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Be cautious of high-tech media storage

To all of you who confidently burn CDs or use various high-tech media for storing personal data, photos, and critical documents, I say: watch out! I was recently going through some boxes and came across 8- and 5-inch floppy disks, large tape reels, and even 3M data-only DC100 tape cassettes (I never actually used the latter, but they had a very clever, internal belt drive for constant speed and tensioning that I liked to dissect.) And while I didn't come across any of my old IBM punch cards (they did make great bookmarks and paper mache, BTW, in addition to their primary function), I did find some flexible magnetic cards that are the size of the punch cards, used with and IBM word processor unit.

Fortunately, I don't need any of the data on these various storage vehicles (or at least I don't remember what I am missing) so there is no downside to my loss, at least that I can sense. But as our personal and work-related documentation worlds become less paper-oriented, we need to ask ourselves some tough questions. As engineers, we know how many “layers” it takes to successfully read online or non-paper documentation: the right mechanism, drivers, platform, operating system, format conversion, and more.

Ask yourself if documentation on a few sheets of paper which outlines, guide, or provide an overview would be a good idea. You can even make multiple copies and store them in different places. Supplement those few pages with some raw notes about why you took a certain design path, some rough calculations you performed to get an estimate of the design parameters, your projects basic framework or architecture, and you'll be making things easier for yourself even a few years from now.

We know, barring a really adverse event (such as flood, fire, or similar), that paper and similar documentation will be readable many years from now. It's not just major parchment-based documents such as the Magna Carta that will survive; routine “paperwork” survives as well. In a recent TV show about William Shakespeare, the host visited the town hall where Shakespeare's family had applied for a municipal license. The town clerk reached for a bound volume on the shelf; in it were all other similar applications from that year. Among them was the Shakespeare application, along with some notes and comments written by the officials at the time.

Someday, there may be a broader solution to the problem of retrieving and recreating documentation from the recent past. Researchers at leading academic institutions are working on the problem, click here to read
“Data Extinction”, MIT Technology Review, October 2002, but their solution won't be available for while, if ever. It's not something you should count on or wait for!

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