Last Week on My Mac: No thanks for the memories

Last November, my dad died. It wasn’t unexpected or in any sense premature: he was 91, had suffered from severe dementia for some years, and had been living in a care home for the last three of those. What has surprised me since is the amazing collection of records, other papers and photos which he has left us. There are memorabilia of my mum, who died over twenty years ago, and of her dad, who died in submarine operations in the Mediterranean in 1942, twelve years before I was born.

It set me wondering what my children, grandchildren, and their descendants will be able to salvage from all my records. Like many parents, I’ve got old Christmas letters, many photos of us as a family, and enough material for a multi-volume collection of personal papers. Those from before about 1990 are in piles of papers which they can have the pleasure of sorting through, but most since then are in a warren of folders on my Mac.

Every so often I have had a sudden burst of enthusiasm for making archives. The last time that happened I burned lots to DVD-R – you can tell how long ago that must have been – and gave them to my dad for safe keeping. Those DVDs have also now returned, and prompted me to think whether it’s time to create a fresh set of archives. Maybe the current pandemic and inevitable thoughts of mortality are prompts.

Not only is archiving a lot of work, but it’s one thing that the Mac doesn’t make easy. Although I welcomed Apple’s decision to drop optical drives from some models, Macs have never been offered with Blu-ray drives, nor have they had anything more than token support for the use of third-party drives. Yes, you can burn BD-R disks, but I can’t find any way of creating a UDF master using Disk Utility. It looks like the only way without using third-party software is to immerse yourself in the likes of hdiutil. If you think that’s straightforward, try reading its man page.

Nothing else has come along to offer high-capacity archival storage since, unless you’re prepared to buy into the seriously pro end of the market, from upwards of $/€/£ 4000. The end result is that even if you decide that you do want to take archiving seriously, using a Mac puts you at an immediate disadvantage.

Apple’s motives have also been highly questionable, to say the least. When CD-R came out, it was among the leaders in its introduction, and quickly added support for CD-audio. That was long before Apple discovered how profitable it was selling music tracks in the iTunes Store. Then came DVD support, before it was feasible to stream movies of equivalent quality.

For some strange reason, iTunes retained support for ‘ripping’ your own CDs, and DVD Player even let you watch movies on disk. But by the time that Blu-ray and HD-DVD were locked in battle, it was all too easy to step aside from whatever the user might have wanted and offer them HD movies to rent or buy. With that, Mac users became almost locked out of archival storage.

It’s only appropriate that, when I look for Apple Support articles about archiving, they all seem to tell me to archive to iCloud, or archive from iCloud to my Mac. Once on my Mac, apart from backing up, Apple doesn’t have any further suggestions. What you’re supposed to do with all your archival material is clearly the user’s problem.

I understand that, because of its glorious past, Apple is about the future. But just now we need our past, with the future looking so uncertain. As Siri Hustvedt wrote in The Summer Without Men, “There is no future without a past, because what is to be cannot be imagined except as a form of repetition.”

If you don’t believe me, here are some highly relevant starting points in Wikipedia:

The most relevant quotation of all is from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So, Apple, how about a little help with the archiving?