Saturday, January 23, 2021

Data savers or dodos?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Technology gets better almost as fast as it gets obsolete, but some ancient receptacles of knowledge still survive, writes LP AYER

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I have, in the past through this column, bemoaned the plight posed by PCs and the plastic junk plaguing Planet Earth.  I lambasted laptops and demonised desktops.  But the harrowing tale of getting rid of the heaps of hardware reaching Himalayan proportions is just a Sunday picnic compared to the sorry saga of storage devices.

My grave concern is the problem we may face, not before long, in accessing vital personal information snugly stored in various storage media and feeling smug about retrieving them any time in the future.  Some time ago, owing to my part-time role in a medical practice, I attended a healthcare industry managers’ seminar where the main topic was saving storage space and retrieval of data. Understandably the speakers, sponsored by software vendors, waxed eloquent on computers’ capacity to save you dollops of dollars by shrinking storage space and sparing tropical forests by creating paperless offices. Anyone with any link to the medical industry would know that it is a prolific paper-user and records need to be kept for years and years.  Every patient’s portrayal of their pain has to be painstakingly preserved to protect the service provider’s professional integrity and indemnity. Some patients’ paper records where I worked were bulkier than a Harry Potter book. So I had a good reason to attend this seminar in the fond hope of saving storage space and rental dollars for my employer.

At the end of the meeting almost everyone seemed swayed by the smooth talking software spokespersons. Waiting for the Q&A segment to close, the cynic in me dared to dig into my bag of tricks and voice my concerns about the possibility of our securely saved data sliding into a sinkhole, never to be seen again.

In the mid ‘80s, my Apple 2c required five and half inch floppy discs to save data.  The X and Y gens may not know what this floppy disc looks like. I have dozens with my personal correspondence, important and not so important, ensconced in them. With the old Apple having lost its core, there is no way of retrieving this data now. I hope anyone I had lent money to doesn’t see this column. I have no proof that they owe me.

In the mid ‘90s I used the more popular 3 ¼” diskette to store the medical practice data, and we were crunching one disk every few days; so we upgraded to a Zip drive as it zaps data into a more compact mode. But that joy was short-lived since it was no different from its slimmer 3 ¼” cousin. Does any desktop now come with drives to read these disks? Sadly, no! A chest full of these diskettes lie dormant, hoarding valuable data. They are like the buried treasures of the Thiruvananthapuram temple. I know they are there, but I can’t access them. Next, I migrated to CDs and DVDs, and have dozens of them with critical info of client consults. They are still accessible, but how long will it be before they meet the same fate of the earlier diskettes. But these round shiny shingles have some use. I hung a few of them in my fruit trees and they seem to scare away the birds.

Now come the flash drives, aka memory sticks. How secure are they? If you unfortunately lose one, all your life secrets are out for the whole world to see.

Much to the chagrin of the speakers I pulled out a file containing handwritten letters, including the last one from my father before he passed away some 40 years ago. Written on Titagur (Orissa) mill paper, I can flip to any piece in that folder in a matter of seconds, with all its contents clearly visible.

Next I pulled out my trump card. A stack of palm leaves the size of Mars bars with wooden pieces of the same size on the top and bottom, serving as protective cover.  Written with a stylus, every word on those leaves pops out like a pearl. It is of 19th century origin given to my grandfather, and passed on to my father. It contains diagnostic details of cattle diseases and herbal cures. My forefathers used it as a ready reference to treat any ailment of the dozens of cows they owned. It is the ‘Sahadeva sastra’.  During their year of anonymity, the Pandavas lived under different guises with Sahadeva leading the life of a cowherd and it was his handiwork reproduced. After over a hundred-year life span, all the information on these palm leaves is accessible, legible and readable; whereas my ten or twenty year-old computer disks are museum pieces.  So much for technology!

Desktops have gone the way of dodos; laptops are languishing, with Tablets giving them headaches. It is not just the hardware that gives us the hard time. The short lifespan of storage media is a scary scenario indeed.

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