Mar 282011

The telephone call is now officially on its way to joining the telegram on the scrapheap of communications technology, according to The New York Times.

Phone Rage, by sharkbait, on Flickr

Phone Rage, by sharkbait, on Flickr

Thank God for that.

But before I vent on my feeling about phone calls, let me step back and attempt a bigger perspective. Nothing substitutes for direct conversation to accurately exchange information and authentically interact.  Much (most?) of this communication is non-verbal; Paul Ekman famously has identified “10,000 possible combinations of facial muscle movements that reveal what a person is feeling inside.”

Technology offers mediated communication, but one of the tradeoffs it demands is distorted emotional context.  A relayed message inevitably blocks or blurs the originator’s non-verbal cues.  Perhaps more importantly, the mediated communicator doesn’t immediately experience or have to respond to the recipient’s reaction; our human tendency to be cooperative during most face to face encounters isn’t engaged.  And then there is the way that technology tends to insert itself into the message–the medium is the message, after all–perhaps as a consequence of the warped emotional subtext.

Sherry Turkle, in her excellent new book Alone Together, observes that texting and social media is so devoid of human emotional connection that it ends up isolating us.  Other commentators often make similar points: technology offers an appealing, but fundamentally sterile and barren, mode for us to interact.

I have some sympathy for these arguments, but only with regard to asynchronous communications–those like email, Twitter and Facebook where the conversation isn’t in real time.  My feelings run very much the other way, however, when it comes to the telephone and its technology of simultaneous talk.

To my mind, the telephone amplifies and enables too much emotion.  Calls are fundamentally rude and invasive.  The premise from the start of telephony has been to drop everything you are doing and respond to that obnoxious ring. That lends an aggressive edge right from the start, and if the caller has something less than appealing to talk about (telemarketing, tense family dealings) emotional levels can shoot up very fast.  This is abetted by the habit of some callers to take the other hostage, in a sense.  If you are dealing with an insistent caller there is little you can do to subtly signal a desire to disengage; as long as they are talking there is an obligation to keep listening.  That builds frustration, and if emotions run high enough, it might seem necessary to end the call the same way it started: abruptly.

Whatever criticism is levied against texting, email and other new forms of communication, there is no need–and no way–to hang up on any one.

Jan 182011

The risk of computer hard disk failure is fairly well known: the disk crashes and your computer stops working.

Corrupt 6, by gusset, on Flickr
Corrupt 6, by gusset, on Flickr

Less well-known is a phenomenon known as silent data corruption, where an undetected error occurs in content stored on a drive.  Errors creep in from bugs in both software and hardware (firmware).  “Silent” means the drive does not report it, even in situations where special precautions such as multiple redundant disks (RAID) are used.  The problem remains unknown until you attempt to retrieve the data.

An Analysis of Data Corruption in the Storage Stack, A 2008 study of 1.53 million disk drives over a period of 41 months, found 400,000 silent errors.   That is a disturbingly high number, even though the overall percentage of bad to good data was very small.  The bad news for personal users is that the type of hard disk they are most likely to have–a SATA drive–has a failure rate that is an order of magnitude large than more expensive “enterprise class” drives.

If you have important digital data that you need to keep for a long time the best thing to do is to keep multiple copies in different places and stored on different kinds of media, even different kinds of hard disks.  As I wrote earlier, all varies of digital storage media will eventually fail, so it is essential to have replicated copies.

The more complicated issue is how to detect and fix silent errors.  The most common method is to use a checksum–an unique numerical code for each file–to find bad data.  Once an error is found the next step is to “scrub” it, a process where bad data is replaced by good data from a trusted source.

Individual users have limited choices in this regard, unfortunately.  Checksum comparisons and scrubbing require advanced knowledge and can take a long time.   Commercial data recovery services might be able to help, but they charge a hefty premium.  A cloud storage provider may–or may  not–provide the service; if it does, and if the service runs automatically in the background, this is a fact very much in its favor.

Jan 062011

The first wave of desktop computers users are getting old.  As a cohort, they are retiring from their jobs, downsizing their homes and, maybe, passing on important digital data.

5.25" Floppy Disk Drive
5.25″ Floppy Disk Drive by Accretion Disc, on Flickr

Chances are good that some of this information will be stored on relics from a bygone era: floppy disks, Zip drives, tape cartridges and the like.

Any library, archives or museum–or any person–who might be the recipient of such bounty should consider their options, of which there are three:

  1. Use a commercial service to transfer the information to more modern media.
  2. Acquire some older equipment to do the job yourself.
  3. Do nothing and hope for the best.

All of these choices have associated risk.  A service can be expensive; getting your own devices can be a challenge; and doing nothing is–well, doing nothing.  A more general threat hovers over things as well: the longer the wait to transfer information, the greater the chance the original media will degrade and lose data.

Anyone who has to deal with older information might want to think about hedging their bets by acquiring  some equipment to access obsolete media.  This can be a complicated process involving a slew of gear, common and uncommon (Bernoulli Box, anyone?).

For the sake of brevity, I’d say there are four basic media readers:

These can be hard to find.  A quick search of eBay data for the past three months shows that only 49 5.25 inch drives of all types were available for sale and that “new” or “mint” drives can sell for nearly $60.

Getting a drive to read media is the beginning.  You will, of course, need to connect it to a computer. There are an alphabet soup of potential connections:  ATAPI, SCSI and USB, for example, and modern computers may not be compatible.  After hooking up an older drive, you may also need to find a specific device driver to use it. And, when everything is up and running, you will need to carefully plan how to work with the old media, whose condition is frail and content unique.

The time and effort needed to gear up for older media might make the difference between having enduring access to older information or, sadly, having no access at all.