ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Just Solving the Problem: A Review —

So, in the summer I suggested the idea of a “Just Solve the Problem” month, the idea of putting together a way for people to assemble and attack an extant, “unsolvable” problem and improve the state of the universe before it burns out. I suggested November, which is a nice, generally dull month. And I suggested the “File Format Problem”, which I had opined was just the sort of “unsolvable, unless endless energy was applied to it” problem that is out there.

It’s now December 1st. We did Just Solve the Problem Month. How did it go?

The short answer is it went very well. Dozens of people contributed, and we built a wiki that references thousands of file formats, and has entries on many hundreds. All of the contributed writing is CC0/Public domain, and Archive Team will be going through the Wiki shortly and deep-downloading all the referenced websites from the Wiki, to ensure these found materials are not lost going forward.

The Just Solve the Problem Wiki is changing URLs, too. The new URL is:

The site will soon become a general one for “Just Solve the Problem”, and will have links over to the fileformats wiki that this first project generated. The fileformats wiki will continue to live on and be added to – the advantage of the project is that the 30 days can be considered the “beta” or “startup” phase and additional changes can be done to the now-living permanent URL and site and continue to grow.

So let’s discuss the positive aspects.

First, we now have the foundation of a file formats reference list that extends out in many aggressive directions, covering a wide spectrum of encapsulated standards for reading information. While of course we’re nowhere near “complete”, this site stands as a non-affiliated, non-censored/constricted collection of information to be used to bring a whole family of older or obscure files into the modern era. It’s a good place to be.

Next, the wiki format means it’ll be possible for people so inclined to continue to contribute to the project – we didn’t just put out some bindered report and call it a day. It’s a living site, just one that is going to have its own impetus for sticking around and not because it’s part of some “event”. I’ll be contributing to it for sure, and I hope others continue to as well.

Just as a general directory, the File Formats wiki has a lot of usefulness. Check out this entry on ATASCII, which is the Atari-specific character set used by Atari Computers for a number of years. Character set images, utilities, videos, and PDFs provide the documentation for someone encountering ATASCII (or beginning to understand what they have in their collection) and will provide all sorts of help for those folks for a long time to come. As we buffer away the linked-to resources and store them, the critical information referenced will have permanence as well. It works out very nicely.

Expanding it out past just some basic file formats was also enjoyable, as people added information about punch cards, photographic film, and Interactive Fiction. Good links going to a lot of places, and it was fun to see what churned out of the effort as time went on.

So yeah, wild success on a number of fronts. The project was announced, the project happened, people contibuted to the project, and a Thing has come of it, a Thing that has a future to be added to and improved over time. That puts it past a lot of “hack event” projects and way past a lot of open source endeavors. A rousing success.

The rest of this entry is me punching people.

Before I punch anybody, though, allow me to punch myself.

The project had a lot more intra-party stress than I had expected, and a lot of weird moments and dark times. I’m going to take some credit for that. I’m a Doer. I make things Go. I am action oriented, and believe that effort expended beats effort discussed. I’m not against planning and preparation – far from it. But even the planning and preparation I do tends to be oriented towards the goal, and not necessarily talking about all the ways that the effort is not worth it or why some aspect of it is less than kosher. This means by some standards, I run roughshod over the feelings of others to get things rolling. This method works very well in Archive Team’s main contexts. It does not necessarily work in all contexts.

It especially didn’t work with a project consisting of the type of flutterbys who would be most deeply attracted to a file format enumeration exercise.

I got a lot of “whys”. Why are we here? Why are we doing this? Why include languages in a file format collection? Why are we doing the hierarchy this way, or that way? Why are we using breadcrumbs versus infoboxes? Why are we locking ourselves down in these terms when we have these other terms? Why? Why? Why?

I should have realized that the people whose daily lives are invaded and owned by rigid structure, would, devoid of that structure, start to implement even more rigid structure themselves. And they would resent being told it was something going on later. I thought the constriction of the types of institutions people work in related to digital preservation was a necessary evil, to be resented and left out until the last minute – for some people, it was a prerequisite for a sane, safe process. So that was a surprise.

Instead of calling this a one-time event, I got ahead of myself and called it a potential first round of a perpetual event. This completely confused some people, possibly terminally. They wondered why I’d chosen THIS problem, when X and Y sort-of-solutions existed for it. And they assumed (in some cases), that file format enumeration would be the annual event, not a one-time event that would be followed by other one-time events.

I say this, and yet some people shone through. If you take the time to browse through the edit history, you start seeing names of people like Dan Tobias and Halftheisland and others – people who contributed hundreds of edits, the tough boring ones that can mean completeness instead of dilettante smatterings of entries. They worked hard on this thing. Bravo, you folks.

Of the 109 people who registered accounts, and remember, you had to mail us and request an account, 50 never did a single edit after getting their account. Boo.

What’s next? I seriously don’t know. I’m going to cool down for a month or two, clean up things on the Wiki with the help of others, and reformat the justsolve page to be general. Right now, my urge to do another one of these is the same to shoot myself in the crotch with a nailgun while standing in a tub of saltwater, but I have worked in a number of things (films, plays, loading firewood) where talking right after things are done sounds like the fall of heaven, but hope and energy reblooms and the return to positive hopes springs eternal. So I’ll get back to you on that.

All in all, an amazing experiment. I learned a lot. The world is a better place. The Problem is a lot more solved than it was 30 days ago. Thanks for participating, everyone.


Categorised as: Archive Team | computer history

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