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Brain dump and Knowledge management and The Web and Writing13 May 2011 at 0:23 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Using this blog for occasional casual experience capitalization means that an article captures and shares a fragment of knowledge I have managed to grasp at a given moment. While this frozen frame remains forever still, it may become stale as knowledge moves on. Comments contributed by the readers may help in keeping the article fresh, but  that only lasts as long as the discussion. After a while, part of article is obsolete – so it is with some unease that I see some old articles of dubious wisdom keep attracting traffic on my blog.

Maybe this unease is the guilt that  comes with publishing in a blog – a form of writing whose subjective qualities can easily slide into asocial  self-centered drivel. Maybe I should sometimes let those articles become wiki pages – an useful option given to  contributors on some question & answers sites. But letting an article slide into the bland utilitarian style of a wiki would  spoil some of my narcissic writing fun. That shows that between the wiki utility and the blog subjectivity no choice must be made : they both have their role to play in the community media mix.

So what about the expiration date ? I won’t use one : let obsolete knowledge, false trails, failed attempts and disproved theories live forever with us for they are as useful to our research as the current knowledge, bright successes and established theories that are merely the end result of a process more haphazard than most recipients of scientific and technical glory will readily admit. To the scientific and technical world, what did not work and why it did not work is even more important than what did – awareness of failures is an essential raw material of the research process.

So I am left with the guilt of letting innocent bystanders hurt themselves with my stale drivel which I won’t even point to for fear of increasing its indecently high page rank. But there is not much I can do for them besides serving the articles with their publication date and hope that the intelligent reader will seek contemporary confirmation of a fact draped in the suspicious fog of a less informed past with an author even less competent than he is nowadays…

Design and Free software and Writing31 Aug 2009 at 22:46 by Jean-Marc Liotier

Good old Issue 3959 got some minor activity lately as drhatch had an interesting insight :

I wish to call into question a fundamental assumption that has been made about this effort, the assumption that has held up development for years: that multiple layout capability must exist before outline view can be useful.

This is holding up outline view because multiple layout capability (issue 81480) is a big effort, and it, in turn, requires refactoring of writer’s usage of the drawing layer (issue 100875) and the latter has some significant technical difficulties. It seems unlikely that these issues will be finished soon.

The logic behind this assumption is that switching views will take too long if multiple layouts are not possible and/or most users will need simultaneous viewing for outline view to be useful. I disagree with both these assertions.

1. Simultaneous viewing is not necessary. I have been using Word’s outline view extensively for years without simultaneous viewing. Even though it’s possible with split screens, it takes up screen real estate that I want to use otherwise.

2. It won’t take that long to switch layouts [..]

I, for one, would much rather have an outline view soon, one that takes a couple of seconds to switch, and which is available only as a single view, than wait the extra time it is going to take for the multiple-layout refactoring to be finished. That would be enough for me for a long time.

This is a case of “perfect” being the enemy of “good enough”. Let’s just have “good enough” for a while first.

Is his experience anecdotal, or do people really seldom or never use Microsoft Word’s outline view simultaneously with another view ? Other users have chimed in, but me too contributions will soon be boring… So here is my attempt at helping quantify user expectations : this poll !

Of course, self selection by passionate users and links from OpenOffice forums will certainly bias the sampling beyond any semblance of representativity, but we’ll take that as better than nothing…

Code and Systems and Writing02 Feb 2007 at 16:16 by Jean-Marc Liotier

My last rant about Openoffice’s lack of a proper outline mode apparently struck a chord if I judge from the number of pageviews and the reactions I gathered. If, like me, you eagerly await this functionality you will be happy to learn that some recent activity around Openoffice Writer’s longstanding issue 3959 aka “Outline View (aka MS Word)” has provided us with some hope.

Mathias Bauer, project lead of the OpenOffice.org Application Framework and manager of the teams for the application framework, Math and Writer posted this morning a summary of the state of the visions about Writer Views with an encouraging comment :

“I hope it gives you some understanding why such a feature is quite some work to do and what must be done in Writer before we could even start. I agree with everybody here that this is an important feature and so does the whole team. This is one of the bigger features that we will try to implement as soon as some resources will be available”.

As he says : What users call a “View” in Writer is what the developers call a “Layout” – the orientation and positioning of the textual and non-textual content on an output device. The outline mode would be one of those views.

What Mathias summarized about why there should be an Openoffice Writer outline mode :

  • “Brainstorming” the structure of a document to create initial hierarchy
  • Easy tool for developing and changing document structure
  • Prioritize, arrange and rearrange ideas hierarchical; add details later
  • Focus on content, no layout should distract from content
  • Chose level of details visible in any part of the document

The current state of the proposal about what an Openoffice Writer outline mode should do :

  • Present structure of a document (paragraphs, chapters, sections)
  • Text indentations created from level of structural element
  • Normal text should be displayed below its heading
  • No margins
  • No page breaks visible
  • No preferred way of text wrapping; open for discussions
  • No display of page bound elements (header/footer, objects anchored at a page)
  • No preferred way of treating any non-textual content; why not display it?
  • No preferred way of treating formatting; why not display it?
  • Additional control elements that allow to promote/demote paragraphs, fold/unfold structural elements
  • Creating, moving and deleting structural elements by keyboard commands or D&D

But implementing this feature will not be a trivial endeavour. Some important preliminary infrastructural work is required :

“There is a particular problem in Writer that needs to be solved before it makes sense to implement more views. A Writer documents always has one layout. If the user switches from “Print Layout” to “Online Layout” the old layout is thrown away and the new layout for the complete document is calculated. On switching back the same happens again. This can become quite annoying when new layouts are used that let switching between layouts happen more often. Perhaps it might also be attractive to have two different layouts visible at a time in two different windows, e.g. Outline Layout and Print Layout. [..] So we should investigate first if we can change the code in a way that it can handle more than one Layout at a time. This will make the implementation of new layouts better and their usage more attractive”.

Multiple simultaneous views ! Not only did the OO team listen, but their ambitions go beyond the requests. Of course, acknowledging the requirements is only a first step, but it is an essential one and I am glad that it has been taken.

Mathias prudently added :

“I want to make clear that my comment wasn’t a promise that we start to work on this immediately – we are just busy with other also important things (bug fixing, ODF support, OOXML filter etc.). But I wanted to let you know that the whole Writer team agrees with you that the Outline View is one of the most important missing features in Writer. Unfortunately it is quite some work to do, especially if you don’t want to just hack the feature but develop an improved Writer view concept. So my plan is to implement the necessary preconditions mentioned in the wiki as soon as time will permit and then start writing the specs. ATM I can’t tell when this will happen, so please be patient with us”.

If you want to be informed as soon as this issue moves you can subscribe to Openoffice Writer’s issue 3959. If you can help in any way, please be sure to leave a note about it !

Brain dump and Systems and Writing05 Nov 2006 at 17:19 by Jean-Marc Liotier

In the faint hope that I would pickup some unknown productivity tip I found myself reading “Writing documents with OpenOffice.org Writer” by Marco Marongiu. Marco did a good job of producing a basic tutorial, but the way he introduced the use of styles made me want to rant about an old pet peeve of mine…

Writing content first and then styling is missing half the point of the styles. The styles not only facilitate formatting : they also give the document a hierarchical outline. Writing using a text processing tool that support an outline mode make me much more productive as I can use the word processor not only as a writing tool but as a tool that supports my thinking. Microsoft Word has it but Openoffice Writer does not. Contrary to what the Openoffice FAQ claims, the Navigator does not provide even a fraction of the functionality of MS Word’s outline mode.

A year ago, Jim Sabatke said about OO Writer : “For example, it can’t collapse multiple sections at a time so you can view/edit several other sections. For some reason, open source word processor teams are resisting this functionality that is an important “thinking” and “organizing” feature that many have come to depend on in almost every MS Windows Word processor”. Make sure you take a look at Outliners.com : wou will understand where the many people like me come from ! As Robert P. J Day said about the outline mode : “MS Word is *exactly* what you want to emulate here. There is no need to do things “differently” or “better” from Word WRT outlining – they got it right”. I wholeheartedly agree and I am very surprised to see that in the Openoffice issue tracker outline mode is a low priority issue that has been open since 2002 – that is more than four years !

Considering how important it is to many people I know (who are quite representative of the technical writing community) and how much it has been discussed for years all over the Net I really don’t understand why outline mode has not been given more attention within the Openoffice project. If I was in a bad mood I would say that this project has a bad case of NIH… But I am not the sort of person who would carry libelous rumors such as this one…