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July 17th, 2007

Google announcement: More PR than Privacy

Google announcement: More PR than Privacy

The BBC reports that Google has dramatically shortened the life the cookies it issues, from 31 years to 2 years.

Cookies are small text files that websites can put on a user’s computer so the user can be identified when he or she looks at different pages on the site or returns to the site later. It’s what makes it possible to visit Amazon on different days to tinker with your wishlist without having to log in again, and what enables you to pop in and out of ebay all Saturday without repeatedly logging in to bid.

Privacy advocates have been concerned about how long Google tracks people for, and the data it holds. If you want a mild fright, try logging in to Google and viewing your web history. Unless you’ve specifically opted out, Google will have kept a record of everything you’ve searched for and all the sites you’ve visited while logged in to your Google account.

The cookie potentially enables Google to track your activity across websites that host Google adverts or use Google for visitor tracking, which represents a lot of the internet.

So Google’s representing this cut of 31 years in the cookie life as a big deal. But it’s not really because if you use a Google service, the counter is reset. The cookie only ever expires if you don’t use Google Search, Blogger, Gmail, Adwords, Adsense, Reader or any other Google service for two whole years. And if you have a one-off engagement with Google, it’ll reserve the right to track you for two whole years afterwards.

Google says it wants to stop people from having to log in all the time, but most people would consider once a month or once a week to be reasonable. Indeed, ebay users must provide their password once a day.

This announcement appears to do a lot more to improve Google’s public relations profile than it does to actually change how it uses personal data.

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July 12th, 2007

Computing to get its own museum at Bletchley Park?

Computing to get its own museum at Bletchley Park?

Earlier this year, the Science Museum in London hosted a travelling exhibition of computer games. It was great because you could play them – feel the vibrations of the sound effects, see how the vector games burned bright dots in the screen. Now that exhibition has moved on, there’s nowhere you can go to experience historic hardware, unless you’re content to look at its case and read about it.

Now there are proposals to create a museum dedicated to the UK’s pioneering role in the computer industry, which will include restored machines and reconstructions. The site is to be Bletchley Park, home to the code breakers in World War II and birthplace of many landmark machines, including the Colossus code-breaker. The emphasis seems to be on early industrial and business machines, and on reconstructing the history of early computing before those involved have all passed on. It would be nice to see the exhibits extended into the much later home computing era too, when Sinclair taught us all how to program Basic and dodge monsters in manic mines. To be fair, that era is becoming well documented with magazines like Retro Gamer interviewing those who were involved at the time. But if you want to experience a colour clash, you still need to befriend a hobbyist who’s preserved a machine.

The stumbling block for the new museum could be finance: they need to raise a quarter of a million pounds for the project to be viable. The machines are all waiting – they just need to be displayed.

I hope they manage it. With computers and communications tools on every desktop and in every pocket, it’s easy to take them for granted. But we didn’t get here overnight, and many great ideas and pioneers should be part of our recorded history. It’s only when you see the machines working that you can truly appreciate them.

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July 4th, 2007

Preserving our digital future

Preserving our digital future

Yesterday I tried to get Brian Eno’s Generative Music running on my PC. It’s a program that replays Eno’s music and regenerates it within the parameters he’s defined so that each performance is unique. The album was issued on a floppy in 1996 and was compatible with Windows 3.1 and Windows 95. It doesn’t run under XP, though, which means that the music sequences Eno programmed are effectively lost to me and probably most others who don’t want to tinker with the program.

More and more of our business and cultural data is stored digitally, and that means its lifespan is as short as the software and hardware it runs on. In 1986, the Domesday Project aimed to create a digital record of then-modern Britain. Barely a few years later, the BBC computer was obsolete and the video disc players were hard to find in fully working order. The data was effectively lost, until a massive rescue operation a few years back. Compared to the print edition of the 1086 Domesday Book, which is still available at London’s Public Record Office in Kew, the digital version didn’t last long.

Now the National Archives and Microsoft have teamed up to try to preserve digital documents. Microsoft has of course caused many of the problems with its proprietary and incompatible file formats, used to force people to upgrade software. And rather than work with the existing Open Document Format for Office 2007, Microsoft specified its own format and had it ratified as an open standard, so that it wouldn’t have to cede too much control.

The deal will provide National Archives with an operating system that can run different versions of Microsoft Windows and Office applications from the same PC. The idea is that the staff will be able to swap between the operating system and application version they need to access any data.

Is this the right solution, though? Is this not perpetuating the lock-in by ensuring that this data will always be dependent on Microsoft software?

I wonder whether a better solution would be to convert data from obsolete formats into current open source formats. If the source code and format documentation is archived too, it will make it much easier for future generations to recreate code that can open files. The code can be adapted for different platforms without breaking any copyright or licensing restrictions. The software to access the data can be copied as widely as the data itself, which would ensure everybody could access it.

Clearly hardware changes will continue and even open source file formats can obsolesce. Perhaps the simplest thing of all, certainly for documents and other data files that don’t depend on interactive features, is just to print them onto archive quality paper and keep them somewhere dark and dry.

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