Japan’s Crises, and its ramifications on digital preservation
Mar 23rd, 2011 by Isaiah Beard

A Sony HVR-Z1U camera. This device is a digital video workhorse at the SCC, and relies heavily on digital video tape... something which could be rather hard to come by in the near future.

My heart, thoughts, and a donation goes to those affected by the Earthquake, Tsunami, and now radiological crisis that Japan must grapple with.  It’s not exaggeration to say this turn of events is truly unprecedented.  Sitting thousands of miles away, and only observing the events through websites and television screens, I’m aware that I cannot possibly grasp the ordeal that survivors now face.

With that preface, it’s difficult to even think at this point of how the disaster will inconvenience those of us far removed.  However, there will be a rather significant impact for quite some time, given our technological dependencies in a digital world, the number of electronic components and supplies that are produced in Japan, and how we use those components to capture our current history and cultural heritage.

Our first hints of trouble began with an advisory issued to consumers of magnetic tape media. Sony, a major manufacturer of various varieties of tape media as well as semiconductors, optical discs such as DVD and Blu-ray, and electronic components, has been hit hard.  Sony was forced to shut down a number of factories in the region while recovery efforts continue. The earthquake has forced a halt to production in various manufacturing facilities in Japan, including those of magnetic media manufacturers, and suppliers are now warning of an impending shortage and possible price spikes:

“Our industry has already been affected by a halt in media manufacturing operations – professional media supply shortages are evident, namely HDCam SR,” explained a post on the Comtel Pro Media web site. “Worldwide stock shortages present a realistic threat to our industry and the immediate needs of the television and motion picture production.”

Of particular note is a shutdown of the Sony Corporation Sendai Technology Center, currently the only facility in the world producing HDCAM-SR tapes.

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Lessons Learned from Google’s temporary Gmail loss
Mar 1st, 2011 by Isaiah Beard

GMail kept users notified through a status page of their ongoing recovery efforts.

This past week offered up a little dose of panic to an estimated tens of thousands of users to Google’s free Gmail service, when they logged in to discover that all of their e-mail was missing.  According to Google:

We released a storage software update that introduced the unexpected bug, which caused 0.02% of Gmail users to temporarily lose access to their email. When we discovered the problem, we immediately stopped the deployment of the new software and reverted to the old version.

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Original NASA moon landing tapes: probably gone for good
Jul 16th, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

40 years ago, the Apollo 11 mission blasted off into space, making history as the first successful human landing on the moon.  Unfortunately, NPR reports that after much searching, it looks like the best possible copies of the video that recorded this momentous event have long been erased:

Over the years, NASA had removed massive numbers of magnetic tapes from the shelves. In the early 1980s alone, tens of thousands of boxes were withdrawn.

It turns out that new satellites had gone up and were producing a lot of data that needed to be recorded. “These satellites were suddenly using tapes seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” says Lebar.

And the agency was experiencing a critical shortage of magnetic tapes. So NASA started erasing old ones and reusing them.

That’s probably what happened to the original footage from the moon that the astronauts captured with their lunar camera, says Lebar. It was stored on telemetry tapes, and old tapes with telemetry data were being recycled.

The article also explains how the specially-designed video cameras that astronauts took the moon produced videos of much higher quality than the snowy, blurry video American households saw that night, and we’ve seen for many years since.  Regrettably, the Apollo video cameras used a non-standard format, requiring machinations on the ground to both store the content and convert it to more conventional means (and thus, introducing the noise and blur on currently available tapes).

And so, NASA becomes a poster child not only for the pitfalls of poor preservation planning, but the perils of using non-standard, proprietary formats to record important, historic moments!

The pitfalls of large hard drives – and national security
May 20th, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

Well, here’s an example of how putting all your data eggs in one basket can be quite dangerous.  The National Archives and Records Administration has reported the loss of an external hard drive containing a massive amount of data, the information being personal data at best, and items potentially related to national security matters at worst:

The Inspector General of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) told congressional committee staffers Tuesday that a hard drive containing over a terabyte of information – the equivalent of millions of books-went missing from the NARA facility in College Park, Md., sometime between October 2008 and March 2009.

The Department of Justice and the Secret Service are conducting an investigation, but it’s so far unclear whether the drive was lost as the result of a crime or an accident.

Of course, the technologist in me finds it really interesting that over 8 years ago, the federal government apparently had access to 1 terabyte hard drives!  Those have only become mainstream technology over the past three years or so.  But I digress…

NARA clearly takes the issue seriously, and has posted a FAQ (pdf) about the disappearance.  The document highlights something else of note – how long the drive was “missing” as opposed to “last seen.”

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