Column : “In the realm of the techno troglodytes”


If there is a place in the universe farthest away from the pinnacle of socio-technological evolution, then it must be the town I live in. As proud as it may be to hold the title ‘Belgiums oldest city’, its inhabitants tend to hold on to ancient times (technologically) instead of rolling around on Segways, while steering their quad-copters form their cellphones. I would not dare to go as far as to call this a digital ‘backwater’ town … but instead let the anecdote speak for itself.

This week marked a dark chapter in this towns history as the last DVD rental ‘entertainment store’ went out of business. This behemoth of ancient times has finally fallen under the crushing weight of pay-per-view services offered by Belgium’s 2 major ISP’s. Perhaps bit-torrent also had something to do with it but … in this town that impact must have been pretty moderate. As we walked by the empty storefront I watched in amazement as a car pulled up and out hopped a 30 something soccer-mom, cradling a collection of dvd’s in her hands. She walked up to the store (That was now completely and utterly empty) and started rattling the door. She looked around in confusion and peered through the windows trying to see any kind of movement. Since I’m horrible at observing people unnoticed, the caught me staring at her. “Its Closed !” she pointed out. Before I aptly wanted to congratulate her at pointing out the painfully obvious she stuck out her precious DVD collection. “I have to return these !” she said helplessly, (as if I was going to be her knight in shining armor ). “Well, you are in luck, I said” The store closed up this weekend, so you can get to keep those dvd’s. What I expected to get was a response like “Damn ! Lucky me then .. too bad about the store”, followed by an unlikely but possible Obama Style fist bump from a curvy mom of three .. but that didn’t happen. Instead there was this look of utter desperation as she babbled “Then where am I gonna rent my dvd’s ?”. Now this is a valid question you might pose to any Noob or lamen .. but asking ME where to ‘Rent DVD’s’ is like asking a professor in theoretical quantum particle theory how you can “milk your own cow”. Was she kidding ? My suggestions of “Renting stuff online” ( I didn’t even get started on ‘downloading’) did not give her any solace either. And the fact that one of the DVD’s she had in her hands was a copy of the FIRST ‘Bridget Jones diary’ made me realize this person was not very culturaly savvy either. The kind of person who still thinks ’50 shades’ is to be considered hardcore porn. Fact of the matter is : This person was a techno troglodyte. Somebody for whome the fast moving pace of our digital age is something that does not quite come up on their radar. I saw her grabbing her phone (A cheap flip phone) and contacting the troglodyte main cave to report in that their oracle of visual entertainment had just gone dark. The non-productive conversation with the mouth-breathing consort did not bring any solutions either so .. for a split second I saw her think about “just leaving the dvd’s at the door”. Then a splinter of common sense (or social awkwardness) resulted in her tossing the dvd’s back in the car, shrugging at me .. and driving back to the land where people still buy books on paper, record shows on VHS, buy a full cd because they like one single track, read porn from magazines and rent DVD’s in store.

Oh bless you digital troglodytes, for whom the painfully persistent pace of progress still seems to be nothing more then a slow trod. For you are the last hope of the record shops, the TV-repair men, the stores that sell you a mega expensive cover for your smartphone because you don’t know about this thing called ebay. I tip my hat to you as you actually believe the stuff about your mobile phone plan the guy in the store is trying to tell you. I cringe as you click the banner on some random webpage that says your computer is infected and you need to fix it NOW. I bid you a safe journey as you go shopping for your new computer in a place that also sells washing machines. And yes, I sometimes even want to pummel your face with a blueberry muffin as you ask me if I can “Make phone calls” with my iPad, you still are adorable. Adorable .. techno troglodytes… So as I twist and turn in bed, thoughts of the NSA sniffing the internet keeping me awake. As I ponder the question what will happen to the internet if the DNS servers ever go down due to a massive DOS attack. As I spend hours comparing specs about the new intel CPU’s for my next gadget … I wonder about the simple life in your cave .. perhaps old school isn’t that bad after all. DO you have Wifi over there ? Probably not yet.

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The coming of Cyber archaeologists.

Will we need cyber archaeologists.

tapeLooking at it, its the oddesd of things. This flimsy plastic box with two round holes in it, seems to come from another age. A brown warn little plastic tape worms itsself from one side of the container to the other. Only 20 some years old , the cassette is as obsolete as the dinosaurs. Yet a few weeks ago my dear aunt called me up in a panic, telling the tale how the evil old cassette  player she had owned for so many years had 'eaten' a cassete with a recording on it of my late grandmother singing. I of course offered to go ahead and fix it. After half an hour of poking and prodding with a pair of tweezers and some sticky tape I managed to get the cassette back together. Now I just had to find a  cassette player to play it on… It was at that moment i realised .. I did not have one anymore.   The thought propped up to me that we store so much information these days on so many carriers, but yet all these media are futile and soon we won't be able to recover anything we stored 10 years ago because technology moves so fast. Will we need cyber archeologists in the future ? 

Media are futile.

rotThere are few media that survive the test of time. Even paper turns to dust after so many hundred years, depending on how it is stored. And so are the media we store stuff on today. The average lifespan of a cassette tape, a cd-recordable, a dat tape or even a floppy disk does not even come close to the lifespan of paper. Yet while a single peace of paper can hold out for a hundred years, a DVD rom with all the collected works of Plato won't last a hundred years at all. The loss off information that can occur when our media turn sour is only multiplied by the enormous amounts of data they can carry. To loose a single sheet of paper over the course of a thousand years might be a loss, To loose a thousand documents on a single cd-rom after 10 years is even worse.  So what is there to do but to transfer information from medium to medium in order to let it stand the test of time ? Or what if we find the carrier that will last us to infinity.. What format must we use to write our data ?

Formats are fleeting

If your average DLT tape will turn brittle and break in a hundred years you might just have been lucky. Think not of the medium the information is written on , think of the format the information is stored in. Format types like .doc , .xls and so on are  even more fleeting then their carriers. You can make your programs backward compatible into the extreme , supporting exotic fileformats of days long gone is a painfull task. Some, like .html, .txt .pdf and .rdf, might be supported for years to come, but what about other, exotic and propriatary standards,  formats of backup programs and so on. One might hold a treasured box of data in ones hand but if the fileformat is no longer supported .. How can we ever access it ? Perhaps we will find the key to the format .. but what about the system it was written for ?

Systems are fleeting

vaxIt can be even worse. Say we have salvaged the medium and have somewhere found the original application to read it with. What if it only runs on specific hardware ? An evolution that is even faster then the formats and the media , must be the hardware ! What if the information we need only runs on some ancient system like say for example a commodore 64 ? Where to find one ? and even more importantly : where to find the parts if something breaks. Even to this day some "legacy' programs that are still being used in production, run on hardware that is no longer supported by the manufacturer. So what do we have to do ? Store both the information, the media, the original application AND the hardware it runs on in our archives ?  What can be so important that we need to go through all this hassle  ?


what is important

"So what .." I hear you say ?  What if we loose that excell file thats 8 years old ? Who cares ? … But that is just it. We might know what information is important today, but we will never be able to tell what information is pivotal or trivial in the future. The first posting by Linus Torvalds on usenet might have been unimportant,  Yett only history will tell wether this one event might be something for the historybooks. The fact is we store more and more information these days on systems, media and in formats that might not stand the test of time. Wether or not something will be important in the future is impossible to tell at this time, thus we risk turning the digital era we live in today, into tomorrows informational dark ages , from which nothing will be remembered in the future.

Cyber archaeologists

 I see a new profession emerging. Perhaps starting out as a niche market, later to evolve in  something that will turn into an exact science. People who spend their time looking through old digital archives. Who have the skills to work with old legacy hardware, know which side is up on a floppy disk , and God forbid, even speak the language of the old commodore 64. Cyber-archeologists digging through our digital past, being able to unlock and uncover the secrets of the past and bring them back in the light of whatever modern civilisation there might be. A proffesion that holds both the keys to FINDING information and being able to ACCESS it aswell. A trait of archeologists not speaking of the jurrasic but of the "basic" or  the "x86" period of the past …  




As evolution speeds up .. so does the regression of the past into oblivion. 

I for one do think we will have them in the future. Experts in finding what was stored but yet was lost. Keepers of keys that can unlock the files from our past and bring them back. With the amount of information we produce, the digital legacy we leave behind… its unthinkable that these things would be lost forever in a period of only a few decenia.  Prove me wrong .. Digg into your past and find the first digital document you ever made ?  Perhaps you"ll need a cyber-archaeologists to complete the task.

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I dont know how to quit you.

I dont Know how to quit you

Mac Its been here for over a year now, and when you measure its uptime against the rest of the systems I have , one would think its a lampshade or some fancy ornament for the living room. Yet .. its a computer none the less. Its poor and meager 350 MHz power-processor is four times slower then even the lightest computer around here .. but still this old geezer has not been sent to oblivion as most of its peers have been. So what in hells name propels me to keep this little bugger ? It doesn’t really DO anything, If it did , it would be SLOW at it .. and it isn’t even modern anymore. So why is it still here ?

Simple answer.
The answer is as simple as it is baffling : Its pretty !  and for some unearthly reason I have grown fond of it. The story began over a year ago when I managed to buy two Mac G4’s. As I was loading them up in my car ,the guy says, “Well , those are the last of the working macs around here”  “ Oh” , I asked “ Do you have any broken ones too ?”  The guy nodded and pointed me to a dark and gloomy shed “ Still got an old G3 in there, its broken so I’m gonna take it to the scrap-heap”  All of my “Save the wales, the puppy’s, the baby seals and the old computer ! “- alarms went of in my head as I said , Well , just give it to me and i’ll do that for ya too. My head was thinking: “yea ! spare parts”  Next thing I know the guy pops an old bondi blue G3 in my trunk and tops it of with an old 17 inch bondi blue cinema display. “Broken too” he mumbles.

Don't tell me its broken.
Now .. telling me something pretty is broken and cannot be fixed is like slapping me in the face with a leather glove. I feel challenged, compelled to prove you wrong and fix it. Wether its my God-like itch (to create life from lifelessness) or my Ferengi greed (moooore computers .. mooore !)  I do not know. But 3 days later the Little G3 was up and purring. Replacing the power supply , taking apart the ENTIRE casing in order to clean it and popping in 512 megs of ram revived the little bugger. The screen miraculously healed itself and ( it drew power from the broken power-supply , so DUHUH) and I had kittens from joy.
So now what ? Mac Os 10 would NOT install on it. I spent hours to get it working , tried and tried again , but to no avail. Even my expert mac geek friend gave up and said .. let it go my friend. But i was not going to quit .. Like a regular doc frankenstein I huddled back to my layor with the lifeless hulk and downloaded the one potion that would surely revive even the most simple systems.  I summoned the power of ubuntu !

Running smoothly.
So now i’m more than happy to report the latest distro of Ubuntu is running smoothly on this hand-me-down given-up-for-dead G3. I don”t know what makes me more happy , the fact that it looks cool and runs at a very decent speed or the simple realization that I have made something productive out of a system that would have been sent to the dump.
The funny thing is I have some other way faster computers in the house , yes I remain facinated by this old G3 and keep spending time on it. As said in “broke-back” mountain : I don”t know how to quit you .. and quite frankly I don’t know why that is. But what I do know is that it not only will make a very nice linux testing system it will also be the prettiest ubuntumachine in the house.

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Google Sync: your bookmarks everywhere.

Google Sync : Your house is my house.

syncJust got up and running this morning and only 5 seconds into my morning surf-wave when already found my little snippet of news that kind of makes my day. Google has just released a firefox extension called 'browsersync'   that lets you synchronies your bookmarks between several different browsers (at work, at home etc). This is not such big news , cause services like this existed before ( you had the bookmarks in your google toolbar , you had ).. Plenty of places to store your bookmarks… but not very convenient. What if you already HAD an extensive list of bookmarks, you had to order them , categorize them and so on. Not a very easy thing to do. And I don’t really like third party places where you have to manage your bookmarks. All in the comfort of my own home please. Now Google has come up with a cool FIREFOX extension that lets you sync UP your websites tot the Google servers, and Sync them down again as you logon to a different computer. Meanwhile the bookmarks are stored localy on both computers… And a copy is stored on the Google servers.

Whats your flavor .. tell me whats your flavor. 

What a great marketing trick. Google now exactly knows what your ‘favorites’ are and can use this to send you targeted adds and searches. Their motto is “ Do no Evil” and so far , Google has been a pretty good boy .. But what if all that information that Google has ( favourites, Gmail, search information) is ever put to “not so good use”. Google is sure as hell gaining a lot of information this way , and for convenience sake we are quite willing to give up some privacy. But on the other hand : What if this leeds to targeted adding ? It would be a bad thing , but also a good thing. What if the spam you get in your inbox anyway .. is more directed at your interests. Instead of college diploma”s and .. lets call them “ego-enlargements” … you would get spam about tech stuff, Barbie dolls, or when your favorite rerun of Family Ties is on TV.  It just shows that information can be used in different ways and that good and bad … depends on where you stand.  Before I start sounding like Obi One Kenoby .. I better sign off !

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