Plain Text and Sustainability – Crypto-madness can't touch me

In a previous post I linked to an article at programming historian called “Sustainable Authorship in Plain Text using Pandoc and Markdown”, written by a couple of historians trying to encourage their colleagues to move away from bloated, proprietary word processing tools and towards plain text work flows.

When they say sustainability in that piece, what they are talking about is the preservation of the work itself:

Plain text both ensures transparency and answers the standards of long-term preservation. MS Word may go the way of Word Perfect in the future, but plain text will always remain easy to read, catalog, mine, and transform... Plain text is backwards compatible and future-proof. Whatever software or hardware comes along next, it will be able to understand your plain text files.

This is all true! Plain text is a more durable and versatile standard. If you write in plain text formatted with Markdown, you can easily convert it into other formats whenever you like.

But because it is so lightweight, it is more sustainable in other senses.

Let me offer an example of something that is completely unsustainable in order to illustrate the point.

There is a new cryptocurrency, Chia, which works slightly differently from others in the way that new “coins” are created and distributed.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies which have followed in its footsteps encourage “miners” to lavish increasing amounts of processor power on the task of verifying transactions and generating a proof of work that may mean they receive some new Bitcoin.

The hunger for tokens has been one factor in a global shortage of GPU processors, and has led to some rationing and artificial throttling of these components on the part of manufacturers, and widespread scalping on sites like eBay.

This mining process also demands enormous amounts of electricity.

Chia does not demand raw processing power in the way that coins running on the Bitcoin paradigm do.

Instead, it wastes storage. An article today in Tom's Hardware explains:

Chia coin ditches the Proof of Work algorithm for securing the blockchain and instead implements Proof of Space... Rather than mining coins by dedicating large amounts of processing power to the task, Chia simply requires storage plots — but these plots need to be filled with the correct data.

The analogies with real-world farming are intentional. First you need to clear a field (i.e., delete any files on your storage devices that are taking up space), then you plough and seed the field (compute a plot for Chia), and then… well, you wait for the crops to grow, which can take quite a long time when those crops are Chia blocks.

Your chances of solving a Chia coin block are basically equal to your portion of the total network space (netspace)... [If] you dedicate a complete 10TB (10 trillion bytes) of storage to Chia plots, your odds of winning are 0.00035%, or 0.0000035 if we drop the percentage part.

So the more storage you can gobble up and devote to this, the more chance you have of netting cryptocurrency.

This is mad, but in keeping with a lot of the other madness surrounding us.

This is already leading to a surge in demand for storage in some places, some of it speculative.

Eventually, it may well lead to widespread price rises and shortages. It may also affect the price and availability of cloud storage, as Chia miners snap up as much as they can. This will all be accelerated if Chia becomes more valuable over time.

What does this have to do with a plain text workflow? Well, for me, it means that none of this will affect me personally. Yes, it makes me steamed that people on a dying planet are finding new ways to waste scarce resources. But it is not going to stop me working.

As I said last time, I have been writing in plain text for a long time, and have actually converted some older stuff into plain text because of the advantages of doing so.

The archive of my entire life's work – notes, multiple drafts of articles, all of my reporting files – takes up only around 3 MB. I can, and do, store this in encrypted form on thumb drives, with one on my person, and others in offsite locations.

My working folder, which also contains videos, PDFs, data and images related to current and recent work, is currently 150-ish MB on my synced machines, and on another thumb drive on my keyring.

I try to clear this out regularly and either delete stuff or commit it to long-term storage. Also, in long-term storage, are the various data-sources that have come to me from sources, leaks, etc, which I like to be able to refer to at all times. Also, there are some selected photos taken over the years.

All of this – collected over years – adds up to a little over 1TB. I have one copy on an encrypted 8TB HDD on my desk, which I add to as I go. I copy this daily to a light, external 2TB SSD. At least once a week then copy that onto another 4TB HDD which I keep off site.

I no longer rely on cloud storage from other companies. I just don't trust it for a variety of reasons.

This takes a little thought and work, but mostly at the beginning, when you are figuring out how to organize your files. You could make it even easier with applications like syncthing, I guess, but fewer moving parts seem better to me.

The whole system runs on a 5 year old laptop, a five year old NUC. Processor shortages are irrelevant. If one of the machines fail I will buy another used, relatively low-spec computer, and I will be fine.

Similarly, spinning disk hard drives can fail, but not often in conditions where they're treated kindly. If one did, I'd be covered, and refurbished 4TB external HDDs can be had for less than $100.

The data at the core of my current workflow is backed up in many, many places, it very little cost, because it doesn't take up much space. It's not vulnerable to any surge in demand for manufactured components. I work on it using old machines I either bought used, or received as hand me downs. All the tools I need are embedded in a free and open source operating system that is kind to old hardware.

As long as there are used computers, open source developers, and electricity, it will be sustainable. I have to pay for two of those things, and I am happy to make a similar contribution to open source projects I value, to ensure that they are sustainable, too.