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Andrew Kantor, USA TODAY
Friday May 20, 2005

Arlington National Cemetery is in the midst of a $15 million technology makeover. And it needs the help. The cemetery's records are still, for the most part, on paper (and, obviously, in stone).

If you go to Arlington and ask at the visitors' center where a particular person is buried, the good folks there might have to check four or five separate filing cabinets to pull up the information you want. With the exception of some of the most recent "internees," it's all on paper - and that includes typos, scribbled notes, misspelled names, information in the wrong spaces, and so on.

It's a record-keeping mess. It's also working pretty well for a place with 238,000+ graves and more than 4 million visitors a year.

But still - paper records?

When it's finished, the upgrade will give Arlington a geographic information system (GIS, essentially an electronic, interactive map of the grounds and the infrastructure), and will have all that data stored electronically and Web accessible.

Visitors, either in person or online, will be able to look up any person buried there, pull up all sorts of information about him, view his headstone, and if they're in Arlington, print out a map and directions to the gravesite.

A small company in Roanoke, Va., Interactive Design, is leading the process. It's combining Arlington's three main databases (grave records, burial records, and the headstones themselves), photographing every headstone to add to the new database, even working with a mapping firm to take a one-gigapixel (!) aerial photo and convert it into that GIS to aid the cemetery's planning and management.

When I spoke to Bill Hume, president of Interactive Design, I asked him straight out: "You mean if there's a flood or fire…?"

"It's all gone," he said.

Wow.

Now skip a few hours north to my Dad's house in Queens.

'Death from above'

My brother Don stored a bunch of old LPs and magazines in the basement there. He thought ahead and made sure they were kept well above the floor, in case Dad had a flood.

What he didn't count on was a small pipe bursting on the first floor, making it literally rain in the basement; water was pouring from the ceiling. The records were fine (they're plastic, after all), but the covers were ruined.

"I thought I was being smart," Don told me. "I never counted on death from above."

Don's plight illustrates two things: First, that damage to your stuff is likely to come from someplace you don't expect; and second, that there's a vast difference between an object's data value and it's physical value.

Those albums still played, so their musical value is unaffected. But Don didn't save them for the music, he saved them for the record and the cover - the package. They were ruined.

Back in Arlington, you can see why bringing the cemetery into the digital age is so important. Although a burst pipe isn't likely to happen, there's always something waiting. Those death and grave records are priceless. And right now their data value is tied to their physical value.

In my brother's case, the data value was maintained even though the (greater) physical value was washed away. At Arlington, they're coupled. Lose one and you lose the other.

Which is one of the great things about the digital revolution. It has allowed us to separate something's data value from the physical media, making it easy to protect some things simply by making more copies.

Take digital photos. If you print out a shot of granny for your desk and it's destroyed, no big deal; you print another. The physical value is close to zero - 29 cents will get you another copy at the local supermarket.

So we don't need to protect our digitized physical objects the way we had to protect things like paper burial records and album covers. We can make identical copies - lots of them, if we like.

You can bet that after its upgrade, Arlington's data won't be on a single server or single set of backup tapes. There will be multiple copies in multiple places.

Safety in numbers

Thinking about Arlington and about my brother got me nervous because I have hundreds of digital photos of my two year old. I figured I was smart; they're backed up onto a slick Seagate external hard drive, and onto CD-ROMs.

I used WinZip to compress my pictures to save space and use fewer disks. (I save my images as TIFF files instead of JPEG. TIFF are much bigger, but JPEG uses "lossy" compression, meaning the image is degraded imperceptibly each time you save it, and I'm a perfectionist.)

Still, I remembered my own advice: that the best long-term media for photos is paper. Printouts.

CDs and DVDs, the media of choice for backup, might only last a few years, especially the cheaper disks. (And cheaper disks don't just mean store-brand stuff. Even many big names put out low-quality blank media.) But paper, as anyone whose looked through grandpa's photo album from the 1930s knows, lasts a long time.

So I went to collect all my photos and prep them for printing.

And that's when I discovered that a bunch of those Zip files were corrupt. And all my copies were of the corrupt WinZip files.

A frantic search revealed that in a moment of true intelligence, I had made a backup disk without using WinZip. I had my files back. I quickly made non-Zipped copies.

I don't know whether to blame WinZip or the Zip format, but that was another lesson: Not only can media go bad, but files themselves can be corrupted. Death from above, behind, and any side.

The prints were looking more important.

Someday my prints will come

I decided to use an online photo service, and settled on Shutterfly after reading some great reviews and after fighting for two hours with Sony's ImageStation (hint: don't waste your time). After some cropping and touch-up work, I uploaded 146 JPEGs and ordered 4x6 prints of every one.

Shutterfly has lots of freebies and coupons available, so I ended up with 15 of those prints free (the rest were 24 cents each), a free 11x14 print, and a free photo greeting card. Final cost: about $46.

Cheap, for the peace of mind.

(Another nice feature: Shutterfly prints the file name on the back of each print. Very useful if you want a copy, or if you're like me and incorporate the date in the file name.)

But printing was only one part of my multi-pronged backup plan. I also decided to do a proper archive of all my photos, which meant putting the uncompressed TIFFs onto the best CD-R media I could get.

And that, according to just about every source I could find, is made by MAM-A (formerly Mitsui). Good second choices would have been Taiyo Yuden and Verbatim DataLife Plus; check out my previous column for the reasons why.

MAM-A gold blank CDs cost a little more than a buck apiece, so I won't be using them for everyday stuff. But a few dollars to preserve those photos for my lifetime? Absolutely.

When the photos arrive, they'll end up pasted with acid-free glue onto archival paper, put into polypropylene photo-safe holders, and stored out of the sunlight. Sounds fancy, I know, but it's really not. All that stuff is available at Staples for just about nothing, or you can go to a photo-specialty store and spend the big bucks.

Will I be completely safe? No. But with copies of those MAM-A CDs in a few places, plus the hard drive backups, plus the copies stored on Shutterfly, I'm pretty well covered.

Most importantly, I'll have the printed copies. If paper worked for Arlington National Cemetery for so long, I think it'll work for me.

Andrew Kantor is a technology writer, pundit, and know-it-all who covers technology for the Roanoke Times. He's also a former editor for PC Magazine and Internet World. Read more of his work at kantor.com. His column appears Fridays on USATODAY.com.

Posted: 23 May 2005