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Technology | The National Archives is planning a super-powered storage system to preserve government documents indefinitely

Issue: "Iraq: Bravo Company's story," Aug. 21, 2004

The National Archives is quietly planning one of history's great technological feats: a super-powered storage system that will preserve government documents indefinitely for access from anywhere in the world.

The agency gave the proposed Electronic Records Archives the daunting mission to "capture electronic information, preserve it forever, and make it accessible at any time, from any place." It is set to be a Rosetta Stone of technology, accepting data in virtually any format and making it accessible to anyone who officials believe has a legal right of access. Lockheed Martin and Harris Corporation are drafting competing designs for the project, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build.

This massive effort is an attempt to solve one of the National Archives' greatest problems: dying technology. As time passes, newer generations of media (from punch cards to 8-inch floppy disks to Zip disks to CD-ROMs) become prominent. As the new format takes precedence, its predecessors are set aside, making old data hard to retrieve. Aging equipment becomes harder to repair and old media tend to develop defects.

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With the Electronic Records Archives, users are supposed to be able to find data accessible for generations to come, regardless of what hardware or software becomes popular.

Another dimension

Sharp Electronics unveiled a new flat-panel display that gives the computer screen a new dimension. This 15-inch display is believed to be the first consumer model in the United States that displays 3-D images without special glasses.

The new display works by splitting light coming from the screen, with different patterns going in different directions. By looking directly at the screen, each eye sees a different image, creating the illusion of depth.

The concept grew out of the medical and scientific lab, where 3-D effects aid research; now it can jazz up computer games and graphic design. The new display, which costs about $1,500, is supposed to work with new software that can generate 3-D images from conventional DVD movies or digital camera snapshots.

The high-tech industry is showing hints that 3-D displays will be more and more commonplace. Nvidia and ATI, the Coke and Pepsi of graphics chip designers, are developing products that support 3-D images. Sony and Sanyo plan to create more 3-D applications, and Toshiba has announced that it is developing its own 3-D display technology.

Bits & Megabytes

  • Hewlett-Packard says it will be the first major PC maker to ship a notebook PC pre-installed with Linux. The laptop, which includes SuSE Linux and the OpenOffice software suite, will sell for an estimated $1,140-about $60 less than a similar model running Windows XP. The release is a test intended to gauge demand for open source products.
  • Germany's Fraunhofer Institute, which helped develop the MP3 format, has developed a next-generation surround-sound system that uses hundreds of tiny speakers to recreate lifelike audio. Instead of simply amplifying sounds, the Iosono system uses an algorithm to send different sounds to each speaker, positioned along a ring around the room. The designers intend the technology for initial use in theaters.
  • Massachusetts' highest court unanimously ruled that state officials could post the names, addresses, and photographs of the most dangerous sex offenders on the internet. Forty-two states currently publish information about sex offenders online, and three other states have legislation pending to do so, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
  • Attorneys general from 45 states sent warnings to the makers of Kazaa, Morpheus, and five other file-sharing programs, demanding that they inform users about the potential legal and security risks associated with peer-to-peer networks. They also urged developers to make better porn filters, but not to add features that hinder law enforcement from identifying alleged pirates. The letters hinted at possible legal consequences if software companies fail to cooperate.

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