A Daily Diatribe by a Pompous Git

A Sturm's Eye View

A journal of sorts to record Jonathan Sturm's (and others') thoughts and observations on things worth thinking about. Feedback welcome, but be aware that unless you prominently say you want your communication kept private, I may publish it.

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Monday 22 January 2001

Busy painting the House of Steel substructure today. In the evening went to listen to Leo de Castro singing at the Republic. Smoked a Cuban cigar. Hadn't had a cigar for over 20 years. It was fine and Leo still sings well. Not as magically exciting as he was 30 years ago when he was the best soul singer in the southern hemisphere, but good enough.

Thought for the day:

Nothing is more admirable than the fortitude with which millionaires tolerate the disadvantages of their wealth.

Nero Wolfe


Tuesday 23 January 2001

Busy installing Win95 and Office95 on my "new" laptop, then tidying the office (sort of) then installing Win98SE on a friend's machine. Lots of thoughts, but no time...

Thought for the day:

I will be brief. Not nearly so brief as Salvador Dali, who gave the world's shortest speech. He said I will be so brief I have already finished, and he sat down.

Edward O Wilson


Wednesday 24 January 2001

Today Fran, Thomas and I started the timber portion of The House of Steel.

Bob Thompson writes about contemplating building his own telescope and laments: "Nobody actually makes things any more, or so it seems." Of course, like many generalisations there is a grain of truth to this, but many of us do prefer to make things for ourselves in this increasingly nannified world. One of the things I like about where I live is being surrounded by Do It Yourselfers.

Some years ago, I visited Fran, the main person helping with the building of my house. He was in the throes of renovating the old home he had purchased. His wife attempted to throw out an old fence paling leaning against the wall of the living room. "You can't do that!" he yelled. A week later it was a very fine tee-square used to create the drawings of house plans. As the story of The House of Steel unfolds, I will be showing pictures of the many and various tools and contraptions that Fran has devised to make his occupation of home repairs more efficient.

Tony, Fran's fishing companion who did the welding on The House of Steel, had a problem when he came to build his house. He needed a concrete pump but couldn't afford to hire one; so he designed and built his own. His next project is building an oxygen generator so he doesn't have to rent oxygen cylinders for oxy-acetylene welding. (For some peculiar reason it's illegal to own an oxygen cylinder in Australia).

Across the valley from me lives Doug Wynter. He has sheds full of equipment purchased for a song at auctions. Given the need, he can for instance make a replacement crankshaft for his car or motorcycle. Admittedly Doug is a little eccentric. His electricity supply is a diesel generator that consumes a 44 gallon drum of fuel a year. The house lights are gas and kerosene lanterns.

More conventional is Neville Walker across the road from me. When he retired from the police force, he built his home with help from his farming brothers, Tony and Wayne a few hundred metres away. Tony had built his own home shortly before.

In the township, my friend John Young decided he wanted to build wooden boats when he retired from academia. He had never built anything in his life before, but recently he sold the wooden boat building school he and his wife Ruth started. It now draws students from all over the world.

DIY is far from dead. It's alive and kicking when you choose to look in the right places. I must remember to ask Roger, our service station owner and car mechanic if he built his telescope or purchased it. He's a keen astronomer. You couldn't ask for clearer skies for viewing than we have here in southern Tasmania.

Thought for the day:

I was part of that strange race of people aptly described as spending their lives doing things they detest to make money they don't want to buy things they don't need to impress people they dislike.

Emile Henry Gauvreau


Thursday 25 January 2001

Word Processors I have known, loved and loathed

My first word processor was T-Word (from Traveling Software, the creators of LapLink) and it ran on my Tandy 200 laptop. Perhaps my brains have turned to sand, but I remember very little about its features. Possible because they were few. My first real word processor was Borland's Sprint. When I purchased my first IBM compatible PC (an XT clone), I tried out several recommended shareware word processors, Word Perfect, MS Word and WordStar. The shareware word processors had obviously been written by people who did little to no writing. The three main commercial word processors were as different as chalk and cheese and required a lot of learning to get them to perform. Then I read a review.

Borland's Sprint was considerably less expensive than the three biggies, but was just as powerful. Borland had developed it for internal use over a number of years and it had something the other three didn't have: crash recovery. In the event of a system crash, it could recover most, if not all of what you had written. It could also emulate any of the major word processors' keystrokes if you were wedded to a particular product. Sprint's native interface followed the recent push for uniformity by using a common command set (F1 for Help, Ctrl-P to print, Ctrl-C to copy etc). And if that wasn't enough to convince, it came with a powerful macro language from the computer language masters. I purchased it sight unseen.

Sadly, Sprint was a failure in the marketplace. Word Perfect had a stranglehold on the market, though heaven knows why. I met people who had racked up months of training and still couldn't perform tasks that Sprint made relatively easy. I can't say that Sprint's manuals were anything to crow about, but at least they were accurate and comprehensive. And when I needed a new printer driver, Borland sent me a full set of disks (12 of 5.25") that included some minor bug fixes. All the way from the USA at no cost. I loved that word processor! I was given a copy of WordStar, but I found no reason to quit using a well-crafted tool that I had become used to.

The only thing missing was WYSIWYG. I occasionally worked for a magazine where Macs were the rule. Nisus was heaven on a stick! But I have written elsewhere about my several abortive attempts to purchase a Mac. My solution was PageMaker. When I purchased my first 286, it came with Windows 2.11, so I could run PageMaker and Excel. The latter allowed me to come to grips with spreadsheets for the first time (a pox on Multiplan) and PageMaker gave me typographical control when I needed it. It was a lousy word processor, but I still had Sprint and its macros.

Some time after acquiring my first 386, someone lent me their copy of MS Word for Windows 2. For the first time I had a hybrid PageMaker and Sprint. It was in many ways a weird mongrel, but I liked it enough that when Word 6 hit the streets I purchased a copy of WinWord 2 at a bargain basement price. While its macro language was less powerful than Sprint, most of what I had written macros for were available as commands in WinWord. Its type handling was execrable, but most of the time that didn't matter. And PageMaker was there when it did. I was won over to a new word processor.

I very shortly upgraded my bargain basement WinWord to Word 6 having spent less than I would have purchasing Word 6 first. It was a major revamp that provided real productivity improvements, the main one being AutoCorrect (much quicker than AutoText) and AutoSave. There remained one big niggle for word processing heaven, and that had been there right from the beginning. The eight character DOS file naming convention! It irked! Bad!

In the days of Sprint, I used 4DOS to create a file description. Inconvenient, but workable. At this point, I was using long filename descriptions with PC Tools for Windows. Again workable, but inconvenient. Especially when the whole shebang was prone to crash and lose the file descriptions. Word 6 had a method of creating file descriptions, but it was also inconvenient to use and worked only for word processing files, admittedly the bulk of what I was doing.

Then Novell sent me an evaluation CD of Perfect Office. Word Perfect 6.2 contained a cleverly designed file description interface (cleverly hidden and not turned on by default). All of my regular word processing requirements seemed to be covered and the price was right, so I shelled out my shekels and ordered it. When the CD arrived, it turned out to be 30 odd floppy disks, but then Perfect Office wasn't perfect either. I used Word Perfect 6.2 for some six months or so and became quite adept at Reveal Codes. Almost as adept as I was at problem solving with WinWord 2 and Word 6. At this time I had discovered that training users paid much better than writing and lots of Word Perfect for DOS users were converting to the Windows version. I also acquired a copy of Word Perfect for Windows 5.2 to satisfy demand for training in what is undoubtedly the world's worst word processor!

I became a MS Certified Professional in Word 6 and consequently was offered Windows 95 and Office 95 Professional for the bargain basement price of $A125. The T shirt that came with it was the hardest wearing T shirt I ever owned! Word 95 was the perfect upgrade to Word 6. Unlike the gratuitous changes that had occurred between WinWord 2 and Word 6, just a few, genuinely useful improvements had been grafted onto Word 6: long filename support, the red underline for unrecognised words, several useful AutoCorrect defaults, a natural language query engine and indexing for online help. And it was stable! Despite some shortcomings in the area of tables, I still believe this to be the pinnacle of word processing with MS product.

To be continued...

Thought for the day:

Perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.

Angelique Arnauld


Friday 26 January 2001

A day of intermittent rain. I managed to drill some holes in The House of Steel, but not wanting to risk electric shock, or more likely damage to delicate electronic components in the drill, I went to bed for a nap.

Word Processors I have known, loved and loathed Part 2

At the point where I left off yesterday, I was asked to run a computer training company. One of my first tasks was to learn Lotus WordPro and write some training manuals. After a year of training end users in all three of the major word processors at all levels of expertise, I had come to some conclusions. If all you wanted to do was write letters, all three were on an equal footing. Word Perfect was best if you wanted to publish graphically intensive documents. WordPro was the simplest to use and come to grips with for the beginner, but required writing macros to achieve much of what Word provided out of the box. The same was true of Word Perfect, but to a lesser extent.

One thing was abundantly clear comparing Word 6 or 95 with Word Perfect 6.2 and Lotus WordPro 95 -- Word was far and away the most stable. The protagonists for Word Perfect and WordPro extolled the virtues of their respective word processors, particularly on the basis of being able to readily fix file corruption after a crash with easy to use tools. Word's binary format prevents such remedial action. My response was: "why not use a word processor that doesn't crash so often?"

Word 97 was so bad I refused to use it except for learning enough to train end users. While I liked the improved table functions, the user interface and gratuitous changes were annoying. Why the hell did MS place a button on the scroll bar to switch to HTML view and turn off the scroll bar and hence button in the process? Whoever thought that up hated beginners! While in principal I agreed with the switch from WordBasic to VBA, macros written in VBA created many weird problems: like turning off the reminder to save unsaved work on quitting. And it was decidedly less stable than Word 95. The service pack issues were another irritant. The bug count using TechNet gave Word 95 half the number of bugs in Word 6 and Word 97 had half as many again compared to Word 6!

Perhaps MS learnt their lesson. Word 2000 has given me no grief whatsoever; not even the beta I started with. But I note that with the exception of the table functions and new macro language, there's nothing in the new features I use that wasn't in Word 95.

Jon -

What do you think Excel is - except a logical progression/upgrade to Microsoft's Multiplan, which they bought when HES Ware went tits-up? I first used Multiplan for the C-64 in 1982 and have been happily using it ever since (except the Office 97 version is a step backward from the flexibility of Excel 7.0, IMO.)



Perhaps it's my stupidity, but I never came to grips with Multiplan on my Tandy 200 laptop. There was a manual, but much of it made no sense to me. When I acquired Excel 3, I learnt mostly from the online help and had a useful, functional worksheet within hours of starting to use it. While I have never gone beyond the intermediate level of spreadsheet creation, Excel has performed for me superbly in every iteration since then.

Thought for the day:

Progress might have been alright once, but it has gone on too long.

Ogden Nash


Saturday 27 January 2001

Today I ran out of sharp drill bits while boring holes in The House of Steel. Fran had referred to touching them up on his angle grinder, so I thought I'd sharpen my blunted bits on the exotic sharpening attachment on the bench grinder. It's a belt sander and I am using it to sharpen knives, secateurs, scissors and the like. Unfortunately, my sharpened bits were useless. Obviously, I needed to know more about what I was doing and where better to turn than the Internet?

After wading through many pages of advertisements for drill bit sharpeners and several comments from purchasers about how singularly useless most of them are, I came across The UK.D-I-Y Frequently Asked Question. Here I discovered that there is indeed a technique to it and conveying it is primarily visual. There was a reference to an illustrated book, but that is copyright and not available for download. For my purposes, it's not worth buying that book; it would take far too long to get here, and in any event, Fran will be here Monday to show me the trick. Had that information been available for download around $US5-10 I would have whipped out the plastic and paid.

Bo Leuf writes:

In the news...

Rice genome decoded

50000 genes mapped. The overall gene architecture and sequence of rice was found to be nearly identical to that of cereals. This means researchers now have a plant genetic blueprint. The decoding of the genome is expected to provide the basic information required to engineer new types of rice with novel traits. It will also lead to the development of new pesticides aimed at specific pests. Should we worry?

The worry is the belief that the solution to the world's food problems is yet another product to sell. The food problem is mainly one of distribution, not of production shortfall. In any event, we have existing technologies that will allow productivity increases of 30-40% without genetic engineering, new pesticides, new herbicides etc. The "problem" with these technologies is they do not require the purchase of extra farm inputs; they are knowledge/information. Most farming information and funding for research comes from companies whose income is generated from product sales.

There's a congruence here with the software industry. Software is basically a package of information. When the information is more than good enough, there's no incentive to buy more. The revenue stream will dry up. The farm input companies knew this long ago, which is why they keep the focus on commodities, not information.

Thought for the day:

One-tenth of the folks run the world. One-tenth watch them run it, and the other eighty percent don't know what the hell's going on.

Jake Simmons


Sunday 28 January 2001

Today we went to listen to Rory MacLeod play at the Franklin Palais. He was very entertaining and if you have a taste for singer/songwriters you will undoubtedly enjoy him if you too get an opportunity. In the audience was Ian Paulin, a favourite musician I met at one of the Longford Folk Festivals many years ago. He now lives in the Valley and I asked him what he would charge me for playing at The House of Steel housewarming. No, I'm not telling, but it's "mates' rates" as we say around here. Since there will be several musicians at the party, I expect it will be a lot of fun.

Thursday was the nineteenth anniversary of our arrival at our farm in Franklin and I forgot. 

Thought for the day:

Without music, life is a journey through a desert.

Pat Conroy


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Jonathan Sturm 2001

Jonathan Sturm 2001