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October 19, 2003

Enhanced, Upgraded Version

Products Improved Beyond All Usability

I recently paid about $45 to have the alarm and other annoying "features" in my car disabled. The owner of the shop told me he does a regular business in such work. It seems that designers have to keep adding to things that work just fine and everyone's happy with in order to stay on the payroll, until the result transcends human comprehensibility and patience. I once traded a car in for a model that was 18 months older, and drove away in something I preferred, with a check for 1500 Irish pounds in my pocket.

Some of the worst offenses occur with software. I happily use WordPerfect, which some of greater expertise than I tell me isn't the way to go, although their explanations of why leave me none the wiser. It was a decision I arrived at years ago upon learning that the basic difference compared to Word was that Word came with all the horrors turned on, and tracking down how to get rid of enough to make it manageable can take weeks. (Even so, fellow WP users warn me, Don't go past Version 7! since the designers in their wisdom have apparently decided to follow the same route. Like adopting the Titanic as the standard for ocean liners.)

All of which makes understandable my glee on coming across Louis Menand's review of The Chicago Manual of Style in the October 6, 2003 issue of New Yorker. Entitled "The End Matter: The Nightmare of Citation," it contains a hilarious digression on the minefield of electronic referencing. Extracts below. Full article here.

The notion that the personal computer has eliminated the bone-crushing inefficiency of the typewriter, and turned composing The End Matter into a drive in the word-processing park, belongs to the myth that all work on a computer is "fun" ? one of the Digital Age's cruelest jokes . . .

First of all, it is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program. Its terribleness is of a piece with the terribleness of Windows generally, a system so overloaded with icons, menus, buttons, and incomprehensible Help windows that performing almost any function means entering a treacherous wilderness of pop-ups posing alternatives of terrifying starkness: Accept/Decline/Cancel; Logoff/Shut Down/Restart; and the mysterious Do Not Show This Warning Again. You often feel that you're not ready to make a decision so unalterable; but when you try to make the window go away your machine emits an angry beep. You double-click. You triple-click. Beep beep beep beep beep. You are being held for a fool by a chip.

When, in the old days, you hit the wrong key on your typewriter, you got one wrong character. Strike the wrong keys in Word and you are suddenly writing in Norwegian Bokmal (Bokmal?). And you have no idea how you got there; you can spend the rest of the night trying to get out. In the end, you stop the random clicking and dragging and pulling-down and have recourse to the solution of every computer moron: with a sob of relief, you press Ctrl/Alt/Del. (What do Control and Alt mean, by the way? Does anyone still know?) A message appears: "You will lose any unsaved information in all programs that are running." O.K.? Cancel? End task? End life? The whole reason for rebooting was that you didn't have access to your information, so how can you save it? You can always pull the plug out of the wall. That usually ends your "session" (a term borrowed ? no accident ? from psychoanalysis).

Few features of Word can be responsible for more user meltdowns than Footnote and Endnote (which is saying a lot in the case of a program whose Thesaurus treats "information" as "in formation," offering "in order" and "in sequence" as possible synonyms, and whose spellcheck suggests that when you typed the unrecognized "decorums" you might have meant "deco rums"). To begin with, the designers of Word apparently believe that the conventional method of endnote numbering is with lowercase Roman numerals ? i, ii, iii, etc. When was the last time you read anything that adhered to this style? It would lead to sentences like: In the Gramscian paradigm, the "intellectual" lxxxvii is, by definition, always already a liminal status. lxxxviii

(Hmm. Not bad.) To make this into something recognizably human, you need to click your way into the relevant menu (View? Insert? Format?) and change the i, ii, iii, etc., to 1, 2, 3, etc. Even if you wanted to use lowercase Roman numerals somewhere, whenever you typed ?i? Word would helpfully turn it into "I" as soon as you pressed the space bar. Similarly, if, God forbid, you ever begin a note or a bibliography entry with the letter "A.," when you hit Enter, Word automatically types "B." on the next line. Never, btw (which, unlike "poststructuralism," is a word in Word spellcheck), ask that androgynous paper clip anything. S/he is just a stooge for management, leading you down more rabbit holes of options for things called Wizards, Macros, Templates, and Cascading Style Sheets. Finally, there is the moment when you realize that your notes are starting to appear in 12-pt. Courier New. Word, it seems, has, at some arbitrary point in the proceedings, decided that although you have been typing happily away in Times New Roman, you really want to be in the default font of the original document. You are confident that you can lick this thing: you painstakingly position your cursor in the Endnotes window (not the text!, where irreparable damage may occur) and click Edit, then the powerful Select All; you drag the arrow to Normal (praying that your finger doesn?t lose contact with the mouse, in which case the window will disappear, and trying not to wonder what the difference between Normal and Clear Formatting might be) and then, in the little window to the right, to Times New Roman. You triumphantly click, and find that you are indeed back in Times New Roman but that all your italics have been removed. What about any of this can be considered "high-speed"?

 
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