Friday Jan 12, 2007

Wired: One Giant Screwup for Mankind

Several weeks ago I blogged about data loss and taking the long view when it comes to data retention. This month's Wired magazine has an article entitled One Giant Screwup for Mankind that illustrates the need for taking a long view of data retention policies. It also brings up an interesting point about our current trend at digitizing and chopping our digital content up into lossy data compression formats (like 128kbps MP3s).

Apparently, the grainy images of the original moon landing that we see on TV ("one small step for [a] man...") are not the original images and sound! The engineers were forced to create a smaller format for transmission from the moon to earth, it was 320 scan lines at 10 frames per second transmitted at 500 kHz. This stream was received at 3 tracking stations, pushed to a central location, recorded on media and converted to the broadcast rate of 525 scan lines at 30 frames per second transmitted at 4.5 Mhz. This is essentially 3 transmissions (camera to tracking station, tracking station to central site, central site to tv) and 2 conversions (camera to moon/earth broadcast, moon/earth broadcast to tv). Between the reception of the data and conversion to the tv format, the quality was greatly reduced! The engineers noticed that the broadcast images were not as crisp as what SHOULD have been in the original format. In fact, they could verify this with pictures of the monitors in the conversion room. So, the engineers tried to find the tape that the original data was recorded on so they could recover the full quality images.

Gone, lost, disappeared.

Just as I mentioned previously though, the engineers had TWO problems they had to work on:
- Getting and retaining the equipment they could use to recover the origninal data (remember, we have went through multiple media formats since the 60s)
- Locating the original tapes used for recording the data stream prior to conversion to the television signal format

I won't tell you how its going, you have to read Wired to find out. But, this does bring up an excellent example of
- Why a company that has record retention requirements of over 7 years must put in place a comprehensive policy to not only record the information and store it, but also retain the equipment that can read that data and write it to a new format. Some companies, instead of storing the components to read/write data, will enact a policy to migrate the data to the current media format every 7 years or less.
- Why a company should consider the effect on history of losing their data if their retention policy is less than 7 years or not explicitly stated. For example, is there a retention policy at our record companies for all of the garage band tape recordings they've received? If there isn't, how are we going to retain this valuable piece of American History and Culture? The record companies have a historical responsibility to record and maintain these.

More interestingly to me for this blog post is the problems with the data conversion process itself. Recall I'm a big vinyl fan at this point. Vinyl and analog recordings provide a warm and continuous signal whereas digital chops that up into many slices. Further, when compressing information for our MP3s we actually lose data. Depending on the number of Kbps you use, the data loss can be very noticeable in certain types of music.

Many download services also do not provide lossless downloads.

In the coming year we will see 1 Terrabyte desktop drives. I am convinced that we will start seeing more pervasive use of lossless compression. Still, it begs the question, will our original data remain intact? Are we losing important historical data and content quality through the conversion to digital and then using lossy compression techniques because we feel the quality is "good enough"? I have every reason to believe that as we start merging technology with our bodies and brains, our senses will become more and more aware of the lossy compression techniques used in the late 90's and early 2000's. Even without computer enhancement our brains are adapting to the saturation of media and information in a way that previous generations would be astounded at.

The only question to our kids who will have the heightened senses through the merging of technology with our human anatomy will be "How much quality did my parents compromise and lose for the sake of their convenience...and how much of it will we be able to recover to enjoy their creativity to its fullest potential?". So, be sure to save those original recordings...especially if you are the owner of the Beatles recordings.

btw, does anyone REALLY agree with releasing a Beatles album that does not adhere to the group's original music scores but is instead a mashup? Should content created by a team of people in a specific way be rebuilt to fulfill someone else's vision? What if our future generation actually thinks that these songs were originally mashed up, are we changing history? I agree with mashups and especially for content that is INTENDED to be mashed up, but I believe we should be very careful with taking original content and mashing it up to be something not intended by the author (though I do like the version of the Elvis tune at the beginning of the NBC show Las Vegas :-)

- Gotta run!

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