Saturday, February 26, 2011

LibreOffice: an update

I've enjoyed using Libre Office so far. The Document Foundation just released a minor update to version 3.3. Version 3.3.1 features several bug fixes and some new icons to differentiate it from, but that's about it.

To my amusement, installing 3.3.1 on my computer again brings up the "Thank you for using" webpage with Oracle's logo. I guess TDF will fix that in version 3.4 or 4.x.

I haven't noticed any difference between 3.3 and 3.3.1, other than the aforementioned new icons. So far I've only used the Writer module. It runs as smooth as silk, and it's a pleasure to use. I've opened and saved documents in several different file formats.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Driving by GPS

While driving around the Land of Many People this week, my sweet wife and I decided it would be useful to take our GPS navigation system with us. It's amazing how you can tell when someone is driving by GPS, even without seeing it through the windows of their vehicle.

When you first turn on your GPS navigation system, a screenful of small words appears, warning you that (1) the GPS may get you lost, and (2) you shouldn't pay attention to it when you're supposed to be driving. Before you can continue to the next screen, you must click on the "I Agree" button on the screen.

I'm not sure how they expect you to effectively use the GPS if you're not supposed to pay attention to it while you're driving. In addition, I'm not sure why anybody would voluntarily use a GPS if there's a greater than 5 percent chance that you will get lost while using it. Be that as it may, let us continue.

In a situation where I was 15 miles from home, with only my young granddaughter in the car with me, and nothing but unknown territory between me and my destination, I had to rely on the GPS to guide me, in spite of the two caveats previously mentioned. I quickly learned two important lessons about driving by GPS - lessons that can be extended to life in general, for those who are wise enough to find the lessons in this narrative.

The first lesson I learned is that GPS drivers have a certain driving style. It's easy to pick them out on the road - not because you can see the devices suction-cupped to the windshield or nestled into the dashboard, but because they tend to make abrupt turns and stops that coincide, oddly enough, with the advice your own GPS is giving you. My first reaction to these drivers was annoyance (yeah, as if I wasn't driving the same way they were, you know?), which was supplanted by amusement, and finally by compassion and a deeper understanding of what motivated them.

GPS drivers drive the way they do because they're not looking at the big picture. They're only looking at the next turn, or the next intersection. At the most, they're looking a half-mile or a mile down the road. They cannot be bothered to look beyond that point, trusting completely in the touch-screen-enabled silicon wonder with the mechanical voice that tells them where to go and what to do.

And that leads to the second lesson: in order to use a GPS navigation system effectively, you need to keep the big picture in mind. When Harriet on your GPS tells you to "Turn left at the next intersection to get onto Route 7 west," and you are confronted with a maze of orange cones and Jersey barriers, and two detours that Harriet didn't know about, what do you do? Well, you do your best, and depending on what kind of algorithms Harriet is running, she will take one of three actions:
1) Tell you to turn around as soon as possible, because you are a moron, as her tone of voice informs you.
2) Go passive-aggressive, and shut up completely, because if you're not going to follow her directions, why should she even bother giving you any? Hmph.
3) Attempt to calculate a new route to your destination, based on your new position and heading. This can take a minute or more.

GPS drivers go into a sheer panic when they observe any of these three actions, particularly the second one. I have seen GPS drivers slam on their brakes on a busy on-ramp because Harriet objected to their actions. (I know that that's what happened because she objected to my actions too, but I was a few cars back and had to slam on my brakes simply to avoid the vehicles in front of me.)

By keeping the big picture in mind, you know that when Harriet says "turn left to get onto Route 7," and the left turn she was expecting you to take has been closed off and replaced by the aforementioned cones and Jersey barriers, then you simply need to follow the signs that say "to Route 7 west," ignore your GPS until you are safely westbound on Route 7, and then press the buttons that will bring Harriet back to your side.

In conclusion:
When you drive, trust your GPS, but don't become a slave to it. Remember to use your brain. Look at the big picture. And whatever you do, please don't drive like a GPS driver.

Old patterns repeating themselves: life with daughters and granddaughters

I'm thinking that the circle of life is a double-loop. Or maybe a Möbius strip. See what you think.

I just spent a very enjoyable five days with my daughter, her husband, and their two children. They have a delightful little house in a friendly Italian-American neighborhood in the Land of Many People.

My sweet wife and I enjoyed their company - all of them. Even so, it seemed like I spent most of my time with my six-year-old granddaughter. We read books, played games, and roughhoused. We went to Subway for an early dinner, just the two of us. We drove into a nearby town to take a picture of a famous celebrity's bakery, and had fun getting lost on the way back. We played Rock Band and watched G-Force. She asked me countless questions, and my answers were either the straight, honest truth, or the biggest whoppers I've come up with yet.

As my daughter observed us, sometimes with a silent smile on her face, something powerful and magical happened - tangibly, repeatedly, and to both of us. While I was engaged in a tickle fight, or spinning another tall tale, or holding a small hand as we walked through an island park, for a few magical moments time looped back on itself. In an instant twenty-two years melted away, and we both saw me going through those same motions, not with my six-year-old granddaughter, but with my six-year-old daughter. She felt it, and I felt it: the subtle reverberation of two circles of time colliding and rubbing against each other.

I love my daughter deeply, and I admire her for the woman she has become and for what she has done with her life. It gratifies me to see her and her husband together, so in love with each other and so united in purpose and direction. Time and distance have conspired to keep her away from us, while we have seen her sisters and enjoyed their company much more often. These little flashback loops in the path of time helped me to recall the fun times we had together when she was younger.

And though it sounds clichéd to the point of inspiring nausea, these moments reassured me that this woman that I now admire will always be my little girl.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Stopping by the neighborhood on a snowy morning

Walking the dog lets me see some phenomena of nature I might otherwise miss. Remember my story about the frost flowers? This morning I got to see another sight, new and unique.

We were on the streets just before the crack o' dawn. Yesterday's fresh snowfall had received a thin overnight coating of Colorado's famous powder, perfectly formed crystals that absorb and reradiate light like so many billions of microscopic mirrors. Like the surface of a mountain lake, the brilliant blue of the predawn sky colored the snow everywhere. Near the streetlamps, the sides of drifts and piles facing the lamps were splashed with yellow light. And all of the east-facing snow features glowed with the orange and pink of the horizon that heralded the coming of a perfect sunrise.

If we stood in the right place, we could see all three colors of snow at once. It was magic at six below (that's 21 below for my Canubian and European readers), but it was short-lived magic. Twenty minutes later, all the snow was a brilliant white.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

LibreOffice: the desktop version

Here are some quick notes about installing LibreOffice 3.3 on my PC's internal hard drive.

The LibreOffice Installer installed MS Visual C++ 2008 Redistributable on my PC. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it's required for LO 3.3 to run on a PC. By including it in the installation, the creators saved me the step of hunting it down and downloading it for myself. Other programs that use run-time executables don't do that. It was a nice touch.

But it does make me wonder what kind of run-time executable the Linux version uses. (I assume the OS X version uses the same RTE as the Linux one.)

At some point in the installation process, the Installer also opened a browser window with a link to , entitled "Thank you for using" and with an Oracle logo on the bottom. I don't know how. I didn't do anything to bring it up. Seriously. It was a moment both surreal and humorous.

Reports from early, pre-release versions of LO were that it didn't play nicely with If I recall correctly (which doesn't happen very often anymore), LO hijacked key elements of the OOo installation for its own use, so OOo didn't start up properly anymore. Well, they fixed that. I now have MS Office 2010, OOo 3.2, and LO 3.3 all playing together nicely on my PC.

As would be expected, there is little discernible difference in either the appearance or the, um, "gameplay" of and LibreOffice. Users of OOo will feel instantly comfortable with LO.

And as for performance, the hard-drive version exhibits none of the hesitation I reported in the USB-drive version. Every keypress and mouse click/move gets an instant response.

Now here's an interesting feature: Help is a separate download. If you don't download it, Help works anyway: the online version can be found at If you downloaded and installed Help on your hard drive, then clicking Help opens the local version; if not, then clicking Help opens the online version. They're identical.

I won't be able to comment on issues of stability or durability for a few months yet.

One of my favorite features of, carried over into LibreOffice, is the formula editor. MS Office and MathType have had a good working relationship for years, and the formula editor is OpenOffice's answer to MathType/EquationEditor. The cool thing about formula editor is that you don't have to take your fingers off the keyboard, if you know what you're doing. You can type this:

x = {-b +- sqrt{b^2 - 4 a c}} over {2 a}

and end up with this:

You gotta admit, that's pretty cool!

I'm sure that and LibreOffice will diverge in appearance and functionality as time goes on. Right now, it's pretty clear that they share the same origins.

One final note for this installment: I added a comment to my earlier post, regarding a "cloud version." Apparently, they did consider "the cloud" when creating LibreOffice.