Floppy disks and modern gadgets: Keeping a safe distance
Mar 25th, 2016 by Isaiah Beard

iPhone and 3.5" floppy

Never do this: smartphones can be deadly to magnetically stored data in some circumstances.

In my dealings with preserving older, born-digital documents and data, I’ve run into this situation quite often: Someone comes into the DCRC with a 3.5″ floppy disk or other magnetic media and asks if we can help them migrate the data to more modern storage, such as a USB flash drive.  We do maintain a couple of floppy drives for this purpose, so normally we can help.  However, we sometimes cringe and express a bit of concern at how they’re holding the floppy disk(s) being brought in, or rather, what people commonly hold those old disks against.

What’s the problem?  Smartphones, and sometimes tablets or even modern laptops. With mobile devices being nearly ubiquitous in the US and particularly among college students and faculty, it’s a normal occurrence to see them being carried around in one’s hand. It’s also not uncommon to stack a smartphone against some other object a person might be carrying… like a book, or a laptop, or, unfortunately, that floppy disk you might want to recover data from.

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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.

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NY Times Article on the realities and costs of Born Digital preservation
Mar 16th, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

Salman Rushdie. Source: Wikipedia. Click on image for link to source.

The New York Times today published an article that reflects some of the challenges of preserving born digital content – that is, documents, data and other content that has been created digitally, on a computer or electronic device, and for which there is no physical original (such as on paper).

In particular, they highlight the efforts of Emory University, in preserving Salman Rushdie’s archival materials.

Among the archival material from Salman Rushdie currently on display at Emory University in Atlanta are inked book covers, handwritten journals and four Apple computers (one ruined by a spilled Coke). The 18 gigabytes of data they contain seemed to promise future biographers and literary scholars a digital wonderland: comprehensive, organized and searchable files, quickly accessible with a few clicks.

But like most Rushdian paradises, this digital idyll has its own set of problems. As research libraries and archives are discovering, “born-digital” materials — those initially created in electronic form — are much more complicated and costly to preserve than anticipated.

Electronically produced drafts, correspondence and editorial comments, sweated over by contemporary poets, novelists and nonfiction authors, are ultimately just a series of digits — 0’s and 1’s — written on floppy disks, CDs and hard drives, all of which degrade much faster than old-fashioned acid-free paper. Even if those storage media do survive, the relentless march of technology can mean that the older equipment and software that can make sense of all those 0’s and 1’s simply don’t exist anymore.

Imagine having a record but no record player.

An interesting aspect of this collection and its exhibition is that it emulates the experience Rushdie had in creating the content.  Rather than just viewing the finished documents, you get to see the computer desktop as he saw it, open up the same applications he used, all in the 1980s and 1990s technological contexts… and not using the modern, Web 2.0, Windows 7 or Mac OS X trappings we’re accustomed to in today’s computers.

I think this article is an excellent read, irrespective of what one’s views may be on the subject matter.  Material of all kinds, in increasing amounts, faces the same perils as this collection every day, and archivists everywhere, including this one, wrestle with how best to retain it all.  So far, the only tried and true method for such types of preservation is to obsessively manage and migrate the content, and that requires making tough decisions as to how to proceed, what formats to migrate to, and hoping the decisions made are the right ones to keep the content viable, at least until the next generation of technology requires that the hard decisions be made again.

Retrocomputing: Remembering technologies past
Sep 17th, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

Even as technology marches on, there is a slowly growing enthusiasm for looking back on the history of computing, and preserving those still-working specimens of obsolete systems and vintage hardware and software that exist. The movement is known as retrocomputing, and although it’s mostly done as a hobby, I would argue that the people who collect and preserve these older specimens are doing a bit of digital curation in their own right.

It’s one thing to read about older computers in the mid to late 20th century that shaped technology as it stands today. But looking up articles on PDP minicomputersApple IIs, TRS-80s, Commodore 64s and the like from your modern LCD desktop or iPhone just isn’t the same as actually getting to sit in front of one of these Old Greats and using them. And so, every so often, some of these retrocomputing enthusiasts get together and allow the interested public to do just that.

Recently the East Coast Vintage Computer Festival rolled into Wall Tonwship, NJ, and packed the InfoAge Science Center’s exhibit hall wall to wall with computer systems from decades past… most working well, some not so much. Even some of the much older minicomputers on display worked well for a while, until the systems consumed way too much power and blew the science center’s fuses, rendering them inoperable. But of the many old historic systems that did work, visitors could sit down and give them a spin. It was fascinating to be able make an IMSAI 8080 talk just like it did when fictional teenage hacker David Lightman used it to access military computers in the movie Wargames. Playing old cartridge games on a genuine Atari 800 was pretty neat as well. And although my BASIC programming was a little rusty, the old fascination I felt the first time I wrote a program in second grade came back, as I did it all over again.

Operating old computers can be quite a loud affair, as you’ll see in this video. Here, David Gesswein demonstrates a DEC PDP-8 minicomputer, connected – as a PDP-8 likely would have been in the mid-1960s – to an electromechanical ASR-33 Teletype machine. If you think CRT monitors are old-school, consider that this type of setup had no graphics at all. You had just the equivalent of an electric typewriter, a bank of switches and indicator lights, and some reel-to-reel tape machines to interact with. My, how we’re spoiled today…

Unfortunately, the clatter of Teletype and and the din of many excited geeks talking loudly drowns out the audio, but if you want to know more about the PDP-8, David Gesswein has his own website explaining its intricacies, and even lets you interact with a working PDP-8 online.

A wide assortment of photos taken at the festival appear after the jump link below. Enjoy!

Image Gallery: Vintage Computing Festival East 6.0

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