Escape from Microsoft Word

October 21st, 2014

Here’s an interesting perspective on Microsoft Word from a writer who is not a technical writer and who found himself baffled by some of Word’s formatting idiosyncrasies.  The problem he ran into would not have occurred if he had used a character style for italics instead of applying direct formatting. Of course, Microsoft continues to make it harder and more complex to use styles properly with every release of Word, so I won’t be too hard on him.

I’ve been vaguely aware of Word’s Platonic ideas since I learned, years ago, that I had to create a new section when I wanted to change the page margins. But I didn’t realize how bizarrely Platonic Word can be until I started using it to create the manuscript of a complete edition of Auden’s prose. At the foot of each essay and review, the edition has a line indicating its source, for example, “The New York Review of Books, 2 May 1965,” or “The New Yorker, 27 September 1966.” While preparing the file for the publisher, I applied to all these lines a style named “Article Source”; this style arranged the lines so they were aligned at the right margin, and added a line space above and below. I was puzzled to see that when I applied the style, Word sometimes removed the italics from the magazine title but sometimes didn’t, for no obvious reason. When I applied the style to the first of my two examples, the italics disappeared; when I applied it to the second, the italics remained.

A friend at Microsoft, speaking not for attribution, solved the mystery. Word, it seems, obeys the following rule: when a “style” is applied to text that is more than 50 percent “direct-formatted” (like the italics I applied to the magazine titles), then the “style” removes the direct formatting. So The New York Review of Books (with the three-letter month May) lost its italics. When less than 50 percent of the text is “direct-formatted,” as in the example with The New Yorker (with the nine-letter month September), the direct-formatting is retained.

For what it’s worth, I think the best release of Microsoft Word was Word for DOS, version 5.5. It’s been downhill ever since.

Life at the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak

October 17th, 2014

Here’s a harrowing article by an AmeriCare relief worker about what it’s like working at the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak in Monrovia, Liberia.

When traveling to areas devastated by earthquakes and violent storms, the physical damage is often apparent even before you step off the plane. But here in Liberia where the death toll has surpassed 2,000 and continues to climb, there are no flattened buildings or tent camps filled with survivors. Signs of the crisis are more understated. In front of every building, hand washing stations spill out a diluted chlorine solution. Police at checkpoints stop vehicles so they can check temperatures. And murals graphically depicting Ebola’s symptoms scroll along sidewalks and roads.

The virus has the whole country on edge and everyone is more guarded. It is a matter of survival. There is no shaking hands, no hugging, and no kissing. All the schools in the country are closed as it’s believed that having all those children together would create too high a risk of infection. Parents are telling their children not to play with their friends, to stay home. Many foreign-owned businesses have closed their doors, laying off workers, while other Liberian families suffer as the breadwinners become ill, and customers stay home out of fear.

Canadian geologists get climate change wrong

October 16th, 2014

It’s likely that the post on the Geologic Society of America by a couple of Canadian geologists will likely get taken up by all the usual suspects in the climate change denial industry.  Fortunately there’s a strong rebuttal, which the deniers will likely ignore, but at least it’s out there.

This is quite false, as I found out for myself. My initial reaction many years ago to hearing about climate change was one of disbelief, mixed with a strong suspicion that the climate forecasters had neglected to take the lessons of Earth history into account. I soon found out that I was completely wrong about this. I confess also, as I read the scientific literature, that I learned more about modern geology than I had in many years working as an industrial geoscientist. Unknown to me, immersed in my own areas of specialty, geology had moved on, especially in palaeoclimatology.

This information is not hard to obtain and a great starting point is the work of the IPCC, particularly the chapters on the climates of the past. Although much of the IPCC work is pitched at a level that may be difficult for the non-scientific layman to grasp, for those of us with science degrees these reports are an information goldmine. There is no excuse for non-specialist scientists to be badly informed anymore.

This is why a recent blog article written by Canadian geologists Nick Eyles and Andrew Miall and hosted by the Geological Society of America was such a big disappointment. I am not familiar with Eyles, but Miall is well known and respected for his work in sandstone sedimentology, which is of importance in oil and gas prospecting.

10 grammar mistakes you can ignore

October 15th, 2014

English grammar is fluid and changes over time. Some of the “rules” that I learned in grade school are now considered acceptable usage. 10 Grammar Mistakes People Love to Correct (That Aren’t Actually Wrong) Most people won’t argue about splitting infinitives or ending sentences with a preposition, but some of the other items in the list might be more controversial.

Are you the sort of person who just loves correcting other people’s grammar? Are you sure that you’re doing it right? Some things that people have been taught are rules of English grammar are really not rules at all—and some of them are flat-out wrong.

There’s actually a word for this phenomenon: hypercorrection. It’s what happens when people learn that something that isn’t a rule is a rule.

Now there are plenty of reasons for people to learn about proper English grammar; it can make you a more confident communicator and help you understand the way the language has evolved. But sometimes, when people correct other folks’ grammar in a non-education, non-copyediting situation, they’re not being helpful; they’re asserting their perceived linguistic superiority. And while some who proudly wear the badge of “grammar Nazi” or “grammar police” see themselves as defenders of the language, they’re not really enforcing grammatical rules; they’re reinforcing personal peeves.

When Art Rocked

October 14th, 2014

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I have a particular fondness for the music of the late 1960s. The visual complement to that music was the concert poster, defined by the dizzying psychedelic swirls of the posters from San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s. If you’re lucky enough to be in, or flying through, San Francisco in the next few months, you can see a large exhibition of these posters at the San Francisco international airport.

There’s more about the posters, their history, and the exhibition in this article by its curator, Ben Marks.

When the phrase “San Francisco rock posters” is uttered in certain circles, most people picture bold blocks of psychedelicized Art Nouveau lettering, a skeleton crowned by a garland of roses, shimmering collisions of equiluminant colors, and a flying eyeball peering through a burning ring of fire. That describes the most iconic work of the so-called Big Five poster artists—Wes Wilson, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin. But as good as those artists were (in the case of the late Griffin and Kelley) and are (in the case of the rest), it took more than just five artists to create all the posters and handbills required to publicize all the concerts produced during these years. In addition, if it weren’t for the career pressmen at companies such as Bindweed Press, Cal Litho, West Coast Litho, and Tea Lautrec Litho, the drug-fueled dreams of some of these artists might never have seen the light of day.

Cold fusion reactor passes review by independent experts

October 10th, 2014

A panel of independent experts has tested and reviewed an Italian-designed cold fusion reactor and found that it seems to produce much more energy than could be explained by any known reaction other than nuclear fission or fusion. However, they stop short of saying that it does work by a nuclear process.

Andrea Rossi’s E-Cat — the device that purports to use cold fusion to generate massive amounts of cheap, green energy – has been verified by third-party researchers, according to a new 54-page report. The researchers observed a small E-Cat over 32 days, where it produced net energy of 1.5 megawatt-hours, or “far more than can be obtained from any known chemical sources in the small reactor volume.” The researchers were also allowed to analyze the fuel before and after the 32-day run, noting that the isotopes in the spent fuel could only have been obtained by “nuclear reactions” — a conclusion that boggles the researchers: “… It is of course very hard to comprehend how these fusion processes can take place in the fuel compound at low energies.”

I think I’m going to have to dig up their full report. This sounds exciting but there are a lot of ways an experimental methodology can go wrong as we’ve seen in several highly public cases recently – remember the tachyons that some Swiss experimenters found?