Archive for February, 2010

From Photo Albums to Digital Asset Management

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

If you asked someone ten years ago if their house was on fire or about to be washed away in a flood what objects they would try to save, old photographs would have been high on most people’s lists. Clothing, furniture, televisions, or kitchen items can all generally be replaced. Photographs of children, vacations, or deceased relatives represent memories that cannot be recaptured. Nonetheless, most people were not particularly careful about these precious artifacts. The more organized among us would put together albums. Many simply dump photographs into shoeboxes comforted by the vague promise that those pictures would be organized at some indefinite point in the future. Photos were not usually lost to disasters, but many times photographs would pass on to children who could no longer identify the people in the photographs or even vaguely when the photographs were taken.

I purchased my first digital camera in 2000. Several consequences of the new technology were clear. It was much easier to organize digital photos. They were inherently time-tagged, if you remembered to set the clock on your camera. Digital photos can now also be tagged with metadata including geographical location and the name of the persons included. The embedded information also allows digital photos to be rapidly searched and sorted into different albums.

However, in an key sense digital photos are more fragile. The disks they occupy can of course suffer, like traditional physical photographs, from fire, flood or other disasters, but are additionally vulnerable to mechanical disk failures or the inability to read outmoded media. This vulnerability is partially offset by the ease with which digital data can be duplicated.

It is not clear that most people recognize the vulnerability of digital information and are taking appropriate back up precautions. I am fearful that there will be many families who will loose irreplaceable photos until a culture of digital data backup is fully adopted.

In 2000, there were many fewer options for backing up data. My first strategy was to copy my data, mostly photos, to CDs or DVDs. I made two full backups every six months. One, I kept home for easy access, and another at work in case there were some disaster at home. There are clearly a few problems with this approach. First,  it requires more discipline than most busy people are willing to commit to. In addition, even a 4 GByte DvD is quickly filled, and backups begin to require many multiple disks. It is also possible to loose data saved between backups.

The second version of my backup strategy was a hybrid. I purchased an account on ($35/year) which would allows me to upload an unlimited quantity of picture files. After each photo session, I uploaded the files there. Note only could I retrieve the files in bulk using ftp, but I could allow friends and relatives to view the images on line. Other files, tax records and the like I continued to backup on DvDs.

Last summer I implemented a more modern backup system. The new system was coincident with my switch from a Windows PC to a Mac. The Mac comes with a backup utility called “Time Machine.” I connected an external USB drive to my iMac, and Time Machine provided a complete backup continuously. The term “Time Machine” refers to the fact that, depending on the size of the disk, different, older versions of the same file could be retrieved. This would come in handy if one modifies a file and later thinks better of it.

Even with the convenience of this local backup, it was still important to maintain an off-site backup. If one has an upload bandwidth of better than 1 Mbit/s, there are several choices to do this automatically in the “cloud.” The three I examined were Carbonite, Mozy, and Backblaze. All provide roughly the same functionality: unlimited backup for a monthly fee of about $5 for each computer. All allowed encryption for privacy.  I ended up choosing Backblaze primarily because it allowed backup of cross mounted (not network attached) disks.

Unfortunately, this fall I had an opportunity to test the efficacy of this backup strategy. My wife and I returned home one evening to discover that our house had been broken into. Among other items, my iMac was stolen. I was relieved that I was backed up on line so that no data were lost.  However, closer examination showed that the thieves had left (through more  oversight than kindness) the external hard disk I had used for back.

After we were certain that we would be reimbursed from the insurance company, we purchased a new iMac. The question was how to perform the recovery. The old iMac was running OS-X 10.5 (Leopard), while the newly purchased one came with OS-X 10.6 (Snow Leopard). How would Time Machine deal with the recovery?

The people at the Apple Store told me that the retrieval process would not write over newer files, so by inference the newer operating system would not be overwritten in the recovery process. It was worth a try. After all I could always rebuild the new system.

I attached the USB backup drive to the new iMac. At the initial bootup, I responded to a few questions and the system asked if I wanted to recover data from a Time Machine backup. I clicked “yes” after a few moments the computer informed me that the recovery would take 48 minutes. I went to eat dinner.

When I returned and logged in, I had my old system: the same applications and the same settings, even the same wallpaper. Indeed it was so identical that I suspected that the old 10.5 version of the operating system had been over installed. However, the “About the Mac” menu item confirmed that the newer 10.6 operating system was installed. This was further confirmed by the fact that I had to upgrade a few minor applications to run on the new OS. In sum, I could not have had a better recovery experience from “Time Machine.”

I mention here an interesting side note. I checked with Backblaze and the last auto update had occurred at 5:30 pm on the day the computer was stolen. Hence, the robbery had occurred between that time and the time we arrived home a 9:00 pm.

Since the incident I have looked more carefully at the whole concept of  Digital Asset Management (DAM). The general strategy for long-term backups is referred to as the 3-2-1 rule:

“To be fully protected, you should have three copies of any file (that’s three different devices, not three copies on the same device), two different media types (like hard drive and DVD, for instance), and one should be stored off-site. If you can adhere to this rule, your images will be extremely well-protected.”

I guess my strategy does not quite meet this high standard. There are three copies: my hard disc, my external hard disk, and my off-site storage. However, I am not really using two different types of media. All the data are stored on hard disks – though I do print out some small subset of images. Except for that asteroid or electromagnetic pulse from nuclear blast, it is hard to imagine what situation could wipe out all these disks at the same time. In that event, recovery my photos might fall to a lower priority.

Government Annuities?

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

For many people, 401(k) or 403(b) savings form a key component of their retirement plans. When these plans were first instituted in the early 1980s, few people anticipated how important these programs would become in many people’s portfolios. Perhaps most importantly, such savings free individuals from dependence on their companies for retirement benefits. These accounts, in most cases, allow individuals to choose investments that would provide growth and income irrespective of the long-term prospects of their companies. The holdings in reasonably diversified 401(k) plans would not be significantly affected by the fortunes of any few companies.

During retirement, individuals have many choices with respect to what to do with their retirement account accumulations. They could maintain their own investments and withdrawal a portion every year to live upon. The advantages of such an approach are that individuals have control over their investments and that when they pass on they can leave some money to their heirs. The disadvantage is that people can make unwise investment decisions or they can simply outlive their resources. To mitigate this possibility, some people purchase annuities. For a fixed investment, an insurance company agrees to pay a person pension for a fixed period of for life (and sometimes the life of the spouse). The insurance company assumes the risk of longevity. If an individual retiree dies earlier than expected, the insurance company makes money. A long-lived retiree may cost the insurance company money. In essence, the risk of longevity is shared.

Apparently, the Federal government is looking at encouraging people to move more to the annuity option. The government may be reasonably concerned about encouraging rational evaluations of risk and the informing the choices about retirement options. The government could deal with this by making investment tools and advice available to aid in retirement decisions.

However, some people are concerned that the government is looking enviously on all the assets accumulated in retirement accounts. It is possible for the government to offer annuities at actuarially unsound rates to obtain current funds in exchange for government-backed promises of future income. The House Education and Labor Committee is focusing on ways of directing 401(k) funds into Treasury bonds. Indeed, the goal seems to be melding 401(k) resources into a Social Security like system – first as a voluntary choice, and perhaps later as a requirement. In the open market, Treasury bonds are priced at their market value. A government promise for future incomes in a government social program, need not be priced appropriately. The underfunding of Social Security demonstrates this.

Whether bailing out banks, car companies, or individuals,  the government exercises much of its power by transferring funds from people who make responsible decisions to those who make unwise ones. Those frugal enough to have forgone current income to save in 401(k) plans now are conspicuous targets. I suspect that people have such a proprietary view of the money they have saved, that any attempt by government to unfairly seize these funds (regardless of any promised benefits) will doom any politician that suggested it. People feel strongly about what they consider the Social Security they “earned.” How much more protective of will they be of funds they more directly earned?

Iraq Victory Has a Thousand Fathers

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

On January 10, 2007, then Senator Barack Obama expressed his opposition about a US troop surge in Iraq to create a security window within which the Iraqis could begin secure their own country, `’I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.”  This was not an off-the-cuff analysis offered without serious consideration.. Four days later, Obama he explained:

“We cannot impose a military solution on what has effectively become a civil war. And until we acknowledge that reality — we can send 15,000 more troops, 20,000 more troops, 30,000 more troops, I don’t know any expert on the region or any military officer that I’ve spoken to privately that believes that that is going to make a substantial difference on the situation on the ground.”

That same month, 86 Americans and 1800 Iraqis were being killed in Iraq. The surge was not in place until the summer of a 2007, and by that time nearly 2,000 Iraqis and 100 Americans were loosing their lives each month. But Obama was certain “…that the surge has not worked and we will not see a different report eight weeks from now.”

By the time President George Bush left office, American service deaths were down to 16 per month, many of these were non-combat related. Perhaps more impressively, Iraqi civilian casualties were reduced by more than an order-of-magnitude. The situation had turned so dramatically, that the Bush Administration and the Iraqi government signed the Status of Forces Agreement, whereby American forces would leave Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and US forces would be completely out of Iraq by December 31, 2011.

Reluctant to give the Bush Administration credit for its judgment but required by events to concede the improvement in Iraq in late 2008, Barack grudgingly offered that, “I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated — by the way, including President Bush and the other supporters. It has gone very well.” May all presidents be praised with the assessment that their policies were more successful than even they expected.

However, this last week came the final turn around when Vice-President Joe Biden claimed credit for the success in Iraq when he said,

“I’m very optimistic about — about Iraq, and this can be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the, uh, end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.”

This was particularly amusing coming from Joe Biden’s mouth (an orifice through which many odd words have passed). Biden’s solution had been to divide Iraq into three. As President John Kennedy famously quipped,“Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” Biden’s proud assertion of achievment put Iraq in the category of victory, when everyone claims credit for it. When things go badly like the economy, it was Bush’s fault. When things go well its the Obama Administration that succeeded.

Even after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the Left refused to acknowledge that President Ronald Reagan’s policies were part of the cause of that victory. Despite, what the Left was saying in the 1980s, we are now told that the Soviet Union was ready to collapse of its own weight and Reagan was just fortunate to be president at the time. Whatever Reagan’s  policies their effect was imposed over a decade so any  cause and effect are more difficult to link. In the case of Iraq, violence was growing so rapidly in 2007 and was quelled so quickly after the surge that therelationship between the surge and the improvement in Iraq is impossible to deny. While the surge may not have been a sufficient condition for the improvement in Iraq, it was certainly a necessary one.