The Grouse: Where is My Mind?

The eternal storage conundrum

Welcome to the inaugural posting of The Grouse, where once a week I’ll be ranting (and very occasionally raving) about tech, gadgets and the like that I find to be frustrating, or lacking, or stupid, or offensive, or even downright criminal (and maybe all of the above). And because misery loves company, I welcome your personal complaints for exploration in future grousings, as well as more positive comments, of course, which I will summarily dismiss if they bug me for whatever reason. That’s how I roll.

This week, I’m giving the stinkeye to an entire industry: the big bunch of liars who, for a couple decades now, have conned us into believing that optical media (CDs and DVDs) are an easy, reliable, stable method for long-term archiving of data. See, when burnable CDs and PC drives became common in the late ’90s, they were billed as having life spans of 75 to even 200 years. But although independent sources like the Council on Library and Information Resources sort of confirmed it, saying that under optimal conditions optical media can last at least a few decades, the rub is that it really applies only to high-quality, factory-pressed CDs stored under very specific conditions—which is to say, not that stack of 20-cent CD-Rs burned at 42x and then crammed into the back of your desk drawer.

At least one IBM researcher has recently found that using typical cheap, low-quality bulk CD-Rs and DVDs (which can fail for a host of reasons), we can expect our data to be reliable for, oh, more like a piddling two to five years, or about the same life span as a hard drive. In my book, this constitutes not only fraud but gross negligence on the part of manufacturers. I’m making the prediction now that in the next five or so years, a real humdinger of a class-action lawsuit is going to come out when millions (or billions) of us discover that all those backups of irreplaceable family photos, music and home movies, as well as financial records, letters and e-mails that we’ve carefully burned to disc will simply be gone—poof!—like Keyser Soze. Or perhaps more aptly, we’ll all be like a bunch of Marty McFlys in Back to the Future, watching our memories fade away before our eyes.

A remedy:
Data storage, it turns out, is one of the thorniest conundrums of the 21st century. Humans are generating data in ever-increasing amounts and yet, amazingly, we still haven’t figured out a stable, reliable way of securing it for the future. Unless you have access to a spectacularly tricked-out DeLorean, the best method for backing things up for the long term, then, is to have a good-old fashioned redundant system. Regularly back up your PC’s hard drive to an external hard drive. And back that up periodically to another hard drive—which you keep away from home. As history has shown us time and again, physical media lasts the longest (think hieroglyphics), so for precious photos, get prints made on archival paper, and print out and store irreplaceable documents (score one for the Luddites!).

For music, beyond doing hard-drive backups, burn backup audio CDs—not of MP3 data files, but of the actual audio files, which are typically still readable even with errors. Store them in cases, stacked vertically like books, in a cool, dark place. Rinse/repeat every few years if you want them to last as long as, say, a vinyl record. If you must use optical media, manufacturers do sell specifically labeled “archival” gold-foil CDs
(which we all thought we were buying in the first place, of course).
They cost a few bucks each and have been rated and tested to last 300
years. Ahem.

And let’s run a little non-scientific experiment, shall we? How
about some of you dig through your old CDs and see how many have
already failed and then post your results. Once we hit a critical mass,
we can start calling the lawyers . . . —Jonathan Chase

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