Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, May 27, 2016

8 inch floppies, trans-atlantic cables, fair use and genealogy

The juxtaposition of several news stories caught my attention. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Pentagon was still using 8 inch floppy disks as storage media for its nuclear defense program. This technology pre-dates even my ancient entry into computers. The details of this travesty are outlined in the GAO Report to Congressional Requesters, May 2016, Information Technology, Federal Agencies Need to Address Aging Legacy Systems. Here is a quote outlining the problem.
Federal legacy IT investments are becoming increasingly obsolete: many use outdated software languages and hardware parts that are unsupported. Agencies reported using several systems that have components that are, in some cases, at least 50 years old. For example, Department of Defense uses 8- inch floppy disks in a legacy system that coordinates the operational functions of the nation’s nuclear forces. In addition, Department of the Treasury uses assembly language code—a computer language initially used in the 1950s and typically tied to the hardware for which it was developed. OMB recently began an initiative to modernize, retire, and replace the federal government’s legacy IT systems. As part of this, OMB drafted guidance requiring agencies to identify, prioritize, and plan to modernize legacy systems. However, until this policy is finalized and fully executed, the government runs the risk of maintaining systems that have outlived their effectiveness. The following table provides examples of legacy systems across the federal government that agencies report are 30 years or older and use obsolete software or hardware, and identifies those that do not have specific plans with time frames to modernize or replace these investments.
These issues directly impact genealogy when you look at the list referred to in the quote. A recent issue in the genealogical community involved and continues to involve the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). You should note that both the Department of the Treasury and the Social Security Administration are on the list of agencies with outmoded computer systems. The problems with the alleged use of the SSDI to avoid taxes may not be a privacy issue at all but rather a symptom of incompetence on the part of both agencies.


Next we have a news article highlighting the fact that Facebook and Microsoft are Laying a Giant Cable Across the Atlantic. The article also points out that Google already has undersea cables that go from the West Coast of the United States to Japan and from the east coast to Brazil. The article states,
Facebook and Microsoft are laying a massive cable across the middle of the Atlantic. 
Dubbed MAREA—Spanish for “tide”—this giant underwater cable will stretch from Virginia to Bilbao, Spain, shuttling digital data across 6,600 kilometers of ocean. Providing up to 160 terabits per second of bandwidth—about 16 million times the bandwidth of your home Internet connection—it will allow the two tech titans to more efficiently move enormous amounts of information between the many computer data centers and network hubs that underpin their popular online services.
Google is already into the cable business as this quote shows.
The project expands the increasingly enormous computer networks now being built by the giants of the Internet as they assume a role traditionally played by telecom companies. Google has invested in two undersea cables that stretch from the West Coast of the United States to Japan, another that connects the US and Brazil, and a network of cables that connect various parts of Asia. Rather than just leasing bandwidth on undersea cables and terrestrial connections operated by telecoms, the likes of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are building their own networking infrastructure both on land and across the seas.
The fact that these large private corporations are making huge investments in information technology highlights the fact that the United States Federal Government has mis-directed much of its bloated budget and is not even attempting to remain competitive with the large companies. 

More about genealogy. The FamilySearch Blog has posted its "What's New on FamilySearch -- May 2016" post for the month. Heading the list of newly released features is the following statement:
Family Tree: Possible System Outages 
We only have a few new features this month because we’re working on significant improvements to FamilySearch. While the improvements are being tested, there may be a few times when the system will not be available. We have scheduled times when few users access the system. We hope you will be as excited about the improvements as we are. You’ll hear more in future editions of What’s New.
We have been experiencing those "outages" for some time now. One of the main issues faced by FamilySearch is the unanticipated growth in the usage of the website. FamilySearch has kept up with the technological changes, but it has the same concerns as the other big online companies in its ability to move information around the world. Its updates are aimed, in part, at the slow down in response of the website due to the demand exceeding the ability to supply information. It is a good problem to have, but only if the entity addresses the issues. Apparently FamilySearch is on the side of the other large online companies and not following the example of the U.S. Government. 

Recently I wrote about the lawsuit brought by the Author's Guild against Google where Google prevailed on the issue of fair use. Well Google just won another huge fair use lawsuit. A news article on is entitled "Google beats Oracle -- Android makes "fair use" of Java APIs." The gist of the story is that Google was being sued by Oracle who was claiming a violation of Oracle-owned copyrights to the Java programming language. The article states.
Following a two-week trial, a federal jury concluded Thursday that Google's Android operating system does not infringe Oracle-owned copyrights because its re-implementation of 37 Java APIs is protected by "fair use." The verdict was reached after three days of deliberations.
This is a landmark decision and, along with the Google Books ruling, strikes a blow for opening information to the world, genealogists included. In contrast to my previous post about the lack of digitization and the inaccessibility of the U.S. National Archives, we can see that there are a few bright spots on the horizon.


  1. If Federal Government agencies have to spend all their cut/sequestered (NOT bloated) IT budgets on maintaining their current systems, and if Congress in its budget-cutting zeal refuses to appropriate funds for modernizing these systems, what are the agencies supposed to do? Pull the plug on their systems entirely?
    If it ain't broke don't fix it. Just because something is "old" doesn't mean that it isn't functioning perfectly well as designed/intended.

  2. As an old person, believe me, if it's old, it's broken!

  3. I have included your blog in Interesting Blogs on Friday Fossicking at

    Thank you, Chris