Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Pound of Memories

When I landed in Chicago nineteen years ago, my new American life was not off to a great start. Of the proverbial two bags I was to come to this country with, like many aspirants of self-made success did before me, only one actually showed up on the conveyor belt. A sinking feeling set in as I realized that the missing one had my family pictures in it. First lesson learned: never check anything you are not prepared to lose.

Brief elation upon learning a few days later that my bag was found gave way to deeper despair when I realized on its arrival that my belongings were rummaged through, and some were missing. I do not remember today what most of those missing things were: I never needed most of them anyway, and Aer Lingus promptly sent me a $200 check for the several pounds of lost luggage.

But how much is a pound of memories worth?

Luckily, some of the lost pictures weren't the only copies. But not all. Some were lost forever. And the sad thing is, I don't even remember what some of them were. And I sure wish I did. That is how I learned the second lesson:

You can not replace your memories with insurance money.

From that day on, I took preserving family memories very seriously. I scanned all the paper pictures, and, along with the ever-expanding collection of newer digital photographs and videos of our growing family, I have them backed up on several types of media stored in multiple locations.

Nothing short of a nuclear war can cause those precious memories to be lost.

With the tools available today, everyone can ensure their irreplaceable digital possessions are well-preserved for the future. So it breaks my heart whenever I hear from a friend with a dead laptop or broken phone: "I had my pictures on it!"

In this inaugural e-log entry I will share one extremely simple, but widely (and wildly) underappreciated approach to permanent data archival for pennies per Gigabyte (that's right: 100GB of permanent data archival for as little as $5)There is no reason anyone should ever end up resorting to this crude data recovery technique I once spotted:

At this point, if you are still reading, you are probably thinking some combination of these things:
  • LOL, this will never be me, I have a copy in the cloud
  • ROFL, this will never be me, I have a copy on a USB drive
  • LMAO, this will never be me, I run a SAN with RAID5 in my garage
And if you are thinking any of these things, congratulations, you are already doing better than most people. But, let me tell you, none of these things qualify as a permanent backup. And in fact, the most technically sounding, the last one, might very well be the worst of them all. A good backup should, among other things, be:
  • kept offline
  • stored offsite
  • difficult to accidentally overwrite
  • able to withstand prolonged storage
  • available when you need it
Cloud storage is great as the first-stop automatic backup solution. Please configure your phones to use it. Absolutely. But cloud storage is not a permanent backup, and it costs a lot to store a lot of data in the cloud - all without any guarantee that it will be there years down the road.

Hard drives are great. They are fast, and cheap, and store a lot of data. Sure, you can use them for offline offsite storage, many people do, and it's better than doing nothing. But a hard drive is like a light bulb. One day, when you tun it on, it will blink and die. Every time you turn it off may be the last time it works. And no hard drive should be expected to store data for decades.

There is a reason corporations like Google still rely on tape backups to preserve their critical data: tapes are relatively cheap, easy to store offsite, and they are not accidentally overwritten easily. They don't last very long though, so for truly permanent archival companies use the same media you can, and should.

So, what is this miraculous solution, this silver bullet that checks all the bullet points? What can you do to make sure you will always have you precious data?

The answer is very simple: burn it to optical media. Specifically, burn it to Blu-Ray disks. If you have a lot of data, burn it to BDXL (high capacity Blu-Ray).

Modern Blu-Ray optical media really is the magic solution that for the first time offers permanent data storage capacities that are sufficient to take the hassle factor out of the equation (I would know - I used to burn my data to CDs, then to DVDs, then to regular Blu-Rays).

You can buy a high quality (Made in Japan) Verbatim 100GB BDXL for $5, and the data you record to it will last forever.

So, why am I saying this, and why should you believe me? How can any media be expected to be permanent? Won't it deteriorate in storage? Will there even be a Blu-Ray drive in 2050 to read it with? After all, the data on the 5 inch floppies might still be there, but good luck finding the drive to read it with. Right? 

Let me take these one at a time.

How can any media be expected to be permanent?

Let me be clear. When I say "permanent", I do not mean that future archaeologists will be able to see your family pictures. You probably don't want that anyway. But even the high quality recordable CDs and DVDs have expected shelf life of decades (I can still read CDs recorded 20 years ago), and modern high capacity recordable Blu-Ray disks (50GB and 100GB BDXL) use inorganic recording layer (unlike recordable CDs and DVDs), and have expected shelf life approaching a thousand years based on accelerated ageing testing.

Will there be a Blu-Ray drive in 2050?

Yes. Yes, there will be Blu-Ray drives in 2050. Why? Because optical media occupies a unique niche in the media market. It is the only media in the history of technology that preserved backward compatibility all the way back to the original format: the CD. The CDs were first introduced almost 40 years ago, in 1982, and can still be read in any optical drive. DVDs were developed in 1995. The floppies, the hard drives, the tapes, the ZIP drives, the VHS, all the magnetic media of that era is long gone, but optical media is here to stay, because this backwards compatibility doesn't cost much to the device manufacturers. Consumers have a huge amount of optical media (music and movies) they paid for, and will continue to want to buy the devices that can read them, so the manufacturers will continue to make them. Still don't believe me? Then I will remind you of another permanent storage medium you can still buy a reader for:

Now, at this point you may be saying: "I don't need permanent storage media, I just need it to last long enough for the next format to come around"

Well, that format is here. At 5 cents per gigabyte of permanent storage, you can't afford not to have an extra copy of your most precious data. You can (and should) still keep your USB hard drive and cloud backups. But put that BDXL copy into your safe deposit box, and you will never be posting those flyers.

TL;DR: Ok, so what should I buy?

As of this writing, I recommend one of the following (and no, I do not get commission, so you don't have to use these links:)

Internal drive (for desktops): LG WH16NS40 ($70)


External USB drive (for laptops): LG WP50NB40 ($100)


Burning software: ImgBurn (freeware)


Verbatim BD-R XL 100GB ($47 for 10 disks; 5c/GB)
*Verbatim M-Disc BDXL 100GB ($86 for 5 disks; 17c/GB)

If you do not have enough data to backup to justify buying more expensive BDXL disks, you can start off with regular BDRs:

Verbatim BD-R 25GB ($10 for 10 disks; 4c/GB)
*Verbatim M-Disc BD-R 25GB ($60 for 25 disks; 10c/GB)

Whatever disks you choose to go with, keep in mind that once recorded, it should be stored in a jewel case or on a spindle it came in. Do not store them in sleeves!

*What's the deal with the M-Discs, you ask? Why triple the price? Well, this is a more nuanced story.

Short answer: you are going to be fine with the regular BDRs/BDXLs as long as you buy a quality brand (in the US, stick to Verbatim), but M-Disc promises even more longevity, and I chose to pay extra for it, even though it is somewhat unclear what specific improvements it offers over regular Blu-Ray disks.


How much is a pound of memories worth to you?

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