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The Huw Collingbourne who writes this column is not the same Huw Collingbourne implicated in recent scandals involving soft fruits, cuddly toys and a senior member of the Royal Family

March 2004

Naked models, financial impropriety and corruption are all in a day's work for Huw Collingbourne. This column first appeared in PC Plus issue 213.

 

It's been a traumatic month. The cat's had a cold, the dog's had a bath and I've had a bad case of Microsoft Word. Before discussing the more trivial of these matters, let me put your mind at rest by bringing you up to date on the important events. You will be pleased to know that, following a protracted course of antibiotic tablets thrust delicately through a set of razor sharp teeth by my own highly-scarred fingers, the moggy has now recovered from her cold. The dog has just about got over the shock of his bath and has now successfully regained his (and quite possibly several other dogs') smell. Which just leaves me and Microsoft Word 2003

And leave it I should have, I feel in my gloomier moments, unopened in its box. However, having deliberately avoided the previous release of Office, I am now two releases behind the current version. So, with gritted teeth, I decided the time had come to install Office 2003.

Having done so, I spent a happy hour turning off all those silly 'smart' things. You know, those irritating little gizmos that pop up and ask you precisely how you want to paste a piece of text, whether or not you want to add someone's name to your address book, is the moon really made of green cheese and what did the chicken do once it had crossed the road.

Then I set the default file save format to RTF. Having previously experienced problems with a corrupted Word DOC file, I now prefer to use a non proprietary format. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that my choice of RTF caused more problems than it solved. Sometimes when I save an RTF file from Word 2003, its text formatting goes badly awry when the document is loaded into Word 2000. Backward compatibility of DOC files is much better. While I still don't really trust DOC files, at least the word processor in the excellent free OpenOffice suite also reads this format so it may be able to get me out of trouble (in fact, it has done so in the past) if Word refuses to read one of its own corrupted files.

MAP READING

My next problem came with the document map. When working on long documents such as the story of your life or the greatest novel since Biggles Flies Undone (interested publishers should contact me direct) the document map is invaluable. It takes the form of a mini-outline of headings and subheadings arranged in a pane alongside the main editing window.


Can you read text in the document map on the left of this screen? No, neither could I. Until I discovered an undocumented secret of Word 2003.

The trouble is that Word 2003 frequently scales the text of the document map to fit the width of the pane in which it is displayed. If you reduce the width of the pane, the text may become unreadably tiny. This is a problem that afflicts Word XP (2002) and Word 2003 but not Word 2000. It is one of the reasons why I decided not to use Word 2002. When I found the problem was still unfixed in Word 2003 my heart sank. I searched the help system and I searched the Web for a solution but to no avail.

It's taken a lot of trial and error and many hours of tearing out handfuls of hair by the roots but at last, by Jove, I've fixed it! This is the way to do it. Make sure the document map is not visible. View a document in outline mode. Set a zoom factor (e.g. View, Zoom, 100%). Now whenever you display the document map it will adopt this zoom factor. Setting the outline zoom factor to Page Width causes the document map scaling problem I mentioned earlier. I'm not sure if Microsoft would regard this as a bug or a feature. Frankly, Word 2003 is now packed with so much useless stuff that it's often hard to tell the difference.

If you don't like or can't afford Microsoft Office 2003, there are some alternatives. One of the best is OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org) which is not only powerful but, better still, free. The main deficiency of OpenOffice is its lack of a database. Sun Software's Star Office (www.sun.com), an enhanced release of Open Office, does include a database as well as various additional tools such as spell checkers, clip art and templates. Star Office 7 can be bought from Amazon (www.amazon.co.uk) for around £45. Finally don't forget Ability Office (www.ability.com) which combines word processing, spreadsheet, database and graphics for around £45.

CASH CRISIS

Word hasn't been the greatest of my trials this month. Regular readers will know that I have spent the past few months struggling to get my accounts into shape with the help of book-keeping software. This is scary stuff. I mean, I’ve been using and programming computers for more than twenty years and I am not easily intimidated by a mere piece of software. But half an hour with a book-keeping package is enough to reduce me to a quivering heap. I’ve read the manuals, I’ve read the help files, I’ve played with the demo files and I still can’t figure out how to get my accounts to balance!


Quite possibly my accountant would be happier if I kept my book in Sage Accounts, seen here. Well, I guess I can live with an unhappy accountant!

Having given up my battle with both QuickBooks and MYOB, I decided to see if I could learn to live in peace with Sage Accountant (various prices from about £500 for Line 50 or £110 for the Instant Accounts range, www.sage.co.uk). This is undoubtedly a powerful program which, with care and experience, could make fairly light work of quite complex accounts. But – and this is a big but – in the initial stages of learning it, there are all kinds of confusing and potentially expensive traps that you could fall into. For example, if, having calculated your quarterly VAT bill, you forget to press the ‘Reconcile’ button, you could end up paying that quarter’s VAT all over again with the full amount being added to your next quarter’s VAT bill.

Maybe I am particularly error prone, but I made a number of other errors when setting up my accounts in Sage. These include confusing the due dates and entry dates of my invoices and (somehow, though I’m still not quite sure how I managed it) accidentally creating a duplicate invoice that had to be removed using a special Account Maintenance utility. I also had enormous problem reconciling my bank accounts due to the fact that I mistakenly entered payments made for several pieces of work on a single batch-entry screen which seemed like a good idea at the time but ended up by grouping together payments belonging to different bank statement periods.

ACCESS ALL AREAS

Now I'll be the first to admit that I am responsible for all my own woes. I am quite certain that a regular user of Sage would not have these problems. That does not alter the fact that I am clearly not learning to love the book-keeping software which I've been using.

I think my fundamental objection is that they all go to great lengths to lay down the law as to what you can and can’t do with your own data. In Excel or Access, if I want to change a date, I can do so at any time. Book-keeping software tries to protect you from the error of your ways by making it either impossible or, at least, pretty damn’ difficult to make any such changes. In Access and Excel I can instantly get at all my data in a data table or spreadsheet and search and sort it any way I like. In book-keeping packages I can only get at narrowly defined views of my data. Each view places different restrictions on how much data I can see and what I can do with it. This may be a virtue in a big company with numerous data entry operatives. But frankly I'm prepared to trust myself with my own data – so, for heaven’s sake, just let me at it!

I only managed to track down my errors by comparing the results produced by Sage Accountant with those calculated in an Access database. I'd suggest that anyone learning to use a book-keeping package should keep duplicate records in a database, spreadsheet or even in a good old-fashioned pocket book.

Me? After several miserable months of trying to make sense of book-keeping software, I’m throwing in the towel. From now on, it all goes into Access with maybe a bit of Excel on the side just to relieve the tedium.

NAKED AMBITION

Some programs mature with age while others just get middle-age spread. In my opinion, Microsoft Office falls into the latter category while Curious Labs' Poser (www.curiouslabs.com) falls into the former.

I must say that I was not particularly overwhelmed by the early releases of Poser. The software equivalent of an artist's wooden mannequin, it made hard work of posing little stick figures before transforming them into android figures with mask-like faces and plasticky hair. When Poser 5 (about £350) was released I didn't even bother to scrounge a review copy.


In Poser 5 you can create stylish haircuts for your models. Just be grateful I'm not your hairdresser!

Having misspent one of the more disreputable parts of my youth in an environment of sexual and chemical promiscuity known as an 'art college', I still occasionally suffer from a desire to do a bit now of what I used to do back then. Sketching, that is. Getting out the old pencils and paper and executing finely drawn renditions of well defined clavicles, scapulas and tendinous intersections. And thus it was that I finally decided to try out Poser 5.

Frankly, if I'd realised it was this good I would have been much keener to get my grubby hands, mouse and graphics pen on a copy long ago. Most of my criticisms of Poser no longer apply. It now has proper hairy hair. It can even add cloths that drape around figures rather than encasing them like suits of armour. And for more lifelike faces it lets you import photographs of your nearest and dearest so that you can make convincing replicas of your boss, accountant or mother-in-law.

You can import Poser figures into third-party software. More complete integration (via plug-ins) with the likes 3D Studio Max, Lightwave, Cinema 4D is promised soon. If you want to place Poser figures into beautifully rendered landscapes, however, you can do that now by importing Poser figures and animations direction into E-onsoftware's (www.e-onsoftware.com) superb scenery designer, Vue 4 Pro.


Copyright © 2009 Dark Neon Ltd. Not to be reproduced without permission.


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