigilant, and lock down your hardware or never let it leave your sight, theft isn’t the only way you can lose your data.  Laptops and smartphones can be dropped and damaged.  Hardware failures and crashes happen.  Or a slip of the fingers could result in a file being accidentally deleted and lost forever.

But, unfortunate incidents like these can also be a teachable moment about how important it is to always have a backup plan.

If you own a mobile device, laptop, or even a desktop computer, and especially if you’re a student or academic that relies on them for your schoolwork or research, take the time right now to make sure your files are secure and backed up.  It may not be a convenient time, but data loss never makes an appointment!

Consider using an external drive, or an inexpensive cloud service, or both.  At the bare minimum, sign up for a free 2GB Dropbox account (or contact me for an invitation which will get you an extra 500MB), and store your work there as added protection.  Doing these simple steps will help ensure that you aren’t forced to try negotiating with a thief on the price to retrieve your data… further rewarding them for what they’ve done.

If the worst does happen, it may be possible to locate your stolen device if you have the right tools.  Apple devices have location tracking available through iCloud, but they have to be turned on beforehand to work.  Free tools such as GeoSense are available for Windows laptops as well.

One other thing to consider: your assignments, research data and coursework aren’t the only information kept on your devices.  Personal emails, banking data, photos, and info that can be used to steal your identity are also likely stored there.  These are things you don’t want a thief to have access to.  For this reason, you might also want to consider encrypting the storage on your mobile devices, and using strong passwords to prevent unauthorized access.

Easy to use, transparent full disk encryption options are built-in for Windows 7/8 and Mac OS X computers.  iOS devices (iPhones and iPads, starting with the iPhone 3GS and iPad 2) have encryption built in, too: just enable the passcode lock feature, and use a strong passcode to make it effective. Android devices like the Samsung Galaxy S III and IV have similar capabilities.

Using encryption helps prevent thieves from accessing your data, and that’s a good thing.  Even if there’s something irreplaceable on that laptop that tempts you to bargain with its abductor, the potential breach of your personal data probably isn’t worth it!

Evolving Standards: Updating our moving image digital specifications
Apr 8th, 2013 by Isaiah Beard

A 35mm film projector.

A 35mm film projector in operation.

As part of preservation-level digital standards, myself and colleagues have worked since 2004 to develop a best practice specification for digitizing moving images.  Our initial standard document was developed for the NJVid Portal, and was very basic in its specification.

Since then, some minor tweaks have periodically been added to the document.  But recently, some major developments have occurred with our campus infrastructure that have resulted in our need to consider slightly more substantial changes to our spec:

  • RUcore is in the process of implementing Wowza as it’s new streaming server platform, and it is already in operation for the libraries reservation streaming media service.  In conversations with the reserves and media teams handling video for those efforts, there has been some real-world testing of video quality improvements for MP4 streaming, and tweaks have been suggested for improving the quality of our streamed videos.
  • RUwireless Wifi campus connections have been upgraded to support higher bitrates (up to 3Mbps per connection).  Previously they were capped at 1Mbps.  This means that we can now push video and other content at nearly triple the data rate we were accustomed to over campus Wifi, given proper conditions.

In light of this, coupled with user demand for improvements in video streaming quality, and in preparation for Wowza streaming support on RUcore, we’re proposing changes to the digitization specs for moving images. A draft for comments is available.  Changes are noted in the document red, but to summarize:

1. MPEG-4 streaming bitrates have been increased to a minimum of 860kbps, recommendation of 2.1Mbps for high quality.
2. HD resolution is now supported at a minimum of 720p resolution.

Language has also been added to address digitization of motion picture film, and calls for a minimum of DCI 4K resolution, with support for MXF wrappers and Motion JPEG2000 where appropriate. Motion Picture Film scanning is still a moving target however, and mention is made that film digitization projects should start with a Digital Curation consult.


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