May 10th, 2012

default, pepper

Data excavating

I’ve been flailing around—just mentally—for something short to write, so I’m not just beating on the novel all the time. I started a bit of a romance story not too long ago but stalled on it. (After I’d stalled I came across a similarly-premised serial by Alice Dryden—uptight “square” and hippie girl Meet Cute. My Sterling and Mahri aren’t, at least, very similar to Alice’s Roger and Peace.) So, I decided to dig into the archives. I have archives that go back a fairly long way, which leads to some interesting dilemmas around file formats. My oldest (surviving) files were written in either WordStar or Nota Bene. You haven’t heard of Nota Bene? Well, it was—and still is—a variant on XyWrite. Oh, you haven’t heard of that, either. No matter. As it turns out, the Nota Bene files are easier to deal with, for reasons I’ll come back to in a second.

Some people still maintain that WordStar—two decades after its last version shipped—remains the best word processor for writers. One of WordStar’s drawbacks, though, is that it uses a weirdo proprietary file format. Fortunately, there’s VDE, a remarkable DOS editor that, in some ways, is the closest to a “modern” WordStar that one can get.

XyWrite/Nota Bene files, though, are just plain text with markup:


Watts Martin
    Bacon ipsum dolor sit amet frankfurter in ham aute ullamco, ut
laborum. «MDUL»Voluptate«MDNM» drumstick id cow dolore, nisi do fugiat
pork loin. Turducken velit dolore dolore deserunt, sed irure cillum
quis fugiat nostrud culpa beef ball tip exercitation. Strip steak duis
shoulder, et eiusmod enim laboris tempor short ribs nulla cillum
sausage. In meatball magna corned beef in, fugiat occaecat duis salami
pig nisi veniam short loin tail. Deserunt ex nisi ball tip cillum
jerky. Aliquip adipisicing kielbasa jowl, nostrud do occaecat ut labore 
strip steak qui.

The « » marks denote HTML-like commands. Of course, XyWrite predates Unicode, and so those guillemets use the DOS character set; instead of «FC» I see ÆFCØ in BBEdit. Oops. Even so, it proved pretty easy to write a minimalist Markdown converter with a BBEdit text factory.

This is a roundabout way of explaining why three nerdy things are Very Important to you if you’re a writer in this day and age.

Keep all non-ephemeral documents. Ephemeral documents are on the level of “pick up milk next week.” Everything else may be important, and text documents don’t take up much space. When you switch computers, zip up your document folder, give the zip file a name you’ll recognize when you see it ten years from now, and make sure the zip file is part of your backup strategy. Oh:

Have a backup strategy. You can get 500G external drives for under $90 at this point, and if you’re only interested in just backing up your documents, you can get a 16G USB flash drive for $12. My uncompressed documents folder, with nearly 14,000 items in it, is only 1.6G.

Future-proof your documents. This is the one that most of us, even us relatively nerdy types, don’t think about as much as we should. Admittedly, today that’s easier than it was in the weird old days: it’s unlikely Microsoft is going to go away any time soon, so Word seems pretty safe as a document format, right? Everything reads and writes Word format!

Except which Word format? You’d be surprised how many modern programs get glitchy when you throw them a Word 97 document rather than a Word 2007 document. When you want to open those Word 2007 documents in 2020, There Will Be Bugs—maybe even if you’re opening them in Word 2020.

Personally, I’d recommend just two file formats: one, of course, is plain text with simple markup, which is why I’m writing so much in Markdown these days. Two decades from now, those documents will still be readable and understandable in anything that can open Unicode text. The other is RTF. RTF is Word format, but expressed as—yes—plain text with markup. Arcane markup, but still markup. If those Word 97 files I still have had been saved as RTF, I could read them glitch-free now in any RTF-supporting editor.

(Since someone else will bring it up eventually if I don’t mention it, there’s also OpenOffice, which does indeed have a fully open standard and thus should theoretically be readable in perpetuity. But the OpenOffice document format is really complex compared to RTF or, of course, Markdown.)

So—did I find anything in the archives to work on? Maybe. I’d been looking for an abandoned story called “Indigo Rain,” either to see if I can resuscitate it or—more likely—to scavenge the characters from it I liked into a new piece. I’ll put it all together and read it over lunch, and see what happens.

(Originally published at Coyote Prints)