Position: 1994

I’m a hoarder. I admit it. It’s not pretty, but there you have it. You might not know it at first glance. After all I live on a boat with about 350 square feet of space to put things, including us. There’s only so many back issues of Motorcycle Classics one can fit inside and still have enough space to make supper. My hoarding takes a different tack. I am a digital pack rat. Stuffing away megabytes of photos, video, and blogs that I think I might need someday.

Someplace in storage I still have a couple of 5¼” floppy disks, with who knows what on them? I have at least a dozen 3½” floppies buried in there, too, along with some ancient hard disk drives. The total runs into 10s of gigabytes. Nowadays, I can carry a 4 terabyte drive in my shirt pocket, sufficient for all my needs. Such is progress

In my defence, before we set sail, I destroyed a bunch of old magnetic media that I figured I’d never access again. It wasn’t easy. If you’ve ever tried punching a screwdriver through the sealed metal chassis of a mid-90s disk drive, you understand the challenge. It’s almost as tedious as wiping the achingly slow drives by deleting the data then writing over it several times so it couldn’t be recovered from the town dump. (Please don’t get me started about the paucity of e-waste management in America. At least in Europe you can trot down to the local recycling station and drop things off for free.)

Nerd Out

What about the remaining data? Will I ever access it again? Perhaps. Turns out that Microsoft Windows can still run 30-year-old applications. If you have the original disk and can load it onto your computer, that is. Fortunately, the Internet Archive has all sorts of old, obsolete software you can download for free. With a bit of Googling and patience you can get it to run. It’s one reason Windows is so, so big. Apple, on the other hand, abandoned all that legacy stuff about a decade ago and said, screw you if you’re not buying our latest hardware and upgrading your software at your expense.

In the days before we downloaded software from the web we went to CompUSA and bought it off the shelf. In nearly recent memory, software was sold on CD-ROMs. Remember those? Shiny disks that made good dangling cat toys. Before CD-ROMs, software was sold on 3.5” floppy disks. At 1.44 megabytes capacity, it sometimes took a half dozen floppies to install your application.

Prior to that you had to program your own applications and make them run with 32 kilobytes of RAM. (Not really. Well, kind of. – ed.) If you go back to the 1960s and you were NASA, you had to hand craft your own computers and program them with magnetic core memory. (Well, kind of – ed.) Almost unbelievably, that tech steered men to the Moon and back. For more on that era, check out: Left Brains for the Right Stuff: Computers, Space, and History, by my uncle Hugh.



On my elder sister’s recommendation, I recently read Robert Harris’ entertaining book, Second Sleep. Categorized (by them as knows) as ‘speculative fiction’, the book (spoiler alert) is set in a post-apocalyptic future. A sub-text imagines a 100-year gap in human history once all physical documents became digitised and disappeared into a ‘cloud’, never to be read again.

There are moments when I consider the implications of losing all my data. With five and half years of blogging under the keel, I wonder if I should print aleta.life’s entire canon, have it bound and place it into a time capsule for posterity. But physical objects are almost as ephemeral as digital ones these days. Heirlooms ain’t what they used to be. Perhaps such a tome would be useful kindling for a Viking burial pyre.

Ten years ago, in a spinning class (bike, not wool), the instructor admonished everyone to back up their memories onto a disk drive and store it away from our primary residences. He had just helped a family after a house fire where they lost everything. The thing they missed most was their photos and the memories they contained. Most everything else they lost could be replaced. That’s what makes cloud computing and storage so attractive for me – everything is stored offsite.

Digital Life Preserver

Perhaps one saviour for this digital pack rat will be the venerable PDF (Portable Document Format). Platform agnostic, PDFs can be read by most any computer system for free. Adobe invented it back in 1993, but released it as an open standard in July, 2008. Thus, as long as there are computers, PDFs are likely to be readable. Only, it’s a lot harder to bury a Viking with a USB drive.


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