Obsolescence: Thy Kingdom Come and technology

May 12th 2011

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Time for a story: back in 2002, epublishing was in its infancy – barely out of nappies, in fact – but already people were doing things with it that you couldn’t do with a dead tree book. One such outfit was Lone Wolf Publications, who started putting out anthologies and collections on a CD. And obviously, being a CD, it could come with hyperlinks, pictures, video clips and a whole slew of extras: it’s surprising just how little room even a big, fat novel takes when it’s reduced to bits and bytes. Even a bloated Word file for a hundred thousand word book is barely over half a meg, barely a drop in the digital ocean for a 65o Mb CD-R.

One of those collections was Thy Kingdom Come. It had art by Marge Simon to accompany the stories, videos I’d filmed on an early webcam and stitched together on some free software, introductions and links. All crammed on a CD-R and ‘published’ in a limited edition run of two hundred.

So, I have a few of these left: half a dozen, plus my author’s copy. Someone recently showed interest in buying one of them (hi, Stephen!), so we negotiated a donation to the American Red Cross, I wrote the address on the envelope and almost, almost, picked a disc at random and posted it off to the USA.

Instead, I thought I’d better check it would run okay. I opened my CD tray and a can of worms at the same time.

The CD failed to load. The drive didn’t even recognise there was a CD in it. I thought I managed to dodge a bullet there, so I got one of the other discs and tried that. This time, it did find the CD. But when I tried to access the data, I crashed Acrobat. Neither could I successfully copy all the files to my hard drive. Some, yes. All, no.

So I tried again with a different disc. Again, same problem. And so on. Rude words sprang unbidden to my lips. There was clearly something wrong – either the discs were corrupted, or the CD drive (now a DVD drive) and/or software on my computer was just too new to cope with legacy stuff.

One last gasp. I got out my author copy – I know that worked, because I’d played it previously. Almost ten years previously. And it didn’t work either. Arse.

Then a sudden brainwave. I have a disc with all the component parts of TKC on, a copy of which I sent to Lone Wolf a decade earlier. With fear and trepidation, I loaded it up… and it worked perfectly, first time. I copied all the files across to the hard drive, and took one of the video files for a test drive. Bad codec. Bad, bad codec. A codec that Microsoft not only no longer support, but one which all early .avi files rely on to play properly. None of the videos will work in any of the (several) media players I have.

Okay. But I have some fairly robust video editing software – it’s quite old, but I know it’s both upwardly and downwardly compatible. I load it up, and discover it can play the video files – and not only that, but I can now re-render the files using the old, unsupported codec into files using new, supported ones.

Right then: I had all the files ready to stitch together. With a bit of jiggery-pokery I managed to get them all roughly in the right order (the video files still wouldn’t embed – I hyperlinked them instead. I blame my .pdf printer software) and print out the whole thing as a new .pdf file which I know will run with Acrobat X.

Can I learn something from this? Yes. Yes I can. I have a stack of 3.5″ floppies I can no longer read because I don’t have a 3.5″ drive anymore. But I think I’ve got all the files I need off of those – I never thought about the CD-Rs I have, because, you know, they’re CDs and I’ve got a CD drive.

I’ve also got a brand new Western Digital 1Tb drive. Which will one day be as obsolete as those floppies, except it has about five years’ worth of family photos on.

Here endeth the lesson.

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