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Just Solve the Problem 2012: High-Level Stuff —

As Just Solve The File Format Problem Month bears down on us, I thought I’d get this show on the road with more high-level discussion of the idea. It makes sense to read the first posting on this, as well as having you be aware a posting after this one will be much more detail-oriented. Because, after all, I’m obviously attracting people who are details-oriented.

Reaction to the announcement of this project and this general “solve the problem” idea has been rather massive, to say the least. Accolades, essays, and tweets (not to mention e-mails) have poured in from a wide spectrum of folks, taking heart and inspiration from what I was addressing. So, thank you to all of that.

A small sliver of folks thought I was proposing that one month out of every year was “Solve the File Format Problem Month”. No. I was saying that we should have some project that just needs a lot of bodies that a lot of people agree would be nice for the world if it had all those bodies. And then work on that for a month. That would be “Just Solve the Problem Month”, November of each year. And that the first year, this one, was “The File Format Problem”.

I’d love it if later years did other projects of a general nature, like “Let’s Destroy this Idiot Software Patent Situation Month” or “Let’s Track Down 100,000 Orphaned Works to Free Them Month”. But first things first.

Also, I don’t think that on November 30th, we immediately shut down everything and issue a .txt file, going “DONE”. I’ll ensure the Wiki related to this project stays up, and people are welcome to keep adding to it, making improvements, and generally continuing the original effort, just with this perceived boost from what I would hope is a lot of people.

In terms of amount of people, I wish it was 1,000 people. One thousand people, spending some significant amount of time on an effort, can do a breathtaking amount of work. That’s a wish, not a plan – I can’t get the word out far enough on my own, and so if people want to raise some hay, please do so.

There’s now a twitter account: @justsolve. The Wiki, running on hardware and bandwidth donated by TQHosting, is up at If IRC is your thing, there’s a #justsolve channel on EFnet.

Finally, before I go work on a more details-rich post, let me address two corrections that come out of the many fine reactions. They are, I believe, two sides of the same coin, so I’ll link them up.

First, there was a lot of commentary from archives people and library people about this work I was doing “for” them. The implication is that this work that was meant for archives people to archive things or for library people to library things, or whatever. But it’s not that way. It’s not that way at all.

The goal, ultimately, is to produce a very large, very comprehensive file format repository and guide… one that is not hung off of some grant or living in the shadow of the flaky politics of an institution. In that shadow, a directory or cataloging must, by dint of its administrators, limit itself to some specific subset of items, say, a list consisting merely of everything one building has come into contact with and nothing else. I want to shed all this political and institutional bullshit I see choke so many uplifting projects like blasting poison into a forest, I want this thing to go high and wide and free. I want people to wince and want to have nothing to do with one format and go hog wild on their personal favorite. I want the question asked to be “why not” instead of “why”. I hold, very strongly, that given enough organizational approach in a Wiki, you can sustain an insane amount of information. That is what I want to do here. So yes, libraries and archives and vintage people and historians and curious onlookers and bored developers will all find a place here, a welcoming place. It is, in fact, for none of them and for all of them. I think this is the critical different that distinguishes this project from so many others.

And that’s the second part, the other half of the coin. I am well aware this is not the first project of this type. Oh, man, could you imagine if this was the very number one time someone tried this? That’d be weird. Trust me, I’ve been collecting these things for years.

I am not interested in forcing people to copy over information already elsewhere on the internet. Instead, I’m looking for an army of people to put together a comprehensive directory and collection of related items that will provide a foundation to enable anyone, be they pro or amateur or tourist of the world of data, to get a footing on just what they’re looking at.

And that’s what’s up. Next: Some details.

Categorised as: Archive Team | computer history

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  1. I think there’s some justifiable confusion because of the way “Just Solve the Problem” has top billing and “file formats” is buried as a subtitle. The wiki URL is “”; does the URL change at some point? Shouldn’t that URL just have a page with an explanation and a link to the File Format Wiki?

    I’m probably jumping the gun re: the details post.

    • Jason Scott says:

      I think a grandiose “VOLUME 1” is not in the cards, so right now, we’re keeping it simple. If it grows, it grows and it’ll likely be a different URL and a whole new structure.