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Thursday, 07 November 2019


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The Voyagers carried an actual phono cartridge and stylus along with a diagram intended to show how to use it. Maybe not so silly.


I don't know the real complexities of decoding information (sound) from a record player, but imagine if we received such an object from an obviously alien source. I'm reasonably certain that we would spend whatever time and money were required to decode it ASAP. Surely NASA or some governments would throw billions at it in either the name of science, or national security, or commercial advantage. With at least WWII era technology I don't think it would last that long.

I guess it's a similar story to the first half of Contact by Carl Sagan!

Fused silica can be dissolved in hydrofluoric acid (HF). In my current job, my group uses it to dissolve silica (and related compounds) on a regular basis.

I've worked with many nasty things (e.g. chlorine gas, kilogram quantities of molten arsenic selenide, radioactive materials); HF is the thing I've worked with that makes me the most anxious. It is nasty, nasty stuff.

Human readability and extraterrestrial recognizability are different issues and probably shouldn't be conflated. I think an LP is actually a decent choice for the latter. Those patterns of irregularities in that groove are not symbolic code and any entities capable of examining them in detail and familiar with harmonic oscillations should at least recognize them as such. That beats even cuneiform tablets for recognizability and interpretability, at least by aliens, and at least in my poorly informed opinion.

Hopefully, attempts to "read" that groove will proceed in the correct direction, otherwise the aliens might think that Paul is dead.

By the way, the Voyager Golden Records can be heard as a Spotify playlist, one I'm finding surprisingly diverse and enjoyable (even as I disagree with some inclusions omissions).

In fact the Voyager records have with them the stylus needed to play them, together with images on their covers describing how they are to be played (in particular from the outside in and at what speed, expressed in terms of the spectrum of hydrogen which anyone capable of space travel would be aware of, also pictorially represented on the cover of the record) and how to reconstruct images &c encoded on the records. All this is done using diagrams which it's hoped anyone finding them would have a hope of understanding.

It turns out the people who made these things were not stupid, and spent quite a lot of time thinking about this question.

Thinking about long term storage and reproduction of images, sounds, data and the like is interesting. But the problem may be one of what is important enough to bother storing for future generations. How do we know today what will be important or even of interest 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years from now? Should we permanently store everything? Not possible now. And if we could, how would we index it?

Which brought me to one of the most important, and if not important, most interesting of all early photographs: The Wright Brothers’ First Flight.

Tom Crouch, in Air & Space Magazine wrote, “Earlier that morning, Orville Wright had set up the camera on a tripod pointed at the spot where he thought the airplane might be in the air. When three members of the U.S. Lifesaving Service Station at Kill Devil Hills walked up from the beach to help out, Wilbur handed John T. Daniels the bulb that would activate the shutter and told him to squeeze it if anything interesting happened.”

Indeed, something interesting happened. Something important and, it turned out, historic. And a 6,603 x 4,280 pixel version of the photograph is available with the click of a mouse.

And then there’s Earthrise.

Two thoughts, from a not always reliable memory*:

1. Didn't NASA also include a pictorial that showed how to build a "player" for those disks? ON the disk?

2. I read a while back that the Library of Congress "transcribed" everything onto LP-type disks, that could be "read" via analog contraptions, precisely because digital media was evolving too fast to keep up?

* Well, the memory might still be there, but the "player" is getting a bit unreliable.

There always seem to be people motivated enough to keep things alive and readable...

Here is a site describing a product that reads old Apple ][ floppy disks by actually sensing the timing between the magnetic fluxes on the media itself and then using that to reconstruct the data:


Normally to read media like this you need to be able to control the Apple floppy hardware directly with software running on an actual Apple ][ because only the actual Apple ][ can talk to the actual disk drive in the way that's needed.

However, having recorded the timing of the pulses you can now feed that information to an *emulated* Apple floppy drive running on your Mac, and run the copy protected software just fine.

I think if people are still reading very fragile 40 year old magnetic media that was encoded in a way that was specifically designed to be hard to read ... we'll probably be able to preserve whatever is important to preserve.

Another way to facilitate decoding would be to store each movie with its own Rosetta Stone: a short sequence of stills taken from the movie, with the analog soundtrack. Admittedly, the soundtrack would require some work to decode, but the clip of people moving their lips would give the future decoders something to go by.

I experimented with archiving some of my digital files by photographing them on film off of a good monitor. The logic is that since I view and maybe tweak them on this monitor which isn’t the absolute state of the art, but good, they’ll at least be representative of how I see them under normal conditions. Then I just store them like the other negatives or transparencies. I print some of course, but since many are viewed on the monitor first, I thought the film might be the one of the archived sources, in addition to a normal hard drive somewhere. Sort of establishing the “ visible identifiability”...

Clearly, the original floppies are no longer recognizable by “any idiot”. In fact, I suspect most adults today would not recognize them.

My grandchildren - no idiots, they - had no idea what the fully mechanical typewriter on my shelf was, although they might figure it out when they get older.

'Fused silica is also vulnerable to an acid or two, but I can't re-find the exact names.'

Hydrofluoric acid. I have a job to do this week which involves using this stuff. I agree with Nick, it's really nasty s**t.

Decades ago I worked on a project where I had to root through boxes at the archive. These boxes contained all the correspondence over a couple decades among some key players in something I was interested in.

Now think about that for a sec... It was possible to read all the correspondence; it was only a few boxes full. Consider today. We're drowning in information that future historians might be interested in, but I highly doubt they'll ever do what I did.

It's not just the medium and the format (emails, texts, Word files, WordPerfect files...). It's the overwhelming volume of information we're producing.

So sure, go ahead and archive all your stuff forever on "panes" or whatever if it makes you feel better. But I'm confident it will be safe from the prying eyes of future historians by virtue of being lost in millions of boxes of panes full of mundane ephemera.

The use of an SME V tonearm with my Michell Gyro SE turntable (TT) obviates the need for Fozgometer as the "V" is not adjustable for azimuth; SME obtains incredibly tight tolerances in design and assembly.

But, even if i didn't own the Michell-SME deck, I'd own a Rega, and Rega's superb tonearms are not adjustable for azimuth, either.

Gotta hand it to Alastair Robertson-Aikman (founder of SME) and Roy Gandy (founder of Rega) for some really nice mechanical engineering.

No Fozgometer 'round these parts...the best tool is the one you don't need.

Photos are ephemeral—some with a lifespan of only a few minuets. So why all the worry about preserving them?

"How could we even suppose that [aliens] share the same basic DNA code we share with animals, which prescribes a thorax, appendages, a control center, and a variety of sensory mechanisms?"

Reminds me of an episode from the original Star Trek tv series in which some rocks that humans were mining on a distant planet turned out to be alien life forms that were nothing like what humans could imagine as "life."

I would just like to remind everyone that it is, in fact, Halley's Comet, not Haley's Comet. Phew! Crisis averted. Now, I'm off to rock around the clock.

[By Bill Halley! I see what you did there. --Mike]

The observation that a later party (human or alien) might not be able to decode, or if they could decode, understand a message, image, etc., is very well placed.

Here's another issue.

What if they just do not care? At all?

There was a story (maybe here?) of a portrait photographer who took a nice protrait of man back to the man (in some market) and the reply was "what am I supposed to do with this?"

I am personally harsher - commercial interests want to give me or send me all manner of little stuff, and my reply is always "you can throw that away as easily as I can...."

It is ENTIRELY possible that any future entity, looking at any saved work of art (or data of any other form) will value it no more than we value the stories on aged fishwrap newspaper.

I was kinda obsessed with preserving my images (negatives) for the long haul. I stored them in small fire proof "safes," until I read that they weren't really all that fireproof, and could be subject to ensuing water damage. So I researched further and got one that was even more heat resistant, complete with rubber sealing that would also prevent water damage. Threw in some desiccant, and laughed in the face of time!

I then noticed that a couple of documents I had also thrown in now appeared shriveled up, probably due to the desiccant, so I took it out since I didn't want anything detrimental affecting my precious negs- besides the rubber sealing would keep out the nasty moisture anyway. Except... the sealing actually locked in the moisture, providing a mold/mildew heaven within.

Fortunately, I caught the damage before said negs were completely eaten away, and most can be salvaged after CONSIDERABLE... effort. There's a lesson in there somewhere,
probably something to do with ego, nature and the acceptance of our temporal plane. These days, I just transfer whatever I've restored along with my recent digital unto gold discs- and whatever happens, happens... My reject negs remain in shoe boxes clean and robust to the day.

Mike you wrote about what might happen in 50 years: "They're made in their numberless billions to be shared in the present or for some limited time, and it's their nature to be obliterated after some shortish interval, for instance when the person whose phone it's on gets a new phone or when the online photo-sharing service that is "storing" the image on its servers goes belly-up." That is happening today. Even the "serious" digital guy who uses RAID devices and the cloud - you think he or any of his family members ever really review his 10^5 snapshots of his weekend in Paris? That stuff is not gone but is essentially forgotten. There is too much of it. No one cares. No one has the time. (Don't get me started on the millions of hours of GoPro videos of ski runs and the equivalent....)

Halley's Comet, Mike. Named for Edmond Halley in 1705.

When it last approached the Sun in 1986 I drove out into the bush away from the city lights in the early morning before dawn to try to see it. I have only a memory of a diffuse cloud of light in the SE sky. There was no chance of photographing it in those days. At least I can say I saw it.

Photos are ephemeral.

[Not all of them are. I have family Daguerreotypes from the 1840s, tintypes from the 1860s, platinum prints from the 1890s, and glass plate negatives from the 1910s. And as I mentioned, I've seen in person the oldest surviving photograph in the world, from 1826 or '27. --Mike]

"Naturally we like to assume that alien beings would need to follow the same blueprint, but it's only human nature to presume so."

This is one of the things I loved about the remake of The Thing and Arrival. Most sci-fi movies and TV depict alien life as vaguely humanoid. Not in those movies. The odds on lifeforms repeating on other planets would be low. Just look at the diversity of life here.

It's already been addressed:

Treasures Kept Safe in Salt Mines Below the Kansas Prairie / Hollywood films share space with dull documents


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