18.276 loss of information and clarity of expression

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sun, 10 Oct 2004 11:08:37 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 276.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: "Daniel O'Donnell" <daniel.odonnell_at_uleth.ca> (50)
         Subject: Re: 18.274 losing it

   [2] From: "Dr. Donald J. Weinshank" <weinshan_at_cse.msu.edu> (17)
         Subject: 1. Clear writing; 2. Loss of information

         Date: Sun, 10 Oct 2004 10:44:26 +0100
         From: "Daniel O'Donnell" <daniel.odonnell_at_uleth.ca>
         Subject: Re: 18.274 losing it

Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty
<willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>) wrote:

> >In our headlong rush to go digital much of our past is becoming just
> >meaningless code of 0s and 1s. A substantial amount of material stored on
> >computers, magnetic tape and even CDs is no longer accessible due to rapid
> >deterioration and obsolescence. The average life of a tape is fifteen
> >years, a CD twenty, computer systems and software far less.

I'm interested in this last set of claims, particularly about the CDs. It
seems to me this is open to the same challenge Nicolson Baker made against
claims that "our newspaper heritage" was crumbling away and needed to be
microfilmed (and later, digitised). The average age of a CD is supposed to
be twenty-years? Aren't CD's about 20 years on the market now? I'm not
aware of any massive failures, so I wonder how the average lifetime was

I recently wrote an article discussing the experience of (ironically
enough) the BBC's problems with the Domesday book, which recently was said
to be "unreadable" about 15 years after it was completed (it wasn't exactly
unreadable, but it is certainly no poster child for data longevity),
<http://www.mun.ca/mst/heroicage/issues/7/ecolumn.html>. As I point out
there, however, the BBC's project is not entirely comparable to
contemporary projects, however, due to a fundamental shift in approach to
design that came with the separation of content and presentaiton. The BBC
project was a custom-made machine: data, presentation, and hardware we
(almost) inextricably linked. It was made just as the international
standards we now use were begining to appear, and hence to early to take
advantage of their robustness. I think it would be hard to create such
obsolescence in a modern standards-based project. Early webpages--even
non-standard ones using, for example, the Netscape blink tag, are likely to
last much longer (although, interestingly, I think ones using <layer>s are
now in trouble)

This is not a claim that we should wreck everything so it can be digitised.
But there is a remarkable amount of hyperbole on both sides of the
discussion, I suspect.

>My thanks to my colleague Brett Lucas for drawing attention to this
>[NB: If you do not receive a reply within 24 hours please resend]
>Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
>Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
>7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk

Daniel Paul O'Donnell, PhD
Associate Professor of English
University of Lethbridge
Lethbridge AB T1K 3M4
Tel. (403) 329-2377
Fax. (403) 382-7191
E-mail <daniel.odonnell_at_uleth.ca>
Home Page <http://people.uleth.ca/~daniel.odonnell/>
         Date: Sun, 10 Oct 2004 10:43:52 +0100
         From: "Dr. Donald J. Weinshank" <weinshan_at_cse.msu.edu>
         Subject: 1. Clear writing; 2. Loss of information
In the introductory computer science course I taught for many years,
students here held accountable for clear exposition of the semester-end
project on which they were being graded. When they complained, I reminded
them of the Shannon-Weaver work on information theory. I told them that,
every time I had to reread or decode a piece of unclear writing, they were,
in effect, reducing the signal-to-noise ratio.
"Every day, we burn the Library of Alexandria," in terms of loss of media or
at least the coding scheme for their contents. I wish I were smart enough to
have thought of that phrase, but I do not know the source. GOOGLE failed me
on this as well.
Dr. Don Weinshank Professor Emeritus Comp. Sci. & Eng.
1520 Sherwood Ave., East Lansing MI 48823-1885
Ph. 517.337.1545   FAX 517.337.2539
Received on Sun Oct 10 2004 - 06:19:18 EDT

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