Friday, February 18, 2011

DVR: Hundreds of Hours of News and Entertainment, Stored in an Expensive Paperweight

"Saving the Big Game on Your DVR? Better Think Twice"
David Roth, Playbook, Wired (February 18, 2011)

"When the long-lost broadcast of the first Super Bowl arrived at the Paley Center for the Media in midtown Manhattan, it was in a shopping bag, on reels of two-inch videotape that weighed 20-ish pounds apiece.

"Given that Super Bowl I was played on Jan. 15, 1967, that was the only way a recording of the game was going to get to anyone. Back then, video-recording devices were the size of Sub-Zero refrigerators (and much noisier) and networks routinely taped over things like soon-to-be-historic sports broadcasts in order to save tape stock.

"That even one recording of the first Super Bowl's two national broadcasts survived, then, is something of a fluke event — and one that took 44 years to come to light.

"In the intervening period, the holy grail of NFL game tapes spent 38 years in a Pennsylvania attic, underwent a top-to-bottom restoration in the summer of 2005, and was transferred to Betacam SP video. None of those media, of course, are anyone's idea of state of the art. Super Bowl I's decades in the wilderness are enough to make anyone appreciate that safe, silent digital video recorder sitting by the TV.

"Maybe too much so...."

Here's a key point of the article, in the Lemming's opinion: videotape stored in a hot, dusty attic lasted for decades. Which, apparently, more contemporary recording technology doesn't. At least, not always.

Back to the article.

"...[Mike] Alltmont, a New Orleans native and lifelong Saints fan, lost his recording of a game he'd waited his whole life to see, as well as his recording of the anarchic post-game local coverage — 'The live shots of the French Quarter,' he says, 'stuff that, even if you buy the DVD, you wouldn't get that moment' — when his Dish Network DVR conked out last winter. The box was one of what he estimates were four that melted down over a two-year period...."

Acronyms are handy, but require somewhat active reading. DVR might mean "Diploma in Veterinary Radiology," but in this context it stands for "Digital Video Recorder."

There are good reasons for using digital video: "...DVRs are often used to convert video feeds from analog cameras into a digital medium for easier storage and enhanced searching/analytical capabilities." (Alpha Card Security) Today's digital storage devices are also tiny, compared to '60s videotape tech.

But analog data storage isn't dead:

"...The Paley Center (formerly the Museum of Television and Radio) is digitizing its massive archives, but it is also moving terabytes of information onto data tape, which uses a supercharged version of the magnetic tape in your moldering VCR cassettes — LTO-5 data tape, the current state of the art, can hold 1.5 terabytes of information. Because the Paley Center does not compress its files for quality purposes, it needs every bit of that storage power — it would take more than 17 standard DVDs to hold an hour of TV recorded to Paley's standards.

"Doug Warner, Paley's director of engineering, acknowledges that relying on actual physical tape creates storage-space issues — kind of an inherent risk when the goal is archiving every hour of television, ever — but he argues that analog technologies have their benefits.

" 'Think about the Super Bowl I tape,' Warner said. 'That sat in an attic for 40 years, extreme heat and cold, basically the worst conditions possible. But we can watch it.' In contrast, he adds, 'if I download a file over FTP and it wasn't uploaded properly, it can become corrupted. Even as a technologist, you can see how fragile data is, relative to the old analog methods.'

"Anyone old enough to have squinted through a third-generation VHS dub knows that there's something to be said for the robust visual splendor of high-def recordings. But factor in the fragility of digital files and a lack of standardization — there are currently more than 10 HD formats in the United States, with no standardization between them — and whoever has Warner's job three decades from now is likely to face some industrial-strength headaches...."

There's more, but the Lemming thinks that's the gist of the article.

Baked Clay to Flash: Five Millennia of Information Technology

About 5,000 years ago, folks in Mesopotamia started recording business transactions on clay tablets. The one in the picture describes a transfer of land. Cuneiform was better, in some ways, than counting on a person's memory. Once the clay had been marked, it was fired in a kiln - providing a tamper-proof record with a shelf life of five millennia and counting.

Particularly when compared to 20th-century paperbacks printed on high-acid paper, that's impressive.

On the other hand, these days we could store a few movies and maybe an encyclopedia in something the size of a cuneiform tablet. Plus, unless the data is copy-protected, we can make copies - lots of copies.

Which has been a major headache for folks who own copyrighted material. And that's another topic.

The problem with those DVR Super Bowl recordings isn't, in the Lemming's opinion, so much a matter of DVR being an 'inferior' data storage method. It's more, again in the Lemming's opinion, a matter of quality control by the manufacturers, purchasing decisions by the end users: and "the innate perversity of inanimate objects," as the Lemming's father used to say.

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