Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bit rot, file corruption, and obsolete file formats--reality!

All RIIIIIght! You are a Modern Thinker! You are not an old fuddy-duddy Luddite! You are wired up to the minute with all the latest devices!

You've just burned your library and will from now on ONLY get books on your Kindle, Nook, pad, or whatever. All-digital all the way!

Oh, yeah! You just saved some space! Like the turtle who carries her home on her back, you have just made it possible to have many volumes on a wafer-thin, um, wafer. Just as you dumped your vinyl for CDs for the iPod or MP3 player, you've lightened your load.

As long as you don't see that as a "forever" deal, of course.

What do I mean? What kind of nutcase AM I? (That actually remains to be seen. As Sheldon Cooper says, "I'm not insane. My mother had me tested.")

Indulge me for a moment. Let me muse a bit here about the various file formats I have seen sprout, blossom, propagate to be ubiquitous (there are some SAT words for ya!), and then wilt and be swept into the dirt forever. Anyone remember those wonderful 8-1/2 inch floppy disks that we used when I worked at Rockwell Collins (in 1981) to back up all the stuff in the world? No? How about the ubiquitous 5-1/4 floppy that was in EVERY Apple ][ and PC clone . . . for years . . . and the likes of which kept our files and docs safely backed up . . . forever? Then came the shirt-pocket-sized hard-sided Sony 3" diskettes that lasted somewhat longer--the Zip drive--DAT tapes--all formats of tapes, cassette and otherwise . . . vanity, all is vanity.

My husband finally (last month) unearthed my last cache of diskettes with backups from my old BBS and old writing workshops and so forth and dumped them, with me crawling behind and clawing at them the entire time.

"But we don't have any way to READ them any more," he said reasonably as he reached over my head to dump them into the dumpster. "You don't have an extra slot on your PC to hold a floppy controller. No one uses them. Besides, they surely have bit rot, as you last wrote to them in the late 1980s. Have you tried to read one lately? Not that we have a drive anywhere."

I still hated to see them go. FidoNET Echoes 1986! Writers' Workshop 1988 Lectures and Conferences! But . . . any data that I did not get transferred to the latest disk is gone, and possibly was anyhow, because some of the files that I *did* rescue and have not re-read recently are kind of corrupted. I don't even know where you could get a tape drive to read those old Mac backup tapes I had.

Not to worry, as my own output for the most part has followed me from disk to disk to crashed/recovered disk. But what of the many people who have burned their bras, I mean libraries, and gone all-Kindle?

Yes, friends, the Kindle format may be de rigueur today. But how long will that format last?

"Amazon has a backup of all my files in the Cloud and on my Kindle Page," you affirm testily. "Even if I lost this Kindle or it quit working, I would only have to get a new device to recopy all that stuff."

Yes, yes. Simple!

I seem to recall at least one instance in which Amazon pulled books (files) from everyone's Kindles because it suddenly realized it didn't have the rights to sell those books. Amazon's cloud is in constant contact with your Kindle and its library, and could make changes in it without even telling you. If they wanted to change ALL digital copies of the Constitution to read that smoking is prohibited and punishable by a day in the stocks, they could. Right now, there are still copies of the Constitution on paper and parchment, and there are living people who still live and die by its words (such as the Supreme Court, which is supposed to take Constitutional scholarship seriously). But someday there may not be anything but electronic copies, meaning that whoever owns those copies can modify them and then say that's the way it always was. History is changed. Welcome, Big Brother and doublethink.

Okay, you think that's going way wackjob.

Let's return to my scenario of bitrot and magnetic boo-boos. You can have a file backed up in several formats. That doesn't mean that one of the disks won't fail, or that the file on the memory stick won't get corrupted, or that (most likely) there will no longer be any software that supports that format. I find that I have to upgrade my operating system and apps whether I like it or not, regularly, whenever the industry decrees that Windows Whatever and WordStar 3.3 will no longer be supported. That's the way of the world. Eventually, no one will support reading Kindle files or Nook files or whatever. They'll look at you as if you were yelling for VisiCalc or the original Zork trilogy in text. (You might still find those now, but in a few years, perhaps not. The kids growing up today are not fascinated by text adventures.)

Even if you still have a floppy drive and your diskettes work, it won't last forever. We have "rotting formats" as well as physical bit "rot" going on all the time, and even though some of us are now "all-Kindle" and feel confident, the files on the Kindle are ephemeral. ("All is vanity, saith the Preacher.")

Yes, I always believed that I'd drag ALL my files along as soon as a converter was available and yadda, yadda, zamma, zamma. However, I didn't. I was too busy doing other things, producing new text, going different directions. Now it's too late. The time will come when it's too late to convert those old Kindle files--will you care? Or will you just say, "I'll re-buy the ones I want?" You will be helping the economy, so congratulations on that, Mr. VCR-bumper DVD-dumper Blu-Ray buyer.

So someday all of these books that you have paid $12 and up for will be unreadable. That may be fine with you. Perhaps you don't like to ever re-read books, and you don't care if those texts are lost to posterity. There are books now that have not made it onto a Kindle or Nook (the rights belong to someone who hasn't wanted to put the backlist up yet, maybe), and when the physical copies of those books are gone, they'll be gone. So it goes. So be it. Perhaps that doesn't matter.

But you ought to know what you're getting into. Someday all those .mobi files will be as unreadable as old Atari PC files. If you had the physical books, you could use them to prop up the table leg, have your kid sit on them to boost him up to the table, burn them for heat in the winter, and so forth. I feel there is tangible worth in a physical object, even today. Just something to think about.

My books are mostly available on the Kindle now, as well as in trade paperback. DULCINEA and NICE WORK are not. DULCINEA is not because I don't want it to be right now--I would have to go through XLibris, and I don't like their royalty structure for e-books. NICE WORK is at the end of a LONG line of books that OTP's converter person is working on. But, more to the point, the publisher doesn't make much money on anything other than the paper copy, and I had really hoped that people would want paper copies of the book. It's been very disappointing to find that most people have so many rationalizations as to why they don't want a dead-tree edition. *sigh* But this is life. It's the one you get. So go out and have a ball!

In other news, I want to play Water Polo now. On the men's Olympic team. The USA team is pretty easy on the eyes! And the Croatian team as well! The team captain is nearly 7 feet tall. And I have to jump to reach the middle shelf of my upper kitchen cabinets. *Life is unfair*

1 comment:

  1. I keep wondering if the Kindle will turn out to be an early Betamax....