[Beowulf] Interesting

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Wed Oct 27 19:24:36 PDT 2010

On Thu, 28 Oct 2010, Christopher Samuel wrote:

> http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/mar/03/research.elearning

I've already lived through whole generations of this process from as far
back as 1979.  I have chunks of code (mostly very old fortran) that I
carefully preserved from punched cards through disk packs on IBMs
through disk packs on a Harris 800 minicomputer and only floppy drives
on an IBM PC, onto bigger/newer floppy drives and hideously expensive
hard disks, onto a Sun 386i, a Sparcstation 2, a Linux PC with dual
Pentium Pros (and simultaneously propagating through several generation
of Sun servers in the department) until, eventually, they made their way
to the laptop where I'm typing this, backed up in the department.  I've
gone back to the well to look at the algorithms for generating e.g. 3j,
6j, 9j coefficients in angular momentum coupling theory, ported them to
C, and written whole new programs using the crumbs of that work.

I've also failed.  I had for a long time a QIC for the IBM 5100 with
Mastermind written in APL on it.  I'd kill to be able to get to the code
for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that because I
mentioned it once on this very list I was for a while accused of being
this dude you claimed to be a time traveller on uunet.  They other is
that it would be fun to port the result to C under subversion, given
that the version I wrote in Fortran and the version I wrote in Basica
have also fled.  I have a 9 track tape reel with LCAO code from the dark
ages (maybe 1978?) that I don't think I will ever be able to play even
if the tape hasn't degraded over 32 years.  I've lost stories I've
written on paper, and a really cool poem that I wrote with a pen popular
in the 70's that turned out to have ink that faded to clear over 20
year, with or without the help of ambient UV.  I have spiral notebooks
from graduate school with barely visible orange lines that might or
might not once have been figures and words and equations.

I've tried to rescue old wordstar and old word documents -- the latter
by going in and chopping the ascii out of the corrupt binary (early word
and many other early WPs used the 8th bit as a kind of markup
delimiter), with some success but it is like breaking a code or solving
a puzzle.  And yes, I'm very, very concerned about things like od
formats that do the RIGHT thing -- save everything as straight up ASCII
inside pure XML markup that one can always write filters to decode even
if XML itself and the WP that created it is long gone -- and then
COMPRESS the document, producing a result that might as well be
encrypted (compression IS a kind of encryption) unless one knows the
algorithm used to do the compressing.  I've salvaged gradesheets the
hard way years after the open source tool I used to produce them has
disappeared only because they DIDN'T do this -- they basically stuck the
data in a sort of custom ascii human readable markup where one can "see"
how to get it back out again without anything but a straight up text

The "Microsoft Word" problem at this point is huge.  There are an
enormous number of documents that were written with old versions of Word
(and Works) and are now all put impossible to retrieve (if only their
owners realized it).  Important stuff.  Oops.  One reason Europe as
largely endorsed XML-only document encodings, one reason MS "suddenly"
made Word and Office XML-compliant (and hence, to their chagrin,
impossible to jerk around they way they'd jerked Office around for a
decade or so previously).

For me, I now write every single thing I write using jove (an absolutely
trivial, wonderful, text only editor), and with the exception of email,
if it is important enough to preserve it is in a version control system
on a solidly backed up server, with multiple cloned images of the
repository on my person machines in different places.  Nuclear war, I
lose it.  A really bad solar flare or magnetic storm or terrorist EMP
attack on campus, I MIGHT lose it (although our server room is deep in
the bowels of the physics building, the building is full of steel and
the basement like a faraday cage as far as e.g. cell phones etc are
concerned) and some of the disks or backups might survive).  And with
all of that, if I died in the next ten minutes, what of all of the
gigabytes of text I've generated over the last decade or three would
survive a decade more?  Maybe a few tens of megabytes.  Maybe.

Probably not, though.  Who is going to be able to keep them, move them
along through format changes, update the media they are stored on?  Who
will care?  In a few centuries, even my actual publications will be most
unlikely to survive.

Thus cries the humble cell contemplating its own inevitable death as the
vast superorganismal being of which it is a very tiny part lumbers on to
ITS inevitable destiny, no different on the macroscale from the cell's
fate on the microscale.  In time all of the marvelous structure and
information that is us, our thoughts, our civilization, our knowledge,
will succumb to entropy, to processes that are always more likely to
take one from a state of relative organization to a much more probable
state of disorganization.

Sad indeed, but there it is.


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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