Daily Archives:June 3rd, 2005


I was looking up a word in my Mac’s dictionary and, being somewhat uncertain about the details of the response, I reached for the rather heavy OED which is on the bookshelf above my desk. Argh! It slipped from my grasp and crashed down on my Powerbook, scratching the screen and breaking two keys. I looked up, aghast, at the screen where the Dictionary application was cheerfully saying:

dictionary screen shot


Well, it’s not all as tragic as it sounds. What I thought were permanent marks on the screen (because they didn’t come off with a damp cloth) soon succumbed to the world’s greatest cleaner. And I find that, even though it’s not very obvious from their site, PBParts can supply both the key caps and the little scissor mechanisms which go underneath. (Most people will tell you that you need a new keyboard). In the meantime, I have an external keyboard so I can keep working…

New Microsoft Office file formats

The next version of Microsoft Office is going to be the first which uses ‘open’ file formats by default. There’s a video here where Robert Scoble interviews Brian Jones, a program manager on the Word team, about the new formats, which are ZIP files containing XML. Brian has also started a blog talking about this.

This is definitely a good move, and a brave one, by Microsoft, though I imagine they have largely been forced into it and may not have had too much choice. The secret binary formats have been reverse-engineered now to such a degree that several other packages, most notably OpenOffice and Apple iLife, do a good, though not perfect job, of reading them, so there’s less to be gained form keeping them secret. And having moved both my email and my blogs between many different systems recently, a key question for me is always how easily I can get my data out of any particular system. This announcement will make me more likely, rather than less likely, to use Microsoft products in future.

The sad thing, for me, was to hear the excitement and enthusiasm in Scoble’s voice about what a fabulous new idea this was, when he should have been asking, “Isn’t this exactly what OpenOffice has been doing for years, right down to the choice of the basic format?”

When was the last time anything really novel came out of Microsoft? It’s a rhetorical question, really. What Microsoft have traditionally been good at is now so commoditized that it’s like asking when the last time something really novel came out of Dell. That’s not really their job any more.


A great thing about the web, and search engines in particular, is that you can use tiny fragments of information from the dark recesses of your memory to recover substantial quantities of information. I’ve done this quite a lot, for example, with songs that I heard in my early childhood. For thirty-odd years I would hum fragments to myself in the shower but had no knowledge of whence they came, until one day it would occur to me to type the words into Google and discover that I had been sharing my shower with the Osmonds all these years, or some such embarassing revelation.

Anyway, the thing I typed this morning was ‘ITA’. In the sixties, the British government sponsored an experiment in the use of the ‘Initial Teaching Alphabet’, a 40-character phonetic alphabet designed by Sir James Pitman. The idea was that it’s tough enough for young children to learn the concepts of reading and writing without having to cope with the irregularities of English spelling and pronunciation. Italian and Spanish children, who have a much more phonetically -consistent language, progress much faster in the early years. The irregularities of normal English are best left until the ages of six or seven when the children are more confident about their abilities with the mechanics of reading and writing.

Well, that’s the way I learned, and it worked very well for me. Others, I gather, had different experiences, but my mother says that on one Very Important Day I went to school using ITA and came back using grown-up spelling, and never read an ITA book again. In fact, I had almost no memory of the alphabet I used for the first year or two of my education. Until this morning, that is, when I realised I could read all about it again.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser