Back in the days when I was still gadget-crazy — you're looking at a guy who not only had a backup tape drive on an XT-class machine, but a 1x (yes, 1x) external CD-ROM — I would experiment with all manner of stuff, partly because there was a chance that I'd actually use it, and partly because there was a chance that someone might ask me about it, and at the time I took a great deal of pride in being able to answer Any Question Imaginable. Those days are pretty much gone, there being far more imaginable questions than I'd imagined, and budgetary restrictions swept away the last vestige of early-adopter mania.

When I got my first actual burner, which would have been about the time I got a Windows 98-based desktop, I went out and bought half a dozen CD-RW disks from Imation, the company that used to be the data-storage division of 3M. Amusingly, the jewel-box insert made noise about "Compatible Only with High-Speed Drives," which at the time meant something like 4x to 10x. (Do they even bother to quote drive speeds anymore?) And they worked, sort of, once I installed the flaky software to support them; the problem was, they quit working after some unpredictable number of reads and had to be reformatted, losing whatever was stored on them. After a while, I figured it was cheaper simply to experiment with lowly CD-Rs, and any failures with them, I could always use as coasters. The next time I bought a desktop, a Windows XP box, I didn't even bother to install the CD-RW software package.

The CD-R, of course, is subject to rot; I've burned probably three hundred of them in the last 15 years, and about twenty have been rendered unreadable by either chemical changes or outright physical damage. I didn't take those quite as personally, though, and I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it's just the idea that they're disposable: there's not a title in the bunch that I couldn't duplicate from another copy, so nothing is lost other than a few minutes of time, and it's not like I have to sit here and watch the burning process. I am more aggrieved by laser rot, which has befallen a couple of my LaserDisc titles. Then again, many of these discs are twenty years old or more. (My LaserDisc player — yes, of course I have one — dates back to 1990; it's my second one.) And replacements are not always available, the format being deader than Tom Arnold's career.

But I think there's a psychological angle here too. What with actual Compact Discs being sold in stores in those days, billed as "permanent" replacements for fragile old vinyl, a rewritable CD with a lifetime known to be limited seems like a poor substitute for the real thing. Dump the data, play it back, scrape it off, dump more data, play it back, repeat as necessary, and the disc never gives you any opportunity to treat it like a proper archive: trust in data permanence, required of any archive system of any sort, never quite materializes. It didn't help that I'd spent several years in a largish (50,000 units) tape library, working to minimize failures but knowing that I would never be completely successful.

And it goes a step beyond that, perhaps. One of F. Scott Fitzgerald's most often quoted, and arguably least often true, utterances was "There are no second acts in American lives." (Said I in 2010: "I'm up to about Act IV, Scene 2 in mine already.") I have wondered if maybe the constant rewriting of one's history, repeated attempts at remaking one's image, results in a tabula excessively rasa, a slate blanker than one ever imagined. (Anyone heard from Madonna lately?) I'm not entirely sure I'd recognize the person who started assembling this site eighteen years ago, and he sure as hell wouldn't know me; one of the reasons I've stayed at this desk so long is to provide myself with the sense of continuity I didn't have for most of the first part of my life.

I still have two of those CD-RWs. One is blank: it's never been formatted. The other, Windows 7 was happy to erase for me without problems. Maybe I should keep them around, just in case. And even Fitzgerald himself seems to have changed his mind towards the end:

I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days. We were somewhere in North Africa when we heard a dull distant crash which echoed to the farthest wastes of the desert.

If he can adjust — even if it takes a "dull distant crash" — then so can I. So long as I don't have to erase anything.

The Vent

  26 July 2014

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