sass and foss

The words of the day are sass and foss. This blog post is guaranteed or your money back to be the first occasion in the history of human languages in which the words of the day are sass and foss. And it is this crazy, slippery-footed tilting toward what’s unique and fresh – perhaps a bit absurd – that makes Metaphor so much fun.

Sass is from today’s Word a Day e-mail from Anu Garg, at

It is defined there as

noun: Impudent talk; back talk.
verb tr.: To talk disrespectfully, especially to someone older or in authority.

My favorite part of the word a day e-mails, frankly, is the daily quote. It’s usually more thought provoking for me than the day’s word. Today’s is from writer Fran Leibowitz, but it’s not one of my favorites by her. Here’s a better one:

All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.

And then there’s this one:

I never met anyone who didn’t have a very smart child. What happens to these children, you wonder, when they reach adulthood?

Funny!  You can find more Leibowitz quotes here. And that’s enough about sass.

Foss stands for Free and Open Source Software. Free in this context refers to its license, not its cost. All software is licensed, meaning that its copyright gives people the right to use it, or not. FOSS is software that has a liberal license, which grants users the right to examine and study it, change and improve its design. The source code – the underlying program – is available to developers.

The term “free” in this context can be confusing. Wikipedia says, “In the context of free and open source software, “free” is intended to refer to the freedom to copy and re-use the software, rather than to the price of the software.” And that is true, except that a lot of free software really is free. Ah, English.

I’ve been giving this topic a lot of study lately, because the new version of Microsoft Office – 2010 – is thumping and trumpeting toward us like a great ceremonial elephant of incredible cost.

And part of me sort of wants it; it’s beautiful, the precious. I think we all understand what it’s like to covet things we don’t need, to be tempted by the marketing hype. To my credit, I rarely fall for it.

Part of me says Oh don’t be a yuppie acquisitive porcine fool. You have everything you need, and you don’t need that stuff, any more than you need a parachute on your pickup truck.

OK… I’ll wait while you look at the picture again. That’s Gollum from Lord of the Rings with an iPhone, and Obama, and McCain doing a hell of a Gollum impression. …  Good stuff … Ready?

Microsoft (MS) software is never free, although some of it doesn’t cost anything. Windows Media Player comes to mind. But I’m referring to Office software here; productivity programs, which we writers need.

MS Office is proprietary, closed source. It is manufactured and sold only by Microsoft, the owner of the patent and copyright and brand. It’s locked and top secret like Colonel Sander’s secret recipe. The company goes to great lengths to enforce copyright, spreading its presence over the planet like the Eye of Sauron. And they have that right.

They might say that strict copyright, and massive global campaigns against software piracy, help protect the consumer against faulty counterfeit software, while it protects MS revenues. OK, sure, and MS has the right to zealously protect its products. It has the right to charge an arm and a leg for a copy of Office.

I like MS Office, as I’ve said here before. I like my Word 2003, and other goodies. I’m not un-installing it just because I’ve got an itch for social justice and I found My problem with MS proprietary software is the implication – the assumption – that we need it. Not that it’s better, or recommended, or excellent, but necessary. In truth it is good, but costly and not necessary.

To clarify, the problem of word processing software does not arise with what you use in your personal computer. It arises between computers and between people.

If someone sent you a Word file attached to an e-mail today, and you didn’t have MS Office with Word installed on your computer, what would you use to open and edit that file?

Unless you’re pretty computer savvy, you think you need to buy MS Office to use the files it creates. MS has told you this; they’ve whispered it in your ear. Psst! Word processors use doc (docx) files, doc equals Word. You need Word. 

MS wants a monopoly and tons of dough. They set high prices. Now we have a class of computer users who have MS Office and one that doesn’t. One can collaborate on Word documents, and one can’t. As far as they know.

By aggressively overpowering competition, MS has created the false premise that the only way to develop good documents is to use MS Office. This forces people to use software they don’t need, and undermines the opportunity to use lower-cost and free products. Even worse, MS tells us that MS Office is for sharing documents. This is a growing problem today, because document creation is going social – it’s moving off the desktop and into The Cloud. And up there, people really are going to need more than ever to be using exactly the same software.

This is not good. I think using computers to develop and share stuff is good for society, and everyone should be able to participate as freely and openly as possible. That’s social justice for the digital world.

But none of those MS – inspired pre-conceptions is true. MS Office is just a software suite that includes several components, including a word processor called Word. There are other Office suites, made by other people, that have several components, including a word processor. They will work with the same types of files, including Word files. And if we take the time to learn what we’re doing, we don’t have to be swept away by MS monopoly or pay for the painted elephant.

Computers themselves are expensive enough. They should come with software included, including MS Office if that’s what MS wants us to use. We do have a choice, most of us just don’t know we have it.

The only person I regularly share Word files with is my Mom. I installed her copy of Word on her computer, so I know that her version is the same as mine, so it should give the same results. Probably.

I try to avoid it with other people, because when we attach Word to an e-mail, there’s a chance that the recipient won’t be able to open it. If their version of Word is different, it will get messed up. The page layout, margins, headers, footers, fonts, etc., could all get screwy.

Here’s where it really gets creepy: Say you need to submit a document to an institution, such as a job application to a company, an application to a college, or a form to the government. You go to their Web site, and are told to upload a Microsoft Word file. I have seen this, I’ve done it. Click here to attach a Word file. Not everybody has MS Office. Not everyone runs anything from MS. What if you have a Mac and use Apple’s word processor?

It doesn’t say Upload a DOC format file using your preferred word processor. It says Word, the propriety brand name of Microsoft’s word processor. This means that governments and institutions are fostering the monopoly for MS, to the detriment of the general public. Can you say antitrust? Sure, I knew you could.

Imagine getting a summons to appear at the courthouse for jury duty. It says you must arrive driving a Ford, legally registered in your name. Borrowing a car is absolutely forbidden, making your Toyota look like a Ford is illegal, sharing a ride is verboten, and don’t bother taking the bus because only Fords will get you there. 

First of all, stop believing Microsoft. Buy their excellent stuff if you want to, use it, enjoy it, but don’t believe you are required to. You don’t have to use MS Office. There are free Office Suites like, and low-cost ones like Oracle OpenOffice. (Those are the same thing, as far as I know, except that Oracle sponsors the first one free, and the latter has a few more features, like an e-mail program. The high end price is $90.)

Now you can have a full-featured office productivity suite that’s compatible with Microsoft Office—at just a fraction of the cost. It’s easy to use and has all the features and tools you could ever want. With its powerful functionality and low price, Oracle Open Office is an excellent value. – Oracle Web site.

Bonus Mind-blower: You don’t even have to run Windows on your PC. There are free operating systems, Linux and GNU. You can buy a computer with no operating system and put a free one on it, then go from there. Getting techy here.

See why I’ve been pushing on this blog? It opens MS Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint) files, works with them, and saves them again in their original MS Office- compatible form, or in Open Document formats that are free for the public to use. People who don’t want to buy Microsoft Office don’t have to. They can use this free Office software and still be compatible with people using MS Office.

Don’t send Word attachments. I still don’t think it’s a good idea, no matter what software you’re using. Don’t ask others to send them to you. They don’t always come out right, they can contain viruses, and it’s just perpetuating Microsoft’s ostensible monopoly. Exception: you’re both using the same software, and you are both creating or editing the document.

The best way is always to Send a PDF. That’s a file that always looks exactly the way you wanted it to, no matter you used to make it, and no matter what software the other person has.

For instructions on how to get a free PDF creator and make PDF files, go to this page. Hey, that’s a free PDF about making free PDFs, written by me with a free word processor, made into PDF for free. Sweet.
Have a short document – just some text – that you want someone to have? Made it with your Word or something like that? Don’t send an attachment at all. Paste your text into an e-mail, and ask for review and a reply.

Coming in a future post: What about the cloud?