Promoting FTL

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Looking for a way to get the word out about digital preservation? I’ve added a new page on reviewing FTL to this site. All publicity (well, nearly all) is good!

If the cops take your computer

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If you haven’t done anything wrong, you aren’t in any danger of losing your files to the law, are you? Ask Steve Jackson Games. On March 1, 1990, the U. S. Secret Service raided their headquarters, taking four computers, two laser printers, and other hardware. They didn’t get them back for four months, and then not everything. In 1994 a court ruled that the raid was completely unjustified and awarded damages to the Steve Jackson Games, which is still around. Many companies, though, would have been destroyed by the disruption.

Must … restrain … rant. This isn’t a liberty blog, it’s a digital preservation blog. The point here is that even if you’re completely innocent, cops can seize your computers and data storage. It’s not too different a hazard from fire, floods, and (illegal) theft, except that insurance won’t help you. The advice on how to protect yourself is pretty much the same in all those cases.

Offsite backup is the key. If you have a drive which is right next to your computer, chances are the cops (or fire, or whatever) will take both. Should you use an online backup service or a physical device you can take with you? Both have their strengths and weaknesses. If your backup device is at home, and your house is raided too, you might lose it. It’s legally much harder for them to shut down your online backup, but a drive that can’t be found can’t be touched. Be imaginative about where to keep it.

Here I’m focusing just on avoiding data loss, not on security issues. You have to balance the two; every offsite backup, especially an unencrypted one, can be a security risk. Keep their locations secure or encrypt them. Keep the decryption information separate from both the original and the backup. A memory stick or piece of paper in your clothes closet may be a good bet. (I’m not a fan of the doctrine that you should never write passwords; just be careful where you leave them and don’t make it obvious what they’re passwords for.)

It’s legal for US Customs to take your computer for no reason at all when you cross the border. If you have to take one, make sure it’s fully backed up before going on an international trip, and make an Internet backup of anything you create before you head home. This also protects you against loss to mugging and hotel burglary, so it’s a good plan all around.

Even with a backup, you’ll want your computers and data back. That’s a job for a lawyer, not a computer geek. Get one right away after the raid, before the cops can destroy, erase, or “lose” your computer. Even in these days of crippled liberties, a lawyer can often help you get what’s yours back.

LiveJournal photo downgrade alert

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It isn’t Tuesday and this isn’t Belgium, but I’ve just learned about a risk to people’s online photo collections on LiveJournal, so it’s a topic appropriate to this blog and something that shouldn’t wait.

Update: LiveJournal has just put out a public announcement.

LiveJournal has an online photo album feature called “ScrapBook.” The most generous description of it is “serviceable.” It lets users who have Plus or paid accounts upload photographs and organize them in galleries.

Recently LiveJournal announced — on an obscure forum, in Russian — that Scrapbook would be “upgraded.” There have been reports flying which I can’t confirm, not being able to read Russian, But there is now an announcement in English, though still with a Russian page title. The migration will be clumsy:

Once this update is deployed, it will no longer be possible for both old and new ScrapBook to co-exist for the same user. It will also not be possible to access new ScrapBook until your images from the old one have been migrated to it. This means that until your ScrapBook is migrated, you will not see the “Add Image” button on entry create/edit pages.

The only change that’s explained is a downgrade in custom security options to all-or-nothing. You may be able to restore custom settings by going through your whole collection manually afterward.

During the migration, images that were previously public will remain public. However, images that had any ‘friends only’ security level of any kind will be migrated as private images.

How do you initiate migration (leaving aside the question of why you’d want to)? You have your choice of asking LJ to do it on its own schedule or waiting for LJ to do it on its own schedule.

If you want to migrate your photos to new ScrapBook now (rather than waiting until next week for the mass migration), please leave the comment “+” to this entry.

Will links to the old Scrapbook break? It’s not clear. LJ says that “all the photos you have already uploaded will still remain visible in all entries and comments,” but it doesn’t say whether URLs will remain valid or LiveJournal entries and comments will somehow be fixed up. In any case, friends-only pictures will become invisible.

If you have a LiveJournal account, make sure that you wouldn’t lose any photos if they disappeared from Scrapbook. This is good advice at all times but especially now. If you have a LiveJournal account, please spread the word. I certainly wouldn’t object to a link to this post. 🙂

iPhoto vs. preservation


How does iPhoto fit into digital preservation? Sort of like Rick Santorum in an ACLU meeting or a Yankees fan in Fenway Park. There’s at least one thing you have to use it for, and that’s importing pictures from an iOS device. But using it for anything you want to keep is a seriously bad idea.

Take a look at this article on Apple’s forums. A user asks a perfectly good question: How do you back up your iPhoto albums? The answer: “There is no album directory/folder. All the album info is stored in a data file that only has info of the album names and pointers to the actual photo files.” Look under “Pictures” in your user directory and you’ll find a folder called “iPhoto.” This may contain one or more library packages. A “package” is an invention of Apple’s intended to hide clutter from the user, as with an application that encompasses hundreds of support files the user shouldn’t have to mess with. In this case, though, it’s hiding essential information from the user. Fortunately, you can right-click it (that’s control-click for both of the people who don’t have a two-button mouse) and select “Show Package Contents.” This will bring up a window showing the contents of the package (which is just a folder in disguise); it’s rather bewildering. You can also right-click on a thumbnail in iPhoto and select “Show File” to see that file directly in the Finder.

Screen shot of an iPhoto library window

Screen shot of an iPhoto library window

Note: A question has been raised about the screenshot, with a warning that relying on it may “lead to massive data loss.” See discussion here.

The package has a folder called “Data” which is an alias to another folder within the package; this contains your actual JPEG files, carefully hidden from you. It may also contain other packages; these represent other iPhoto albums, which aren’t even visible in the Finder. You might say they’re sub-albums, but iPhoto doesn’t show any hierarchical relationship.

As far as Adobe Bridge is concerned, the library package is a binary document which it doesn’t know how to open. This means you can’t so much as see a list of your iPhoto pictures with Bridge.

That may be just as well. According to advice Apple support forums, if you try to do anything with those files, you’re apt to confuse iPhoto hopelessly. It’s like a micromanaging boss; the more you assert yourself, the deeper the hole you’re digging yourself into.

iPhoto horror stories aren’t hard to find. Here are a few I located quickly by searching for “evil iPhoto” and “hate iPhoto”:

Getting preservation out of the monastery

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We’re seeing the beginnings of information on digital preservation for people outside the narrow world of libraries and archives, but so far a lot of it isn’t quite to the point. Rather than addressing the non-specialist, it addresses the idea of addressing the non-specialist. So just for this one post, I have to do the same myself to explain why we need to move further.

The Library of Congress is now offering a personal digital archiving kit. This is a good thing, but it’s not directed at the users and sysadmins; it’s described as “Guidance and resources for information professionals on how to organize and host your own Personal Digital Archiving Day.” Its YouTube videos on digital preservation include a number addressed to the generalist, but they often convey a feeling of embarrassment or talking down. The intent is good; the execution can be difficult.

Other sites likewise make an effort but don’t quite engage the target audience. There’s a site called Personal Archiving, but it’s not exactly about personal archiving; it’s about personal archiving conferences.

There are preservation-related tools which could be useful for a broad range of users but will scare most people away in their present form. DROID is a very useful tool for figuring out what kind of files you’ve got, but even serious geeks will be stumped by a listing that says they have “Tagged Image File Format” and “Portable Document Format” files, at least till they think to look at the first letter of each word and realize they’re just TIFF and PDF respectively.

The LoC’s Personal Archiving page makes a worthy effort, stressing basic practices such as identification, selection, and organization. But beyond this, we need to make serious technical information available in a form that doesn’t require initiation as a specialist. I’m talking about a level of information comparable to what people can easily find to create websites, network computers, and manage databases, information which has detail but isn’t couched in archivists’ jargon.

It isn’t easy to get the word out and get the information out at the same time. Making people aware of the issue of preservation means pounding on the basics, but getting real information out means diving into the technical nitty-gritty.

I’m talking about moving outside the safe boundaries of the National Archives and iPRES and creating courses in the computer science curriculum, books in the mainstream computer market. The title of this blog originally belonged to a book proposal which O’Reilly almost bit on, but then decided didn’t quite have the interest to justify it yet. The interest has to grow, and the technical material on preservation had better become widely available before the news media notice a coming crisis of disappearing cultural materials.

In the old days, preservation of writings was the jobs of the monasteries, and nobody else worried much about it. That can’t work today. Preservation needs to become part of computer literacy, This requires books, courses, websites, and software. There’s a lot of work to be done.