28 Feb 2005:The Paperless Office

Back in the 70's, Xerox started to worry about all these newfangled computer thingies, and the "paperless office" they promised. Decades later, people bemoan the fact that their offices are still full of paper.
Maybe I'm one of the lucky ones, but I don't really understand the complaint.
I printed out a dozen pages of documentation the other day, because it was published in PostScript format back in 1983, and I didn't have the on-screen fonts to easily read it. I printed it, and could read the document much more easily in that format. That really felt quite strange, though. I rarely print out anything. Putting paper into a printer, dealing with Landscape, Portrait, A4, Letter, etc, just isn't something I regularly do.
Don't get me wrong - I use paper documents; I write a timesheet for work each week, with my physical signature on it (although there are other ways to do this) and I accompany it with paper receipts from the hotels I've stayed in, and meals I've eaten. (I often have to travel around with my job). But that's documents which I just have to give to other people (i.e., that's not my problem).
Receiving paper is something I make every effort to avoid. Whilst my bank choose to spend my money on posting me a statement every month, I read it online; the only pieces of paper I treasue are things like my birth certificate, marriage certificate, drivers license, etc. (although copies of these can be ordered, if necessary).
So far, so boring. This is Steve's ranting page, so where's the rant? Don't worry, here it comes:
My wife is one of the core team involved in some largeish changes in the format / structure of the morning worship at our church. (I have to admit that this doesn't affect me too directly, as 10am is more of a late night than an early morning - I go to the 6:30pm service, a much more civilised time of day).
Still, not too controversial, and still nothing to do with paper, or computers. Here's the gripe:
The other members of the team all communicate by email; my wife doesn't tend to read her email more than once a month (if you're lucky). Their workaround to this problem, is that they just email me instead, and assume that I'll pass on this information (intact) to my wife as soon as I receive it at my company email address. For one thing, I don't necessarily understand the jargon (although I now know that the "fuzzy green bit" is named after Bob's presentation, where one part of the service was marked in green, but he wasn't sure quite what content might go into that part of the service, so it's "fuzzy"). With jargon like "fuzzy green bit", can I really be expected to pass on a coherent message to my wife as we're giving the kids a bath and putting them to bed?
I mentioned (by email) to the rest of the team that as useful as they found it, email is a terribly unreliable (and unidirectional) method of communication with my wife, but they seemed to think that emailing me was as close as they could get to emailing my wife, so it had to be Good Enough™.
This is where the Paperless Office problem comes up: I received an email from my Mother tonight - she forwarded me an email the Minister had sent to her (in error) intending it for my wife. So my Mum forwards it to me, I boot up the desktop PC (which has the printer attached), print the email, and put it on the kitchen counter.
So ... various people want to communicate (often intricate, complex) things with my wife, and choose, instead of contacting her, to blindly send an email to the nearest thing they can find (her husband, her mother-in-law) and hope that the message gets through.
Emails will bounce if you send to an invalid address; maybe I should set my system up to bounce messages which refer to certain words or phrases ("Hi <wife's name>", etc) with a message saying that

Although the email has got through to me, I am an entity discrete from my wife, and whilst we do get occasional chances to talk to each other between work, kids, and other matters, what is important to you (and could be important to my wife) is not meaningful to me, so please do not expect this message to be passed on. If it is passed on, it will be an inaccurate translation, so you are advised to use my wife's preffered medium of communication - the telephone.
So what is the point of this little rant?
It's not to say that I've got anything personal against the people who insist on emailing me, it's simply the assumption that everyone is now "wired". I remember when I got my first email address in 1992, wishing that everyone had email because it was so convenient for me to use. I now realise that that was a naÏve dream, because even if everyone has the ability to receive email (or anything else - phone, fax, windowsupdate.microsoft.com, etc), it does not mean that they will use it.
The internet's problem now (in the Western world, at least) is not that it's too slow, too expensive, or too hard to get. The problem is that those of us who use it regularly forget that others choose not to use it. For some strange reason, they prefer paper.
My wife finds it more convenient that I print her email, and put it on the kitchen counter. The sender finds it more convenient to send an email, than to print and post a physical letter, which would end up in exactly the same place.
Which means that I'm the poor McDuff who completes the chain (when I'm around, and when I remember that I got a mis-sent email, and remember to print it). One solution to this would be an email/SMS gateway (as my wife certainly does check her text messages regularly, and has her mobile phone on her at all times), but when people send huge Microsoft attachments, it doesn't really help anybody.
In short, kids:
  • If you don't understand the question, don't assume that you know the answer
    • Certainly, don't assume that your favoured technology is the answer
  • Work out what the question is before you try to answer it
  • In communication, that means working out what priorities you assign to:
    • Accessibility of the communication
    • Speed of communication
    • Efficiency of communication

25 Feb 2005:Is Torture a Good Idea?

Sign of the way the country's going? On Monday, Channel 4 will be broadcasting a programme called Is Torture a Good Idea?... if you have to ask the question, it seems a rather sad state of affairs.

24 Feb 2005:ID Cards

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/longview/ram/longview.ram (Real Audio, valid until Tuesday 1st March) is a discussion of a man stopped in 1950 for speeding in London, and refused to show his WW2 ID Card, as its purpose was obsolete. This was a key event in getting rid of the ID Card. Now that politicians want to reintroduce ID cards to the UK, this 55-yr old incident is becoming relevant once more.

01 Feb 2005:Microsoft Word

My Mum told me recently that she'd been having problems sending a MS Word document to a few colleagues in advance of a meeting. It was an 8-page document, with one image, but was taking forever to send to her colleagues. Even if she sent it to one person at one, the symptoms, as described by a layperson, were "It gets sent immediately, but then spends hours running the virus-checker."
I.e., it gets sent to the virus checker, which then spends ages checking a huge document, followed by spending aged sending a huge document over NTL's 128kbps "broadband" (with, presumably, about 64kbps upload rate).

I suggested that if she had problems with it, she could send it to me, and I'd see if I could fix it (sending one copy only took about half an hour, apparently).

She did, and the document is, indeed, a very simple document, with some coloured text and some bold text, but very little else. The only interesting thing in the document is the one-page image it contains. However, it is 5.2Mb in size!

The image is an embedded MS Word document inside the main document. This embedded document only contains a single PNG image file, of 2.3Mb. That is clearly overkill for a simple black-and-white diagram (offered here with the actual text scrubbed out, and reduced to 118Kb for putting on the web).

Embedding documents within documents is a pretty understandable thing for people to do, if they've never really looked at how Word documents are structured. Adding this 2.3Mb image to the document increases its size from 48Kb (0.05Mb) to 5.2Mb (5200Kb)!

The image is huge - 1702 x 2238 pixels - it's over 350 dots per inch. You'd need to go to a billboard company to get that printed large enough to be able to see the dots.

Opening the image in an image editor, and saving as a JPG, creates a virtually identical image, but only 192Kb (0.19Mb). Reducing the size, to 600x824 pixels (so you still have to struggle to see dots on a typical PC screen) reduces the size again to 36Kb, but let's stick with the huge image.

Replacing the embedded document with this 192Kb image, reduces the document size from a whopping 5.2Mb to 241Kb (or 0.24Mb - more than 22 times smaller than the original!

Methodology:
I saved the document in OpenOffice.org (OO.o) OO.o's format, which is basically a .ZIP file containing a bunch of text files (XML) describing the style and content of the text, plus any embedded objects, images, etc. (These are included as BLOBs - eg, JPG, PNG, etc). The original document contains an embedded MS Word document. I saved this as "mum2.doc", opened it in OO.o, and used OO.o to save it as an OO.o-format document (mum2.sxw). I then unzipped mum2.sxw, and found the 2.3Mb image. I edited this in the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), and saved it as a JPG image with 85% quality (being a very simple black-and-white document, this is most generous) at the same huge resolution of 1702x2238 pixels.
I then re-opened the original document in OO.o, deleted the embedded MS Word document, and inserted the fixed image file.
If I'd used the 600x824-pixel file, the document would be 85k (0.08Mb, or 62 times smaller). If I'd saved these files using the OO.o on-disk format, the original (very broken) file would be 3.9Mb, not 5.2Mb; the file after the first edit would be 207Kb, not 241Kb, and the one with the 600x824 image would be 51Kb, not 85Kb.

... Ask me again why I rant about MS and closed file formats! This is a great example of how MS "features" lead to users being greatly inconvenienced (how much time has this problem cost you? Or, in commercial terms, since that's how many people view things - how much money would that be worth at your hourly rate? That is the true cost of using Microsoft Word, not the list price) Because Microsoft's .DOC is a closed format, nobody other than MS could fix the underlying problem (which is that adding a 2.3Mb image to a 0.05Mb document increases its size by 5.15Mb!). It also makes it difficult for independent devlopers (such as the OpenOffice.Org team) to decipher MS documents. They do manage it, and pretty well in OO.org's case - I used it to work out what was wrong with this document. Kudos to the OO.o team.

Summary:
The root cause of the problem was the unnecessarily detailed resolution of the original image file (2.3Mb). This problem was more than doubled by the MS .DOC file format.
The fix was to use OpenOffice.org to disect the original document, identify and fix the problem. The result was to reduce the file size by 62 times (with slight, but - in this instance - minimal loss in image quality), or by 22 times with no loss in image quality. I would challenge anyone to find fault with this, once it has been printed on a typical office laser printer at A4 (Letter) size.
The best result is to save the document in OO.o format, which results in a document 104 times smaller, and as a bonus, the file is in a format which is fully documented, so if the data itself can be preserved, the document can be edited in 100 years time, when the Intel processor, and Microsoft Windows, may not even exist - if MS Word still exists in 100 years time, it is unlikely to include a feature to read a 100-year-old file format: if it does, then it will be so bloated as to be unusable.

That is why I keep ranting about Microsoft, their closed file formats, closed source code, and business methods which try to make sure that everything depends on Microsoft software. It's not just that it's clearly very badly-written software (adding a 2Mb image increases the file by 5Mb?!), it's that we don't necessarily have the tools to decipher the documents created by that software.

Random blog - February 2005
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