What's wrong with paper?

Sometimes people demand a web application when a piece of paper would do just as well. People have thought I was out of my mind when I suggested a task could be done on paper at 1% of the cost of developing a custom web application. I guess paper is just vulgar.

A typical web application involves three machines (client, web server, database server) and at least five programming languages (HTML, CSS, JavaScript, SQL, and some business logic language such as C# or Java). That’s a lot of complexity and a lot of possible points of failure. The complexity is often justified for large projects, but sometimes for small projects it’s just not. Sometimes paper is simpler and more robust.

8 thoughts on “What's wrong with paper?

  1. Plus paper crashes a lot less often and is practically guaranteed to be able to outlast any digital technology we have today. We can still read manuscripts from hundreds of years ago but just try to find a punch card reader (I tried about 10 years ago and found one in a technology museum and one privately owned and that was all!). Punch cards at least can be read by humans, but what about those giant > 5.25″ floppies? Even if you found a reader, the medium is probably toast. The first CDs went bad as the aluminum reflectors cracked and buckled. Even magnetic tape, probably the most stable, is only good for 25 years in ideal storage conditions. And if you manage to read your old media, will you be able to use the data stored on it? Can you make sense of the format and encoding? Even if you manage that, will the data still be meaningful — i.e. will you know which records mean what?

    I heard a story long ago, possibly an urban legend, but quite believable, about the Challenger disaster. The story goes that right after the disaster a bunch of soldiers with loaded rifles took over the control room and confiscated all the data tapes. I’m guessing this was for national security purposes — it was a high profile flight and no one knew exactly what had happened.

    So the part of the government with the tapes got what they needed from them and put them in nicely labeled cardboard boxes and put the boxes in a warehouse. Time passed, and the boxes were degrading, so the folks in charge of the tapes put them in new boxes — but lost all the specifics of the lables on the original boxes.

    So now all those tapes are just about useless — even if they can be read there is no information as to what data is recorded on them, how it is encoded, or anything. A tape may have data from a flight control, an astronaut’s blood pressure, who knows?

    By the way, when using paper don’t disregard the humble pencil — pencil marks do not fade with time and they do not run if the paper gets wet — I did some field geology in the rain and pencils were a must. Plus, pencils don’t dry up, don’t clog, and don’t get stuck like ink pens, and they can be sharpened in the field very simply.

    Paper and pencil are also invulnerable to many web-based attacks 🙂

    On the other hand, it is not nearly as impressive as a full blown web site, and some researchers I’ve worked with want all the prestige they can get.

    I wonder when someone is going to request a web-based 3+3 trial conduct site 😀

  2. As for tape backups, I’ve heard there’s about a 50-50 chance of recovering data from a tape backup. I think that has more to do with human error than media failure. People don’t test their backups and only find out later that they weren’t backing up what they thought they were backing up.

  3. We are putting on an addition and I am going to do all the contracting. I got a building permit from the town hall. To get the permit I had to do a couple of scale drawings of my plans. I tried to use a couple of drawing programs, but (even as a computer programmer) I lacked the necessary skills. I ended up using graph paper…

  4. Somebody once told me that a true computer programmer would spend three days automating a task which could be done as a once-off simply in about 5 minutes. However, a few days ago I had a meeting for which the “papers” (distributed electronically) cane to 596 pages. No printouts here! I agree whole-heartedly with John Venier’s comments. Sometimes simplicity is a great virtue.

  5. Regarding backup, my experience is that the mean time between failure (MTBF) for backup systems is similar to the MTBF of the system that needs backup, hence there is 50% chance your backup system died before the system you backup.

  6. If I have at least semi-clear idea about the information and it can be represtented in plain text without much hassle, then rst in git repo is my choice hands down.

    Otherwise pencil and paper is great for clearing that idea out.

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