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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Writing Wibbles

Hey look, a new follower slipped in at the last minute: Sonya Clark. A couple weeks ago, I got a peek at the first part of her novel in progress, Freak Town. It’s going to be a winner.

Early this week, Tony Noland blogged about his fond memories of OS/2, a highly advanced operating system for its time to be sure. It got me thinking about my own fond memories, of Amiga and the old Tandy laptops, and some of the writing I did on those older systems… much of it now forever lost.

My first instinct was to lament the obsolence of file formats, but that’s not really the problem — most of the files from those days were plain text with a minimum of formatting. Even with a binary file format, it’s not that difficult to recover the text out of a file if it’s not compressed. On OSX, you could drop into the Terminal and use the strings command to clean out the crud; then fix the rest in your favorite editor.

No, the real problem is media. CP/M had a format, Commodore, Tandy, Atari, and some I’ve forgotten each had their own format, incompatible with the others (but in all cases, susceptible to bit-rot). Even in the case of the Tandy 600 laptop, whose 3-1/2" floppies can be read in MS-DOS, who has a floppy drive these days? CD-ROM isn’t exactly permanent either, even assuming the physical format hangs around. With the proliferation of tablets, and pocket computers that happen to make phone calls (I’m typing this on my iPhone), that’s not a given. In a lot of ways, it’s more likely that stories typewritten 30 years ago are more likely to survive than something typed into a personal computer 20 years ago.

So, as writers, what can we do to make our deathless prose really deathless?

The technical answer: nothing, really. The farther back you go in time, the fewer works survive. The vast majority of books in a bookstore are no more than a few years old, with some very popular exceptions. Project Gutenberg has done a wonderful job of locating and digitizing works that have passed into the public domain, but the vast majority of their titles are from the 19th and 20th centuries. Go farther back, and you’re in the realm of the “classics” — exemplary works that survive on merit — but the oldest complete works are around 2500 years old. At around 3800 years of age, the Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest known written works of all, and is only fragmentary.

Perhaps the best we can do is plan for decades, maybe a century or two, and hope that our descendants find our work worth distributing forward from there. We have the Internet for decades, and paper (preferably acid-free) for centuries. As long as eBook stores carry our work, we’re good for the short-term. I don’t worry too much about a new eBook format superseding the current ones — both MOBI and ePub are ZIP archives containing HTML files (with some control files that determine the order, among other things). HTML has been around since 1991, and any browser can display an HTML file written even 20 years ago. Even if HTML is superseded later on, the files are plain text with well-defined markup elements.

While copyright laws allow for longer and longer periods before a work finally passes into the public domain, there’s nothing stopping a copyright owner from abandoning copyright earlier — or releasing the work under a Creative Commons license — and then placing the work on Gutenberg or archive.org, which are intended for the long-haul. If longevity is the goal, copyright may be the enemy.

That’s decades…what about centuries? Our civilization could crash, or our grandkids could just decide the Internet uses too much electricity to maintain and pull the plug. Say what you might about buggy whips, paper and similar media has survived civilization reboots. Keep it away from fire, use acid-free paper so it won’t eat itself, and maybe that story will catch on with future generations. Maybe not likely, but certainly possible.

Which brings me to my own deathless prose. :-P I’m still editing White Pickups, and I’m about halfway through. Not as far as I liked, but at least as good as I hoped. I’m afraid this bad boy is going to break 100,000 words by the time I crack open the Crown Royal (which is waiting for Launch Day) though.


  1. Interesting. I've long thought that for anything I really, really, REALLY wanted to have accessible in future decades, printing it out and putting it in a file cabinet is best. Data density is achieved through small fonts, narrow margins and good quality paper.

    I have an old PC with a floppy drive, which I fired up recently. It was just to get some old stuff from a stack of dusty disks. I'm thinking now that keeping a 3.5" drive in some kind of external, USB-cabled enclosure would be simpler. There's probably a mod out there for that.

    Thought-provoking post, Larry.

  2. You know I've never thought about this really, but your post is thought provoking!

  3. Tony, data density may be a drawback for the long run. OCR gets better, but the less dense the data is, the less gets lost if the media deteriorates. I know there used to be USB enclosures for floppy drives; they probably still exist… for now.

    Thanks Helen!

  4. I would be happy with a couple centuries. :)

    But truthfully I think media is going to become less of a problem than it has been. I mean, people need to be able to put their files in different machines so . . .

    Phones, tablets, computers, the files need to be able to go back and forth between all your devices. Cars, too, probably in the future. or now; cars do have blue tooth and you can listen to music or whatever from your car speakers.


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