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April 26, 2011

The End of Information
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 04:50 PM * 159 comments

Think of it as the Library of Alexandria burning.

This is just a tiny example:

An e-mail sent Tuesday to registered [Friendster] users told them to expect “a new and improved Friendster site in the coming weeks.” It also warned them that their existing account profile, photos, messages, blog posts and more will be deleted on May 31. A basic profile and friends list will be preserved for each user.

That’s what’ll become of most of what we’ve written; no letters bound with a red ribbon in the attic, no diaries in a trunk in the basement. Blog posts, pictures, and all, will vanish.

Can you find the archives of the SFRT on GEnie, back from the day? The stories, the essays, the discussion? Where can you read the messages from the Speculations Rumor Mill?

This is the age that will leave no records.

Comments on The End of Information:
#1 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 05:08 PM:

No records, and with the record number of people leaving no children, and never meeting their friends, strange memories.

#2 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 05:16 PM:

Most ages leave no records. The ones that did, did so accidentally. The oldest cuneiform tablet, representing the earliest known piece of written information is a sales receipt.

The idea that we could leave behind a written account of our time is a very modern one, and a beneficial one but it's a gift we were given by the past, not a right to demand from the future.

As much as we'd love to leave a wealth of data for our decedents to sift through, we need to accept that much of it won't survive.

Or we could just inscribe all emails on copper plates.

#3 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 05:44 PM:

When I was a kid I saw a book about a 1940's radio show.

It was a comedy radio show where the stars told jokes, and these were compiled into a joke book.

Perhaps there is no other record of the show.

#4 ::: Skwid ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 05:46 PM:

I am certain there is some few dozen obsessive digital packrats out there who have archived the entirety of my participation in Usenet (aside from Google, of course). Hooray for decentralized network propagation! What level of permanence their storage mechanisms have, much less how long compatible data access technologies will be around, is another issue entirely...

As best I can tell, our best hope for information permanence in the modern era lies in the continued expansion of digital storage capacities. As long as it is trivially simple to store the vast amount of intellectual output available in an increasingly trivial quantity of the available digital space, that data is likely to be copied on and even propagated...because why not?

#5 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 05:55 PM:

I've mused on this before..

Skwid: Continued expansion of storage capabilities not only doesn't solve all problems, it aggravates some of them. A big drive means you lose more when it crashes, and may be too big for your elderly computer. Not to mention common long-term failure modes, like magnetic fading over time, or even cumulative cosmic-ray damage. And then there's the whole "dusty deck" problem....

#6 ::: Marko Kloos ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 05:59 PM:

One of the side benefits of writing longhand (on acid-free paper, with bulletproof ink) is records longevity. Whatever computer system I'll be using in 20 years, I won't ever have a file or media compatibility issue issue with the first draft of my current novel, or the one before it.

My wife has a recipe book, hand-written by her grandmother before she left Germany for the US in 1920. No special data interface or file converter needed, other than a quick refresher in Suetterlin writing.

#7 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 06:05 PM:

I think I have an archive of the SFRT on a disk somewhere. I think it's a text file. I think. I do still have a 3.5 floppy drive in the old desktop server.

#8 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 06:07 PM:

Another problem is what to do with all the stuff we don't want found, like nuclear waste. Some of that stuff has a half life of 10,000 years. Sure you can bury it under a mountain but what language do you use for the warning signs? It's highly unlikely that anyone will be speaking English as she is spoke today, 10,000 years from now. Pictograms are useful to a certain degree but even they fade away eventually.

The more cynical side of me thinks this is a fitting testament to our society's priorities: we'll leave behind megatons of radioactive waste but almost none of our literature or art will survive.

#9 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 06:08 PM:

As always, the things that last are the things that people make copies of. That lots of people make lots of copies of.

It's easier to make copies today; it's easier to lose the copies.

If you want it to last, copy it and spread it. That truth hasn't changed.

#10 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 06:10 PM:

I like to think of it as a continuous slushpile bonfire. May it burn forever.

#11 ::: MichaelC ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 06:21 PM:

I saw these two vast and trunkless legs of stone in the desert that had the same problem.

#12 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 06:22 PM:

University libraries, specifically the University of California libraries, are deliberately archiving digital sites and records.

So is the Library of Congress.

Then there's the Wayback Machine.

This is my site in 1999, when it was still hosted on AOL.

Here's how it looked in 2000:

Deja Vue's UseNet archive is still intact, though not completely public, at Google Groups.

AOL still has an archive of the old discussion boards, mostly for legal issues.

#13 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 06:23 PM:

Can you find the archives of the SFRT on GEnie, back from the day?

I still have some excerpts of files that I saved through three computers from GEnie's day. When the service ended in 1999, I wondered if anyone would consider saving them. The SFRT was a superb place to hang out.

I'll check when I get home, but I bet I can find Damon Knight's recipe for roast chicken.

#14 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 06:31 PM:

On rasfw (I think), there were occasional flame wars over Le Guin's _Always Coming Home_ and Kesh librarians' habit of burning older books which had outlived their time. (Some were archived on a computer; many were not.)

One or two commentators were horrified, and said that that would never happen in a civilized society.

A decade or so later, having lived through the decline and fall of fandoms (and with them their archives of -- sometimes quite good -- fanfiction), several computer migrations and the ensuing loss of data, and the deaths of quite beloved forums and communities, I think the only different between our time and theirs is that the Kesh destroyed their books selectively.

So it goes.

#15 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 06:56 PM:

Libraries don't keep everything forever either. The collection is weeded, with old, unused and out of date material being deaccessioned to make way for newer, more relevant material. This is even more true in the digital age, especially with eJournals. (Sometimes it works backwards with journals as well, where the publisher puts an embargo on the most recent issues, so you can access everything from a year ago to 5o years ago, but nothing published last month.)

(oh, don't get me started on eJournals. Sometimes it's impossible to even tell what you own. Click a hyperlink and maybe it'll work and maybe it won't. These days, eJournals are Schrodinger's Resource).

#16 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 07:02 PM:

I hate to say "told you so", but there's a certain book ("Glasshouse") in which I took the destruction of most of our era's data -- due to bit rot and DRM/proprietary file formats -- as axiomatic: we're living through the Second Dark Age.

#17 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 07:02 PM:

And used bookstores likewise ... much of my job is weeding out duplicates, and books that have been on our shelves for over 20 years (without review). Those don't get destroyed directly, but they get stamped and otherwise mutilated, then go to a local hospital.

#18 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 07:03 PM:

Scientologists are so sure of the importance of Hubbard's writing that they've created archive sites in remote locations.

I'd really hate for Battlefield Earth to be a substantial fraction of the world's literature to survive a nuclear holocaust. Ichhhhh.

* * *

I think it is important to preserve crap along with pearls. Advertising ephemera, marginal periodicals, school newsletters . . . they all say something about the time and place they were created.

* * *
Sometimes, they'll say something like: "We weren't nowhere as smart or virtuous as you think we was."

#19 ::: Johan Larson ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 07:08 PM:

Keep in mind that postings to newsgroups and discussion forums are essentially the modern equivalent of bar talk. And no previous generation has even attempted to preserve their idle banter. It is a wonder of our age that we can try -- and if determined, succeed.

#20 ::: charming quark ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 07:10 PM:

Keith Kisser @ #8:

You build a Millenarian math on top of it and let them figure it out.

#21 ::: d.l.kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 07:22 PM:

I've reached that point in a novel I'm working on. What's remembered and passed along is the sum total of real knowledge for the people in the story I'm writing. It worries me that if there is an armageddon, civilization will take centuries to recover.

#22 ::: ChrisB ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 07:33 PM:

Huang Ti attempted to support the myth that as First Emperor he was the beginning of everything by burning every document dating from before his reign, but Confucius, Lao Tse, and Mencius all got through. Call it a severe filter. And without something like that happening every few hundred years China would be six feet deep in paper. I really cannot believe that among the problems our descendents have will be that they can find nothing worthwhile to read (Confucius, Lao Tse, and Mencius spring to mind).

#23 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 08:13 PM:

As mentioned, Damon Knight's chicken recipe:

First Science Fiction & Fantas
Category 10, Topic 36
Message 320 Wed Jan 26, 1994

Another chicken recipe. This one is dead easy, and it -is- haute cuisine.

Preheat the oven to 375. Put 3 peeled cloves of garlic and half a teaspoon of
rosemary into the cavity of the bird, add a generous dose of salt and a few
turns of the pepper mill. Rub about 1/4 cup veg oil over the outside of the
bird, sprinkle with salt, more pepper, and another half teaspoon of rosemary.
Put the bird in a metal roasting pan with another 1/4 cup of oil, stick it in
the oven and leave it there for about an hour and a half. No basting, no

#24 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 08:24 PM:

Then there's the whole lot of stuff written on self-destructing (in the long run) paper that's never going to be digitized . . .

Anyone have a good recommendation for a source on the Turkish transition under Ataturk?

#25 ::: individualfrog ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 08:26 PM:

Johan Larson @ 19: Boswell?

#26 ::: Semilog ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 08:27 PM:

This is why I've gone back to shooting tangible film and *printing* black and white photographs using archival methods. I want the great-grandchildren of my nephews and nieces to be able to imagine who we were.

#27 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 08:28 PM:

ChrisB #22: Quite a bit more of the Hundred Schools survived (Mozi, for example).

Efforts to suppress ideas deliberately do not always work. Indeed, they may have the perverse effect of causing people to hide the books you want to burn.

#28 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 09:01 PM:

I think some people hereabouts are being a little too melancholy. Yes, lots of digital data gets destroyed in abrupt corporate shifts and the like. On the other hand, it gets easier and easier for everyday folks to grab and preserve vast swatches of it--see what happened this month with Google Video, which actually caused Google to relent on its announced plan to discard all old Google Video content by April 29.

Jim is right to point out that if you leave your data exclusively on someone else's server, its fate is hostage to their business model. This is why I try to take basic precautions. I don't personally use Gmail at all any more, and while Teresa does, we run Thunderbird 24/7 on an old Mac to maintain a local copy of her complete Gmail archive. Thanks to Martin Sutherland, Making Light backs up its full MySQL database every day, and I run a daily SuperDuper script that copies it at 3 AM to a computer on our local network in Brooklyn. After several mass-storage disasters over the years (some of which were alleviated by the generosity of blog readers who we never sufficiently thanked), we now have backup schemes for everything we do which amount to belt, suspenders, another belt, and oh yeah, a completely off-site second set of suspenders. (Turns out the bandwidth and throughput of a 25-minute subway ride is really impressive.)

I don't deny that the problems Jim alludes to are real, and I agree that millions of people are boneheadedly ignorant of how exposed they are to massive data loss. I just think that "oh woe, we are headed into a new Dark Age, wail and rend tunic" is a less effective rhetorical approach than "Don't be a chump, protect yourself by taking some easy precautions." Particularly when terabyte hard drives are now about $100 at Costco.

#29 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 09:14 PM:

Stefan @ #18, "I'd really hate for Battlefield Earth to be a substantial fraction of the world's literature to survive a nuclear holocaust. Ichhhhh."

A Canticle for Liebowitz for the 21st century?

#30 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 09:36 PM:

When Geocities burned, I had this same feeling.

Until then, when searching for some obscure fact, or a picture from some long-forgotten anime, or the lyrics to a half-remembered folk song, I'd stumble onto a Geocities site. I'd see the passion, the exacting care, the accuracy now drowned out by a thousand "" or "yahoo answers" false consensus entries. Sure, the design was terrible, the fonts were bad and the writing often dotted with far too many exclamation points, but the net that was was a wondrous place, and I miss it.

#31 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 09:53 PM:

My mother's comment on data and computers:
'If you don't have it on paper, you don't have it.'

#32 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 10:08 PM:

it's the end of the word as we know it...

#33 ::: Q. Pheevr ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 10:25 PM:

Okay, I'm gonna start copying this comment thread onto a block of granite with a chisel now.

#34 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 10:28 PM:

I remember someone talking about a throwaway line in a 70s SF movie I hadn't seen, where somebody was looking at a bank of computers and announcing that we'd just lost the Age of Enlightenment. What was that? Logan's Run?

I've lost batches of stuff each time I changed my email server. I generally save the things I regard as important to my disk, and take half-assed measures to back it up. My favorite Usenet posts have been saved, and my LiveJournal posts are archived into PDFs by year, thanks to "My LJ Book." I've made ebooks of the stories I wrote for the story-writing group for a while.

Whatever. It's all doomed. I keep trying to sort through what I have now so Sarah won't have to set fire to the house when we die. Meanwhile, I'm digitizing family photos (especially slides) and emailing them to a half dozen interested relatives.

#35 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 10:37 PM:

Tony Zbaraschuk@9: If you want it to last, copy it and spread it.

Indeed. It's the only way to be . . . well, not sure, because you can't be sure. Not in this world, anyhow. But it's your best shot at a fighting chance.

The more durable the physical copy, the harder (or more time-consuming; or more expensive; or all three) it usually is to make, and the harder it is to make, the fewer copies will get made.

#36 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 10:43 PM:

Keith Kisser @ #8, have you seen this discussion of the ISO's new ionizing radiation symbol?

As it stands, I think the most plausible reading is, "A giant skull is loose! Run to your right to lure it under the ionizing radiation source in the ceiling. That's the only way to defeat it."
#37 ::: thomas ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 10:59 PM:

Tony Zbaraschuk@9If you want it to last, copy it and spread it. That truth hasn't changed.

Or as Linus Torvalds put it
Only wimps use tape backup: real men just upload their important stuff on ftp, and let the rest of the world mirror it ;)

#38 ::: Andrew Plotkin ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 11:06 PM:

Re Geocities:

It is not ideal that such a thing depends on a small horde of volunteers to reach the partial coverage that it has. But, you could equally say, never before in history have so few people been able to save so much data with so little effort.

#39 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: April 26, 2011, 11:57 PM:

On your list of useless government boondoggles that only liberals would approve wasting good tax dollars to support:

Just think of how many jobs could be created by eliminating idiotic programs like that! Why, the numbers are almost certainly staggering! Staggering, I say!

#40 ::: Tracie ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 12:02 AM:

... and I feel fine.

#41 ::: Marci Kiser ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 12:26 AM:

True, but had we tried to emulate the archiving methods of our forefathers, this would be the age that left *no trees*.

So, you know, context.

#42 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 12:31 AM:

When priests of Isis wrote their Lady's name,
Or scribes in Eridu indented clay,
They knew their ancestors had done the same
Time out of mind, like them, in just that way.
Before Troy ever crowned its hill, some say
The Kings of Ur had books so old that they
Could not be read by scholars of that day -
And Pharaoh's court thought that a paltry claim.

At least they dyed their skins, or baked their clay,
Or chiselled deep the stones they marked. We spray
Electrons to the void, and make a flame
Of particles, not photons, to our shame.
They wrote, and wrote to last. Our words will stay
No longer than this current generation may.

#43 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 12:44 AM:

Oh, and someone mentioned Ataturk. We're just back from the Anzac Day holiday here. This may be thought appropriate. For me, they are among the most magnanimous words ever to come from the human mind:

"Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

- Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, 1934, an Address to the mothers of the Australians. Inscribed on the Anzac Memorial at Gallipoli, and on the Ataturk Memorial in Canberra. Deeply and to last forever, as much as they can ever be, I trust.

#44 ::: utsusemi ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 01:08 AM:

Keith Kisser @ #2 wrote, "The idea that we could leave behind a written account of our time is a very modern one, and a beneficial one but it's a gift we were given by the past, not a right to demand from the future."

Agree. And I think it is indeed far too easy to overestimate what proportion of the ephemera of the past (and non-ephemera, too, for that matter) has made it down to us here in the present; often we don't even know to miss things that have been lost. The Dark Ages are "dark" in large part because they're further away in time, and time=attrition, whether the medium is stone tablets or paper or magnetic disks.

Some numbers that were right on my desk and are interesting: regional gazetteers were a sort of local encyclopedia compiled by community notables throughout the last few Chinese dynasties, all over the empire. They really took off in the Ming dynasty (14th-17th centuries). It's estimated that of about 2000 printed during the Yuan (13-14c), 99% have been lost completely. We have about 900 left from the Ming and more than 5,600 from the last dynasty, the Qing. Qing ones tend to be bigger, too. Was the Yuan a dark age? Was its information technology notably worse or different from the Qing's? Not particularly--it was mostly just longer ago. As for data format, Yuan documents are nearly inaccessible to people without special language training. In 50 or 100 years, will it really be harder to build or salvage a 5" floppy drive than it is to learn medieval Chinese?

Sorry if that's TL;DR. This topic has been on my mind lately as a novice researcher who's eventually likely to work on a fair bit of historical ephemera while wistfully wishing somebody'd bothered to save more of it.

#45 ::: VictorS ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 01:14 AM:

Neil @24: All I've found are references in biographical works and memoirs. I hope someone here has more.

For those of you not up on modern Turkish history, here's the story: Prior to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish was written in Arabic script. Turkic phonemes don't map well to Arabic script, leading to very low literacy rates -- 20% IIRC.

Ataturk changed the country over to Latin script between July 1928 and Jan 1929, additionally presenting it as a patriotic duty for everyone to learn to read. (Among other methods, he toured the country to teach lessons in person to the crowds.) Literacy soared to about 90%.

The gains: phonetic spelling, stunning gains in literacy, free flow of ideas, etc.

The loss: anything written in the old script -- a thousand years of writing -- was and is now basically inaccessible except to specialists.

#46 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 01:19 AM:

I was out geocaching with my parents a few years back, and as they pulled out the cache from beneath a bridge, where it had been loosely covered with debris, it occurred to me that in the event of a societal breakdown (nuclear holocaust, major natural disaster leading to the ned of our current civilization, etc.) geocaches would be a likely candidate for the random things that would survive to future times for archeologists to wonder over.

If you know the contents of your average geocache, this can be an amusing diversion. "Once again, we have found evidence of the Cult of the Little Rubber Ducky."

#47 ::: A. J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 01:19 AM:

The history of the Internet becomes, like the office of an aging philosophy professor, more and more a thick drift of papers upon papers, photocopies upon photocopies. and Google and so many other sources ensure that very little actually disappears completely, but much disappears from view.

To be honest, the possibility of disappearance from view should come as a great relief to those of us who came of age on the Internet. Anyone who could piece together my old usernames could probably find things out about me that are best kept to evenings with close friends and a bottle of wine.

And the things that haunt me most are the ones I can't find: logs of roleplaying from MUSHes that fell to entropy with the last spin of a hard disk, and - queerly - a story that predated the Internet, that I know one person who remembers and none of us can find, on or offline, Google Books or no.

It's a little fable in a yellowed paperback book, perhaps Alvin Schwartz's work, perhaps someone else's; I don't remember. I only remember that it was a beautifully vivid illustration of expectations and miscommunications.

It goes like this: A deaf man is carving a fence post at the side of the road. He sees a traveler approaching, and thinks, "He's going to ask me what I'm building, so I'll say 'Fence post'. Then he's going to ask how far to the next town, and I'll say 'four miles'." (And so on.)

Of course, the traveler walks up and asks him some completely different questions and hilarity ensues.

Haven't found it on the internet, or anywhere, since I was eight. Anyone heard of this one?

There's another one quite like it with a foreigner joining a military service and being told to expect certain questions from the King (or some other authority figure) by his compatriots, and being taught answers to them, and being asked entirely different questions when the King comes around... I can't remember what the setup usually is, though.

#48 ::: Glenn Hauman ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 02:32 AM:

Jim, I've got some of the archives-- how about you? What have you got stored away?

#49 ::: Farah Mendlesohn ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 02:39 AM:

My first realisation of this was when I returned in 2004 to some photocopies I'd made of an archive in 1994. The ink had turned to dust and blew off the paper.

There will be also very few archives from younger writers to deposit in libraries.

#50 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 02:48 AM:

My library has started talking idly about preserving and archiving the efflorescence of online SF culture, mostly online-only magazines and so on.

Our best idea so far: print them out on acid-free paper and bind them.

#51 ::: Harry Payne ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 03:39 AM:

#34 ::: Kip W

"I remember someone talking about a throwaway line in a 70s SF movie I hadn't seen, where somebody was looking at a bank of computers and announcing that we'd just lost the Age of Enlightenment. What was that? Logan's Run?"

It was Rollerball.

"Nothing too important. Just Dante, and a few corrupt Popes."

#52 ::: Zander Nyrond ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 04:38 AM:

MichaelC @ 11: "Oi! Ozymandias! PUT YOUR TRUNKS ON!!"

"This is the age that will leave no records."

I think this is the age that will leave more records than any other...only half of them will require specialised technology to read, and half of them will be of no significance to anyone, and quite a lot of them will have deteriorated a fair bit by the time they become archaeologically interesting.

But it's always worth printing out anything you want to keep. And e-readers will never replace real books.

#53 ::: Emma in Sydney ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 06:22 AM:

Some visionary at the National Library of Australia realised this years ago, and just did something about it (I think without getting approval in advance). Now we have this: Pandora: Australia's Web Archive. Pretty cool.

#54 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 08:08 AM:

utsusemi, #44:

And I think it is indeed far too easy to overestimate what proportion of the ephemera of the past (and non-ephemera, too, for that matter) has made it down to us here in the present; often we don't even know to miss things that have been lost.

And sometimes that distorts perceptions of the past. One of the arguments you get from the people who think someone other than William Shakespeare wrote his plays is that surely the greatest English playwright of all time would have left more records.

#55 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 08:09 AM:

The obligatory Mike Ford link.

Also, what makes the people behind Friendster think they will be able to start up anything and have people trust them?

#56 ::: Wesley ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 08:21 AM:

Also, it's not just on the internet that things aren't saved because no one realizes they're important. One of the reasons many old BBC TV programs no longer exist is that, where American networks saw TV programs through the metaphor of film, the BBC thought of them as plays--events that would be seen when first broadcast and rerun at most once, rather than performances recorded for all time. It wasn't until the 1970s that the BBC began to realize programs needed to be saved so they could be seen again.

#57 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 08:33 AM:

A. J. Luxton @47: There's another one quite like it with a foreigner joining a military service and being told to expect certain questions from the King (or some other authority figure) by his compatriots, and being taught answers to them, and being asked entirely different questions when the King comes around... I can't remember what the setup usually is, though."

That's a Jewish joke, and a temporally appropriate one too!

#58 ::: cleek ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 09:09 AM:

why should we expect our conversations to persist, or to be of interest to anyone at all, 1000 years from now ?

society in the early 3000's will have more than enough information about our time to know everything they want to know - which probably won't be very much. they'll have their own issues to deal with.

#59 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 09:58 AM:

A.J. Luxton @47: There's a situation like that in Notre Dame de Paris, but it's sort of on the grim side rather than funny.

Harry Payne @51: I swear, I thought of Rollerball after I hung up, but couldn't bring myself to post script it. Thanks for the information. (Was that a good movie? At the time, I think most of my circle tended to dismiss it.)

cleek @58: Ah, but if we come across an unexceptional conversation from 100 or 1000 years ago, don't we find it interesting?

#60 ::: The Modesto Kid ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 10:07 AM:

if we come across an unexceptional conversation from 100 or 1000 years ago, don't we find it interesting

But, but we don't have access to petabytes of unexceptional conversations from 100(0) years ago -- It would probably start to get old digging through them. The deletion of files on Friendster does not mean all data everywhere is gone; just a tiny diminishment in the amount of unexceptional-conversation data available. (Worth referring here to Saramago's story about universal biography.)

#61 ::: Andy Brazil ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 10:56 AM:

Umm, frankly I wouldn't expect anyone surviving in 100 years to have access to electricity or computers - and most paper libraries will be about 10 fathoms down. So, yeah, no records. But I really doubt that that will be what they curse us for.

#62 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 11:52 AM:

There's a nice article on the subject in the April 23-29 issue of New Scientist (unfortunately behind a paywall). Mentions reocities, and also the Twitter archive: "That means the US Library of Concress can more readily work out what what you had for lunch a year ago than you." Non omnis moriar.

#63 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 11:55 AM:

When I was a kid, there was a big deal about some guy in New Haven who had been taking pictures of the town since the turn of the century, and his cache of negatives found. The only information that existed about many, many of his subjects.

As someone who copies everything to the new backup drive every couple of years, I've thought it's the generation just prior to widespread digitization that will be lost, because the physical media suck so badly. All those letters my aunt wrote to her mother on cheap pulp paper, all those color slides and photos that have colorshifted out of visibility, all the thermal-paper faxes that have gone uniform grey-brown, the essays and short stories and novellas on corrasible bond (aha! get yez oldtimers there) that are now fused by humidity into solid lumps of pulp, clay and varnish. All the seismic and astronomical and every other kind of information recorded on strip charts. (And of course all the pulp mags and books that have crumbled before they could be scanned.)

I'm not so worried about unintelligible formats and DRM, partly because of recopying, partly because of Moore's Law. After the singularity, there will be programs that do nothing but wander the back halls of cyberspace decrypting old garbage. And wonderful things they will find, some of them even what was originally stored.

#64 ::: Martin Sutherland ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 12:19 PM:

Over time we lose hand-written, print, and carved-in-stone media, too. We have enough history with those media, though, to have a rough approximation of the rate of attrition for them. Given how quickly we are chasing through generations of digital storage technology (magnetic tape, digital disc, optical disc, RAID, cloud, etc.), I'm not sure if we have enough experience yet with this stuff to say if the rate of digital attrition will be higher or lower in the long term than for analog physical media.

It certainly bears wondering whether the file formats in which we store digital media are of archival quality; I reckon some of them are sufficiently standardized to be considered long-term readable (.jpg, .mp3), whereas others aren't (I still haven't found a way of reading .psp Paint Shop Pro files on my Mac). I fret about this a lot.

I often worry about how easy it is for non-tech-savvy people (e.g. my parents) to casually lose digital data. But then, it has always been easy for people who are not interested to casually destroy information. How many children throughout history have gone through their parents' possessions and just thrown everything away without even looking?

We can wonder how many people take the care to file away their digital photos for the ages, but what proportion of people boxed, stored, and indexed all their analog negatives in a way that they could be found again? Programs like iPhoto make this almost trivially easy now.

There's clearly a risk that we're building the next dark age, but I think the optimistic alternative is far from implausible.

#65 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 12:25 PM:

Woo. We so do not have this problem.

Many other problems, yes, we do have. But not the problem of non-material record of texts and music!

Thus among the problems we do have, is lately our pathetic attempts to grapple with the problem of organizing this material, culling the inessential flotsam and jetsom, etc.

Love, c.

#66 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 12:42 PM:

Laurie Anderson: "When my father died, it was like a whole library burning down." Now I always think of this in relation to the slow, tortuous, amnesia of my mother.

So many people contain so much known only to themselves.

#67 ::: The Modesto Kid ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 12:45 PM:

Jon Rosenberg suggests one solution.

#68 ::: grackle ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 12:59 PM:

It's interesting that the reverse is true too - if all of the effluvia of the net is somehow saved, the surfeit of material alone is enough to guarantee it's near inaccessibility in the long run.

I made a recording of the tree frogs outside my house a couple of nights ago; a couple of minutes seemed enough to preserve the idea. (Images of all of the chirpings of tree frogs of all Springs throughout time preserved forever...)

#69 ::: The Modesto Kid ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 01:01 PM:

grackle@68 -- Hit the nail on the head. You familiar with "Funes the Memorious"?

#70 ::: utsusemi ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 01:08 PM:

paul @ 63: "it's the generation just prior to widespread digitization that will be lost, because the physical media suck so badly."

I was lucky enough to get to see and handle a book from the late 16th century a few months ago--the pages had been given a protective backing as a precaution (with Chinese-style sewn books you can just put a sheet into the folds of the pages), but it was barely necessary, since they were still supple and sturdy despite being very thin. This made a classmate who usually works with documents from within the last century quite envious. Most 20th-century printing/writing won't last very long except in copies, digital or otherwise.

Martin Sutherland @ 64: "We can wonder how many people take the care to file away their digital photos for the ages, but what proportion of people boxed, stored, and indexed all their analog negatives in a way that they could be found again? "

I sometimes wonder whether it's precisely the fact that with digital storage it is so easy for me to organize this stuff and find it again that makes me so anxious about losing it. If they were simply disintegrating in a box somewhere, I don't think I would personally worry about losing the ability to access, say, my old undergrad admissions essays, and the little cache of undeveloped film in my mother's house shows how diligent we were about photos. File under "it's the richest who are most afraid of thieves," perhaps?

#71 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 01:35 PM:

There is, apparently, a set of Anglo-Saxon dialogues, fictional conversations between ordinary people, used to teach Latin. They've survived, and I heard an excerpt being read on TV, and conversation in which a ploughman explained his work.

A lot of words had changed, but I knew what he was talking about because the jargon of ploughing hasn't changed much.

A bit more info is here, with a sound clip.

It all makes me think that things are going to be bloody hard without the context. In that instance, Aelfric of Winchester writing what a ploughman might say, I had the context.

#72 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 01:35 PM:

Notice how many of these stories end in "accessible only to specialists?"

I think that's a most likely fate, the 'Deepness in the Sky' idea that yeah, somewhere back there you can find the code you need and the questions are "are you good enough to find it?" and "would it be faster just to find something close and patch it up?" rather than "can it be written?" or "does it exist?"

One major difference between a new generation of storage technologies and a new generation of writing is that when magnetic hard drives become obsolete, the new positronic archives (or whatever) will be bigger and faster (or else hard drives wouldn't be obsolete, hey?) and it'll be trivial to copy everything I have to the new stuff. That's not true of the Arabic-to-Latin transition in Turkish, for instance.

I also suspect that CDs and DVDs will be commonly readable for a long time to come. There's just so much stuff currently stored (and still being pressed) in those formats that if you're making an optical disk storage tech, you'll want to make it the same dimensions and you'll want the drives to be able to read the old stuff too. My father tells a story about why cars are the width that they are: it's because that's about the width of railroads, which means you can make everything the same, same bridge designs, same grading equipment, same tunnel plans, all that. Plus you can transport them easily on trains. And why are railroads that width? Well, it's the width of the ruts in a road, and there's some similar set of reasons why that matters (but due to my escape from the family curse of civil engineering, I don't know them). Why are the ruts that width? Because wagons are, obviously. Why again? Because that's how wide two horses are. (Obviously there's some poetic license involved, not all railroads are the same width, but you get the idea.) So the dimensions of a car are determined by backwards compatibility with horses.

#73 ::: Lynne M Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 01:47 PM:

For what it's worth, there are libraries actively trying to archive SF/F literature in all of its formats. I was asked to write article about it (and there's also a list of libraries) for the SFWA site:

We aren't all the way there yet, but we are trying. In the meantime "copy, spread and migrate as much as possible" is a good method for the interim. :-)

#74 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 03:04 PM:

The point's been made here before (I forget by whom, sorry), that a well-curated digital archive is robust. Yes, if something catastrophic happens to the state of technology, our records are largely unrecoverable, however that's true of fires and floods in libraries as well. And, as Patrick points out, it has to be your archive, not merely stored on someone else's server (reason number 5280 why I don't really trust all this "cloud" hype).

Devin @ 72:

I'm not sure how much I'd trust CDs and DVDs as long-term archival methods. Remember that laserdiscs tended to suffer from rot because of poor construction, and writable CDs and DVDs can degrade in a matter of years. Not sure about the non-writable ones.

I recently ripped seven of eight writable DVDs to my computer, as I wanted to be sure I had access to their contents even if they degraded. Good thing, too. The eighth was unreadable, and I know it worked a few years ago. Fortunately, I didn't much care about what was on that one. I would have been far more put out if any of the other seven had failed.

#75 ::: Stephen Granade ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 03:29 PM:

I've been glad to see the work that Jason Scott and the Archive Team have been doing to try to grab, save, and distribute information from sites like Geocities. It's not a solution, but it's a first step towards a solution.

#76 ::: Dan R. ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 03:43 PM:

Stewart Brand's book The Clock of the Long Now gives a good overview of the problem reaching from the library of Alexandria to the modern digital age, with a fascinating interlude considering the dubious value of storage on microfilm in the mid-20th century.

#77 ::: Nick Brooke ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 03:49 PM:

#47: Frederick the Great. The expected questions were, "How old are you?" - "How long have you been in my service?" - "Are you satisfied with your pay and treatment?" Read on for what happened:

Cheers, Nick

#78 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 03:58 PM:

Devin #72: Actually, it's not the width of "horses" that it dates back to, but the axle length of Roman (yes, Imperial Rome) wagons. Those were standardized so they could roll in the ruts of previous travelers, rather than a variety of axle lengths turning roads into impassable messes of crossing ruts.

#79 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 04:25 PM:

David #78: It's not just messes of crossing ruts (remember, the roman wagons were made to work with roman roads), it's also that any wagon with an incompatible axle length (say, made by a nation or group without access to roman standards) will have its wheels chewed off in short order. Feature, not bug.

This kind of thinking persisted until the 20th century, when the europeans finally standardized their rail gauges. Before then, it was more important that military trains generally stop at borders than that commercial ones not stop. Not quite VHS/Beta or Blu-ray/HD-DVD, but close enough. That's a kind of fight, btw, that putting everything in software has made harder to sustain, because reading and writing the competing formats becomes a matter of licensing rather than not having the right pieces of hardware.

#80 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 04:37 PM:

KeithS @74

Yeah, it wasn't the archival suitability of any particular CD I was advocating, just that I think the format's gonna last. Pressed CDs do seem to be pretty stable, I have music CDs as old as I am that work just fine (and more to the point, rip and hash correctly as well, so it's not that I can't hear the decay, they really are in good shape).

David Harmon @78

That rings a bell, I think I misremembered that bit. Thanks for fixin' my story! (Though... why the scare quotes on "horses?")

#81 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 04:43 PM:

Devin #80: Not really scare quotes, but quoting and drastically abbreviating "the width of two horses".

#82 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 04:48 PM:

@61: Oh dear, I'm going to be tedious again.

Ten fathoms of water is a lot. Sixty feet. Not a lot compared to, oh, the altitude of the Denver Library. But still, it's a lot.

Also, roughly 11% of our electricity comes from renewables in the US today. We added half a percent in wind alone in 2009. So if you're saying (and I could be misinterpreting) that we're running out of all fossil fuels ever forever, which will eliminate all electricity, you're at most half right.

#83 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 05:04 PM:

Somewhere I've got a short story (by Asimov?) about aliens studying the one surviving document (a movie film) of Earth culture, writing endless treatises about the things Earthlings do and what this implies about the way they lived. But since they have no way to translate English text, they will never understand the last line that appears on the screen: "A Walt Disney Production".

Re archiving photos... I've never bothered to save the originals of the stuff I upload to my Flickr account, which means I'm trusting their servers. I suppose I ought to pick up a cheap terabyte external drive and see if there's an easy way to download my photostream.

Kip, #59: Ah, but if we come across an unexceptional conversation from 100 or 1000 years ago, don't we find it interesting?

Yes, but it's interesting primarily because it's rare, not because it has any intrinsic value. Possible exception: if it mentions a person or event of historic interest, that may be intrinsically valuable. Paraphrased from The Daughter of Time -- "If someone claims that Lady So-and-So never had a child, and you find a household account to the effect of 'For the son of Lady So-and-So born on Michaelmas Day, 1 length of ribbon, 2d', that's a pretty solid indication that Lady So-and-So did have a child."

Martin, #64: But then, it has always been easy for people who are not interested to casually destroy information. How many children throughout history have gone through their parents' possessions and just thrown everything away without even looking?

Or the near-canonical example of the Time-Warner bean-counter who ordered the disposal of an entire warehouse full of old cels. Not donated, not sent to auction, just dumped into the trash because who'd want those anyhow?

And for every child who throws away their parents' records and possessions without bothering to look at them, there's a child somewhere else whose parents threw away his (or her) possessions because they were just "kid stuff". I had a friend who lost a comic collection worth nearly $10,000 that way.

grackle, #68: Ah yes, the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark -- the Ark, in a sealed and labeled box, being moved into a slot in an enormous warehouse full of identical sealed and labeled boxes. Where do you hide a pebble?

#84 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 05:20 PM:

Lee @ 83 -

Somewhere I've got a short story (by Asimov?) about aliens studying the one surviving document (a movie film) of Earth culture, writing endless treatises about the things Earthlings do and what this implies about the way they lived. But since they have no way to translate English text, they will never understand the last line that appears on the screen: "A Walt Disney Production".

Close. It was a Clarke story, "History Lesson".

Related to that, I'm sort of remembering a humor piece where our civilization is being analyzed by aliens watching recordings of our TV commercials.

Years ago, we were all youthful, cigarette-smoking, Coke drinkers. Nowadays, we're all impotent hay-fever sufferers quaffing light beer.

#85 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 05:23 PM:

Paul @79

Actually there are still a quarter of a million kilometers of Russian wide gauge railroad in use today. I think perhaps you meant "Western Europeans" rather than "europeans?"

As to military importance, well, I know everyone this side of the water* tends to forget about the important part of the second world war, but the difference in railway standards had a huge impact on German logistics in Russia.

*I can't speak to British attitudes, let alone Continental views, but I suspect they're very similar.

#86 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 06:51 PM:

Keith Kisser @ 2:

I think some things are worth preserving; private records, not so much (YMMV, of course). But I would really like to be able to read (and see performed) some of those plays by, for instance, Aeschylus and Sophocles that we only know the titles of (and in many cases not even that much).

Lee @ 83:

I had a friend who lost a comic collection worth nearly $10,000 that way.

Great Ghu, yes. When I walked away from my family in 1970 for about 35 years, I left behind a library of SF magazines and books that would easily be worth thousands of dollars today, and my parents just dumped them all. The one I mourn for is a hardback collection of Robert E. Howard stories published by Arkham House that I bought new in the late 1950's. Gorgeous cover; I wish I could remember who painted it (Edd Cartier, perhaps?).

I've been thinking about archival a lot lately. I just bought about 5 terabytes of hard drive for software development space and multiple backups; and I've got a Bluray writer coming this week to burn archives to go into a safe deposit box offsite in case my house burns down. These are the sort of things you think of when you start thinking about doing something with your computer that will affect your income stream.

A lot of "experts" these days are advocating archiving in cloud services. I've got almost 8 gigabytes of space on Google, for instance, that doesn't cost me anything (and that will just barely hold my personal photo library, so it's hardly a complete solution). But I'm really uneasy about the reliability and long-term security of using someone else's servers; I've already had a couple of nasty glitches in various Google services that have left me paranoid and looking for ways to backup my blog and other sites.

#87 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 07:04 PM:

Bruce Cohen STM @86 -- Skullface and Others, by Howard; one of four Arkham House books with dj by Hannes Bok (easily confused at this temporal distance with Cartier, perhaps). The other color one was House on the Borderland; AH found the full-color jackets prohibitively expensive, so dropped the experiment during Derleth's lifetime.

I'm working through three years worth of letters from my grandmother to my father these days. I wish I had more. There's a serious art-history paper to be written on her print business, and I just don't have the information (though I have more than anyone else, I expect).

#88 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 07:07 PM:

Ah, should have tried Google Images before posting that. A picture of the cover is on the web here.

#89 ::: Terry Hunt ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 07:37 PM:

In 19th- and 20th-century Europe the more important hindrance to hostile military rail traffic was not the track gauge (since rail vehicles can be made with adjustable gauges, as was utilised for trains crossing, for example, the Franco-Spanish border) but the loading gauge - the notional 2-dimensional template within which a locomotive and its following vehicles have to fit to avoid fouling platform edges, trackside furniture, tunnel entrances and so on.

The height limit of France's loading gauge was always lower than that of Germany, but many German steam locos featured a joined chimney whose top portion could be removed, reducing their overall height. As one French engineer wryly remarked, "German locomotives are designed to run under other people's bridges."

After the end of WW2, when East Germany resumed building new steam locos, they utilized a couple of designs from earlier years, doubtless updated in some respects but incorporating the detachable chimney tops. Though doubtless a mere oversight, at the time this caused a degree of international diplomatic tension.

#90 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 08:06 PM:

Steve C @ #84, Scalzi's "Agent to the Stars" is certainly humorous, and it has aliens who learned all about us through television. The aliens were smart enough to discern distinctions between commercials and the rest of the dreck, though.

#91 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 08:22 PM:

I had a hard lesson on paper vs. water in the early 80s, just after we bought our first house. I had enough rejection slips by then that I was planning, at some future date, to paper a bathroom (and we have one now that would suit, in b/w tile and decor). We had a storm that knocked out the electricity. No sump pump, water come in. Trunk full of the rejection slips, letters from a former boyfriend and a bunch of other, unknown stuff was turned into moldy mulch before we realized it.

Mostly because we were moving books higher (the shelves WERE higher than the water but we weren't going to count on it).

I've so far been able to pull forward electronic copies of my published stories (save one, the laptop was stolen a couple days after I submitted it to the publisher), because Macs are that way AND I'm a Word fanatic. (though iWork ROCKS).

#92 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 08:29 PM:

Terry @89

Thanks! That's cool to know!
(Though, if it was me and the chimney really was the only thing sticking up above the height limit, I'd make it detachable just on the off chance that I'd want to sell train bits to a Frenchman.)

(Truth be told, I've always dreamed of selling train bits to a Frenchman.)

#93 ::: Holli ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 09:03 PM:

Paper's not as permanent as you think it is, either.

My uncle has a business selling books on Amazon. He buys them in bulk from charities (Goodwill and so on), sorts through them in a warehouse, and lists the ones that're worth anything. They come in thousand-pound cardboard bins, which are stacked three high in the warehouse until they're dumped on the conveyor belt. Of the books that don't get listed, some get sorted into bins to be sold to the Third World, and the rest go to the recycler.

The sight of books-- perfectly good books! --going past on the conveyor belt, destined for pulp, is a little heartbreaking.

Lately I have started going in and culling the nicer vintage and antique books, which my uncle doesn't have time to pick out himself due to the high-volume nature of the business. I'm taking them to a local flea market. They're a tiny fraction of the books that pass through the warehouse, but I feel like saving the oldest books is meaningful, somehow. They've survived this long, and it seems undignified to let them end up being recycled. I've found some really lovely things.

#94 ::: Betsy-the-muffin ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 09:15 PM:

We must imagine past as echoed present
and force ourselves to empathize with kings
whose graven records haunt us, cracked, senescent

and less of import than their trashpits, their unpleasant
bits and kitsch, their lunch receipts and flings.
We must imagine past as echoed present

without our culture's precepts, with their nascent
thoughts on fire, math, crusades - those violent things
whose graven records haunt us, cracked, senescent;

and so we face the thought that we'll be no more prescient
in what we chose to keep. A folk musician sings,
we must imagine past as echoed present,

her joy infects our spirits, so the trenchant
critics capture half its whirl, then sting:
their graven records haunt us, cracked, senescent.

We disagree, but scan them for their remnants
to prompt our shared memory; we duplicate; we cling;
we must imagine past as echoed present
whose graven records haunt us, cracked, senescent.

#95 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 09:57 PM:

Well, we all differ in various ways. I don't think rarity is the only reason we are (or at least I am) interested in mundane accounts of 100 to 1000 years ago. There are a lot of letters from that time, and that doesn't make them dull to me. They're a look into another time. You're saying that if there were twice as many such remnants, they'd be half as interesting? If there were three times as many, they'd be a third as interesting? I don't think I agree.

#96 ::: Paula Kate Marmor ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 10:37 PM:

I have the GEnie SRFT Mannerpunk discussion in hardcopy. All of it, I think.

Nothing like it...

#97 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 10:38 PM:

Betsy-the-muffin #94. Lovely villanelle. I really loved the effect of the joined refrain. Excellent use of a very tough form.

#98 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 11:56 PM:

There is, actually, a height problem for US railways. Tunnels (and maybe bridges, too) in the eastern part of the country are lower than those in the west - in the western part, cars can be 20 feet tall: three decks in car carriers, two full-height decks in a passenger car (on the trains I ride, the lower one is actually between the trucks; there's a 'mezzanine' on each end, over the trucks, and a car has 180 seats).

#99 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: April 27, 2011, 11:56 PM:

Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) @86:

Re: Aeschylus and other lost works: Stewart Kelly's The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read is a nice little overview of some of these lost works. He gives some background also to the works we do have and gets at the heart of just how lucky we are to even have those.

For all my pessimism (it's been a rough week in library land) I think we'll have some wonderful works to leave to our decedents and that we should take pains to preserve what we can, both digitally and in print. How do we do that? There's the tricky part. Libraries obviously are a good thing (says the librarian looking for a new job) and archives, too. Long term storage is also a good idea. One of my favorites, and something straight out of Asimov, is Iron Mountain, an underground archive in an abandoned slat mine, designed for long term storage and preservation. That's where Getty keeps their negatives.

#100 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 12:02 AM:

I keep reading this thread and thinking... but it's always the things you don't want preserved, or don't care about, that last the longest. I'm okay with my stuff vanishing into the aether -- I rather expect to do so myself. If someone someday finds value in my shopping lists, they can publish a book on it, ensuring continuity...

But the truly day-to-day is so trivializing -- it's so easy to get lost in the minutia and lose sight of the things that really mattered, or become mislead into thinking that what was recorded was what was most important to people (I don't think that's actually a reliable measure in a public setting with a static cost regardless of how much content you produce). I am really ambivalent about the value of deliberately hanging on to that sort of detail.

#101 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 06:45 AM:

Keith Kisser@99 - Well, I've always wondered where slats came from. Now I know :D

I second the applause for Betsy-the-muffin's villanelle @94 - lovely!

#102 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 08:09 AM:

*claps for poetry*

#103 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 08:58 AM:

Lee: The easiest way (I know of) to collect the images is to open the "view all sizes" and "Download". There are Firefox Apps to make that a bit shorter, but I don't know what they are. There is one to "download original image" which lets you shortcut the intermediate steps.

#104 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 09:05 AM:

I don't store my images as well as I ought. I have the slides/negatives/4x6 of my film stuff in ammo cans. I have a couple of copies of my RAW files (well, of everything prior to my most recent backup), though I've lost some in transfer errors here and there.

I make .tiffs of the things I plan to print (and I've got some prints, but it's too expensive to print everything). The .tiffs get j-pegged, and the .jpgs go to flickr. I also have .lzn files of the edits, so anyone who finds my machine can go and see how I did my editing, sort of.

That's the thing which is probably pretty much lost (well that and I don't seem to have copies of most of my poetry). We aren't as likely to see draft forms of "great works" because word processors make it really easy to just do away with the interim forms.

#105 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 09:08 AM:

Some things are more likely to get recorded today too. How well they keep... I don't know. But StoryCorps Project goes around interviewing people. I've done an oral history (being transcribed now) of my time in the army. It was a bit truncated (only about 3 hours of talking). That's going to the Hoover Institute, and one in St. Louis, I believe both hardcopy and audio.

Where this tie in is that without the net, I'd never have been on touch with the historian.

#106 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 09:37 AM:


There's a big push in the library world to preserve digital-born materials of every sort, as well as paper. The Legal Information Preservation Alliance is working with law libraries on The Chesapeake Project, a pilot program to stabilize, preserve and ensure access to digital born and digitized legal materials. They're hoping to take it nationwide. The HathiTrust is a secure digital repository which is the creation of a partnership of research libraries. And recently the Library of Congress has acquired the complete Twitter archives.

It feels like a race against time, and I have no doubt we'll lose a lot. But there might be more saved than people expect.

#107 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 09:46 AM:

KayTei @100 But the truly day-to-day is so trivializing -- it's so easy to get lost in the minutia and lose sight of the things that really mattered, or become mislead into thinking that what was recorded was what was most important to people. ... I am really ambivalent about the value of deliberately hanging on to that sort of detail.

Coming to this from the perspective of a statistician/data manager and social science researcher, not a librarian or historian. But I always prefer to store things at the most detailed level possible. You can always aggregate; you usually can't divide things again if you decide the earlier aggregation scheme was wrong in some way. The constant stream of detail is trivializing - I feel that way sometimes about my own life - but it's the raw material for future generalizations as well as current ones.

None of this, of course, addresses the issue of how you preserve it all in ways that make things findable later by something other than serendipity.

#108 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 10:11 AM:

May I consult the fluorosphere? Especially any Chicagoans therein.

I need the name of a neighbourhood in Chicago, not too far from downtown, that would have been decidedly working-class in 1945. Any ideas?

#109 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 10:12 AM:

Rats. Wrong thread. Please ignore.

#110 ::: Don Fitch ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 11:55 AM:

Information Glut. I'm thinking in terms of "useful", rather than "interesting". We already have preserved, in one place or another, vastly more than enough information from any one day, precisely 100 years ago, to keep a person busy reading, ten hours per day, for an entire lifetime. I'd estimate that considerably less than one percent of it is worth the modern reader's time.

Digital material, if it survives, may be easier to winnow, but I still have to question how far it's worth doing, or likely to be done... and sadly (as a congenital packrat) come up with the answer "Not very".

#111 ::: E. Liddell ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 11:57 AM:

Martin Sutherland @64: If they're *really* old Paint Shop Pro files, the GIMP ( may be able to read them (I've been able to recover some PSP6 files that way--the only thing lost was the layer offset information). Also, if you still have the installation media for the version of PSP under which you created the files, *some* versions of it will sort-of run under WINE (, which can be installed on a Mac with some effort--I wouldn't use the results for image editing, but simple file conversion *might* work. In the worst case, the files can be screen-captured if they load at all, although that's kind of time-consuming and probably not worth it unless the images are really important.

Other than that, well, you probably really are out of luck, since it's a proprietary format with no published standard.

#112 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 01:11 PM:

... and sometimes you don't have to wait for a service to decide to shut down to lose the data. Just in time for this discussion, our favorite mustache-twirling comic villain, Amazon:

I like the way they slide in there that they'll be charging the customers for use of the probably unreadable snapshot to recover their lost data.

#113 ::: Persephone ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 02:50 PM:

Martin Sutherland @64 and E. Liddell @111: I actually still have a copy of Paint Shop Pro 6. It's open on my home computer right now. I can't really justify the expense of a copy of Photoshop, and I've been using PSP6 since it was the hot new version, so there it sits. Still takes care of most of my non-photography graphic needs, too.

Martin, if you'd like me to open and export any of those files, feel free to email me at persephoneandpandora at gmail.

#114 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 06:16 PM:

Clifton Royston #112: Since when do clowns have mustaches to twirl? The general trend of the AmazonFails has been towards incompetence and callousness, rather than calculated malice.

#115 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 06:31 PM:

utsusemi #44: In 50 or 100 years, will it really be harder to build or salvage a 5" floppy drive than it is to learn medieval Chinese?

Possibly yes: the latter (reading a language) is a variation on something everyone does, though requiring a lot of study, whereas the former (at least building from scratch) requires specialized equipment, materials, and theory, and the knowledge of medieval Chinese is probably more readily available than the knowledge of 1989's floppy disk encoding schemes.

Possibly no: One intended-to-be-near-future-plausible SFnal take on this is in Ryk Spoor's Boundary: the aliens left us their equivalent of a DVD in a time capsule. Jury-rig a drive motor and read head? Don't bother, just pour a can of everything-sensor dust over it and fuse together an image of the entire disc surface, then read it in software.

#116 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 07:46 PM:

Tom Whitemore @ 87:
Yes, I should have known that: I am particularly fond of Bok's work, and I have a copy of that cover in a book of his paintings, a fact I remembered as soon as I followed your link to the image. I scanned the two page copy of the cover for "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" from that book and printed it on photo-grade paper so I could frame it and put it on my wall without cutting the book apart.

No disrespect to Cartier, he was an excellent illustrator as well, with perhaps a broader sense of humor than Bok. As much as I dislike L. Ron Hubbard's religious legacy, and most of his writing, the Cartier illustrations for the "Old Doc Methuselah" stories are hilarious.

Betsy-the-muffin @ 94:

Very nice, I'm partial to villanelles, and that's a good one. You make a point I was planning to bring up: a lot of the stuff we have from past cultures is what was in their garbage pits, not anything they intended to keep for posterity. And, you know, we're leaving a lot of garbage behind ...

Keith Kisser @ 99:

Yep, I like the storage-under-the-mountain technique. ISTR that part of the big underground facility at Raven Rock Mountain in PA was rented out as disaster-proof storage for records and such. I've been down there (a long time ago, back when we fought a simulated nuclear war every year or so), and it's a surreal sort of place. Down in the bowels of the Earth there's a huge human-made cavern filled with buildings and vehicles. Everything sits on a large (we're talking multiple city blocks large) metal plate, which in turn sits on giant metal springs and shock absorbers. The idea is that a 100 kiloton thermonuclear device detonating on top of the mountain wouldn't seriously damage the facility because the shock waves would be absorbed by the springs and shock absorbers. Personally, I've always wondered if it could be easily modified into the pusher plate of an Orion-class spaceship, though I guess you'd have to saw off the top of the mountain to launch it. That's somewhat worse than building a boat in your basement that's too large to get through the door.

#117 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 08:44 PM:

I find it hard to get worked up over the loss of the vast majority of Stuff currently being churned out individually and collectively by people.

This, on the other hand, gets me worked up as all get out.

The researchers who starved to death guarding the seed and rootstocks of the Vavilov Institute during the Siege of Leningrad are some of my personal heroes. And I am delighted by such projects as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

#118 ::: Paula Kate Marmor ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 09:40 PM:

Re: old Paint Shop Pro files: I just confirmed that the current version (X3) would open a .psp file last saved in 2001.

#119 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 11:07 PM:

Lila #117: Yeah... anyone know what's happened there since? Those seeds are part of that billenial heritage I was talking about... diversity that can't be replaced anytime in our era.

#120 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 28, 2011, 11:25 PM:

Me, #199: Ah, found this. I'd still like to hear later information.

#121 ::: Paul Duncanson ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 12:06 AM:

Martin @ 64: I have yet to find an image file format that Graphic Converter will not open.

#122 ::: The Modesto Kid ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 06:39 AM:

Not helpful for users of Macintosh, but Irfanview will open PSP files.

#123 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 09:14 AM:

David @ #120, the most recent info I can find suggests that as of early this month, the collection still exists but is not out of danger.

#124 ::: Lila, whose comment is in moderation ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 09:17 AM:

Dave @ #120: more recent info forthcoming; post held for moderation, possibly because of a URL from a part of the world known for spam and DDOS attacks. Short version: apparently the Pavlovsk collection has not yet been destroyed, but isn't out of danger.

#125 ::: Lisa Padol ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 11:04 AM:

#96: Yay! I loved that discussion.

Regarding old floppies: So, I have some 5.25-inch floppies that I wanted to read to see if one particular email was copied to them. One email from 1995 -- I have a lot of material from that time, and I am sure I had hard copy of that one, but I couldn't find it. Still haven't.

When my father died, we took a couple of old computers he had with drives that could read these discs, and, after a lot of tinkering, Josh got a drive hooked up to my desktop, and we copied over whatever was not corrupted. No sign of that email, of course.

It isn't a very important email in the scheme of things. It's email a friend wrote back when I ran my very first roleplaying campaign, a journal for his character. There's no great loss to future ages here. I just wanted it.

Regarding online archives burning: There's software that will copy one's livejournal, and I used that some time ago. I probably should do that again. But, there may be something equivalent for other sites, or something capable of dealing with a variety of sites.

Meanwhile, I am trying to come to terms with the fact that I do not have the space to store everything we took from my parents' home. I am not so worried about the books. I can find homes for them one way or another (and anyone looking for something, particularly in the genres of sf or mystery, drop me an email at drcpunk AT labcats DOT org, and I'll see if we've got it in storage -- just do not expect a fast reply).

No, it's the school papers my mother typed, the bits of fiction my father wrote, their report cards, diplomas, certificates, and other signs of their life. I doubt I'd look at them often. But, if I can't get them slimmed down to a box or two tops, we can't keep them. I'm not an archive, and neither is our apartment. And, I do not want to own a storage unit for the rest of my life.

But I am still finding myself catching my breath when I find a letter my brother wrote to our father on our father's 46th birthday, saying how proud he was of our father, or a love letter that my mother wrote, I don't know how many years ago, to my father.

The paper won't last centuries, I am sure. I could, in theory, copy all of this or scan it or something. But, even if I decide I have the time to do that, there are no guarantees any of this will survive. And, if it does, is it signal or noise to anyone except me and my brother?

#126 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 12:09 PM:

Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers)@116:

When i was in Grad school, one of my professors was telling us about his trip to Iron Mountain and what a weird experience it is. Down int he bowels of the mountain, you walk through these huge caverns carved out of the salt mine. Every few dozen feet, there are big steal doors belonging to the archives of the big clients. Some have their name son them while others are decorated. Right next door to the Getty Archive there is the Microsoft Archive. They have potted plants and a giant slideshow of all the famous artwork Bill Gates owns, projected on a giant screen. Keep in mind, no one ever goes down there except to make a deposit. So who is the slide show for?

#127 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 12:14 PM:

Lee @ 83 and Terry Karney @ 103:

For a little program called flickrdown, see partway down this page (requires Perl, which may or may not be a problem for you).

Also, a story of Amiga archaeology and preserving old files.

#128 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 12:56 PM:

Lisa Padol #124: I'd say get a storage cube -- this sort of thing is exactly what they're for. In 5 or 10 years, you might not even be in an apartment anymore, but you'd still be kicking yourself if you tossed this stuff.

#129 ::: Persephone ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 02:04 PM:

Lisa Padol #124: Unclutterer calls this type of issue emotional clutter and has some good resources on dealing with it (e.g., figuring out what you'd regret tossing out).

#130 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 29, 2011, 04:44 PM:

KiethS: I don't know how to play with Perl.

#131 ::: SR Chalup ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 04:29 AM:

AJ @47: I believe I've found it.
"Once there was a deaf man working on a fence post, cutting and shaping it to the right size for his purpose. He saw a man coming along the road and thought to himself: Now, he'll ask me what I'm making, and I'll say "fence post..."

The book is "Noodles, Nitwits, & Numbskulls" by Maria Leach. I found it by searching Google Books for the phrase "I'll say fence post". Sadly the excerpt above, which comes up in search, is all I can get to online. Here is the cite for the book:

Title Noodles, nitwits, and numskulls
Author Maria Leach
Editor Maria Leach
Edition reprint
Publisher World Pub. Co., 1961
Original from the University of Michigan
Digitized Sep 1, 2009
ISBN 0529036622, 9780529036629
Length 96 pages
Subjects Folklore
Juvenile Nonfiction / General

#132 ::: Barry ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 08:49 AM:

utsusemi #44:" In 50 or 100 years, will it really be harder to build or salvage a 5" floppy drive than it is to learn medieval Chinese?"

Kevin Reid@115: "Possibly yes: the latter (reading a language) is a variation on something everyone does, though requiring a lot of study, whereas the former (at least building from scratch) requires specialized equipment, materials, and theory, and the knowledge of medieval Chinese is probably more readily available than the knowledge of 1989's floppy disk encoding schemes."

That's a large and arbitrary assumption. First, there'll certainly be 'optipunk' groups which play with that old (pre-tachyon) technology; second, there's a massive amount of the hardware and software around, so scrounging will have a large amount of ore to mine, and most importantly, historians of our time and the future will be working on this.

IMHO, many people assume that this isn't a known problem, and that it's not a field in which thousands of people are working.

#133 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 09:36 AM:

Has anyone talked to [e.g.] the Gates Foundation about just outbidding those vultures? Or otherwise tried to raise money to keep the Pavlovsk Institute going? (I know, everyone has an idea for the Gates foundation that would just cost "a few million dollars".)

#134 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 09:45 AM:

Sandy B. #133: The problem isn't about the money involved. The problem is that the offenders were able to have the lower judges declare the lab as "unused land", essentially because they weren't the ones using it. At this point, it's already gone to the effective rulers of Russia, who seem sympathetic to the lab... for the moment.

#135 ::: Dr. Psycho ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 01:34 PM:

I once imagined a project to create an immense volume titled "Worthy to Survive", which would contain the writings and pictures which people paid to have included. Copies were printed on superb acid-free paper and sent to libraries all over the world. Also included in the book: directions to caches where yet more copies were buried.

#136 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 01:45 PM:

David Harmon: It's not that the land is "for sale" as it is the gov't's to gift.

#137 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 02:06 PM:

SR @131: I think I've found an older variation from 1904 here, starting near the bottom of the first column; instead of a fence post, the deaf man is making a mill shaft.

He assumes that the stranger's half of the conversation will be "What are you making?", "How long will it be?", "How much do you ask for it?", and "I won't give it."

#138 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 02:08 PM:

Terry #136: That's my point.

Otherwise relevant to the thread: Amazon finally apologizes for last week's outage.

#139 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 03:27 PM:

David Harmon: My point was that there is no way to "outbid" anyone, as the land isn't for sale.

#140 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 03:43 PM:

SR Chalup in #131 discovered the fence-post story in Noodles, Nitwits, and Numskulls by Maria Leach. Google has scanned the entire text, but will only reveal a snippet in a search.

This is a job for Dead Sea Googling:

Once there was a deaf man working on a fence post, cutting and shaping it to the right size for his purpose.

He saw a man coming along the road and thought to himself: Now, he'll ask me what I'm making, and I'll say "fence post." Then he'll say, "How long are you going to make it?" And I'll say, "Four feet." Then he'll say, "Well, good day to you," and walk off, and I'll say, "The same to you, sir!" and he'll never know that he was talking to a deaf man.

So he worked busily on his fence post, and soon the stranger stopped beside him.

"A beautiful morning we're having," he said.

"Fence post," said the deaf man.

"Can you tell me how far it is to the next town ?"

"Four feet."

The stranger stared. "You're a fool!" he said.

"The same to you, sir," said the deaf man and went happily on with his work.

#142 ::: Dr. Psycho ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 04:04 PM:

Lisa Padol @125: your local historical society will almost certainly want to at least get a look at whatever you are throwing out, even things which go back "merely" twenty or thirty years.

#143 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 04:06 PM:

When one of my kids was about 12 or so, he asked me why we have so little record of the past; in particular, he wanted to know, why is it that famous Greek writers and painters have left only mentions in other peoples' books?

I reminded him of the saying that three moves equals one house fire, and then I said, think of how long it has been. What if some disaster destroyed ever single record of our society except the books in this room? Now, there are a lot of books in any room in our house, but they don't represent all the significant authors of the past and present, not by a long shot. And if you read all of these books, one thing you would surely learn is how many other books had been lost.

#144 ::: Cally Soukup ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 05:11 PM:

Erik Nelson way back at 3

You say that when you were a kid you saw a book retelling the jokes from a 1940's radio show, and perhaps there's no other record of the show.

I'm almost sure the show was "Can You Top This", and the book was either "Can You Top This" or "Cream of the Crop", which were compilations of jokes from the show. I was, in fact, just listening yesterday to a "Can You Top This" show which advertised the "Cream of the Crop" book, which is why I'm so confident I know the show of which you speak. You'll be happy to know that many recordings of the show survive, and can be bought on CD or downloaded for free or a fee from the net, thanks to the peculiar copyright status of almost all old time radio (short form: everything except the last few years of old time radio are in the public domain).

Frankly I don't think most of the jokes have aged well, but I'm not much of a set-piece joke fan anyway.

#145 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 06:13 PM:

Lee, Terry: RE: Downloading from Flickr

I recently did that. I found some software called Migratr. It worked like a charm. I downloaded to my local hard drive, then uploaded to Picasa. The only objection I had was that it uploaded to a single folder in Picasa called "Imported from Migratr," which isn't ideal. But it imported with all tags and captions intact, which was the bigger deal for me.

#146 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 07:38 PM:

Okay, this seems like a fruitful moment to ask the Fluorosphere:

I know of software that allows a Livejournal user to archive all the writings from his own blog.

I would like to find software that allows me to collect everything I have written in the comments of other peoples' Livejournals. Does such a program exist? (If it works only for LJ users on my Friends list, that would be fine.)

#147 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: April 30, 2011, 08:53 PM:

Bill Higgins @ 146... Speaking of which, how again does one archive one's LJ?

#148 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2011, 02:30 AM:

Serge: Bill Higgins @ 146... Speaking of which, how again does one archive one's LJ?

I'm not Bill Higgins, but I can tell you the way I did it: there's a utility program for posting to LJ on the Mac called Xjournal that has an option to pull all your posts from LJ and store them by date. I just fired it up and let it rip.

#149 ::: A. J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2011, 03:48 AM:

SR Chalup @ 131 and Bill Higgins @ 140: I am gobstoppered, gobsmacked and thunderstruck! Thank you, thank you! Yes, that book title sounds familiar and so does the text of the story (I see that I transposed some of the elements a little but remembered the number 'four'.) Fantastic! Well done!

I love this place.

Serge @ 147: Their online interface will allow you to export everything one month of entries at a time as csv files -- it's a bit crude but the download time for each file is nothing at all, so I was able to grab all of mine, going back ten years, in about twenty minutes.

#150 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2011, 08:09 AM:

A.J. Luxton, SR Chalup, Bill Higgins:

Both the character and longevity of that joke make me think it's likely the surviving exemplar of a class -- possibly a chain joke, certainly expressing anxiety, and not just about literal deafness, but about being able to communicate in general.

At the beginning of the century, and previously, there were a lot more people left deaf by illness than nowadays (and fewer hearing aids). Of course, there are still some deaf kids around, while age and accidents represent an ongoing hazard to one's hearing. Thus the joke is still "funny", but not quite the back-slapper it likely was in 1907.

#151 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2011, 09:52 AM:

Bruce @ 148... AJ @ 149... Thanks, both of you. I also remember something that saved everything as an 'lja' document, but not how it was done. It didn't save my photos though, of which I have many, and not just in the ML Gallery. (I really should do something about that.)

#152 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2011, 12:23 PM:

Going back to the beginning of this thread: when the Kesh librarians decided that a book was "dead," which meant basically of no further value to their people, they offered it to the giant AI computer network called the City of Mind. And the network always takes it, because it wants all the information possible about everything. A librarian comments that it's "an excellent arrangement."

Elsewhere in the book, we see someone whose life work has been learning to find information in that huge compilation. Most of what's in there is statistical, and while the City of Mind is happy to answer questions from humans, the data isn't collected or organized mainly for that purpose. The narrative voice asks "Where in all the data is the information? Gather has spent his life finding out how to find out."

Almost all librarians weed. They have to. New books are published, shelf space is finite, and some books really are dead unless they have sentimental value to a particular user. I only recently got rid of my 1997 Hong Kong guidebooks, because they connected to the memory of the trip, but if I'd been going back I would have bought new ones, not taken those.

#153 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: May 01, 2011, 06:56 PM:

David Harmon @150: Both the character and longevity of that joke make me think it's likely the surviving exemplar of a class -- possibly a chain joke, certainly expressing anxiety, and not just about literal deafness, but about being able to communicate in general.

From the introduction to an English dialect version:

Baughmen adds to Type 1698B, Travelers Ask the Way (Motif X111.2, "Deaf peasant: travelers ask the way"), the present Westmorland text and a similar one from the Carolinas. The Type-Index indicates four examples from India. Antti Aarne wrote a monograph on jokes about deaf people, Schwaenke ueber schwerhoerige Menschen (Finnish Folklore Fellows, No. 20, Hamina, 1914).

#154 ::: A.J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: May 02, 2011, 09:03 PM:

David Harmon @ 150, Julie L. @ 153:

The version from Noodles, Nitwits & Numskulls has a kind of shyness or shame around being deaf that I think people are much less likely to participate in today (as narratives around disabilities have changed.) And yes, I agree that it's a communication story in general above and beyond being a deafness story: that's one thing about it that appeals to me. It's also about cognitive bias, specifically the trouble of going into a situation with solid expectations on what is going to happen in it.

I'm both unsurprised that it's one of those stories that goes around through multiple iterations (in fact, it was chronically surprising to me that no one I talked to seemed to remember it) and interested in where it started.

#155 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2011, 09:43 AM:

A.J. Luxton #154: ...interested in where it started.

I would be utterly unsurprised to see an example from ancient Greece.

Also: Computerworld on "social amnesia". Quoting the last 'graph, which balances the issues:

However, the only Web content that perpetuates itself is that which has a constituency. If people are passionate about preserving some of your personal data - or have a business case to preserve some of your personal data - that data may take on a life of its own, in some cases resisting even the most determined efforts to remove it. And so while your phone number appears everywhere, and that embarrassing video of you waving a light saber in your underwear lives on, personal, everyday memories of family and friends are as ephemeral as the free services hosting them. At the end of the day it's not really your data. And as business models change - at Friendster, at MySpace, and even eventually Facebook -- those memories will always be at risk.

#156 ::: MichaelPaulukonis ::: (view all by) ::: May 03, 2011, 11:00 AM:

Those who forget the written past, are doomed to rewrite it.

"Try again, fail again.

Fail better."

(as Sam said)

#157 ::: shadowsong ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2011, 09:33 PM:

Tangentially related to Michael @ 156, Fail Better Games makes one of my current favorite browser games, Echo Bazaar.

#158 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: May 07, 2011, 10:55 AM:

Meant to post this a while back, but had internet connection problems. But I've been waiting for a chance to mention Geoffrey Lewis book on the Turkish language reforms on ML for ages.

Victor S @ 45:

I think that for most contemporary Turkish speakers, a far bigger problem than the script is is the fact that, even when transcribed, Ottoman Turkish is more or less incomprehensible to a modern Turkish speaker: in the early years of the Republic, there was an effort to simplify the language by getting rid of all(or at least many) of the Arabic and Persian loan-words it contained. (Perhaps rather as though someone tried to return us to the English of Wycliffe or someone similar).

The result - perhaps even the intention - is to cut people of from their own intellectual history: the language reforms weren't a single act but a continuing process; and I've been told, by several reliable sources that even a fifty year old book is a struggle for a twenty-year old to understand.

A very good - and often very funny - book about this is Geoffrey Lewis's
The Turkish Language Reform - A Catastrophic Success, which may also be the sort of thing which Neil in Chicago @ 24 is looking for (and which may be of interest to other fluorospherians who have a general interest in linguistic weirdness, even if they aren't particularly interested in Turkish.)

On national holidays, they still cover public buildings with huge life-sized pictures of Ataturk - of whom there are - I think by law - pictures in every government office. Occasionally, on such days - there was one last week - I think I hear faint echoes of a clock striking thirteen.

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