August 14th, 2013

A Purple Straw Hat

Boringly More About File Formats, Character Encoding and Physical Media

I'm running up against a persistent idea that file formats that involve computers are or will be longer lasting that physical formats. So I'm going to think about that for a while (in my written voice) and try to figure out why that idea is kicking around and whether it is plausible.

I suppose I should start with Hollerith cards. While no file format before 1980 can make any claim to be a mass consumer format, and it would be at least another decade before a file format could make a not-immediately-laughable claim to be a mass consumer format, we have had computer file formats around for a long while. He devised an electric tabulator in 1889 that was used to tabulate the 1890 census (and really, making me think about this makes the genealogist in me start crying. I am Not Joking. I am pretty callous when it comes to data loss, but the loss of the 1890 census was a tragedy.). His company would go on to become (part of) IBM, and punch cards would continue into ... if not right now, then damn close. Wikipedia seems to think some voting machines still use punch cards.

But "punch cards" are like "magnetic tape". That's a physical medium that a file format is saved onto, and it's important for my purposes to distinguish between them. For consumer mass media like LPs, CDs, DVDs, etc., you can talk merge the two, because the mass consumption format doesn't have two flavors of vinyl with incompatible formats stored atop (Do Not Start With Me. I don't want to hear about it. _Mass consumption_ is an important qualifier), for example. But there were a lot of different formats on punch cards, magnetic tape, etc.

There was one Rabidly Successful physical format "punch card", 80 columns wide: the IBM punch card that lasted about 50 years starting in 1928. However, the character format used did not stay stable over the 50 years of the active life of the card (I'm assuming the punch card died as an active format sometime in the early 1980s with the arrival of the minicomputer; obvs, it continued as an increasingly niche product, just like LPs at Urban Outfitters, etc.).

EBCDIC, for example, got its start in 1963, on punch cards, for the 360. And people _still use EBCDIC_, but not typically on punch cards, altho often on modern hardware still running within the constraints of the 360 system. EBCDIC is an overlapping 50 year format: its physical media has changed but the character encoding is roughly constant. (ASCII, similar, natch.)

At this point in the analysis, I resort to, Really? Why? Why 360? Why VMS (altho I think that one is finally dead)? Why, Why, Why in 2013 Fortran? Really, Why? (Insert existential angsty scream here.) That's simple: the people and organizations who most desperately needed something better/other than paper in the 1950s adopted these systems as soon as they became available, and it's been really fucking hard to migrate off of them. The IRS. The FBI. Insurance Companies. Etc.

If you want to understand the lifetimes of formats (whether physical, character or file), you need to give some thought to the people and organizations who use them. If a group of people and organizations refuses to migrate off a format, It Will Continue. When the people who use a format migrate to another, It Will End.

It only _looks_ like a technical problem. It's not. And that's why I generally don't really care when a format dies. I am neither an archivist nor a collector; I'm an active user and I bring along with me the stuff I care about and leave behind what I am done with. Libraries, and other individuals and organizations have a different set of priorities, that can be much more difficult to reconcile to lived reality.

ETA: As computer file formats increasingly reflect the desires of the mass consumption market, they will quit acting like the seemingly persistent and somewhat stable formats of whatever the computer version of yesteryear is. As the mass market demands AND GETS the ability to migrate from one format to another (witness iTunes Match, but before that, we insisted on products that let us record stuff off the radio and off of TV and so forth), we'll see format lifetimes evolve in concert.
A Purple Straw Hat

How iTunes Match Helps Me Be More Organized

You're thinking, well, duh, someone else is managing the music. Not where I'm going with this.

I've been telling this story, over and over and over since, um, October of last year, in almost every blog entry about decluttering. Of which there have been more than a few. The story goes like this, basically. Finally, both my kids had school placements that they liked. I did my taxes (you know, 6 month extension means they have to be filed by the middle of October). And then I started decluttering. Not emergency disaster mitigation decluttering, for real, make it look the way it should decluttering. We had previously had a bunch of work done around the house (making the closets not have white wire racks in them, but actual wooden shelves and so forth, type of thing). I got everything that shouldn't have left Seattle back to Seattle, out of the basement. I got rid of a huge number of books. I replaced a bunch of furniture. The house was painted (inside). More furniture was moved out of the house. I donated clothes and shoes and toys and Other Stuff. Somewhere fairly early on in this process, as I was purging the overstuffed (couldn't file more things) filing cabinet, I noticed that about ten years ago I made an effort to get all my bills online, and in the following years, that had undone itself and new accounts weren't online. And I thought about it and realized that was because I kept forgetting passwords. So I said, fine, I'll get a password manager and My Life Changed for the Better. Honest. Get one. They are Amazing.

Every day that the mail is handled in under a minute (to R.'s pile or recycling of those advertising cards that I haven't figured out how to turn off yet), I thank MailStop and CatalogChoice, and LastPass, for enabling me to sign up for new accounts without worrying about forgetting the username and/or password. Every day that the mail is handled in under five minutes, including filling out a form and/or writing a check, I smile. And when there's no mail at all, I do a little happy dance.

At one point, some months ago (I want to say January timeframe, could have been a little earlier or later), I had the remains of what I had left in Seattle shipped out to me, which meant I had a bunch of old files to deal with: tax returns and similar financials, for the most part. I've been on and off shredding them, but the shredder only runs for about 15-20 minutes before it says it needs a break, which makes it the kind of project that, once interrupted, I abandon for weeks. But I'm starting to really notice empty space in the filing cabinets. Big empty space. Not just, can easily file space, but might be able to get rid of a filing cabinet empty space. Hmmm.

And here is where iTunes Match comes in. Because it is now dead easy to download anything from my medium sized music collection to my phone or other mobile device, and I have bluetooth headphones, I can now, on a whim, pick out music I haven't listened to in about ten years (thank you, Push Stars and Spandau Ballet. I had forgotten how much I loved you all. Also, Steve Miller's Book of Dreams), and quite happily work through each file folder, removing everything that is no longer relevant, or really should have been recycled long ago (return envelope never used, type of thing). And now, there is even more empty space in the filing cabinet.

And that's how iTunes Match helps me be more organized.