Contemplating my pencils

My wife has been away for the last week. She had to go back home to the Midwest to do some family reunion thing. I was invited, but money and work issues kept me at home. So you would think all this solitude would help me produce the world’s greatest teen romance/mystery/fantasy/scifi novel ever? Nope. I’ve just been sitting on my butt playing Kingdom of Loathing and watching the world go by. (It’s an awesome game by the way–I should write an article on that sometime.)

I thought that getting back to that plain blue screen with friendly white letters on it that fueled my writing in my teenage years would inspire me, but I got distracted by figuring out how to make old DOS programs like WordPerfect 5.1 work in 64-bit Windows. Then I got further distracted by articles advocating for WordStar (WordPerfect’s even-more-archaic cousin), an article on how much Microsoft Word sucks, and a very enlightening article which argues that all word processing software (especially Word) is inherently obsolete because it assumes you are writing words to be printed on 8.5″ x 11″ sheets of paper, when most writing nowadays is shared electronically. But people just keep using Microsoft Word because it’s entrenched and people are just too used to it.

The same, in my opinion, goes for all those writers who are stuck in WordStar or WordPerfect: all they need is something to put text in, and mark it up with basic bold/underline/italics/etc., but instead they hold on to archaic, obsolete, proprietary software on systems that are prone to bugs and hard to fix when something goes wrong. There’s much better stuff out there right now. George R. R. Martin could probably do everything he needs to do in, for instance, emacs. (Not to infuriate fans of vim or jed or pico or insert-your-favorite-other-text-editor-here, but I just mention emacs because it’s the one I’ve used the most and am the most familiar with.) Not only can it be configured with WordStar key bindings, it can be run on both modern and ancient computers without much trouble (essentially anything that runs Linux, and there may even be a DOS version). He wouldn’t have to get up from his 30-year-old Kaypro and walk over to his other machine every time he wanted to check his wiki to figure out which of his characters are still alive. Emacs does have a tremendous amount of functionality, but unlike the auto-correcting flashy-ribbony Microsoft Word he keeps complaining about, it does a good job at hiding unwanted features from the user (in terminal mode, it just presents a text box with a status bar on the bottom, much like many old DOS word processors.) I admit there’s a steep learning curve on all but the most basic emacs modes (heck, I’ve been trying to master it for years, only to go back to Notepad or gedit or something like it when things go wrong.) However, it is suitably archaic for the likes of Mr. Martin, since the earliest versions of emacs predate WordStar by several years. But unlike WordStar, emacs has been constantly updated and bug-checked for over thirty years.

The best part of about something like emacs is, since it is open-source free software, I don’t have to worry about support for it being tied to a company that might go out of business. I can also be sure that anything I write in emacs can be read with any software that reads ASCII text. Plain text is future-proof. I recently discovered this by pulling some old emails from my backups that were also 20 years old, and I could still read them just fine, whereas I needed to jump through hoops to read my WordPerfect 5.1 files, and there are still some old files I can’t read at all. I think they were written in AppleWorks or the Mac version of WordPerfect or an old version of 602 Office (some shareware MS Office clone my mom liked) or Q&A Write (some other non-compatible program that was on the 486 I borrowed from one of my college roommates, that I used because I couldn’t afford WordPerfect or MS Office) or Tandy DeskMate or some other product produced by some other now-defunct victim of Microsoft’s office software wars. I really don’t want to track down all of those softwares again (especially when some of them require a pre-OS X Mac or Windows 3.1 to work.) If I had just saved my work as plain text, I could read it all today.

If I wanted fancy formatting in my document, I could just do HTML. Or LaTeX. Or save as RTF (which most word processors, even the feature-limited WordPad and TextEdit, which come with Windows and Mac OS X, respectively, can open). All those file formats will be readable in 10, 15, 20 years or more, unless there’s some kind of fundamental change in how we do computing (like if we all go to brain-implanted virtual reality quantum computers or something.)

I also know my modern laptop, modern flash drives, and modern cloud backups are a lot more stable and secure than a 30-year-old DOS machine. I can’t tell you how many times back in the day that I put a file on a floppy to print out at school, only to have the floppy fail or the file end up unreadable when I opened it up at the computer lab. Or, for that matter, in the late 90’s I had something called a “Zip drive” which… well, to say those were unreliable would be an understatement.

So I have decided that I need to look towards the future instead of luxuriate in nostalgia. I want to write, not fight with ancient computer programs and obsolete file formats. (I admit it’s fun sometimes to do just that, but only when you’re just doing it for fun.) So I just have to pick up the closest pencil from the huge box of pencils I have in front of me–and just start writing again. And hope I can still read stuff written with that pencil in the future.

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