How I learned to relax and love free software.

Maybe I should say, how I’m learning to relax and love it. It’s progress, not perfection.

As I’ve shared before, I’m an Office 2003 guy, been using it since 2003. It’s good. But sometimes I look at the new stuff – Office 2010 – and I want it. So precious, my precious, etc.


I can’t have it. I can’t put it on my PC. I ran the Office 2010 Free Gratis Beta 2 years ago, and uninstalled it. It wasn’t ready yet. But it left some change in my machine that not even Microsoft’s best registry cleaning programs can fix. Now the latest 60 Day Free Trial of Office 2010 will not install.

Yes, I’ve tried everything except calling Microsoft on the phone, which I’ll be damned if I’m going to do.

By posting so often and so vehemently on this blog on the subject of Microsoft’s onerous and predatory proprietary ways, I drew a line in the sand. Then I stood on this side of my line, with all the free and perfectly acceptable open source software for which I have advocated. And I jumped back and forth until Microsoft gave me a good shove. I mean they crossed they line.

Up with this I shall not put, is my point. So in the noble last words of General George Armstrong Custer, “F–k ’em if they can’t take a joke.”

…OK, that’s a little racist, but it’s funny.

This post was composed in WriteMonkey in plain text and posted to Google’s Blogger using Gmail via Posterous. All free stuff.

Now I’m going to go write something nice, using LibreOffice. I’m relaxed, really.

Hey Bill Gates, you Assclown, you can keep the kool-aid. Grumble grumble. And go pound it up your … sideways. Grumble grumble. So there.


Writing in the Dark

Do you ever wish, when you sit down to concentrate and try to write, that you were not confronted with an array of technology? Buttons and toolbars and menus, oh my. It can make it hard to focus on the words and sentences, can’t it? And the black letters on the bright white screen are hard on the eyes, don’t you think? 

Sure, you can take a program like Word or OpenOffice to full screen temporarily, and in Word you can change the appearance to blue with white text, to help your eyes. But those things make you jump through some hoops. This delays concentration, and it’s still not quite the same as being completely alone with one’s words and sentences.

Last night I read an article in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine, called "Writers Rolling Back the Revolution." It begins:

“Firing up WriteRoom, a minimalist word processor developed by Hog Bay Software, is like turning the clock back thirty years. Gone are the toolbars, the menus, and the array of options that jostle for real estate on the modern screen. In their place, the program unfolds an empty black expanse, a void that can be filled only with the monochromatic glow of unadorned text.”

I will provide a link to the entire article below.*

It seems there is a trend among writers these days, to reclaim focus and concentration that have been hijacked by the unending swells and ripples of technology’s distractions. I’ve seen several interviews and columns by accomplished wordsmiths, saying they eschew full feature software for programs that just let them capture words.

The writer Corey Doctorow wrote a post in which he explains all the tools he uses for his writing, business, and life. He wrote:

Writing: I use a plain-jane text editor that comes with Ubuntu called Gedit. It doesn’t do anything except accept text and save it and let me search and replace it. … I like writing in simple environments that don’t do anything except remember what words I’ve thought up. It helps me resist the temptation to tinker with formatting.

And he has a point. When I’m writing in Word, I’m constantly tinkering with all the bells and whistles, and trying to keep the formatting right. As if the project is headed off to the publisher tomorrow, which it’s not.

So I checked out WriteRoom, and found that it’s for Mac. But there is a clone called Dark Room, for PC. I downloaded it – free gratis – and saw first that it’s so small and light weight, that it downloaded in a few seconds, and doesn’t even install in the system registry. It just arrived, ready to work.

Dark Room is designed for writers, people who need to concentrate for a while and drain the swamp. It’s not for someone who is concerned with formatting their document for presentation, at the same time that they’re composing the text. It simply opens a blank black writing surface which fills your screen without any menus or toolbars at all. In the center is a column for writing plain text. The default is green text on black. If you click Esc or F11, the full screen shifts to a normal Window, with a basic menu. File > Edit > View > Help. Hit F11, and you’re back in full screen.

While working, the right mouse button brings up a content menu with the basics, including some Preferences. You can change the colors and the font, the width of the center writing column, and a few other thoughtful things.

Dark Room saves your work in plain text, Windows txt, the same file type used by Notepad, which has come free and installed on every PC for at least 15 years. And txt is opened easily by Word or virtually any Windows word processor on the planet. No worries about compatibility.

By the way, there’s no speelchker. Spellchkre. Spellchecker. The idea, as I see it, is to open your plain text file in Word or OpenOffice when you’re ready to format it. Spellcheck will run then. And then you can deal with editing, page format, fonts and colors, indenting, page breaks, etc. Then you can print your work when it’s pretty and fancy, or make your PDF. (Yes, you can print from Dark Room. And if you’re a true geek like me, you can make a PDF straight from Dark Room, but I won’t bore you with that.)

So if the point is to get your new ideas – your fresh writing – into the computer without the tech in the way, why not just use Notepad? Sure, I love it. Notepad is the old school #2 pencil of computing. It’s great for keeping little notes. But it’s black text on a bright white screen. And the text runs the width of the window. So either there’s distraction around the window, or your text is filling the full width of your monitor. Dark Room has the adjustable column down the center. So in full screen mode, there’s nothing else visible at all.

Or maybe you want to see a little of your computer – the desktop perhaps – without leaving full screen? Right click > Preferences. There’s a slider to adjust the opacity of the program, so you can see through it.

I used Dark Room to write this post. And the lack of distractions probably contributed to its incredible length. Then I pasted the text into Windows Live Writer, make a few adjustments, corrected a couple of typos which the spelling checker caught, added a link or two, and clicked Publish. Done.


You can find and download the program free at:

That Poets & Writers article is here:

Corey Doctorow’s article on his tools:


You might have noticed I used no in-text hyperlinks in this post, although hyperlinks are the salt and pepper of blogging. That’s because I wanted you to keep reading, not click a link and go off somewhere else. You might not come back, and if you did, that’s still a distraction. Food for thought?

Docs Rat

I love Google Docs. It’s a nice little free word processor, built right in to my web browser and my Google account. I know some of you writers use it. You can create simply–formatted documents. Not just text documents, but spreadsheets, presentations, forms, and drawings. And if you want to, you can export to Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc., for further work. You can even create a PDF directly from Google Docs.

Now I’ve spotted a new feature, drag and drop uploading of documents. Instead of clicking Browse to upload a document and navigating to the correct folder and file, I can click Upload, then drag-drop the document file over a magical spot. Presto, it uploads. It looks like this (click to enlarge).

gdocs upload1

Take note of the conversion options, and be sure to check them. Otherwise, you’re just storing a copy of your original file – in its original format, such as Word. That takes up space in your Google Docs account, and you can’t edit the file as a Google Doc. I guess some people use this as backup storage, but I’m interested in actual editing + storage. I have several hundred documents there, but I’m using 0% of my storage. That’s because if it’s in Google Doc format, it doesn’t count against your 1GB storage limit.

Don’t bother selecting a Destination folder at this point. That feature simply doesn’t work. Bummer. Instead, once you get back to your Google Docs main list, drag your new document into the appropriate folder.

Incidentally, if you don’t see the Drag and drop area, it might be because you’re using an older browser or something. I’m using Firefox 3.6.12 and Google Chrome 7.0.517.44. I have not tried Internet Exploder, because I don’t use that. But in any case, the traditional Select File to Upload link is still there for you.

Bonus Lyrics

Old man down, way down down,
down by the docks of the city.
Blind and dirty, asked me for a dime,
a dime for a cup of coffee.
I got no dime, but I got some time to hear his story
[der link]

words fail us

If you use Microsoft Word, I hope you will read this.


Microsoft Word makes and saves documents in a file type called Doc. Every version of Word uses Doc just fine, including all the newest versions of Word.

Microsoft has added a new format, called DocX. For 99.9% of us, it’s not better, it’s just new. It’s an option for those who need it, but most people don’t. 

Now they have original Doc and new DocX, both just as good.

To make new money, Microsoft makes new versions of their software, right? People who don’t have the software they need will buy the new, especially when they get new computers.

But how to convince people who already have perfectly good software to buy the new stuff for $150 – $450?
By creating the illusion that their existing software is becoming obsolete.

Creating the Illusion

Being sorta evil, Microsoft programmed new Word to make the new DocX format by default. And it still makes good old Doc too. 

Microsoft could have made the new software to keep using good old Doc as the default, and everybody using any version of Word could keeping working together fine. But they didn’t.

When you make a document with the new Word, you can save is as either DocX or Doc. The option is there when you save the document. Piece of cake.

People with the newer Word don’t know this, so they’re out there making DocX files, and the people with older versions of Word can’t open them.

If you have new Word, you can change it to always make Doc files as the default. It’s really easy to change, only takes about a minute. 

People with older Word don’t know they can ask for a Doc file and that it’s easy to make. Instead, they’re buying new software they don’t need. New Money for Microsoft!
Why Not Just Upgrade?
What’s the big deal with buying the new stuff? 
  • A lot of people don’t like it. I got a fee trial version of Office 2010, I tried it and it’s OK. But it looks a lot different, so you have to learn some new ways of doing things. And it’s not more powerful, it’s just more cool. It’s got fancy ribbons instead of simple buttons and toolbars…. That’s just a matter of taste I guess.
  • Word 2003 and the rest of Office 2003 are still a powerhouse. It does everything I need and a thousand things I never will need.
  • It’s perpetuating Microsoft’s proprietary monopoly. They’re just going to keep making newer and cooler, and tempting us to stay on their hamster wheel.
  • Bill Gates has enough money. Do you? 
3 Solutions

1. Use a converter. Microsoft, being only sorta evil, makes a little piece of software you can download. People using older Word can use it to convert DocX into Doc. It’s free gratis.

Here is a link:
2. If you use original Word and someone sends you a DocX file, ask them to send it again, as Doc. All they have to do is open the document and do this:
File > Save As … > doc. It’s a 10 second job.
3. Stop sharing Word files. Word is for making documents, not sharing them. Sending someone a Word document is like handing someone a bowl of flour and sugar and claiming it’s a cake. 
Unless you really need someone to collaborate on your document, send them a PDF. I have previously posted how to do this
If you do need someone to work on a document or finish it, there is an etiquette involved. At least ask them what kind of software they use. Don’t assume. 
I’m not the only one who feels this way. There’s a movement sweeping the planet, to end Microsoft’s illusions of monopoly. Here’s a sample: 
We should all stop believing the myth that we need any version of Microsoft Office to make any documents, ever. There are many different programs for making documents, and many of them are free to all. And many don’t present the problem of others not being able to open your documents. 
Microsoft should compete by making the best stuff, not by creating the illusion that they have no competition and you have no choices. 
Microsoft Office is admittedly the biggest and arguably the best. But sometimes the biggest and best of something is like with cars and trucks – you aren’t going to need or notice the difference unless you’re in a race or going off road. 
Maybe you’re somebody who doesn’t need the Microsoft Monster Truck of computing and would be happier with a Honda, is my point.  

how to print document comments

One of my favorite writers, Kent Haruf, has shared that he writes in a small semi-basement “coal room,” in his home, where

“I have brown wrapping paper taped up on the wall, on which I make notes about whatever novel I’m working on ….”*

I can see where that would be effective. I keep a lot of notes when I’m writing too. And for a long time, I’ve struggled to find a method like that, which can work effectively for me. I’ve tried sticky notes on a big mirror, which is similar.

Most recently, when I’m writing and editing I use the comments features of the word processor. And Evernote, Google Docs, and a tangle of associated Word files. If the notes are large and not associated with a place in the existing text, then God knows. But if I’m making small notes about my existing stuff, I can insert them as comments in the manuscript itself.

Both Microsoft Word and Writer have a feature that one can use to create such comments, which appear as mark-ups. I’m sure this was designed for getting feedback from the boss, or Engineering or whatever, and I’ve used it that way at work.

In Word, comments can be viewed as balloons in the margin or as hidden boxes which appear when the cursor is moved over the relevant portion of text. In Writer, only margin balloons are used.

The comments that the writer, editor, or other collaborator have made in the text can be useful – even critical – to the completion of the work. So rather than scrolling through the document looking for the comments and reviewing and handling them, a list of comments might be made for review. Here’s how to do that.

Word 2003 
Do a Print command in your usual way; whatever you do when you want to print something.

When the Print dialog appears, you’ll see an option in the lower left that says, “Print what.”

Word print markup list
       [Click images in this post to view enlarged]

Change the Print what option to “List of Markup,” as shown in this figure.

This tells the software that you want to print out mark-ups – Comments – not the whole text of the document.

Note: In that figure above, you’ll see that I’ve selected my favorite PDF printer instead of my paper printer. Unless you need your list of comments on slices of dead tree, I recommend PDF. And Mother Earth thanks you.

Proceed with printing normally. Writer
 Do a Print command. The Print dialog appears.

writer print dialog

Click the Options… button in the lower left corner. The Printer options dialog appears.

writer printer options

One of the columns there says, “Comments.” You can select to print Comments only – just the comment in the manuscript – as we did in Word, above.

Proceed with printing normally. 

And this is cool: Writer lets you choose to print the complete document (PDF is an option here again) with its comments gathered at the end, or at the end of each page.

Hope this comes in handy. It does for me.

* Kent Haruf’s column on the habits and methods of writing, To See Your Story Clearly, Start by Pulling the Wool Over Your Own Eyes, was published in the NY Times, 11.20.2000.

So how’s the book going?

Well. I’m very something that you asked.

word count 20100508

That doesn’t really tell you much, does it? There’s a lot of writing there, and some of it isn’t bad. A little is pretty good. But it’s lumpy in spots and thin and threadbare in others and it needs a lot of smoothing out and filing in. I think what it needs is a good road maintenance crew, as much as it needs a writer.

Yes, cracks and potholes and places where the pavement’s too thin. And some of the more interesting gaps are in places where the narrative stretches out over jagged rocks and rushing creeks. Don’t look down.

I might share a fresh-baked morsel with you, gentle readers, but when I’ve done that before … well, let’s just say the crickets were coming through loud in here. So let’s not.

Those who have followed my scintillating adventures with software and file management will note note with indifference that I’m still writing with Microsoft Word 2003.  Oh I paddled back and forth between Word and OpenOffice writer for a while, finding arcane and subtle differences between features and processes, customization, etc. And now I’m treading water. I like them both.

Writer has compelling advantages, including the fact that it’s new and free. Word has the advantage that I already own it, which makes the free-ness of Writer irrelevant to me.

Here’s a Web site with lots more comparison info. But the bottom line for today is, Word’s a little better if you’ve got it. Writer’s a lot better than spending money, if you need it.

At the present, I’m working with the manuscript in 38 separate numbered Word files, kickin’ it old school. This is because Word choked a couple of nights ago and crashed and scared me. That’s when it was all one 239 page file, and I was moving chunks of text around. So I’ll let it work on smaller servings for a while. 

death by powerpoint

Powerpoint is driving the Army nuts.

A funny article in the NY Times about the US military, and how everything they plan or do is being reduced to Powerpoint slides.  The reducto absurdum of war.

Like an insurgency, PowerPoint has crept into the daily lives of military commanders and reached the level of near obsession. The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The article includes some quotes which are fast becoming famous, including this wonderful thing:

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.
Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

– Brig General McMaster

Yes, he was referring to Powerpoint when he said, "it's dangerous."

Also via this article, we can all have our very own copies of this amazing Powerpoint slide, a real Army document which illustrates just what they're up to over there. Go ahead and click that link. It's been rendered for posterity as a humble jpg file. I wish George Orwell was alive to see it. He might say, "Sonofabeach, I hadn't imagined this in my wildest dreams."

Poor Microsoft gets blamed for everything. It's another example of how the method has become synonymous with the process. Just like to google something replaced searching for it. Not everybody uses Google, but we all say, "I'll Google that."

Hey, maybe they should try Google Docs. It has a nice lightweight alternative to Powerpoint. And with a satellite internet uplink, they could work on their presentations from anywhere in the field of operations. … Or maybe they wouldn't like that much. This motto might be stenciled on a tank:

No Powerpoint, No Peace

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?