29 November 2023

Digitisation is death to data

A few weeks ago my laptop computer was stolen, and since the insurance company asked me what it would cost to replace it, I've been stuck, because it is beginning to appear that it is irreplaceable.

The computer that was stolen was about 13 years old, a Toshiba Satellite laptop running Windows 7 32-bit. It came with 64-bit Windows, but with a set of discs for a 32-bit version. Using it for a couple of hours showed me that it would not run many of my older programs, which I used to access research data I had collected over the last 25 years,  so I quickly installed the 32-bit version of Windows and all was well. 

Now, however, it seems that 32-bit versions of Windows are extremely difficult or impossible to get. I can still access my data on my desktop computer that runs 32-bit Windows XP, but what happens if that dies?

Referring to a related issue, director Guillelmo del Toro pointed out the dangers of streaming serivces when he said:

Physical media is almost a Fahrenheit 451 (where people memorized entire books and thus became the book they loved) level of responsibility. If you own a great 4K HD, Blu-ray, DVD etc etc of a film or films you love... you are the custodian of those films for generations to come

But there is another bigger problem. Even if you possess the physical media, they are quite useless if you have nothing to play them back on. And for many of these things the hardware and software to read such physical media is becoming rarer all the time. 

For a long time people have been recommending the digitisation of paper documents, with or without the destruction of the originals, as a means to better preservation, but that depends on the availability of the hardware and software to access the digitised versions. Someone wrote a book a few decades ago called CD-ROM: the New Papyrus, but how easy is it to get a computer that can read a CD-ROM? Better stick to the old papyrus!

One thing that would go a long way towards alleviating this would be for historians, librarians, archivists and others who are concerned about preservation of information from the past to push for international agreements and legislation to ensure that whenever an operating system, or version of an operating system is no longer supported by its manufacturer, it should be put into the public domain, without copy protection, and possibly also made open source, so that people can adapt it to run on new hardware.

Something similar should be done with application software (apps) such as word processors and the like -- how many people can read a Multimate document nowadays?

A personal example: 

Since the age of 11 I have kept a diary, originally written in pen and ink in a series of notebooks. In 1985 I began digitising it. I typed out the entries for 1969 in Wordstar on an Osborne Executive portable (luggable!) computer running CP/M3, stored on 185k single-sided floppy disks. I did it because I wanted to collect memories of my grandmother that I had written back then when I had seen quite a lot of her. 

Later I realised that quite a lot of what I had written might be useful to historians of Namibia, so I continued to transcribe it beyond the period relating to my grandmother. In 1987 I got a newer computer running MS-DOS, and a better word processor called XyWrite. I converted the Wordstar documents to XyWrite (I still have the conversion program on my computer today) and carried on transcribing. In about 1990 I printed out an edited version of the Namibian portion and sent a bound copy to the Windhoek archives. 

In 1992 I began making notes for the current version of my diary using a then-popular "terminate-and-stay resident" program called Sidekick, which I would then use to write up the hard copy version. In about 1995 I started using a text database program called askSam, and stopped keeping up with the hard copy version. In 2001 I started using a different text database program called Inmagic, and began converting all the remaining Wordstar, XyWrite and askSam versions to that, and since 2006 have kept it in a single file. A couple of years later I had more or less finished transcribing all the hard copy ones going back to when I had started at the age of 11, and every morning I look at it to see what I was doing in the past going back at 10-year intervals. I can do that on a computer running 32-bit Windows, but not on one running 64-bit Windows. So 64-bit Windows is quite useless to me. 

That is just one example, but there are many other things, like research notes made from books, interviews with people, with research data that I've now been collecting for 35 years (and older data that I have digitised in a similar manner to the diary). but the planned obsolescence policy of software companies like Microsoft would require that I must give up all that. Perhaps I need to do a "Go Fund Me" appeal for the funds to print out all the stuff on my computer on hard copy in order to have continued access to it.

Digitisation as a means of preservation only makes sense in an open source and public domain environment.


26 November 2023

Books about enchanted things, and some unsolicited writing advice

The Enchanted Crossroads

The Enchanted Crossroads by Dora Blume
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm not sure where this book came from. When my daughter sent me her old Kindle, having got herself a new one, this appeared as one of the books I could read, so I began to read it

In this book Kaira, an up-and-coming lawyer, is followed home by her Lyft driver, Leif (who later makes an unexplained switch to Uber), and it's just as well because when she reaches her apartment she is attacked. Leif rescues her from her attacker, and takes her home to his apartment, where he tells her she isn't really human but a Mage, and that some equally inhuman creatures, called morrigans, are out to get her.

Kaira learns a lot about herself that she didn't know, but has a great deal more to learn, and wonders how this will affect her legal career. She is also attracted to Leif romantically. So there's conflict, drama and romance. What's not to like?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

First, the characters are irrational and predictably unpredictable, prone to inappropriate reactions and behaviour. 

In my experience one of the red flags for this is rolling eyes. In nearly all the books I've read, the only mention of rolling eyes is in terrified animals in immediate danger of losing their lives to predators, fire or similar perils. In The Enchanted Crossroads the human characters do it more than 35 times, for no discernible reason and the message, if any, that they are intended to convey is obscure.

Then the characters smirk at each other in situations where smirking seems inappropriate. None of the other things they have been doing leading up to the smirk seem to warrant such a reaction. They also saunter as if they had set out to go somewhere with a purpose, and then forgotten what they were going to do, but do it anyway.

The weirdest reaction, however, is swooning. Kiara's mother's reaction, on first meeting her daughter's new boyfriend Leif, is to swoon. She recovers almost immediately, without the aid of smelling salts, or having her face fanned or her pulse taken, and carries on talking as if nothing had happened, and nobody else present shows the least concern, or even seems to notice that she had swooned.

Kaira also learns that Mages, unlike humans, bond for life. She is romantically and sexually attracted to Leif, but there can be no question of a one-night stand. Divorce is not an option. Bonding is irrevocable. After knowing Leif for a couple of days she decides to take the plunge and be irrevocably bonded to Leif for life. A day or two later she discovers that nothing like this has ever happened to her before -- the fact that it happened yesterday has slipped her mind -- and she is faced with the choice of  making an irrevocable decision to bond with Leif for life. And then it happens again a third time. Three irrevocable life-changing decisions in as many days! The mind boggles.

It seems that Mages (and Sages and Verities, their allies, and morrigans, their enemies) are familiar with and use modern technology like cellphones and motor vehicles. But when it comes to actual fighting, it is sword and sorcery only, no firearms in sight. So when Kaira discovers she is a Mage, and the morrigans are out to get her, she has to learn to defend herself by fencing and potions. What's wrong with that? After all Harry Potter and the Hogwarts crew learn that kind of stuff. Yes, but in Harry Potter there is at least an explanation -- a prohibition on the use of Muggle technology. Here this, and many other things in the story, are not explained to the reader. The characters switch from mawkish love to exasperation and anger, and back again, within a couple of sentences, and they do this not once but many times, all the way through the book.

Now I'm not an expert on how to write books. I have been an editor of non-fiction for more than 50 years (mostly newspaper reports and articles and academic texts), but that doesn't qualify me to edit fiction. Nevertheless, I think I can recognise bad writing in fiction even if I'm not qualified to suggest improvements. I've read several books on how to write books, and they warn against using things like adverbs and the passive voice and telling rather than showing, but none of them warns against having more rolling eyes than a load of marbles falling off a moving truck.

So unqualified as I am, I do make some suggestions to authors of fiction:

1. Avoid giving your characters violent and unexplained mood swings without explanation (eg passionate love followed by exasperation and anger)

2. (Which follows from 1) If you are going to describe facial expressions or bodily gestures, like rolling eyes, smirks, grimaces or even swoons, make sure the reader understands the reason for them, and do try to make the reason sound convincing. 

View all my reviews

14 November 2023

Now that I have an ebook reader...

My daughter had a spare Kindle, and when I mentioned that such a thing might be useful for reading during load shedding, she sent it to me, and I've just finished reading this book on it:

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain, #1)The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not quite fan fiction, but a story in the setting of the Mabinogion with some of its characters, like Math, son of Mathonwy, in background roles. I found it an enjoyable read, so I gave it 5 stars on GoodReads.

It's a book I've been hearing about for a long time. On GoodReads, people who liked books I liked also liked this one. In online forums where people discuss books, several people have mentioned this one, but I've not been able to find a copy in a library or bookshop. But I found one for the Kindle reader, which could also be read during load shedding.

I won't go on to the next book in the series immediately, because there are other series that I want to read as well, like The Dark is Rising. That one interests me more, not because it's better written or anything, but because several readers have compared my children's books to it.

Some people have asked why, if we can't find books locally, we don't just order them from suppliers like Amazon, which seem to have everything. Well, yes, that is where I got the first two books in the The Dark is Rising series, but getting physical copies of books from overseas is very expensive and a big schlep. If you don't collect them from the post office within a certain time, they send them back, and we don't go to the post office very often, partly because there isn't much post, and partly because the City Council of Tshwane has turned most of the parking space near the post office into no-stopping zones, and the few parking spaces left are 15 minutes only, if they aren't full, and it takes more than 15 minutes to collect overseas parcels from  the post office, so you are likely to return and find your car has already been towed away. So fetching the post is such a schlep we don't do it very often, and most of it is commercial bumpf anyway. 

So that gives ebooks two big advantages right now: (1) you can read them during load shedding and (2) you can get books that are unobtainable in hard copy.

But I still prefer hard copy books when I can get them, and when there's light to read them by.

View all my reviews


Related Posts with Thumbnails