Standards are the Sands of Time (or, the Illusion of Preservation)

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for every standard drops to zero.

From emulated games to digital negatives, how can we preserve our digital content for posterity, and inform our decisions about which formats we adopt?

A special jpg: 2 monkeys, city, moonlight
A special jpg: 2 monkeys, city, moonlight

How many jpg images do you suppose are living on the internet? Probably quite a few.

Among all those images, the jpg on the right is particularly special to me, because it’s a screen capture of an adventure game I wrote for the Commodore VIC-20 when I was very very young (like almost single digits).

If you can’t make it out, those are two monkeys standing under the Toronto skyline, reading a newspaper by moonlight.

At the time I wrote the game, it could only be played by reading the bits that were encoded as waveforms on an audio cassette tape. Which was awesome.

But one day my VIC-20’s cassette drive silently stopped reading tapes, and the game could be played no more.

The photograph below (another jpg) was taken of the defunct
VIC-20 hardware some time before it was tossed into a big dumpster.

Commodore VIC-20 and Tape (deceased)
Commodore VIC-20 (deceased) and Cassette

Resuscitation by Emulator

VICE Vic-20 Emulator on Windows
2001 Emulator (not dead yet)

Fast-forward through more than a decade to 2001, where I find VICE, a program that can emulate the VIC-20 on Windows.

With the game’s cassette reclaimed from the basement and a dusty tape player connected to my PC’s audio port, I transferred the audio that made up the game’s bits into an audio .wav file, and then converted that audio file into a format that could be loaded by the emulator.

I was so happy to be able to run my game again, and have it preserved “forever,” even though its contents are meaningful only to me (and maybe my family).

Satisfied, I zipped it up together with the emulator
and put it into my folder called “C:\pastlives” for safe keeping.

Now almost ten more years have passed. In this 64-bit world, my game still runs.

For now.

(slightly) Longer Term Thinking

This ran through my head when I was considering whether I should adopt Adobe’s Digital Negative (DNG) format as a standard for my photo archives. The alternative is the Nikon raw (NEF) format I currently use for my negatives.

It literally kept me up last night thinking about the layers of technology I depend on to retrieve and view things in “C:\pastlives”, like my VIC-20 emulator or my digital photos.

Check out this stack of just some of the standards and technologies I used to play my game today:

Some of the technology standards used to play my VIC-20 game on Windows 7
Some of the technology standards and file types used to play my VIC-20 game on Windows 7. (another jpg)

(Red == the ones I perceive as more volatile)
Sure, you could substitute for some of these (the VIC-20 emulator, for example, also runs on Linux).

But how likely is it that a complete cocktail of prerequisite technologies will be around long enough for me to load and play the game in three more decades? In ten?

These standards aren’t stacking up like a solid foundation, they’re piling up like sediment!

(To abuse a pretentious analogy) It’s like the sands of time themselves.

Consider the Floppy

5 1/4 inch Floppy Disk
5 1/4 inch Floppy Disk

Remember floppy disks? Those once-ubiquitous storage devices? How many of you still have machines around that can read a 5 ¼ inch floppy?

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for every technology standard drops to zero.

By my estimation, all it’ll take is for me to neglect its preservation for approximately a decade, and my game shall be played no more.

Spoiler Alert!

I’ll go out on a limb and say that despite my efforts, my VIC-20 game will never outlive even all the jpgs in the internet.

So I’m just going to tell you that one monkey rescues the other monkey from the Toronto zoo and they escape back to Africa.

There’s an action sequence where you have to climb through the sunroof of a taxi and jump off at just the right moment to escape a high-speed police chase.

Screenshots, while they last, are available upon request.

The Unfolding of Language

Deutscher's The Unfolding of Language

When Stephen Fry laments “it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophiles don’t enjoy language,” it’s as if Michael Phelps were to lament that not enough people enjoy water. So when Stephen wholeheartedly recommended Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language, which he characterized as more playful and engaging than books on similar subject matter, I was hard pressed to say no. It’s taken me ages to find time to get into the meat of this book (strictly my own fault), but now, about two-thirds of the way through, I wanted to offer it my wholehearted recommendation for anyone who is even remotely interested in language and its origins and evolution.

Deutscher’s prose is indeed playful and accessible, his examples thought-provoking, and his subject matter fascinating: what are the forces that shape and transform language?

Deutscher mentions more than once that “These days, there are no systems of communication which are in the process of evolving their first words.”  He’s right, I suppose, but only on a technicality.  Last week I was taught the basics of a computer scripting language I’d never worked with before. Surely the constructs of some arbitrary scripting language represent one of many “artificial” systems of communication which are in the process of evolving their first “words” (and tokens).

I am writing this now as Deutscher transitions in the book from talking about the destructive forces which are applied to language (which favor economy, expressiveness, and analogy), into the constructive ones which enable new linguistic richness to blossom. Metaphor, apparently, provides many of the raw materials for new grammatical elements.

With that observation under my belt, and aspiring to be a creative force in the universe, I suddenly feel a bit better about my obsession with admiration of Roger’s Profanisaurus (a dictionary of profanity that originates in the pages of the UK’s Viz magazine, which derives cleverness and vulgarity in equal measure from a playful, multi-layered cocktail of metaphor, rhyming slang and other wordplay).

And of course there are my dear LOLcats, who reflect (again in equal parts) the absurd and absurdly rapid evolution of linguistic memes as they’re propelled at the speed of the internets. Since I’m in Ireland, and Deutscher recently reflected on the necessity of the word possessing-implying “have”, here’s a somewhat appropriate LOLCat I just cooked up  – with my cap off to Jim Condron for his help with the Irish word for “flavr.” (context here for the uninitiated)

Orish Kitteh Ubserves: Deres a flavor on meh
oirish kitteh tinks: deres a flavr on meh, so dere iz.

Back to Deutscher’s book.  He spends the fifth chapter illustrating a point by employing a fictional dialogue between a cast of characters at a ‘George Orwell Centennary Conference’.  it’s a technique akin to the one I admired in Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach. Actually, that’s all I have to say.  Check it out.  Go for a swim.  And apologies to Deutscher, Mellie, Fry for this rambling but heartfelt review.

Productivity Tip: Re-map Caps Lock to the Application Key

Application KeyMy Dell Studio 17 does not have an “Application Key” – the key that usually sits beside the Windows key and behaves like right-clicking the mouse on a UI element.  I have no idea why Dell chose to omit one of the most useful keys on the keyboard, especially for laptop users, who pay a larger productivity tax every time they switch between keyboard and mouse.

This great registry trick at US Netizen lets you re-map keys like Caps Lock.  So I used it to re-map the Caps Lock key, which I never use, to the Application Key.  I’ve since found this remapping so handy that I’ve re-mapped Caps Lock to the Application Key on all my other client machines.

Caps Lock is oversized, easily accessible with your left hand’s little finger, and completely useless.  On the other hand, the Application Key, even when not omitted from a keyboard design, can be awkward to reach.  Just so I don’t have to figure it out again, here’s a Registry Edit file (.reg) that performs this re-mapping:

Registry Edit file to re-map Caps Lock to the Application Key (zipped .reg).

Double-click the .reg file to re-map Caps Lock and then reboot for the change to take effect.

This has worked for me on XP, Vista, and Windows 7 [edit 19 Aug 2009: including RTM].  However, the above .reg file comes with no guarantees – I tweaked a .reg I lifted from the US Netizen site – so use at own risk.  I am putting it here because it’s so useful, I’m sure to be back for it again [edit 19 Aug 2009: and I have :) ].

Goodnight, Mars Phoenix

This is relevant to my blog because (a) it moved me, and (b) it’s about passionate people engaging other earthlings about incredible technology.

The Mars Phoenix has been “twittering” for months.  Or more correctly, its team has been twittering in the “voice” of the Phoenix for months.  So I’ve followed the lander as it updates us back on Earth about how it’s hangin’ on the surface of another planet.

The lander is about to go into “Lazarus mode,” and unlikely to wake up again during the next Martian summer.  And so Mars Phoenix twittered:

“Many questions about next Martian summer and will I wake up? It is beyond expectations. But if it happens you’ll be among the 1st to know”

and then, stepping out of character,

“In case we don’t get this chance again, thank you all so much for the questions, comments & good wishes over the mission. It’s been awesome.”

I was almost choked up by what might be the Phoenix’s final posts.  Does that sentence read as a confession?  We all knew it was going to pass away shut down eventually.

Today, there are over 37,000 followers of the Phoenix twitter feed, and at least one guy in Toronto who’s moved to hear the Phoenix is going to sleep, perchance to dream, and possibly for good.

Thanks to the Phoenix team’s Twitter personality, I’ve been engaged more frequently and deeply than I ever expected. And I don’t even Twitter.