Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Publication challenge

I went to St German's this morning and celebrated Mass quietly in the side chapel for a change, as the school is on holiday and no class was in attendance today. The OT reading for the day from the Book Ecclesiasticus extolled the practical dimensions of wisdom. It struck me that it applied to both electors and potential episcopal candidates. I wondered if the electoral college would be listening to the same readings in the Cathedral in their morning worship.

In the church hall after Mass, day centre manager Marisa appeared, all freshly suntanned after a holiday in Montego Bay. I found myself thinking about my study tour there back in 1982. She spoke about the sand being sharp, not just hot, and that sprung a memory from deep down. Some of those gold-to-white sandy beaches have, I believe, a high gypsum content. Its powdered crystals are more abrasive than common silica, and this you can feel, if your feet aren't hardened to it. 

The only time I felt this was when I walked barefoot on a beach in Jamaica on a fishing trip, helping to launch a large balsa wood longboat from the shore, in the company of a nephew of Charlie Smith my Jamaican curate in St Paul's Bristol. The island has undergone huge development due to the holiday industry since then, yet still widespread chronic poverty is never far away, as Marisa observed on her dream holiday, I'm pleased to say.

I came home with a little job to do. Peter wanted to create a template using an existing design of which he had a paper copy, as a frame for editable text for a publication he hoped to email out. He could cut and paste a copy to scan into a pdf by cut and paste, but the file was too big and refused to send. I started by telling him how to change the scan resolution settings, and end by taking the job home to see if I could produce what he wanted, and find out the easiest way to teach him how to achieve this for himself. Fortunately familiarity with a variety of tools for editing scanned images and using OCR made this not too hard a task. 

Nowadays I rarely use anything other than Libre Office, but realised I needed to produce an editable file to load into MS Word and not ruin the layout. I used MS Word on-line for testing as the computer I was using didn't have Word installed. But Microsoft's ODF file format isn't wholly compatible with the internationally recognised Open Source ODF format, and neither is their DOCX file format, so loading them obliges you to re-format work to be of any use. It's particularly onerous when working with text and graphics. Eventually, I switched to a machine which has MS Word installed, plus Libre Office, and confirmed the findings. Then I had an idea, and saved the Libre Office product as an old fashioned bog standard DOC file. To my delight, this loaded perfectly into MS Word. Libre Office has been able to create and to some extent edit PDFs for years. This has only appeared in recent version of MS Word. Previously an extra PDF plug-in was required for MS Word to match up to Libre Office, which is still evolving, getting slicker, more capable with each update thanks to collaboration within the global Open Source software programming community.

Several years ago the government administration of Munich converted to Linux desktop software and use of Libre Office. The majority of networks linking computers run Linux anyway, but this was a major step forward, destined to save tens of millions of euros. Since Microsoft decided to move one of its regional headquarters to Munich, the government has been debating the abandonment of this policy and is proposing to revert to MS Windows 10, at least optionally, no doubt supplied at a bargain discount. 

Major challenges to Microsoft's near monopoly of money making desktop software are bound to be met with moves of this kind. The competitive option, however, is to create free software which works at least as well as the paid version, and meets the actual needs of users rather trying to manipulate users into acquiring new needs, or even worse, forcing redundancy on to perfectly serviceable hardware by refusing to update drivers that are compatible with Windows upgrades. If it wasn't for open source software engineers writing or customising hardware drives Microsoft can't be bothered with any more, a lot more devices would fail to work, and the mound of electronic detritus would be even bigger. 

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