Ghost in the Machine: Your Digital Afterlife

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

This article was originally written for and published at The New Tech on July 9th, 2013. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

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On January 11th, Aaron Swartz passed away. If you’re not familiar with who he was and what he did, take a minute right now and look him up. A lot of focus was put on the circumstances of his death along with what he accomplished in life, and this seems to overshadow something that stood out to me: how to handle his legacy. Specifically, how he wanted his legacy to be handled.

Swartz created a simple web page in 2002 about how to handle things if he were to be “hit by a truck.” Who would take over his website? Where would his source code end up? He created an electronic will. The idea of a will is nothing new. Most people create a document outlining how their assets will be divided up when the time comes- it just makes things operate more smoothly. But what about in the electronic world? Surely we mark who will get our house but what about who gets our website? It sounds amusing to think about or even entertain the idea. We allocate or physical property, things that can be defined in dollars and cents, but hardly consider our intellectual property.

If you haven’t had a Facebook friend pass away yet, you’re likely in the minority. It’s sad, of course it’s sad, but it needs to be talked about. If you have ever had a Facebook friend pass, you may observe a cycle where his/her profile is used first as a memorial and then eventually deactivated all-together. These are my experiences. I understand and empathize with the feelings of the family in these circumstances, but to me this seems a little like burning all of a loved one’s possessions with the ease of a single mouse click.

These are the two ends of the spectrum.

It’s important to let go and move on, but it’s also important to remember and honor. In a basic sense, I apply the same fundamental ideas towards the death of a person as I do towards that of a technology. Most are quick to push the old out of thought, but the few make a move to preserve. I preserve. It’s just my nature.

Swartz’s situation resonated with my own beliefs. If I were to be hit by a truck tomorrow, what would happen with my stuff? My digital stuff. I run a fair number of websites, I rent a VPS and a dedicated server, and I have bills, Amazon S3, service subscriptions. If I go, they eventually do too.

I’d like to tell you that I have a contingency plan, but I don’t. I haven’t reflected fully on the logistics of it. Could I think of people to take over my digital stuff after I’m gone? Of course, but would they want to? When someone dies and it becomes your responsibility to handle their belongings, it’s not typically a drawn out process. You keep some stuff, you toss some stuff, but you don’t normally end up with something that needs to be maintained and worked through. Websites take a fair amount of time and money. Storage, while getting cheaper, is still expensive for the hobbyist. There’s unavoidable maintenance.

That said, I would hope that my online persona remains long after I do. Forum accounts, Facebook information, Twitter posts, etc. should survive as long as possible. I want everything to be available to anyone who needs it. Hand over my source code and pick apart my log files.

Open source my life.

If I’m not going to work on it anymore, I’d like to give that ability to anybody who is interested.

To have these things removed, stripped from the world, is just nonsensical to me. Someone’s interesting and original work disappearing because nobody knows how to or doesn’t want to handle handle it? Nothing upsets me more than something like that. It’s akin to tearing pages out of every history book. In our modern world, people are quick to think that things last forever. Digital artifacts can go missing overnight.

We shouldn’t be worried so much anymore about having something embarrassing stored online forever, we should be more worried about something important disappearing tomorrow.

Other People’s Stuff

Friday, March 29th, 2013

If you collect as many things as I do, you end up with some stuff you’re not supposed to have. In this case, I’m not referring to stuff that is illegal or stuff that is unreleased. I’m talking about other people’s stuff. Personal stuff.

In a broad sense, the whole used market is a little bit bizarre when you look at it abstractly. As we live in a disposable culture, anything someone might buy has its own story. You don’t know how many hours were put into that dusty SNES with a five dollar sticker on it. How it contributed to sibling rivalries or became an item to bond over with the girl next door. We’ll usually never really know the extent of these stories.

Sometimes we accidentally inherit the stories.

In Philadelphia, there are many little second hand shops that line the grid-like streets. Tucked into corners, away from the tourist traps, these stores don’t feel like your normal thrift shops. These places lean a little more towards collectibles: antique books, crates of records, obscure (but not rare) VHS tapes- you get the idea. Some of these shops also sell photographs, but not of any famous attractions or curios of the city. They’re family photographs. Weird pictures of people posing outside their houses, sitting with their pets, or just acting goofy. Private pictures. Who would have ever thought they’d end up at a store somewhere?

So every one in a while, I buy a few. I have them scattered along the edges of my bedroom mirror. Who are these people? I’ll never know.

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This concept doesn’t simply apply to pictures. From one auction, I got a lot of around thirty 7-inch tape reels. While a lot of them were simply recordings of the radio that could be played back for hours, some of them appeared to be homemade recordings. One I remember in particular appeared to be a recording of some sort of part, complete with almost unintelligible voices and faint background music. Something never meant to get out this far. A memory I own that isn’t mine.

Home movies are another area. On occasion, I’ve purchased VHS camcorders with tapes still inside. Rarely though will I find something captivating. Usually, there will be a short video of a newborn baby or the typical “I’m testing out the camera” tape where people pan around their living rooms.

Occasionally though, I’ll find something more interesting.

One flea market I frequent in Delaware usually has a lot of vendors from house clean-outs. They’re easy to spot: Giant rented truck with several dozen cardboard boxes packed full of everything imaginable. No rhyme or reason here: folded up clothes, kitchen appliances, weathered books, etc. Almost as though a family was packed away into boxes to be sold for five dollars a pop. Anyway, while most of these boxes are filled with junk, I’ve found my fair share of interesting objects from them. At one point, I came across a box of hand-labeled VHS tapes. I didn’t know what exactly they were, so I took them home and played them. I found myself with what appears to be recordings of an amateur band (or several) from the mid 1990′s.

So what did I do with them? After setting them to the side for some time, I decided it was best to transfer them and let people see them. Currently, I have one already online with more on the way. Here’s a link to go watch it. Who are these people? What’s the name of the band? I have no idea. The band might be named “Triple X” but nothing seems to enforce that. Maybe I’ll run across something as I keep going, or someone will stumble upon this video and recognize it. There’s a lot more footage to look through.

So this gives you something to think about. Be mindful of those little personal artifacts that you keep around. Those memories frozen in time. Who knows where they will end up one day.

And who knows if some 20-something punk will eventually put them on YouTube.

DIY Archiving – A Primer

Monday, August 6th, 2012

This article was originally written for and published at The New Tech on July 8th, 2012. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

So maybe you want to be an archivist but don’t know where to start. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have learned a few things going down this path that I can share. Let’s break this up into two main sections: digital media and physical media. No matter what you are archiving, you should first pick out what you’re going to save. You don’t have to put too much consideration into this step. You can be passionate about a subject you wish to preserve, be helping a group of people, or doing it for the hell of it. Archiving is at it’s base both a way to ensure survival and a way to fill a hole left forgotten.

In the digital world, you’re going to be focused on downloading, storing, and uploading. Let’s start with downloading as you’re going to want to get your hands on some media. I started on a Windows computer, downloading directly with a browser. You can get your hands on some stuff simply with a DownThemAll plugin and a lot of free time. For streaming content I turn to the video downloader plugin for Firefox or Replay Media Catcher. This lets you pull videos from all your sites like Vimeo or Youtube. Sometimes things aren’t as easy as clicking a file to download it. You may have to use download sites, ftp servers, Bittorrent, or something less standard. You never know. Get to know how to use jdownloader, an ftp client like Filezilla, and a Bittorrent client like uTorrent. You might find a whole slew of content on some obscure site and you need to have the tools to dig it out. Moving on to more Unix-like systems, learn all you can about wget, curl, grep, and bash scripting. I’m not going to cover how to use all of these tools, but with a little practice there are few things you can’t get when you use them in tandem. You would be surprised how simple it is to whip up automated processes that do everything you want with just a few sophisticated commands. Also, be on the lookout for more specified tools. For example, I found a fantastic tool for downloading Youtube videos called youtubedl. If there is something out there to be downloaded, there is usually a tool for the job.

When you get the data, you’re going to need to hold it. I was originally downloading everything locally, and still like to keep local copies of data I retrieve. Always keep your data on at least two drives, and preferably buy your drives in pairs so you can easily stick with this rule. You can never have too much storage. I currently have 15TB locally just for storing archived media. When it comes to other storage mediums, I’m not easily swayed. Data tape is expensive to adopt, and cloud storage lacks stability. In earlier days, I had only an 80GB drive, so I would back up to DVD+Rs. A lot of people will tell you that your burned media will go bad after about 6-10 years, but I have yet to have a disc become unreadable. I will say that I’ve had a lot of luck with Verbatim discs. I would coaster many discs by other brands when burning, but have only ever had one Verbatim fail on me. Stick with what your budget is, the price of hard drives are only going down, but if you’re a kid on a budget a spindle of DVDs can help in a pinch. Also, keep an eye on solid state drives. While I have yet to adopt them, they are the new thing in mass storage, though the price is still a bit steep.

So now you want to share your data. You have many options to consider. I’ve been using The Internet Archive most recently to place files which should be saved. Depending on your content, this may not be the best option for you. A few of the techniques I mentioned before to download from can be good options for quick data dispersal. For example, setting up a torrent for your files can be done in minutes, and fast FTP/HTTP servers can be rented for however much money you want to spend. The main points here though are longevity and redundancy. You want your files up for a long time, and you want them to stay online somewhere if one server takes a tumble. While torrents alone are terrible for longevity, they are great at getting data out fast. Combine this with a server, or a data hosting/streaming service and you have some type of redundancy. Always make sure your data is accessible.

So now you might want also want to save physical media. This can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be. Saving your physical media is best done by making it digital. The shelf life of digital data is only going up these days while physical media like paper or tape only degrades. While I’m a fan of my physical media, transferring it to a digital format is the best way to share it and keep it alive.

When dealing with publications or photographs, you can generally get good results digitizing them with a decent scanner. I happen to be a fan of Epsons, but anything around $100 these days should be able to give you decent quality scans. As always, read the reviews just to make sure. If you’re feeling a bit more crafty, you can try your hand at creating a book scanning set-up. This can easily copy all of your publications quickly. After you make your scans, you can perform any type of compression you wish, and even take the resulting image files to assemble a PDF.

Video can also be challenging to save. Whether it be VHS, Laserdisc, or even DVDs, things can get messy. When dealing with your older analog media, you can find devices to digitize them. For example, you can get a capture card like a Canopis ADVC, or any number of DVD recorders on the market. There are also a slew of other little gadgets to clean up the video along the digitizing process. After you get the video converted, you can compress the raw capture down with a codec such as h264 to make the file more manageable.

Audio can be viewed in a similar fashion to video. You can easily pipe a tape or record player into a receiver and feed the output to a nicer sound card. Here, audio can be captured using a program like Audacity and saved as a lossless file or compressed with something like Vorbis or MP3.

With something to drive you, a little know-how, and a lot of time, you can easily start archiving the media in your world. Though it may be daunting at first, you can easily build as you go. Start small, and end up saving big.