Friday, March 17, 2006

Software Soapbox - Part I - Word Processors

Word processing is among the oldest and most commonly used software groups in the computer industry. Although WordPerfect still has its adherents, and AppleWorks has improved enormously in recent years, Microsoft Word is the dominant word processing package in the industry. It's also enormously expensive: around two hundred bucks. The code is bloated: they seem to have built upon the same version for over a decade, with each release adding another "feature" that users cannot turn off. Microsoft doesn't care if its software is slow or buggy, because Bill Gates knows that people feel as though they have to buy it anyway, because they've filled software review pages with propaganda stating that other programs can't adequately interpret .doc documents, and since .doc is the most ubiquitous file format for word processing, well, you get the picture.

Word is not user friendly. I've taken courses in technical documentation and interface design, and the basic rule still holds true: the more features, the less usable. How many people can honestly say that they use all parts of Word? One of their most annoying toys is that idiot box that pops up when users begin typing: a creepy little anthropomorphic animatron jumps onto the screen, does a little dance, and says, "It looks like you're trying to do X. Can I help?" Experienced users know how to turn it off, but the beginner can waste a lot of time on this. I don't like autocorrect: when I type in a long and difficult word, as part of an academic assignment, I don't want to go back and tell it to stop autocorrecting that word. I also don't want to have to continually tell it to stop autoformatting for me. When I want a format, I'll choose that option in your handy little menubar - that, coincidentally, has nine thousand microscopic icons, ten of which I use. Oh - let's not forget that Microsoft includes a grammar checker that fouls up punctuation and makes the most horrendous stylistic suggestions possible.

Today's challenge: Open source word processing software in native code (will run without a unix shell on Windoze or OS X) that has all of the features needed, without the overkill of bigbox software. Keep in mind: I'm not discussing office software, just word processors.

The winner: AbiWord - an award-winning, full featured, small (35 MB for the full edition in Mac OS X - the download is about 10MB) and FAST word processor. Visit the AbiWord download page: they have versions available for Mac OS X (versions 10.2 and up), Windows (95 and newer) and Linux - all versions are native code.

My Take: It actually has superior features to MS Word, and can open all Word docs. It can save in Word and better formats. Take a look at a shot of the "Save As" window in the base edition for Mac OS X to see the formats. They were not kidding about the speed: it opens and operates much faster, because it uses less memory and doesn't need the fastest processor on earth to run. Windows users, take heart: you only need a 486 processor to run it. It will open massive documents from Word with no format loss: to test this, I opened my Master's thesis (about 110 pages, 309 kB) and looked through it. Not only were there zero formatting problems, it actually opened the document faster, the interface never slowed (like it does in Word when it's "Paginating"). You can look at a screenshot of the basic version of OS X here.

Features: This was the key test. Did it have usable features? Did it have the requirements we've grown to expect in a streamlined word processor? Yes. It actually has better dictionary functions than Word, and has the added benefit of wikipedia access. You can open the "styles" window to sit beside your document awaiting your command. Best of all: it didn't have unneccesary accoutrements. AbiWord has tons of plugins available for users who want to add features that they want. This was the kicker: they provide a baseline model that has all basic features, and users can add features that they want. They do not force us to clutter our menus with things we don't need. It is fully customizable: the list of plugins was incredible, and they all integrate without problems; furthermore, even with every add-in possible, the program is still smoother and faster than Word. A shot of the basic tool menu, and a shot of the basic style box, can be found here.

Quick Ratings Comparison: On a scale of one to five, with five being best:

Size & Speed: AbiWord: 5 MSWord: 2
Price: 5 (FREE!)     1
Interface: 4.5      3
Customization: 4.5      2.5
Stability: 4      3.5
Ease of use: 5      2
Support: 3.5 (but free)    3.5 (and you pay for it)
Overall Average: 4.5      2.5
AbiWord is definitely high on my recommendation list. You can't beat the price, the speed, or the accessibility. Of course, if you like bloated, overcomplicated word processing software, then by all means pay Microsoft a few hundred bucks.

Software Soapbox - Intro

I've posted comments about the open-source software movement before, but raving about it isn't enough. Software megagiants Microslut, Adobe, and Macromedia (macro says it all, don't you think?) have far too many advertising dollars to attract users, to tempt them into paying six hundred dollars for the newest update of clunky, bloated codeware, and their user bases believe that in order to read or edit documents made in these programs, one must own the software. "Translation doesn't work! It screws up formatting!" This parrots the garbage that software companies spew in press releases disguised as warnings.

This is trash: code is, in the end, only code: it can be deciphered, it can be compiled, it can be rewritten. The code that tells your computer that this "document.doc" is a Microsoft Word document can be written by other word processors. Another complaint is that end users frequently feel as though they have to switch to Unix or Linux, or run open source software within a "shell," such as the X11 shell for Macintosh. In fact, there are a number of open source programs that have been ported into absolutely "native" formats - they don't require the shell.

I am, as you all know by now, a graduate student. Economically, this places me somewhere between the illegal immigrants working at Wally Martin and the cashier at the grocery store. I've had to resort to alternative programs for years, but I am able to access (read: temporarily steal from the university) full editions of regular programs to test the open source alternatives against the big box brands. Periodically, I'm going to review native open source software, comparing it to much more expensive versions. Since I work my computer to death, often running it at 95% load, I think that if it works for me, it will work for most users. I won't advocate that graphic design firms working for multimillion-dollar corporations switch from Photoshop to GIMP, because I can't say that I'm coming from that angle; however, I will advocate that people who want to perform relatively high-end graphic work (as I do, often) and who understand the interface of image manipulation software should switch to GIMP.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Scum, Inc.

This article from the Washington Post is the reason I avoided Law School. Ask most undergraduates in the humanities what their career choices include, and the top two answers will be "Law" and "Public Service" (PS in the form of social work, writing, or government-related grub labor). I applied, jumped through all the hoops, and talked to lawyers. Most of the lawyers I respected as people told me to stay away from law. It would make me hate myself. Now I know why.

Is the term "legal ethics" truly an oxymoron? It certainly appears so. Recently in North Carolina, two prosecutors in a 1996 death penalty case - who had withheld evidence, lied, and coached witnesses, all to get the win - were let off the hook for felonious prosecutorial misconduct. They face NO penalty for what, in my opinion, was attempted murder on their part - all part of that win win win mentality of Americans. The reason? Charges were brought against them after the deadline. Funny, there's no statute of limitations for murder, but what those assholes did was just fine.

Now we have government attorneys. The woman had a confession. She had the united anger of an entire nation on her side. Yet she still felt she had to coach witnesses against a confessed member of the September 11 plot, Zacarias Moussaoui. What was she thinking? In breaking ethics codes, she makes it possible that this evil, murdering bastard will not have to face the death penalty. It makes me sick.

I know, not all lawyers are like this. Many are much brighter. This woman had the case in the bag, yet she threw the conviction and the trial away because she needed a little "insurance" that the FAA employees would toe the party line and say exactly the right thing. Who in the hell would worry about FAA employee testimony against airline hijackers? I understand Judge Leonie Brinkema's ruling, and commend her for it. I think Carla Martin, the idiot, the jackass of the week, should be forced into some sort of legal crap job, defending feces from allegations of stench by vomit.
currently playing on miPod - Dvorak, Symphony no. 9, 2nd movement

Monday, March 13, 2006

Soviet America

I am ready to move, once more. Remember my last entries about the first amendment? Well, kiddies, the Washington Post has recently written an article about a piece of shit legislation proposed by Senator Mike "WINO" DeWine of Ohio. Old WINO's bill will make it a crime to report that the President and his administration are committing crimes. The summary paragraph from the Post states:
Reporters who write about government surveillance could be prosecuted under proposed legislation that would solidify the administration's eavesdropping authority, according to some legal analysts who are concerned about dramatic changes in US law.

The draft of this lovely bill states that people who knowingly broadcast or print information that discloses any information about Comrade Bush's surveillance programs can be subjected to felony prosecution and penalties of up to fifteen years in prison and one million dollars. The language of the bill does not specify whether or not the information may be classified or not. It also removes the burden of keeping secrets from the government: if the secret must remain secret, the press cannot print anything about it.

What the hell kind of hypocritical nation are we living in? We're gonna spread McFreedom all over the damn landscape, but by doing so, we are going to deny our own citizens the free press that is guaranteed them by the First Amendment. This is not a gray area: Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech; or of the press. This law, that Congress could pass as early as next week, WILL ABRIDGE THE FREEDOM OF THE PRESS. We cannot make it a penalty to open our government to citizen inquiry. Remember that whole "redress of grievances" thing? What about that? We can't ban assault weapons, because that would violate the second amendment. So: Terrorists can be armed with AK-47's, I can keep an Uzi in my house, but if I know my government is breaking the law and violating due process, I cannot share this information?

Everyone sing with me:

Oh Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love, in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise
The True North strong and free...

The lyrics to Oh Canada are found here. Immigration isn't so bad... hey, cheap healthcare!

I love my country, but sometimes I hate my "demagoguically" elected leaders.
Currently playing on miPod - "Oh Canada," dammit.