Blog Archive for the ‘Digital Dark Age’ Category

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ICE/ISEE-3 To Return To An Earth No Longer Capable of Speaking To It

Posted on Monday, February 24th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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International Cometary Explorer (NASA)

This August, a pioneer in space exploration returns to Earth after more than 30 years of service. The spacecraft is still in good, functioning condition, and could possibly be assigned to another mission. Sadly, however, we seem to have forgotten how to speak its language.

The probe, a collaboration between NASA and ESA, was one of three crafts launched in 01978 to study the the interaction between solar wind and Earth’s magnetosphere. Named the International Sun-Earth Explorer-3 (ISEE-3), it was the first-ever object to be sent into heliocentric orbit at the first Lagrangian point – a particular location between Earth and Sun, where our planet’s gravitational force cancels out the Sun’s pull in such a way that a satellite essentially orbits in tandem with Earth.

Upon completion of its mission in 01983, the probe was repurposed and re-christened: now called the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), it circled the moon a few times to gather speed, and then flew off to chase after two comets. ICE intercepted comet Giacobini-Zinner in 01985 before catching up with Halley’s comet in 01986, and making history as the first spacecraft to study two comets directly.

After a brief third mission to study coronal mass ejections, NASA officially decommissioned the probe and shut down communications with its systems. Nevertheless, the agency discovered in 02008 not only that ICE had failed to power off, but also that 12 of its 13 instruments were still functioning. They entertained the idea of sending ICE off to study another corner of the Solar System – only to learn that the equipment needed to communicate with ICE is no longer available, and too cost-prohibitive to rebuild. The Planetary Society’s Emily Lackdawalla explains:

Several months of digging through old technical documents has led a group of NASA engineers to believe they will indeed be able to understand the stream of data coming from the spacecraft. NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) can listen to the spacecraft, a test in 2008 proved that it was possible to pick up the transmitter carrier signal, but can we speak to the spacecraft? Can we tell the spacecraft to turn back on its thrusters and science instruments after decades of silence and perform the intricate ballet needed to send it back to where it can again monitor the Sun? The answer to that question appears to be no.

For the past 15 years, ICE has been patiently orbiting the Sun at a speed slightly higher than that of Earth. Now that it’s catching up with us again from behind, researchers realize there’s much more exploration that ICE could have helped us with. Unfortunately, we simply don’t seem capable of mustering the resources we need to communicate with ICE. Lackdawalla muses,

I wonder if ham radio operators will be able to pick up its carrier signal – it’s meaningless, I guess, but it feels like an honorable thing to do, a kind of salute to the venerable ship as it passes by.

Laura Welcher Speaks at Contemporary Jewish Museum This Sunday

Posted on Thursday, February 13th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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How do public archives, as collections of cultural artifacts, shape our collective memory? And how is this changing as new digital tools make it ever easier for scholars and artists to access these repositories?

This Sunday, Long Now’s Laura Welcher joins a group of archivists and artists to discuss these questions and more at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Entitled Finders and Keepers: Archives in the Digital Age, the panel discussion accompanies an exhibit by Chicago-based photographer Jason Lazarus, who creates collaborative installations with pictures and texts submitted by others.

The panel discussion starts this Sunday, February 16th, at 3 PM; the event is free with museum admission.

 

Lost century-old Antarctic images found and conserved

Posted on Friday, January 10th, 02014 by Catherine Borgeson
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Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZ)

A small box of 22 exposed but unprocessed photographic negatives left nearly a century  ago in an Antarctic exploration hut has been discovered and conserved by New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust.

“It’s the first example that I’m aware of, of undeveloped negatives from a century ago from the Antarctic heroic era,” Antarctic Heritage Trust Executive Director Nigel Watson said in a press release. “There’s a paucity of images from that expedition.”

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Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZ)

The team of conservationists discovered the clumped together negatives preserved in a solid block of ice in Robert Falcon Scott’s hut at Cape Evans on Ross Island. The hut served as one of the many supply depots of Captain Scott’s doomed Terre Nova Expedition to the South Pole (01910-01913). While the expedition made it to the Pole, they died during the return trip from starvation and extreme conditions. Today, preserved jars of Heinz Tomato Ketchup, John Burgess & Sons French olives and blocks of New Zealand butter can still be found in the hut, as well as a darkroom intact with chemicals and plates.

Two years after Scott’s expedition, the hut was inhabited by the Ross Sea Party of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (01914-01917). Ten marooned men lived there after being stranded on the ice for nearly two years when their ship, the SY Aurora, broke free from her moorings during a blizzard and drifted out to sea.  By the time of their rescue, three men had died, including the team’s photographer Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith. While the photographer of the negatives cannot be proven, someone in the Ross Sea Party did leave behind the undeveloped images.

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Chief Scientist Alexander Stevens looking south on the deck of Aurora. Hut Point Peninsula in the background. Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZ)

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Photo: Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZ)

These never-before-seen images give testament to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. And only in places like Antarctica could such a situation exist. The photographer used cellulose nitrate film, which according to Kodak, is a relatively unstable base. The film breaks down in humidity and higher temperatures, giving off powerful oxidizing agents. However, if the conditions are right, the film may last for decades, or as the Antarctic Heritage Trust discovered, a century.

The photographs found in Captain Scott’s expedition base at Cape Evans, Antarctica required specialist conservation treatment. The Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZ) engaged Photographic Conservator Mark Strange to undertake the painstaking task of separating, cleaning (including removing mould) and consolidating the cellulose nitrate image layers. Twenty-two separate sheets were revealed and sent to New Zealand Micrographic Services for scanning using a Lanovia pre-press scanner. The digital scans were converted to digital positives.

via i09

Reviving and Restoring Lost Sounds

Posted on Thursday, December 26th, 02013 by Catherine Borgeson
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In 02008 Kevin Kelly called for movage (as opposed to storage) as the only way to archive digital information:

“Proper movage means transferring the material to current platforms on a regular basis— that is, before the old platform completely dies, and it becomes hard to do. This movic rythym of refreshing content should be as smooth as a respiratory cycle — in, out, in, out. Copy, move, copy, move.”

Five years later, Berkeley physicist Carl Haber received the MacArthur “Genius Grant” for doing just this–moving two- or three-dimensional audio recordings on obsolete platforms and/or decaying storage media and digitally restoring them. These long-lost analog sounds can essentially be played with a virtual needle.

Haber already had the technology in place from his research on imaging radiation. He had cameras precise enough to image and measure the patterns of particles and debris that emerged from subatomic particle collisions. He and his colleagues at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory applied this noninvasive image processing to develop IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.). They derived the acronym from the first recording used to demonstrate the concept of IRENE–The Weavers performing “Goodnight Irene.”

Just like the detailed technique required to measure radiation, pictures taken at great magnification are needed to map the surface of an audio recording.  One pixel is about one micron on the disc or cylinder surface, meaning in order to acquire a sufficient digital map, the camera scans the object slowly enough to synthesize a gigapixel image:

A disc or cylinder is placed in a precision optical metrology system, where a camera following the path of the grooves on the object takes thousands of images that are then cleaned to compensate for physical damage; the resulting data are mathematically interpolated to determine how a stylus would course through the undulations, and the stylus motion is converted into a standard digital sound file.

So IRENE uses image processing to take a picture and mathematically break down the information in that image to calculate the motion of the groove and determine what sound would actually be played. It’s all done with an algorithm on a computer, never having to touch the recording in the process.

Haber has collaborated with archivists and researchers around the world to test IRENE on a variety of audio recordings. The Smithsonian has about 200 experimental recordings from Volta Laboratory Associates, a collection of some of the earliest audio recordings ever made. It is “a reflection on the intense competition between (Alexander Graham) Bell, Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner for patents following the invention of the phonograph by Edison in 1877.”

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A glass disc recording from Bell’s Volta Lab containing the audio of a male voice repeating “Mary had a little lamb.” Photo: The Smithsonian

Now, in collaboration with the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, IRENE has started to recover these fragile recordings made out of rubber, beeswax, glass, tin foil and brass. The cryptic recordings on such delicate and damaged storage mediums can presently be heard, over a century later:

Early experimental recordings are not the only recovered lost voices. Anthropologists, linguists and ethnographers were among some of the first to use recording as a research tool and to document cultural heritage. IRENE has restored some of these field recordings, including wax cylinders from the Alfred L. Kroeber collection at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley. There are over 3,000 cylinder recordings in the collection that document California Native American culture from 01900-01919. Around 300 of these cylinders are 2-3 minute long recordings of Ishi, the only surviving member of the Yahi at the time. 53 of the 300 cylinders are Ishi telling the story of the “Wood Duck” in 01912.

Earlier this month Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History received a $1 million grant from the Arcadia Fund to digitize its endangered-language materials, including the estimated 3,000 hours of sound recordings. The recordings will then be electronically available to the public through the Smithsonian’s catalog system:

Digitization of these materials within the NAA (National Anthropological Archives) will give both scholars and local communities new access to documentation of endangered languages and cultural knowledge about threatened environments around the world, ranging from southern California to small Micronesian atolls.

In September 02010, The Library of Congress released the first comprehensive study on a national level examining the preservation of sound recordings in the United States. It found that many historical recordings have already deteriorated or are inaccessible to the public due to their experimental and fragile nature.

“Those audio cassettes are just time bombs,” the study’s co-author Sam Brylawski said. “They’re just not going to be playable.”

But maybe this is not the case after all. Perhaps Haber has taken upon an archaeological endeavor that postpones the detonation of media “time bombs.” It comes back to Kevin Kelly’s idea of movage. Haber has taken big technological steps to digitally play these long-lost analog voices, now the key is to keep on moving.

The Cure for Broken Links and Dead Dot-Coms

Posted on Friday, November 1st, 02013 by Catherine Borgeson
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“The Internet echoes with the empty spaces where data used to be.”
- Alexis Rossi from the Wayback Machine

The Internet Archive recently unveiled a new plan to fix broken links utilizing the Wayback Machine.

The Wayback Machine provides digital captures of URLs to create stable access to websites that otherwise might vanish. The service initially launched in 2001 with 10 billion pages. Today it archives 10 billion pages every 10 weeks and currently contains more than 360 billion URL snapshots.

We have been serving archived web pages to the public via the Wayback Machine for twelve years now, and it is gratifying to see how this service has become a medium of record for so many.  Wayback pages are cited in papers, referenced in news articles and submitted as evidence in trials.  Now even the U.S. government relies on this web archive.

Steady improvements to the Wayback Machine have been made over the past year to keep pace with the always evolving digital landscape of the Internet. Content went from being a year out of date to appearing in the Wayback Machine an hour after a site is crawled.  Anyone can create a permanent URL to cite a page and the Wayback Machine supports a number of different APIs.

Part of what makes the web so great is its churning and ephemeral nature, but as more and more of our culture and history is built on the dunes of ever-shifting silicates, we stand to stumble forward without a clear sense of where we’ve come from, like Guy Pierce’s amnesiac in Memento. The Wayback Machine improves the web’s memory and in a way, our own.

In becoming better equipped to keep up with the growing Internet, the Wayback Machine has also become a well-suited solution to the broken link epidemic.  It is first working with individual webmasters and a couple larger sites such as WordPress and Wikipedia:

Webmasters can add a short snippet of code to their 404 page that will let users know if the Wayback Machine has a copy of the page in our archive – your web pages don’t have to die!

We started with a big goal — to archive the Internet and preserve it for history.  This year we started looking at the smaller goals — archiving a single page on request, making pages available more quickly, and letting you get information back out of the Wayback in an automated way.  We have spent 17 years building this amazing collection, let’s use it to make the web a better place.

Toward a Manual for Civilization

Posted on Wednesday, August 14th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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We are as gods” because of our ancestors’ diligence. The promise of a technologically advancing future is predicated on millennia of accumulated knowledge. Civilization has taken a lot of work to build and it demands a great deal of know-how to sustain. And as modern life increasingly encourages specialization, familiarity across that accumulated knowledge’s breadth can wane. Our ability to collaborate is a strength, but beyond a point we risk losing comprehension of the infrastructure that supports our modern lives. How can we retain that knowledge?

Long Now Board Member Kevin Kelly has suggested a Library of Utility:

It would be a very selective library. It would not contain the world’s great literature, or varied accounts of history, or deep knowledge of ethnic wonders, or speculations about the future. It has no records of past news, no children’s books, no tomes on philosophy. It contains only seeds. Seeds of utilitarian know-how. How to recreate the infrastructure and technology of civilization so far.

Alexander Rose, our Executive Director, has compiled resources that could become such a Manual for Civilization:

It is an interesting thought exercise to ask yourself what information you might want if you had to truly start over.

And in our forthcoming Salon space at Fort Mason Center, we’ll house approximately 3,500 volumes in a floor-to-ceiling library featuring carefully selected books that could be used to help restart civilization. We are not trying to be apocalyptic or at all predictive, but the conversation that is inspired by this exercise seems to be endless and valuable.

We will collaboratively curate this corpus with Long Now’s members and the public. We understand that by definition we ourselves will have a western-centric viewpoint of what might be collected, but as the project gets going we plan to seek submissions that represent views from as many cultural viewpoints as possible. Several interns have been hired to begin rounding up submissions and our Digital Research Director, Kurt Bollacker, is advising on the information design, indexing architecture, and digital archiving strategy for the collection.

To support its long-term survival and worldwide accessibility, we’ll have a digital version of the collection publicly available on the Internet Archive. And, among its shelves, we’ll have many a great conversation – over tea, coffee, and maybe some whiskey – honoring curiosity, ingenuity and persistence. We hope you’ll join us.

If you share our enthusiasm for this project, please consider supporting the construction of the Salon space in which it will be housed – gifts for supporters include things like a free beverage once the space opens or having a shelf of the Manual’s books dedicated in your honor!

Art & The Art of Archiving at New York’s New Museum

Posted on Monday, August 12th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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From July 17 to September 8 of this year, the New Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is hosting XFR STN (read ‘transfer station’), an “open-door artist-centered media archiving project.”

A collaborative effort by artists for artists, XFR STN is essentially a preservation and migration service for artwork created with or on audiovisual and digital formats that have since become obsolete. The migrated works will be available publicly through the Internet Archive, and on view at the New Museum’s fifth floor gallery space.

Part public exhibit and part archival laboratory, XFR STN is turning the preservation of art itself into a creative process. It’s an effort at saving art from digital darkness – not only by ensuring its continued accessibility, but by keeping it alive in the public eye.

“Consistent with the dictum “distribution is preservation,” the project argues for circulation as a mode of conservation. “XFR STN” will serve as a collection and dissemination point for artist-produced content, as well as a hub for information about these past projects (including production materials and personal recollections). The project is both a pragmatic public service and an activity as metaphor: an opportunity to present aspects of a mediatic production process in continuous dynamic transformation.”

 

A New Dimension (or Two?) for Long-Term Data Storage

Posted on Friday, July 26th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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A group of scientists at the University of Southampton is pushing the frontier of long-term data storage technology to a new level. At a recent Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics in San José, the researchers announced their success at recording data in quartz glass by using a femtosecond laser.

A femtosecond, or ultrafast, laser sends out a quadrillion (that’s a 1 with 15 zeros) pulses per second. When focused on a piece of quartz glass, these photon bullets shift the structuring of atoms in the silica, creating what are called nanostructures. The presence of nanostructures changes the way light travels through the quartz, which means they can be ‘read’ by an optical microscope.

Taking advantage of this fact, these Southampton researchers figured out how to use an ultrafast laser to deliberately place nanostructured dots within the quartz glass. A configuration of dots can thereby become five-dimensional code, conveying meaning through its spatial position within the quartz (dimensions one, two, and three), as well as the size and directional orientation of the dot (dimensions four and five). Using this ‘code’, the research team successfully recorded a 300 kb digital text file into a piece of quartz glass, in the form of a holographic ‘image’ of dots that can be read with an optical microscope fitted with a polarizing filter.

Silica quartz is attractive as a base for very long-term storage because, like sapphire or nickel, it is strong and resistant to high temperatures up to 1000° Celsius. The Southampton research team claims that quartz glass could last for a million years:

“It is thrilling to think that we have created the first document which will likely survive the human race, said Peter Kazansky, professor of physical optoelectronics at the Univ. of Southampton’s Optical Research Centre. “This technology can secure the last evidence of civilization: all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten.”

Beyond the strength of its material, the potential of this new technology lies in the nano-scale of its encoding: at that order of magnitude (or microtude, if you will), the researchers suggest, a single piece of quartz could hold more than 350 terabytes of data. If this technology can be translated into a real-world utility, the researchers claim this new form of data storage

“… could be highly useful for organizations with big archives. At the moment companies have to back up their archives every five to ten years because hard-drive memory has a relatively short lifespan,” says [principal investigator Jingyu Zhang]. “Museums who want to preserve information or places like the national archives where they have huge numbers of documents, would really benefit.”

10 Petabytes and Growing: The Internet Archive

Posted on Monday, June 3rd, 02013 by Austin Brown
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The Internet Archive seeks to offer universal access to all knowledge.  Jonathan Minard and Deepspeed Media recently created Archive, a short documentary exploring how they’re slowly but steadily achieving this ambitious goal.

Internet Archive from Deepspeed media on Vimeo.

Our Digital Afterlives

Posted on Monday, April 22nd, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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In 02006, Long Now Board Member David Eagleman wrote in Nature:

There is no afterlife, but a version of us lives on nonetheless.

At the beginning of the computer era, people died with passwords in their heads and no one could access their files. When access to these files was critical, companies could grind to a halt. That’s when programmers invented death switches.

With a death switch, the computer prompts you for your password once a week to make sure you are still alive. When you don’t enter your password for some period of time, the computer deduces you are dead, and your passwords are automatically e-mailed to the second-in-command. Individuals began to use death switches to reveal Swiss bank account numbers to their heirs, to get the last word in an argument, and to confess secrets that were unspeakable during a lifetime.

In other words, a “death switch” is a way for us to pre-program an afterlife for our digital selves. Despite the relatively short lifespan of software platforms, it is likely that the data we post on the internet will live on – somewhere – after we ourselves expire.

Eagleman, along with several others, is urging us to think about what will happen to our digital legacy after death: to decide where we want our data to live, and who will have the privilege to engage with it. Do we want to place our legacy in the hands of an heir, or do we want our online presence to be erased? Alternatively, do we perhaps want to designate our own computers as executors of our estate, and have it send out friendly messages to our descendants every once in a while?

Over the past two years, a series of Digital Death Day “unconferences” has brought people together to talk about these kinds of questions. Evan Carroll and John Romano published a book and host an accompanying blog about ways to shape our digital afterlives. And most recently, Google introduced its Inactive Account Manager: a new tool that allows you to decide what will happen to your emails, photo albums, posted videos and personal profiles when your account becomes inactive.

Planning for our digital beyond is a way to save our own lives from receding into a digital dark age – and as such, it may be a way to keep something of ourselves alive after our bodies die. Eagleman muses:

This situation allows us to forever revisit shared jokes, to remedy lost opportunities for a kind word, to recall stories about delightfully earthly experiences that can no longer be felt. Memories now live on their own, and no one forgets them or grows tired of telling them. We are quite satisfied with this arrangement, because reminiscing about our glory days of existence is perhaps all that would have happened in an afterlife anyway.