[Beowulf] how Google warps your brain

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Mon Oct 25 07:53:58 PDT 2010

On Mon, 25 Oct 2010, Daniel Kidger wrote:

> Ok - so this is a bit off-topic but in my opinion the *only* music format
> that will be guaranteed readable in say 100 years time is vinyl and the only
> document format that endures will be ink on paper.
> SD cards, CDs, DVDs et al. will all become obsolete as technology
> progresses, and even if they didn't then they will suffer from bit rot.
> Academics are already finding that the CDs they burnt of their research a
> few years ago are no longer readable.
> Also electronic copies of old books do not carry the depth of information
> that the original had. Not just that the formatting gets changed but you
> also lose the smell of an old book, the yellowing of the pages, odd pencil
> notes in the margins (*) that give that work its character and depth.
> The only alternative for longevity is to post our writings on the Internet -
> such posts will last until the end of our civilization (**)

Actually, I think this (interesting) hypothesis is subject to
information theoretic analysis.  The probability of reliable
transmission of a given message is related to a mix of the lifetime of
the physical copy plus how often it is replicated and translated.
You're arguing that vinyl records have a 100 year lifetime (although I
think that this has yet to be proven and seems dubious, certain not
without information degradation).  Books do have a long lifetime, but
the <i>mean</i> lifetime of <i>most</i> books is actually quite short.
I'm remarkable in that I've got a library with lots of books that are
40-110 years old, where "lots" means "way, way fewer than I have new
books".  And one gets to where one doesn't dare to actually read (say)
my copy of The Count of Monte Cristo from the 1800's as the pages are so
yellowed and brittle, or my first edition Tarzan of the Apes.  They
don't suffer "bit errors" per se -- they lose whole pages of text,
corners, and more.  Print fades, dirt corrupts, insects eat.

There are countless books that have simply vanished forever.  One run of
a few thousand copies, and nobody kept any.  Gone.  This is especially
evident in the preservation of manuscript copies from the last 2500 or
so years.

Things that increase the probable life of information are:

  a) Multiple copies.  Passenger pigeons may be robust, but once the
number of copies drops below a critical point, they are gone.  E. Coli
we will always have with us (possibly in a constantly changing form)
because there are so very many copies, so very widely spread.

  b) Robust encoding.  Again, manuscript and typeset books are typically
not error free, and suffer from all of the usual transmission errors
(including the "transmission" from the past to the future) studied by
Shannon on the appropriate basis of the media in question.  There are
all sorts of methods designed to reduce transmission errors (one of the
best of which is multiple copies on top of any others methods used).
Lossless encoding is obviously preferrable to lossy encoding -- in music
with things like mp3 and ogg this is an issue, but...

  c) Open standards for encoding mechanisms minimize the likelihood of
losing the rosetta stone that allows even lossy formats to be decoded,
and hence useful.  If you like, one has to also preserve the encoding
scheme along with the encoded information.

At the moment, the internet has if anything VASTLY INCREASED a, b and c
for every single document in the public domain that has been ported to,
e.g. Project Gutenberg.

Right now, I'm sitting on a cache of "Saint" books, by Leslie Charteris
(who was a great favorite of mine growing up and still is).  Try to find
a copy.  I'm sure my copies aren't the ONLY copies extant of any of
these books, but fewer and fewer copies can be found, and only with
great effort and at great price.  There were never that many hard
covers, and the paperbacks just went through a few printings (and are
now around 40-50 years old and weren't designed to last).

Nobody is going to reprint the Saint stories.  They are a gay fantasy
from another time, a swashbuckling series with a delightful conceit and
innnocent heart.  The only way they will ever be preserved for posterity
is <i>if they would come out of copyright</i> so people like me could
throw them out there into the Internet.  Then indeed, as you say, they
might well last to the end of civilization.  Replicate them a few
million times, PERPETUATE them from generation to generation by renewing
the copies, and backing them up, and recopying them in formats where
they are still useful.

If you rely on the few hundred copies of some of these books that likely
still exist in the world on paper, well -- don't.  It was cheap paper.

> (*) remember Fermat's margin comment in his copy of Diophantus's Arithmetica
> - would he have written that if he had a Kimble?

Or, to put it differently, suppose every single human on the planet had
access to the modern equivalent of Diophantus's Arithmetica on their
computer, their Kindle, their Ipad -- as in fact they do -- how many
more Fermats might we have had over the centuries?

And the ability to scrawl marginal notes is mere software, and not that
far away.


> (**) which has a faint chance of lasting those 100 years.
> Daniel
> -- 
> Bull, Architect of an Open World TM
> Dr. Daniel Kidger, HPC Technical Consultant
> daniel.kidger at bull.co.uk
> +44 (0) 7966822177

Robert G. Brown	                       http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb/
Duke University Dept. of Physics, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
Phone: 1-919-660-2567  Fax: 919-660-2525     email:rgb at phy.duke.edu

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