A (Task) Pane in the Posterity, and Writing Documents for It

It seems like a while since I was dragged kicking and screaming away from Office 2000, and "upgraded to" Office 2003. I didn't go easily, and it certainly wasn't by choice. Like all tradesmen, you get used to your favourite tools – both their advantages and their shortcomings - and I'd spent a long time pounding the keyboard of Word 2000 for articles and books, and PowerPoint 2000 for the training courses, user group and conference presentations I do on a regular basis. I pretty well knew when Word was likely to fall over or mangle my document, and which animations or color schemes PowerPoint would "lose". In fact, it was only because people kept sending me PowerPoint 2003 files with comments in, which aren't visible in PowerPoint 2000, that I was pushed into making the move.

Like any new relationship, it was exciting at first as we explored each other's features and capabilities. And then familiarity slowly takes over as you get used to the other person's idiosyncrasies and inevitable failings. After a while I was again planning ahead to save the document before a lockup in Word (I must start using simpler documents), and I still managed to screw up most of my PowerPoint presentations when changing templates (I must start using standard styles).

But, even after all this time, there are some things that really annoy me about the new look and feel of Office 2003. Maybe I just haven't found the right place in the Help files to figure out how to change the defaults. And talking of the Help file, that's just the start of my most annoying feature changes. Why does everything have to be task panes and fancy overlays? Is it that MS think we've lost the ability to switch to another application window? Why can't I open the Help file and read it, allow it to drop behind the main application window, then Alt-Tab or switch back to it when I want to. Instead, it takes up a chunk of the window, moving everything around and generally getting in the way.

And what's with the stupid "three dots on the end of the title bar" thing that makes it a bit like a tool bar, but not really. Click or double-click on the title bar and you get a drop-down menu. Yes, there's a "close" button, but where did the "window" menu (the one with stuff like Restore, Minimize, Move, and Close) that's supposed to be at the top left go? Even the whizzy "shortcut menu" key on my keyboard won't bring up a "window" menu.

So why would I want one – well I managed somehow to move the Insert ClipArt task pane so that the "three dots" bit was off-screen (don't ask me how). With a "real" window, I'd hit Alt-Enter or the keyboard "shortcut menu" key, and use the arrow keys to get it back. But no chance with the task pane. Heaven knows how people cope who can't, for a variety of reasons, use a mouse! Of course, I looked in the Help file for the answer, but that opens in the same task pane so I couldn't read the search results. I considered re-installing Office, or even FDISK (and even opening the window and throwing the machine out), but in the end some frantic clicking made it dock at the top of the screen (I've no idea how or why – I can't repeat the process). I guess for safety I'll leave it there for good, and buy some stronger glasses so I can make out the reduced size of the actual document on the remaining bit of screen.

And, still moaning about task panes, what's with the clip art thing? I selected "everything" when I installed Office 2003, but I don't seem to have any clip art. Instead, every time I want to search for some it takes about two minutes, during which period PowerPoint locks up, and then another full minute every time you scroll through the results. OK, so I get a great selection from the Office Online site, but I'd like to be able to choose where it goes looking! Maybe, again, you can change this behaviour. If I can find a task window that contains the Help file, I'll have another look.

Meanwhile, off on a different tangent, and looking at writing for posterity - or at least writing documents that have the same inevitably short shelf-life as most software these days! I've recently been producing some semi-technical documentation for Microsoft here in the UK, though it has to comply with the usual "US English" and Microsoft's own strict grammar and copy standards. Over the years I've been writing for US publishers, I've moaned about what the editors do to my beautifully-crafted text, turning it into American and twisting it round to match the Chicago Rules of Stuff that they all seem to use as a style guide.

So I suppose it's time I passed on my heartfelt apologies for the years of cursing and swearing at this hard-working, conscientious and severely under-pressure group of people. All of a sudden, faced with dollops of content written by technical architects and developers that has to meet the standards, I can see just how hard it is. I've never hated green squiggly lines so much. As fast as you get rid of one at one end of sentence, two more pop up at the other end of the sentence. Cure those, and you can bet one appears in the middle. After a while, you get the feeling you're playing that "Whack the Mole" game!

Of course, what makes it worse is that the sentence sounded fine before I started trying to get rid of the green squiggles. All that happens is it sounds worse, ending up so stilted that I'm ashamed to put it into the final draft. So, yes, now I know what you people go through! And, worse still, I realize that it has to be done – without it the automated translation tools that MS use wouldn't have even a chance.

As an example, this (to me) sounds fine, except that I agree the "really great" bit is probably a bit over the top:

However, changing this brings up another green squiggle, and now you have to remove the Passive Voice bit:

But notice the lack of squiggle under "transferring". What's wrong with this? Well, it's a "gerund" (a word with the –ing ending). These words often cannot be translated successfully into other languages. Moreover, according to the guidelines, things such as "i.e.", "e.g.", and "etc." are unacceptable, so the other highlighted part also needs changing.

To get rid of the gerund, you generally have to switch the word order, for example: "Data transfer via Web services is a great technique...". But that sounds wrong, so let's try "Data transfer via Web services offers numerous benefits...". Ah, that's better – but then you remember that you aren't allowed to use Latin words, so the "via" has to go. After some more fiddling around, it ends up as:

Data transfer through Web services offers numerous benefits, but also presents some
additional challenges in terms of performance. In general, they involve more processing
work and network bandwidth than traditional integration methods such as direct binary-
format data access against a relational database.

And you may end up applying a process like this to every second or third sentence! Those technical and copy editors certainly do deserve a medal...

Email: feedback@daveandal.net         Privacy and Acceptable Use Policy