Monday, 29 September 2014

Data clouds

'Bowl of clouds' by
Kevin Dooley under
a CC license
I was sorting out my (digital) photos the other day. Browsing, cropping, retouching, titling, tagging, sharing and all those things that normally follow the transfer of photos from the camera to the computer.

[This is certainly a point where I could say that in the (somewhat) old days, the film days, things were much easier. All one had to do was shoot a film (36 shots at most, which would normally need days, weeks or even months to finish), take it to a store to have it developed and then select a few nice prints for the photo album or, even simpler, stack them in a box and put the box aside. Sharing photos would mean having reprints made, which was not the most pleasant processes, which, in turn, is why many people I know of used to order two sets of prints straight away.]

Regardless, I won't be comparing with the old days on that level. Partly because I enjoy taking photos and I don't mind all the post- steps. The only thing I may be missing a bit is the getting together with friends to show the photos but that's another story.

I do like, however, to preserved photos in some way, in an organised fashion, if possible. I think of them as little pieces of (my) history; bits of memory that will - eventually and inevitably - begin to fade from my mind. In the film days preservation was not really an issue. The prints could last for years, maybe decades. The negatives could/can last for more. Today, digital copies, photo files are thought to last forever. Correct? Well, not precisely. They can last for as long the medium that holds them lasts. And here is where problems begin to arise.

The data volumes we are talking about are rapidly increasing. Modern cameras make shooting photos really easy. They won't be making us pros but for sure they give us a very high success rate in terms of "acceptable" photos. Those are the ones that we are likely to want to preserve. With increasing camera sensor sizes and pixel densities photo files have increased in size. A 16 MP camera would give JPGs of 4 or 5Mb, depending on the compression level. The corresponding RAW files would be about 16Mb.

To cut a long story short, it is easy to gather a photo collection 100-200-or more Gb after a few years of using a modern digital camera. In itself, that is no problem. Modern hard drives can hold a few Tb of information and still be reasonably affordable. But are they reliable? Yes, they are. Do they fail? Not too often but occasionally they do. I had a drive failing within its warranty period and another something like a few months after it expired. Regardless of the cost, getting parted with several thousand photos of mine - little pieces of history, as I called them - wouldn't have been pleasant at all. Those two times I was lucky - I had more-or-less decent backups.

So, there you have the challenge: having a backup strategy (and a data restore plan), which will secure both the files themselves and their associated data (e.g., album structures and anything not within the files themselves) and will gather those files from all the different computing platforms in use (PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc.).

The various cloud services offer a truly tempting backup alternative. Google does it for every photo one takes from an Android device and can do it with PC content as well (I believe - I have never tried the latter). In could storage services Google already has several competitors - Dropbox, OneDrive, Flickr (for photos) and many others.

Having one's data (photos, in this case) in the cloud comes with a great deal of pluses: It is a kind of backup, the backup of that backup is somebody else's problem, it keeps content accessible from anywhere, it makes content sharing simple, it is easy to use, it is affordable or - even - for free. OK, that last bit regarding cost does vary on the data volume needed - 100 Gb won't be available for free.

Is the cloud truly reliable? Hmmm.... Yes it mostly is. Does it every fail? Hmmm.... Yes, it does. Or, at least it may fail providing access to one's data when one needs them. Occasionally cloud services close or change their terms of service, etc. That may or may not be bad thing. It happens, though. Then, there is the question of bandwidth: how much time does one need to recover the data, if needed? Is that any easy process? And finally, there is the question of privacy: what privacy level can one expect with one data if those are stored on the cloud? The answers to these last questions vary depending on the cloud services provider. And on one's confidence on the provider's policy.

Let's face it realistically, however. In a lot of real-life scenarios, cloud storage is highly practical. The cloud offers options and capabilities that local storage can't easily match. At least not within the IT resources range an everyday person can maintain. But this doesn't mean that one shouldn't have a copy of one's dataset in a medium at a hand's reach. After all, when it comes to photos, those are little bits of personal history that we are talking about :)

Sunday, 28 September 2014

On September and personal resolutions

Autumn? -- Fallen tree leaf
'Autumn?' by dr_gorgy
under a CC license
September has always been a time for reflection for me. It marks the end of summer, the beginning of the rain season - climate change aside - the beginning of the school year (in many places), the end of the holidays (in the north hemisphere), etc. It is no coincidence that, besides me, many argue that true, real-life calendar years should start in September, not January.

I find myself considering "new year resolutions" in September. Well, I do that in January, as well, but that's not my point. In a sense, it may be easier to accept objectives in September, simply because one is already in "work mode". One can assume action or put something into practice immediately. Contrary to that, in January one tends to think on new year resolutions during the festivities, when - I believe - it's easier for one to be unreasonably ambitious regarding life objectives.

Personal resolutions are tightly connected to the need of people for hope. Not so much as plain wishes are, that is, but they do represent the intend to act towards a better life. The irony is that September, with its normal season change, its clouds, rains, etc., is a month that, for some people, helps depression kick in. Maybe that is why people take the time, in September, to decide on actions and objectives, start new activities, embrace new lifestyles, etc. For sure it is a great way to self-motivate oneself, which is also great for the people around us.

Thus, I believe, "happy new season" wishes are in order! May our wishes come a bit closer to reality this new school year...

Monday, 15 September 2014

Pressing that 'send' button....

'Mail Box' by zizzybaloobah
under a CC license
E-mail is nothing new. Actually, in terms of internet communication means, it is rather a dinosaur of communication.

Since e-mail's first steps in the '70s, lots have happened both to e-mail as a technology, itself, and its competing internet-based communication services. In 2012, the 3 main web-mail providers had over a billion users with Google leading the race. So far, e-mail looks as if it is here to stay for the decades to come. But do we really need it?

Back at e-mail's early days, it was soon understood that if e-mail would be any good for communication, it needed to be able to offer interoperability among networks, servers and clients. It achieved that following a development course strongly based on a series of (then) emerging standards, each adding new capabilities to the service. Thus, the early text-only services can now support attachments, formatting, multimedia contents, different recipient groups, etc.

E-mail was designed to emulate the classical snail-mail exchange in the digital world. Some of the associated terminology reflects that (e.g., CC). That is not necessarily a bad thing because, well, people do need to exchange information in an affordable, flexible, reliable and resilient way - I'm talking about information that would normally be delivered by snail mail some years before.

At this point, it would be useful to look at what people tend to do online. The following infographic (2012) can give us a few clues:

How People Spend Their Time Online
Infographic by- GO-Gulf

E-mail/ communication is a strong factor, taking some 19% of the online time. Social media, however, are ahead with 22%. Plus, the trends shown concern service niches well away of e-mail communication.

E-mail use seems to be declining amongst teens, who seem to favour instant messaging. E-mail seems to look a bit too formal and needs more time between typing the message and being ready to press 'send'. In fact, in several instant messaging services (e,g,, Skype) there is no 'send' button - the user can just press 'Enter'.

Personal experience also suggests that the bulk of my e-mail use could easily be replaced by instant messaging. I've caught myself using e-mail as an instant-messaging client from time-to-time, pressing 'reply', typing just a few words and pressing 'send', often 'forgetting' to change the subject line or re-check the recipients. From time-to-time, I also use e-mail as a 'mini-forum' service, exchanging comments with a small group of people. To be honest, that last thing often gives ground to considerable off-topic-discussions, with the occasional (polite) trolling but that happens when using personal e-mail so I guess it's OK.

Despite all those indications of e-mail's weaknesses, its biggest strengths are flexibility, acceptance and standardisation. All three are boring stuff but, really, they make a difference:
  • E-mail is flexible in the sense that one can use it for short or long messages, to one or more recipients, with any formatting, attachments, etc. Contrary to that, most instant messaging solutions (Skype, WhatsApp, etc.) are much more limited in terms of formatting, message size, attachment options and recipient groups.
  • Most likely recipients have an active e-mail address (businesses, public bodies, individuals, etc.). The same doesn't apply to instant messaging services (that thing with google+ and its messaging capabilities is a different story to user handles instead of e-mail addresses is a different story). Further to that, e-mail communication is considered as a formal means of communication in an increasing number of countries and organisations. Instant messaging services have the aura of 'informal' and 'casual'.
  • At the technical level, e-mail services are well established. One can use any e-mail client to address any recipient and the chances are that the recipients will receive and be able to read the original message as the sender intended (most of the times, at least). If delivery fails for some reason, the system tells the sender what went wrong. Contrary to that, there is no true 'universal' instant messaging service. People tend to be restricted with the social medium of their choice.
So yes! We still need e-mail. While not impressive  anymore, it does what it does quite well. And by forcing us to press that 'send' button, it provides us some time to reflect on what we are about to send. The latter can be life-saving under many circumstances.