Useful Tips

If you use Office software for your job, chances are you would like to get more proficient with these tools. Many Office products are so complex these days that it can be difficult to resolve nagging problems or know where to look. I get some of my information from a couple of weekly e-mails, WordTips and ExcelTips. These free weekly newsletters are just what the name implies, a collection of useful tips that just might help you to tame the beast.

Adobe: A Security Risk

Most of us know that operating systems have security issues. Microsoft is best known for this, and issues patches every month on “Patch Tuesday” (the second Tuesday of each month). But Microsoft is not the only one with issues. Viruses and trojans targeting Macintosh computers are becoming more common, and my Linux boxes get security updates regularly. We also know that browsers are a source of security vulnerabilities. Just a few days ago a problem in Internet Explorer seems to have created the opening used to hack Google’s servers in China, but again, I get regular security fixes to my Firefox installations as well.

What you may not have thought about are the vulnerabilities created by the other programs you run, and in this case we have several that come from Adobe. This company has created two file types that are essentially ubiquitous on the Internet: Adobe Flash (this runs all of those YouTube videos, and most video on the Internet), and Adobe Acrobat (PDF files, which are very popular for distributing all kinds of print content). And with these file types, Adobe has created serious problems for users.

Adobe Flash

The problem with Flash is that Adobe essentially re-introduced cookies in a way in that most people did not expect, and were probably not aware of. How big a problem this is depends on your views regarding cookies. I think they are mostly benign, but there are exceptions. I personally do not allow what are called “third-party” cookies. If I visit Google, for instance, I am recognized because of a cookie on my computer that tells Google it is me, and all of my settings and personalizations are preserved for me. I like that. What I do not want is Google giving my information to another company, like DoubleClick (actually, this is owned by Google, but I still don’t like them). DoubleClick would love to track what I do on all other Web sites so they build a profile and send me ads. I set Firefox to reject that. But now it turns out that Adobe Flash, which is used in a lot of Web sites, is creating its own cookies to track what I do. It is even possible for Adobe Flash to create browser cookies, even to re-instate browser cookies I had previously deleted (called respawning). You can read some details in this story from Wired.

So, what can you do? If you want to stop Flash from setting cookies at all, you have to do it indirectly. Adobe apparently never considered this from a security perspective, and so you do not have the options in Flash that you have in most browsers to control this. You can do one or both of two things: 1) Delete all existing cookies: and 2) Stop new ones from being created.

To delete existing cookies, you need to remove all of the *.LSO files on your computer. LSO stands for Local Shared Objects, and this is the equivalent of a cookie. Use whatever search methods your operating system offers, and delete these files. Another way (for Firefox users) is to install the add on BetterPrivacy. This gives you a bunch of options, such as clearing all Flash cookies when the browser shuts down, or when it starts up, and also adds an option to clear all Flash cookies to the dialog for clearing your browsing history. If you use Firefox and want privacy, this add on is very valuable.

In addition to deleting cookies, you can prevent them from ever being stored, but the method is a bit weird. You need to adjust the settings of your Flash player through Adobe’s web site. Go to the Settings Manager, and select Global Storage Settings. Note that it is not the Privacy settings you want here, it is the Storage settings. In the window it brings up, set your storage to None (all the way to the left), and place a check mark in Never Ask Again, and remove the check mark for Allow third-party Flash content to store data on your computer. Note that this may cause some sites to stop working, and it may turn out to be sites you need to work with. In that case, allow third-party Flash content again, and take out the check mark for Never Ask Again. If you leave the storage set to None, it will have to ask you each time if it can have permission to store a cookie.

Adobe Acrobat (PDF)

The problem here is that someone at Adobe had the bright idea that PDF files ought to able to run Javascript. Now, from a security perspective you can argue that browsers should not be allowed to run Javascript. It is one big huge security vulnerability waiting to bite you, and if you are not careful about controlling it, it will eventually get you. But because virtually all of the major sites use it, you often feel like you have no choice. Still, there is an excellent add-on for Firefox and other Mozilla-based browsers called NoScript that gives you pretty good control. In a PDF file, I can only assume that insanity has taken hold at Adobe to add Javascript capability. (Either that, or a pact with Satan. You make the call.) This is just horrible. But what can you do?

Fortunately, this is pretty simple. Open your Acrobat Reader, go to Edit –> Preferences –> Javascript, and remove the checkmark in Enable Acrobat Javascript. This is easy to do, but you want to make sure you do it. There are already exploits in the wild that take advantage of this gaping security hole, and you want to be protected. There is no good reason at all to have Javascript in a PDF document. PDF was created for one reason: To have control over the page layout of documents that are electronically distributed. And Javascript is completely unnecessary for that.

Is Office Software Obsolete?

One of the audio podcasts I listen to is This Week In Google, which despite the name actually covers everything cloud-related, not just Google. It is a very interesting podcast, with Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and Leo Laporte. In this particular episode, Leo asked the others what they used for most of their writing. In each case, it was some kind of online application, not a conventional word processor like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, or Writer. Jeff Jarvis did allow that he had to use Microsoft word when he wrote the book, but he did phrase it as he “had to use it.” It really did sound as if he would have preferred to use something else. Gina Trapani is writing a book right now, on Google Wave, and is doing it all in a wiki that is open to others.

I think that for some things there is no real replacement for the power of a desktop program. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had a contract once at a large legal practice, and I can assure you that lawyers will not be using Google Docs any time soon to write their legal papers. And there are very real questions about security if your documents are online. Plus, you have to consider that having things online can present problems if anything happens to your Internet access or the remote servers. You would be cut off from access to your files.

A lot of pundits have taken these objections as evidence that online software will “never” replace desktop programs. I am not sure. I think there are other facts that these pundits overlook. The first is that online software will continue to be developed. The feature list of desktop software is so rich now that there really isn’t a lot left for them to do. The major new feature of Office 2007, for example, was the Ribbon, and that has received more criticism than praise as far as I can tell. The other major change is in file formats, which is not something most users care about at all. So I think online software can catch up by virtue of the fact that desktop software is pretty much at a dead end.

The second point that we need to consider is how technology will change in the next few years. Most folks have heard about Moore’s Law, which is about how processors will double in capability every 18 months or so. In fact, this type of exponential growth is not restricted to just processors. All technology is growing exponentially. Each new generation of wireless is approximately 10 times faster than the previous generation. Broadband speeds are growing, and so on. Technical barriers to “cloud” software that we see today we possibly won’t see in 2-3 years as the technology improves.

The final point to consider is that these changes often happen rather quickly when a tipping point is reached. There is a technical term, hysteresis, which we could use here. What this means is that a smooth change in the technical and economic parameters can appear to have no effect for a period of time, and then in a fairly short time frame everything changes. I suspect the change from desktop office software to online “cloud” equivalents will probably display this type of behavior. Clearly the online software has an economic advantage, since most of it is free. And online does have advantages in a world where increasingly people want to have access to all of their data all of the time, no matter where they are. We may well see a sudden shift when everything lines up to make the online applications preferable.

One last point is that this will not mean that desktop office software disappears, only that it will not be the dominant way documents, spreadsheets, and presentations are created.

Word Processors can be different

I had a contract once that involved a very large law office. The thing about law offices is that documents are, to a great extent, their stock-in-trade. Legal practice can be very productively analysed as an assembly line for the production of documents. So technologies designed to help manage and produce documents are at the heart of the business. In the dim mists of time, this meant large numbers of secretaries to type up documents, massive file cabinets to hold them, and file clerks to store and retrieve these paper documents. In the 21st century (or as close to it as legal practices can manage) these functions have been mostly taken over by computerized systems. There are still secretaries, but not as many, because many lawyers are finding that word processing technology lets them create documents directly on the computer more efficiently than trying to write out instructions for a secretary to type up. And in place of the file clerks and banks of file cabinets, there are document management systems.

This large practice had purchased such a document management system, and then discovered that it would not work properly with their standard for word processing, WordPerfect. They decided, not without howls of protest, to convert to Microsoft Word, and I was brought in to help with that transition. Trust me, the howls of protest did not stop after the decision was made. There are three groups that epitomize passive-aggressive resistance to change: doctors, lawyers, and college professors. I have worked with all of them, and I don’t think I could pick any one group as worse than the rest. They are all horrible to deal with in their own unique way, and one trait they have in common is the conviction that regardless of the topic at hand, they know more than you do. In fact, they are convinced they are generally more intelligent than you, and are somewhat dismayed that they even have to spend time talking to you.

Nonetheless the conversion proceeded. The biggest howl from all of them was “I cannot find “reveal codes”? I need reveal codes. How can I edit without reveal codes?” And the answer, which they did not like, was “There is no “reveal codes” in Microsoft Word. It does not work that way. Learn to use Microsoft Word in its own terms.” Now with the secretaries this went fairly well. Many of them were even happy to discover things they could do in Word that they could not do so easily in WordPerfect. And I was able to bring around at least a few of the lawyers to a grudging acceptance that Word could in fact do the job they needed.

The lesson here is that 90% of what a word processor does, every word processor does, and in pretty much the same way. If you want to make something bold, or change the font, save document, open a document, etc., you are going to be doing all of these things the same way no matter what program you choose. In some cases, how you do something will be slightly different from one program to the next, but you can generally get the job done if you ask the right question. In this case, instead of looking for “reveal codes” the real question is “How do I find the things that are affecting how my text displays?” And there are excellent tools for doing that in Word.

Don’t Learn Software Packages, Learn How Software Works

There is an issue that causes users more grief than it should, and I think it comes from not thinking about office software properly.

There are lots of options out there. The links at the right only give a few of the most popular. When I got my first x86 computer, it was a PC-XT Clone, in a beige box, from a local assembler. It came with MS DOS on a 5.25″ floppy, and I added WordPerfect for DOS to the order, since the whole point was to do word processing. When I became an Assistant Professor, we originally had WordPerfect at the U., but at some point there was a detour into Ami (which I think is not around any longer). Then another change to Microsoft Office, which meant Microsoft Word. I remember helping a friend who was responsible for IT at a small parochial school with no budget, and got her into Star Office, which came from Germany. A few years later, Sun Microsystems bought Star Office, and unleashed the free open source program on the world, which is what I use exclusively at home, though I use Microsoft Office at work.

Now, these are just a few of the programs that I personally have had experience with. Anyone reading this may have others to add to the list. Is this a problem? I don’t think so, but what it does mean is that you need to think about office software the correct way. Some years ago I was asked to do a workshop on using the presentation software built into the WordPerfect Office suite, which oddly enough is called Presentations. I asked them to get me a copy of the software they used, since I did not have a copy. In fact, I had never looked at WordPerfect Office at all prior to this. But I had no problem putting together a workshop, in little more than a day.

The reason is that I had never learned Microsoft PowerPoint. I had learned presentation software in general, with PowerPoint being a specific case. With that mindset, I could approach any other presentation software with the idea that I already knew what it was supposed to do. All I had to do to adapt to a different program was figure out where the options were listed in each menu, etc. The same applies to any other office program. Every spreadsheet program traces itself back to VisiCalc (no, Lotus 1-2-3 was not the first ), and they all do pretty much the same things in the same ways. Every presentation program does pretty much the same thing. All word processing programs end up doing pretty much the same thing. If you start out by learning Microsoft Word, you will be helpless if presented with anything else. But if you learn word processing, you can take any particular program and get it do your will pretty easily.

This has some pretty major benefits, including financial. At home, I use exclusively, and it never costs me a penny. I also have a portable version of on a USB thumb drive, so I can work anywhere. I have even used it to open Microsoft Word documents that crashed Word on every computer at work. And I can do this because I learned word processing in general, not Microsoft Word in particular.