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Hardcopy backups of digital data

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In one sentence

Archive a digital document as a hardcopy book that can then be turned back into the original document.

High level picture

There are only two parts to this project:

  • Writing the original document or book from a digital document

  • Reading the book back in

Writing is non-trivial, but there is a clear path to a good solution for that.

But I really don’t have any solid solution yet to reading, short of someone scanning each QR code individually.

Of course, that is a reasonable solution if you care about the data and don’t mind paying someone to take the time.

The book format is EPUB

The output format will be EPUB, - the only choice for an open-source book format, full-featured and universally accepted.

I’m using a Python library called EBookLib for this - I haven’t looked into it thoroughly yet, but it seems well-received and there is no other candidate in Python.

Update: EBookLib is fairly gnarly, but the underlying format is just XHTML, so I’m having reasonable success getting output.

The data format within the book is QR code

QR codes will be used to store the data in 1k blocks - again, QR is the only reasonable choice for solving the problem of printable data.

A Python library called segno can write each one as a tiny PNG file about 2K in size. This is quite reasonable - it means that we can aim to create a book document that’s less than three times the size of the original digital document. (Interestingly enough, SVG files were an order of magnitude larger - in some cases over one hundred times larger!)

We’ll be using QR code format 36, which holds up to 1,051 bytes at the highest error correction code level, ‘H’.

The official list of all the QR code formats, is poorly organized - click on 31-40 and then scroll down.

I’m going to use that to hold 1024 bytes of target data with an index and a hash of the original document, totalling 1,048 bytes. (The extra 3 bytes aren’t entirely wasted - we get a tiny bit better error correction.)

Data layout

The binary data is divided into 1K chunks. A chunk is written to a QR code as part of a block, which also contains an index and a hash of the original documet.

The layout in bytes within the block is by default like this:

| index [8] | document[8] | chunk [up to 1024] |

but you can customize all these sizes.

There’s no checksum or error correction for this block itself, as the QR code is already taking care of that for us.

hash is the first 16 bytes of the 32-byte SHA256 hash of the entire document. data is one kilobyte from your target file.

index is an 8-byte signed integer - a number that can be positive, negative or zero, and that fits into 8 bytes (or equivalently 16 hex digits).

If the index is zero or negative, then it is a metadata block.

The block with index zero always contains a JSON description of the original file with the fields filename, timestamp, size and sha256. If the original filename is too long (which would be about 900 characters or so!), it is truncated from the left.

Blocks with negative indexs are currently unspecified and reserved for future expansion or individuals to use. The first version of the software will only produce output with non-negative indexs.

If index is positive, it’s the index of a data block. This means that the first data block has index 1.

Eight bytes allows us to generate 2 to the power of 63 blocks of 1K each, or about 9 zetabytes (which is 9,000,000,000,000 gigabytes) - roughly the entire size of all the world’s data in 2019.

Within a block, index is is represented in big-endian (or intuitive or network order) - which means the most significant digits occur first.

Intel processors are little-ended, where the least significant digits come first, so we use the struct library to make sure that the output is system-independent.

Remembering that one byte is equal to two hex digits, if the hash of a full document is 56484fd9aad8e87540609ca6c938f98fab60296b3bec808ea8b3e24da2035ce9 then the resulting sequence of QR codes would look like:

0000000000000000 56484fd9aad8e87540609ca6c938f98f {"filename": "me.jpg", ...
0000000000000001 56484fd9aad8e87540609ca6c938f98f ... 1024 bytes ...
0000000000000002 56484fd9aad8e87540609ca6c938f98f ... more data  ...
... etc

This means that each QR code identifies itself as to what part of the whole document it is.

It also means that the metadata block is key to understanding how the whole system works! If you have a metadata block, then you can reconstruct at least part of the data even if a lot of it is lost. Otherwise, you really have to guess.

So we’re going to have to intersperse the metadata block within all the other blocks periodically if we really want something that can be partially reconstructed!

Update - this is done: the metadata blocks appear in varying locations on each page so even a hole were punched through the book, some copy of the metadata would probably survive.

Also, “raw” formats like RAW and AIFF are much preferable for this sort of archival activity because compressed formats dramatically magnify the effect of any errors or gaps. If you had a book containing the digital data for an AIFF or RAW, you could still reconstruct pieces of it even if you only have a limited number of pages, whereas you might get nothing at all if you were using mp3 or jpg files.

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