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Thursday, August 11, 2005
On old data formats and how to ensure that which you want to endure will last. And vice versa. It's not surprising that you can still find rolls and parts for Player Pianos, given that practically every mechanical and electronic device ever invented has a loyal following somewhere, be they street organs and automated musical instruments, Trabant cars or Apple Newtons. But these are ad-hoc survival mechanisms, dependent on passionate individuals and the passing on of arcane knowledge. The web helps, of course: where there were once postal networks and fanzines there are now webrings and email lists. It's not just physical things that decay: there's a similar problem with language (see, for example, the League of Lost Languages) - gradual loss is inevitable and in most cases irretrievable.

So how do you keep volatile 'things' for ever? A while ago we reported on Jaron Lanier's project, 'A Time Capsule that will survive One Thousand Years in Manhattan' (a collaboration with David Sulzer and Lisa Haney). The idea was originally published in the New York Times as part of their Time Capsule series that looked at the dawn of the then approaching millennium (and archived here at the American Museum of Natural History). The idea was genius - to mutate cockroaches so that their DNA contained the archives of the New York Times. Yet as Lanier notes, although it subsequently encouraged serious debate and research, the concept was actually a spoof. The published piece omitted such gems as:

If other cities choose to adopt copycat archival strategies, there is a danger that roaches imbedded with an archive of, say, the Washington Post, would interbreed with carriers of the New York Times archive. In that case the roaches of Philadelphia would eventually contain a mixed text record. This is not as great a difficulty as it might seem. As significant sequence similarity is required for recombination to occur, genetic crossover between Washington Post and New York Times articles is extremely unlikely. Indeed, if crossover were to occur, an earlier of instance of plagiarism or reprinting would be implicated. At any rate, as long as each article is stored with its proper reference data, it will be possible for future historians to reconstruct both archives from a sample of roaches.

Our original link has expired, but chunks of the text re-surfaced in 'E-whale, E-rabbits and E-cockroaches', a paper by Philippe Queau at Unesco's Russian office. This takes things all a bit too seriously, drawing Lanier's roaches together with Orwell's 'Whale' and artist Eduardo Kac's fluorescent GFP Bunny (I have my doubts as to whether the latter was actually real. It encouraged a lot of debate, but wouldn't it have been easier to take a conventional white rabbit and spray it with fluorescent paint?). It also makes eccentric predictions: 'So why not pull a rabbit out of our hat whose every third hair is fluorescent red, green or blue, according to the familiar principle of colour television. The result: the *Photo Bunny*. We could therefore store furry photos of all the masterpieces of our museums in a rabbit hutch.'

Perhaps Queau's iBunny is just as deliberately fanciful as the data roach, but serious or not, the idea of adapting creature to carry little morsels of culture with us - sort of mimetic carrier pigeons - might hold great attraction for those who think the animal kingdom continues to owe us a favour. Perhaps a more important consideration is to work out what information fragments really need preserving. The UK media is currently discussing nuclear decommissioning, in the wake of the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency's preliminary Strategy for Consultation. As plants like Dungeness near the end of their active life, the issues - and costs - surrounding their dismantling are becoming more and more pertinent. This is a serious long-term project, which the NDA reckons will cost at least 56bn, and will take at least 25 years (down from earlier estimates of 125 years). Dungeness is one of nine Magnox nuclear power stations, a programme which began in 1953 with Cumbria's Calder Hall. Dungeness A is due to cease operations in 2006. According to this history of UK nuclear power, the last remaining reactor to close will be Sizewell B in 2035.

The timescales are actually far longer. From the BBC story: 'Among issues that the authority is looking at is the need for an alternative for Drigg in Cumbria, which is the only place in the country where low-level nuclear waste can be stored in perpetuity. Drigg is about 1km from a shoreline that is eroding at the rate of 1 metre a year. There is a risk it could flood between 500 and 5,000 years after it is closed.' So how do you ensure that information about radiation hazards, etc., survives a period that extends further into the future than recorded history stretches into the past?

A long time ago, in the unGoogleable past, we remember reading about a programme that was designed to generate enduring mythologies out of contemporary items, specifically the early nuclear age. Could specific facts and data about nuclear waste's multi-millennial decay period be incorporated into oral traditions and thus avoid the need to write everything down? The Encyclopedia Mythica offers no clues as to this theory. Did we just make it up?