Wed Apr 29 18:46:01 PDT 2015

Sorting Out Content Wider Than Screen and General Viewability Issues

I noticed today that these Nanoblogger created pages were not 'Mobile Friendly' according to Google. So, I investigated. It turns out that the necessary fixes are straightforward.

Firstly including the following meta tag in the head section explains to the browser that the content should fill the device screen:

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0" />

To add this tag to your Nanoblogger site, simply find the template .htm files that contain meta tags and add this one.

The remaining issue is the Nanoblogger side bar, which is really not useful on a mobile devide. This can be removed with the following additional lines in your nb_clean.css style sheet (or whichever style sheet you are currently using).

@media screen and (max-width: 780px) {
body { font-size:16px; }
    a:link { margin: 16px; }
    #container { width: auto; }
    #links { display: none; }
    #content { margin-left: auto }
}

These lines come into play when the screen is small, i.e. less than 780 px, and boost the font size to 16 px, provide a margin of 16 px around all links (to improve clickability). This addition to the style sheet also adjusts the container and content div's width, and removes the display of the links div. With these changes the Google analysis is happy with the readability on mobile devices - and indeed readability is improved at the expense of navigational elements which were too small to use anyway on a small screen.


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Mon Apr 27 14:05:16 PDT 2015

Positioning Figure Captions in HTML

The structure of diamond
(The structure of diamond)

I spent some time over the weekend investigating how to allow figure captions in html text to be closely associated with article text and to stay together with their associated figure. This is apparently a difficult problem. What I have done up until now is simply have the figure in a paragraph of its own - but this leaves a lot of white space around the figure and is not as nice as having a figure right in the text.

I found this page: https://www.cs.tut.fi/~jkorpela/www/captions.html which spells out three options. I tried them all, initially preferring the style sheet based methods (e.g. the methods which employs float: right or float: left. However, these styles gave me problems, using multiple images on the same page led to way too much floating going, trying to clear the floating effect with 'clear: all' led to even more confusion and images at the bottom of the page.

So, I ended up using the 'single cell-ed table + caption' approach. The result is shown in the figure which illustrates this article. (I hope that it renders correctly in your browser!)

To clear the effect - that is to get your next paragraph to start in a standard way, I found that including a table with a width of 100% and no contents was effective.


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Sat Apr 25 15:57:22 PDT 2015

Testing comments...

Yes, comments!

I should probably be doing other things, but today I decided to see what it would take to activate a commeting system. So - I tracked down an excellent post by Miek Gieben, http://archive.miek.nl/blog/archives/2009/01/26/nanoblogger_comments_update/index.html, who created a simple php and database-less comment system for Nanoblogger in 2009.

Miek's system worked painlessly in my exploration. I decided to remove the support for a posted web site URL. Odd people and robots seem to have a high propensity for spamming sites with links to other sites. This was a quick commenting exercise. The other thing that I needed to take onboard was that incoming bare dollars php needed to be backslashed to survive the text processing in Nanoblogger, but that was very simple to achieve.

I plan to leave the comments switched on for the permanent archive pages in Nanoblogger and see if there is any interest - or spamming - and then I'll decide what to do next.

In the meantime, thank you Miek!


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Fri Apr 24 11:52:58 PDT 2015

Like Minds...

Just when I had a suspicion that this collection of articles might be one of the larger collections ever put together with Nanoblogger, I discovered https://bbot.org/blog assembled by Samuel Bierwagen. There I found a great collection of interesting articles and amusing remarks. E.g. On the subject of programming: '...my "build it as fast as possible, while learning as little as possible" design methodology had screwed me over again...' (https://bbot.org/blog/archives/2013/01/04/building_dtwenty_org/) which has an elegant Spolsky-esque phrasing familiar to all who would be 'software professionals'.

Samuel Bierwagen has 173 entries over on this site. As far as I can see they are all interesting, including one referring to broken links that Nanobloger can sometimes generate.

Then I discovered another Nanoblogger site which had various attempted predictions at long terms trends e.g. the price of oil (not particularly successfully in that case) (see Arlequin at http://blog.buildengineer.com/. This was again of interest - as I have investigated such matters on rare occasion (E.g. here Companies and Bacteria). So, I discovered that there are some like minded Nanoblogger users around, which is a little worrying.


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Mon Apr 20 21:11:19 PDT 2015

Creating Searchable PDFs

Here is a script that I have used to create searchable PDFs on a number of occasions. The input is a set of sequential .tif files. The output is a searchable .pdf file which contains, in addition to the original .tif images, searchable ascii text.

To keep the output .pdf file size down - images (or pages) with many colors are reduced to just 4 shades of grey. It could be 50 shades of grey - and that might help provide a few more hits - but that is left as an exercise to the user.

The input files are assumed to be called 00001.tif (etc) and the output file is called output.pdf. Optical character recognition is carried out using tesseract which seems to do a good job.

Use at your own risk!

#!/bin/sh

MAX=99999
CURRENTDIR=`pwd | sed 's#/home/users/Papers/##'`
NPAGES=`ls 0*.tif | wc | awk '{print $1}'`

i=0
for FILE in 0*.tif
do
  BASE=`basename $FILE .tif`
  i=`expr $i + 1`
  d=`echo $i | awk '{printf "%05d",$i}'`
  echo $d " $CURRENTDIR $NPAGES"

  SIZE=`ls -ltra $FILE | awk '{print $5}'`
  if [ $SIZE -gt 1000000 ]
  then
    echo "FILE $FILE IS LARGE SO MINIMIZING"
    tifftopnm $FILE | ppmtopgm | pnmquant 4 | pnmtotiff -lzw > new.tif
    FILE=new.tif
  fi
  tifftopnm $FILE 2> tifftopnm.err | ppmtopgm | \
    pnmtops -noturn -rle 2> pnmtops.err> tmp.ps
  status=$?
  if [ $status -ne 0 ] 
  then 
    echo "Initial tifftopnm pipeline failed"
    cat tifftopnm.err
    cat pnmtops.err
  fi
  ps2pdf -dEPSCrop tmp.ps
  tesseract $FILE $BASE 2> tesseract.err > tesseract.txt
  status=$?
  if [ $status -ne 0 ] 
  then 
    echo "TESSERACT FAILED"
    cat tesseract.err
    cat tesseract.txt
  fi
  sed 's/</lt/g' $BASE.txt | sed 's/>/gt/g' > tmp.txt
  mv tmp.txt $BASE.txt
  hocr2pdf -n -i $FILE -o tmp2.pdf < $BASE.txt 2> hocr2pdf.err > hocr2pdf.txt
  status=$?
  if [ $status -ne 0 ]
  then
    echo "hocr2pdf failed"
    cat hocr2pdf.err
    cat hocr2pdf.txt
    echo "Retrying using hocr"
    tesseract $FILE $BASE hocr
    hocr2pdf -n -s -i $FILE -o tmp2.pdf < $BASE.html
  fi
  pdftk tmp.pdf background tmp2.pdf output newpage$d.pdf

  if [ $i -eq $MAX ]
  then
    break
  fi
done

pdftk newpage*.pdf cat output output.pdf

rm newpage0*.pdf
rm tmp.pdf tmp2.pdf hocr2pdf.txt tesseract.txt

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Sun Apr 19 09:38:36 PDT 2015

Simple Guidelines for Clear Document Names

These days almost everyone works with electronic documents and consequently almost everyone has to create names for their documents. Each person typically invents a range of document names every day. Sometimes these names will be for documents which are used regularly for years to come. If this happens the document name becomes a familiar and easily recognized fact of life. More often the name is soon forgotten and you find yourself having to resort to searching or the find command to locate the document or file that you are looking for. However, if you name your documents appropriately and consistently you will be able to find your information much more rapidly. You will find yourself using the search capability less often and you will increase your efficiency, sometimes dramatically. Additionally, you will gain a reputation as a well organized, systematic and logical person.

Even if you routinely use a desktop search engine such as Google Desktop to find your documents, you will find that systematic document names help you with your work and efficiency. Searching is wonderful, but nothing beats the immediacy of being able to scan a folder and know at a glance what the folder contains from its document names. You will save yourself minutes per day, and those minutes will add up, potentially saving you days per year. Furthermore, your coworkers and associates will value your consistency, they will be able to find your documents for you and your reputation for clarity and organization will blossom. Here is a how you create logical document names.

Be succinct. Keep your document names brief but don't be afraid of providing needed information in the document name.

Don't rely on folder names. Your documents will be emailed to colleagues, posted to the intranet or web, and shared on peer-to-peer networks. You cannot assume that the folder called 'Customers', for example, in which the document currently lives will always be the container of the document.

Include a description of the document type in the document name. For example, if this is a letter, include the string 'ltr' in the document title. If this is a proposal, include 'prp' and so on.

Make the first part of the document name the name of the customer, person or thing that the document most generally relates to. In business this will often be the customer or client name. In a service industry, it will be the name of the patient or prospect. For documents that refer to you, you can use the string, My.

Include the date in your document name. This helps you know when a document was created at a glance. Use the following format, Year-Month-Day, for example, 2008-09-01.

Include version information. If you need to create several versions of a document, include a version number, for example, ABC-ltr-2008-09-01-v0.1.doc. It is best to include a letter v to indicate that this is a version number. As you work through different versions of the document you can increase the final digit. For major new versions increase the number next to the letter v, for example, ABC-ltr-2008-09-01-v1.0.doc.

Do not use spaces in file names. Occasionally you will run into programs which cannot handle spaces in file names. You can avoid all sorts of unusual problems if you use dashes to separate portions of text instead.

The best time to name a document correctly is when you first create it. If you take a few seconds to get the name right at the point of creation you will be ahead of the game. So, don't accept the default that your document creating applications provide to you. Names based on the first few words in a document or Document1.doc are not going to convey any useful information in the future and you will be reduced to either opening every document to see what it contains or using the search capability that your operating system or add on software provides.

Here are some example document names to give you a sense of how the system works in practice.

IBM-prp-2009-10-01-v0.1.doc
My-Expenses-2010-04-01-v1.0.xls
School-ltr-2010-09-02-v1.0.doc
HP-training-prp-2008-10-14-v0.1.doc

If you follow these guidelines, for the whole lifetime of your documents, you will be able to easily discern document contents from a glance at document names.


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Sat Apr 18 18:43:52 PDT 2015

Baffle Your Friends with a Numerical Trick

Here is a nice trick with numbers. Ask a friend to pick a two digit number, add the digits together, and then subtract the sum of the two digits from the original number. For example, if your friend picked 85 as the original number, the sum of 8 and 5 is 13, and 85 minus 13 is 72. Now ask your friend if the number he or she is left with is a single digit. If the answer is yes, the single digit is 9. If the number has two digits, have your friend add them together, the answer will be 9. (In our example, 7 plus 2, is nine).

Before you test this out on a friend, try a few examples yourself. Let's do another one here. Say we choose 32 as the initial random two digit number. 3 plus 2 is 5, and 32 minus 5 is 27. Adding together 2 and 7 we get 9.

Here's the sequence which will baffle your friends:

Think of a random two digit number, but don't tell me what that number is.

Add the two digits together and subtract this number from your original number.

Is the resulting number a two digit number?

(If not) the number is ...let me think...it is getting clearer, it is 9.

(If yes) add those two digits together; the number is ...let me think...it is getting clearer, it is 9.

As you have read this, you will be predisposed to believe that 9 will figure every time in the answer, so this will not seem that astonishing. However, your friend who has not read this will be impressed by your powers of deduction. Just don't repeat the trick or your friend will notice the invariant pattern of nines in your predictions.

Of course, if you are creative you can take this basic concept to a more baffling level. How about if you show your victim, I mean friend, a list of numbers, each with its own symbol, and associate with the numbers that sum to 9 a special symbol. Then you can magically discern that special symbol no matter what your friend originally selected as his or her random number.

Here is a neatly presented version of this concept encoded as a flash game which plays in a browser window: http://www.milaadesign.com/wizardy.html. (I am not associated with this site in any way, other than being impressed by their game). Take a look but don't tell your friend the underlying mathematical secret. See if they can deduce it for themselves.

...and why not determine how this works?!


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Fri Apr 17 12:14:06 PDT 2015

How Your Computer, Tablet, or Smart Phone Works

Understanding how your computer works will enable you to work and play smarter. As originally published on Associated Content

Occasionally, just occasionally, it is useful to know the basics of how things work. If you understand the basics you get the best performance, you can fix problems when they occur, and you know when it is time to get a replacement. Hence the many volumes that are published on male and female psychology. What holds for potential mates is also true for computers. If you understand the basics of your computer's internal workings your life will be a little easier.

A trip to the library and a lengthy session reading through the theory of semiconductor and logic design is not necessary. This short article contains the key information that you need to understand what happens behind the scenes in your computer - and why you should care. The information here applies to all computers large and small.

Your computer contains the following major components: Central Processing Unit (CPU), Random Access Memory (RAM), Hard Disk Drive(s) (HDD), Visual Display Unit (VDU), Power Supply Unit (PSU), Keyboard and mouse, or touch pad, CD Rom and DVD player and USB drives.

We will start at the heart of the computer. The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is a piece of electronics which can perform arithmetic operations extremely rapidly. In fact, that is all that it does. What good is arithmetic when you want to create documents? Well, computer scientists have cunningly reduced the process of writing, communicating, playing music, and almost everything else in life, to sequences of instructions known as programs. Programs are like the set of instructions you learned at school to solve problems like long division. Given an input somewhere, the instructions produce an output somewhere else, and sometimes carry a figure or two to the next instruction. A key press on the keyboard is converted into numbers (on's and off's in binary); the numbers are operated upon by the CPU, and that combination turns on or off the display of a letter on the VDU. Originally computers contained only recognizably arithmetic programs, used to calculate ballistic trajectories, for example. But now the programs that we use are word processors, email programs, and web browsers and the arithmetic is just a means to an end. And fortunately the user does not have to think about arithmetic at all.

It helps if you understand that the CPU is dumb, it depends on being fed the correct instructions and data. The CPU can do no more than its instructions have accounted for. If you want to multiply, the CPU cannot use the instructions for long division. And, just as when you do long division with poorly written instructions, the CPU can make mistakes. If the mistakes are bad, one of two things can happen. Either, both the CPU and the operating system give up with the program (and the program crashes abruptly) or the whole operating system of the computer (itself a set of instructions) crashes and your computer will need to restart from scratch.

Don't for a moment think that computer programs are particularly smart. They are just lists of instructions for carrying out arithmetic operations. If you feed in information which the programmer didn't account for, you will get unexpected results. We have all seen this behavior. We type in a name which is close to the correct name thinking that our favorite program will know that this is close to the correct name too. However, these expectations are often dashed. The computer wants its email addresses and web site addresses to be absolutely accurate or they will not work.

From a hardware perspective, the CPU either works or it doesn't. If the CPU fails - the computer won't start at all. (We will describe the process of starting, or booting, a little further down). One thing to bear in mind about CPUs is the fact that CPUs operate at different speeds and with different numbers of 'cores'. The speed of the CPU is measured in GHz (typically), which means thousands of millions of cycles per second, and the higher the speed of the CPU the faster your machine will carry out its arithmetic operations. You will see this as faster processing in your favorite programs, fewer pauses, and generally improved computing experience.

If a given CPU has more than one core, you will be able to carry out more than one set of processing operations in parallel. So, buy the fastest CPU speed that you can, and buy as many cores as you can.

Where does the CPU obtain its streams of instructions and data to operate on? Well from streams of numbers which you know as files or documents. There are different types of storage that are important for such files in your computer. The Hard Disk Drive (HDD) and the Random Access Memory (RAM) are two of the most important. Both of these devices store information as numbers, but in different ways.

The HDD stores numbers in changes in the magnetism on a magnetic disk. When you turn off the power, the magnetic information stays in place on the HDD ready to be used again in the future. However, the speed of access to your numbers (data) is rather slow on a HDD, because the head of the disk must be lined up with the magnetic disk to extract your data. Physically moving objects like the hard disk and its reading head around takes a while, just as getting up and going to the filling cabinet takes a while for you.

In contrast, the RAM stores numbers in silicon memory, using a small amount of electrical energy to maintain the state of the storage. If you turn off the power, the information is lost. RAM storage is much faster than HDD storage but it is more expensive per piece of information stored. You can think of the RAM as your digital desk top and the HDD as a filing cabinet. The computer lives in a fastidiously tidy world, however, and when the power is turned off, the desktop (the RAM) is automatically wiped clean.

The fact that HDD is a mechanical device should help you appreciate the need for carrying out regular backups. Mechanical devices that are in constant motion undergo wear and eventually fail. When a HDD fails very often there is no way to recover the data that was originally stored on the magnetic media. So if your data is valuable make sure that you have regular backups. The RAM on the other hand is the working storage area for your computer. Here it makes sense to have as much and as fast a storage area as possible. So make sure that RAM size is something that you compare in your next round of computer purchasing.

Interestingly, most operating systems currently have a hard time accessing all of the space in the RAM if the RAM is over 2 GB in size. The reason for this goes back to the way that the CPU stores the location of elements in its arithmetic machinery. So before you buy more than 2 GB of RAM, make sure that your particular operating system can effectively use all of it, or you will be wasting your money. 64-bit operating systems do not have this problem. But many program writers have yet to make the leap to explicitly writing their programs for 64-bit operating systems.

If you have been following along, you will have realized that if all instructions are stored on your HDD, because that is the only place that information survives when the power is off, and that the operation of the computer is controlled by instructions, something special must happen when the computer is first started up. The following description will explain what happens when you start (or boot) your computer.

When the computer starts it is instructed by a small piece of non-volatile memory (this single chip retains its memory and is comparatively expensive to produce), to extract its initial set of instructions from a certain area on your hard disk. This is a special very basic program which allows the computer to load additional instructions (the sequences of numbers which allow certain patterns of behavior) from certain areas of your disk. This is the process of 'bootstrapping', getting the computer moving, also known as 'booting' the computer. You will probably hear the HDD and various other peripherals like CD drives being checked during booting and you will see that there is a lot of HDD access (you will probably see the HDD lights on the machine blinking during the boot sequence). Booting takes some time because the initial program which is used for booting is soon replaced by a more sophisticated program known as the operating system, which must be read from the HDD. The operating system then loads all the drivers and services which are used by this computer.

This is an interesting phase in the start up of the computer. There is much that can go wrong. You may have installed a new program which upsets the loading of a driver or service, and if so, this will show up as a problem the next time that you restart.

Once the computer has been booted, you and it are ready to do some work, which means, don't forget, that you will be having your computer carry out arithmetic operations on your data. When you load a new program, the on's and off's are loaded into the operating system. These on's and off's are used to control the behavior of the machine. When you read a data file or document into that program, that set of on's and off's are read from the HDD and stored by the program in the RAM of the computer. Unless you save regularly, the changes that you make will be lost if the program or computer crashes, or if there is a power outage. So, save your work regularly, to get your information from the RAM stored on the HDD.

Some people do not like to think of their data as being numeric. The complaint will be heard - but I can see that my file contains letters. However, your computer represents letters as numbers. Even the so called ASCII system is an encoding of numbers to letters. When programs read ASCII the data is still treated as numbers but the ASCII convention allows the program to operate with numbers and display letters to the world.

The fact that computers are hugely efficient adding machines is extraordinary. The pioneers that recognized the potential of superfast adding machines and created the information technology boom in the 1980s understood how powerful fast computer arithmetic could be. The next time you complain that your math homework is likely to have no bearing on real life (or the next time that you hear that complaint), remember that the math that you computer does every day has made some programmers very rich indeed. Understanding math and recognizing the opportunities in fast arithmetic will be an immensely rewarding area of opportunity for many years.

Hopefully you have found this brief summary of some of the major aspects of a computer useful. Here is a recap. The CPU is a machine for fast, instructed arithmetic. It can do no more than it was programmed to do. There are two key storage areas in your computer, the HDD and the RAM. The HDD stores information permanently, the RAM is used for fast but temporary storage, so be careful about saving documents regularly to avoid lost data. Booting the computer loads a set of progressively more complex instruction sets into the computer culminating in the loading of the functioning operating system that you are used to working with. Knowing the basics will make your computer life considerably simpler.


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Thu Apr 16 16:17:56 PDT 2015

Microsoft Office 2007 - Should You Upgrade?

Thinking about a move to Microsoft Office 2007? Here is one writer's perspective. Or it was back in 2008...and as originally posted on the now defunct Associated Content site. Actually it turns out that my view has not changed. Microsoft forgot their user interface design ideas and they have not really recovered...

Is it just me? Am I the only person to be frustrated by Microsoft Office 2007? I have a pretty, new, work machine and on that machine I found Microsoft Office 2007. What did I find in the Word interface? A completely new way of carrying out actions. Gone are the familiar File, Edit, View, Help (etc.) menus. In their place are some new button bars called Ribbons, of all things.

Wow, I thought, when I first saw the buttons. Progress - this will be great. Then I found that I could not bring up the 'Drawing' tools when I needed them. Ugh, I thought - I will just turn it back to the classic view and everything will be great. After 20 minutes trying to find things like 'options' in the new layout and another 20 minutes Googling, I determined that there was no 'classic view' - I was stuck with 'progress'. Anyway, I thought, the concepts will probably grow on me with time.

That was 6 weeks ago! Yesterday I installed an older version of Word on the machine. That produced the normal bizarre inability to side-by-side install products that one comes to expect with Microsoft. I hacked around a bit and came up with what I thought were workable compromises. Unfortunately, I found today that I have a colleague, who wants us to use one of the very few new features in Word 2007, and so I have to remove the older version. What is that new feature - well it has to do with making inserted images use the 'square' layout attribute so that they can be grouped with caption text in a 'text box'. That might sound like quite a reasonable thing to want to do; but basically it is just an exercise in working around problems in Word to do with the way that text and images relate to one another. So, I am not impressed by this new feature.

What else is wrong with Word 2007? Well, here is a list:

Performance. This is really noticeable if you install an older version of word on your machine. Files open instantly with the older Word. With the new version there is a terrible delay. What can be going on behind the scenes? (I am not sure I want to know).

Confused user interface. With the new button bar (sorry, Ribbon) scheme, sometimes you get context sensitivity sometimes not. After weeks of working with the new Word I am still struggling to develop a conceptual model of what to expect and when to expect it.

Poor help system. I am not sure how Microsoft managed to turn the rather efficient html help viewer into the current confused thing which never gives you what you would expect, but can take a long time in doing it. Naturally the first thing this help system does is communicate with the mothership about your search query. This takes time - and gives you about as much help as random poking around on the menus (sorry, Ribbons) yourself. For example, I wanted to place a 'bar' over a number in my text. I gave up with the help system and found the answer by Googling. (And eventually determined that none of the three solutions supplied looked particularly good because the number with the bar was either shrunken, or the line spacing messed up by the exercise). So my recommendation to the Microsoft team would be, create a simple searching interface and work on a search engine. Make it as fast as possible. Cut down on the extraneous buttons and graphics. Bringing up the help viewer today gives me a party graphic and the headline 'Ring out the old, ring in the new'. I would prefer to wring the neck of the new and bring back the old. A good tip for investing in improving the interface of Word would be - involve some users not just a pile of software marketing gurus intent on inventing the next great thing and a set of software engineers experimenting with Aspect Orient Design (or whatever fad led to this terrible product).

File formats. Naturally the new file formats are not compatible with older versions of Word. So as soon as you email out a document you can expect a colleague or two to be asking for the older formats. You cannot as far as I can see adjust the default to only give you compatible formats.

Odd throw backs. Perhaps owing to the performance problems, you regularly see messages about hitting 'Esc' to interrupt operations. Operations like saving or opening files! Of course you don't want to interrupt saving a file, you'll probably corrupt it. I was shocked when I saw these boxes. Another tedious throw back are messages boxes when saving in old formats, telling you that you are missing some new feature. Well, of course that will be the case - don't give me a yes/no message box in the middle of some operation that you have made unnecessarily slow. More that likely I will have left the machine when I started saving and Word will just be wasting my time when I return with these silly dialog boxes.

Advice to the Microsoft Word team: Quickly let everyone who is currently suffering with Word 2007 get a version which has the performance and compatibility issues fixed, has a classic view, and does not require the expenditure of further dollars, and can coexist with other versions of Word on the same machine. I guarantee that every current Word 2007 customer would have a better experience with OpenOffice and I also guarantee that they are all installing it in the near future and then marvelling at its performance, logical user interface (stolen from earlier versions of Word, of course), and some may even notice that its installation does not collide with any other programs on their systems.

There are some upsides to Word 2007. It appears to be quite stable, for example. I do not think I have seen it crash so far. Of course, I have had the mysterious everything has gone extremely slowly and I decided to exit all the running programs and restart Windows problem. I have seen that one old bug related to updating a table of contents has been fixed. Although I do not use PowerPoint very often it seems to have all the same features in the 2007 variant. Saving a file in .ppt format instead of the new .pptx format, for example, produces two dialogs in a row advising me that if I want to cancel I can hit 'Esc'. Then I get a long message box asking whether I want to save in the new format instead, because the encryption is stronger, then another dialog about hitting 'Esc' if I want to stop the saving operation. As a software user experience it is scarily awful. It even makes Lotus Notes look somewhat elegant.

If I had the choice I would not use it. Microsoft need to focus on making a functional, elegant office programs again!


Posted by ZFS | Permanent link | File under: general
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Wed Apr 15 11:43:34 PDT 2015

Lotus Notes or IBM Notes - Call it What You Will

What is it like to transition to Lotus Notes from a more ad hoc approach to email, and related functions, such as calendars, and places to store documents and, most importantly, what is it like to leave Lotus Notes behind? In a word 'fantastic'!

At the outset, everybody struggles to make Lotus Notes work, and many succeed. Needless to say the people that come to treasure Notes do not have much experience of other email clients, scheduling software, or group ware. And when the time comes to leave Notes behind, there will be many that resist the change. In fact, the initial rollout of a Lotus Notes competitor may have to be reversed, because there is so much consumer resistance to the change. There are Notes enthusiasts!

Personally, I have to say that Lotus Notes is not 'my cup of tea'. I am staggered every day when I come to log on (you have to log into Lotus Notes, despite the fact that you have just managed to log into your workstation or laptop. To do this you encounter a strange dialog box which insists on showing you a large and mysterious set of hieroglyphs for each character that you type. You immediately have the sense that Notes developers have too much time on their hands, too little supervision, and no appreciation of the fact that users do not want to be surprised. Users want to get on with the task at hand, particularly if it a silly but necessary one like providing the second password of the day.

However, having obtained access to Notes, matters become far worse. The user interface is truly confusing. Needed actions are hidden in hard to remember places. User interface elements that look passive turn out to be vitally important in controlling the program, and so on.

Being dutiful employees, people help each other through the complexities of the basic use of Notes as an email client. Many people set up an array of folders, thinking that this might make their lives easier. Unfortunately with Notes this is not the case. I was one of these people - and I regretted it for years. I was forever being unable to find important email. The problem was that folders could not be made automatically; they could only be made and used manually. So, for example, if you wanted to store all your email to and from a given email address in one place, you would find yourself manually moving pieces of mail around. When manual intervention is required there are going to be problems and quickly everything that with any other email client would have been well organized was disorganized. I ended up giving up with folders and using 'the huge in box' approach. This works with GMail - because searching is fast - but with Notes - searching is the slowest thing imaginable and hidden behind a baffling interface.

An additional seemingly fundamental problem with Notes is its ability to inflate email message sizes. Notes can be set up in various different ways, but intrinsically each message seems to occupy a huge amount of disk space. People rapidly hit the maximum limit that the 'Notes Servers' can handle for each employee (about 200 Megabytes per employee, for example) and have to discard email, compact email files (nobody has ever explained what that means) and so on. Probably everyone will spend about an hour a day struggling with Notes in order to read their email.

One solution to the email server size limitations is the use of personal archive files. However, again these are astonishingly large. People rapidly obtain many hundred megabyte files for just their email archive. These archives are not only impressively large, they are impressively impenetrable, just single huge binary files - only readable and searchable only by Notes itself.

One pragmatic solution to the problem of finding email within Notes is provided by Google Desktop Enterprise Edition. This indexes your Notes files (it does this by installing a Notes plug-in). The net result is that you end up dedicating many Gigabytes of your hard drive to Notes files and many Gigabytes to your Google Desktop indices (which, of course take many, many hours to create). So this is not entirely satisfactory, however, it is certainly an improvement over the unassisted Lotus Notes interface.

Lotus Notes also offers a calendar and meeting management capability. This is rapidly embraced within every company, and people will happily book meeting rooms and projectors, and consult each others' schedules to organize meetings. I suspect that this leads to an unhealthy rise in the number of meetings and attendees, and a significant decline in productivity. After all, if is an important meeting, people will find out and make sure that they are there. If it is a matter of routine - then probably you don't need a meeting. If it is an emergency, then meet immediately, don't stop to try to figure out the Notes interface!

Having some interest in customization and programming, I once took a brief look at the possibility of customizing Notes. There are many, many customization options, ranging from Lotus 123! Like formulae, to Javascript, and LotusScript (generally computer languages specific to a program are a bad sign - Lotus Notes has at least two of these). You can fire up Excel from Notes, using OLE. Occasionally, I tried doing various things (like exporting calendar entries to Excel so that they could be printed more flexibly than Notes itself would allow (it wasn't worth the effort). Additionally, you can employ Notes consultants who will make customizations for you. (There has to be a message there - consultants to modify your email client - why?!)

This is far from the full story of all that Notes offers. In addition to creating problems in the worlds of email and calendars, Notes offers various capabilities that seem to completely duplicate more successful alternatives, yet dutiful employees try to use these, in order to be corporate in their approach to getting things done. Three examples are 'Sametime', which is an instant messaging application which typically requires ~700 MB of RAM in order to crash your machine if you try to use it with a video camera; QuickPlaces, which are rather like wiki, but stored in some kind of Lotus Notes database; and Teamrooms, which are document repositories, with the ability to review documents.

Eventually, the time comes to consider replacing Lotus Notes. Then of course there is a transition cost. Everyone has become accustomed to the diverse Lotus Notes ways of doing things, and any potential replacement needs to be able to replicate this diversity. Suffice it to say, it will be difficult to allow the organization to move on.

One of the more obscure capabilities of Lotus Notes turns out to be one of its most successful from the point of view of longevity. This is the ability to pass control of your calendar to an assistant. Most modern software makers would not consider such a capability important. However, for the decision makers who bring in or must contemplate the removal of Lotus Notes, assistants are important, and the alternative, managing ones own calendar, is clearly not viable. Hence, Lotus Notes will be with us until CEOs can manage their calendars themselves...which may be a long time!


Posted by ZFS | Permanent link | File under: general
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