Software Hell

by | Oct 4, 2006 | General Ruminations, The Joys of Publishing

Gee, this blog really jumps around a lot, doesn’t it?  Sort of like my novel, which back in July came to a screeching halt when my venerable copy of Word 2000 suddenly up and died.  Last year, it had decided that it would crash whenever I gave it certain commands, such as ‘find.’   After a month or two of avoiding those certain commands, I discovered that it would function normally as long as I opened it through Works Task Launcher instead of clicking on the file I wanted to edit.  Ho, ho, ho.  Who says that software has no sense of humor?

But in July, it died for good, consistently shutting down partway through the loading process and offering to send an error report to my friends at Microsoft.

I did a system restore, to a day when it worked.  It crashed.  I played with the system date.  It crashed.  I submitted the error report, then looked to see what they said.  They said that my software had crashed.  They also said that they didn’t support it any more.  So I re-installed it from the original disc.  It ran until I gave any command whatsoever, then crashed and offered to send an error report to my friends at Microsoft.

Now, Word has always made me a little crazy.  It’s intrusively helpful, even after you’ve turned off every feature you can find.  It decides things for you, like that you want an indent at every carriage return, and you have to fight pretty hard before it’ll concede a point.  When you search for a word, it sometimes hides it behind the search box.  All sorts of things.  But I was used to it, and it’s the de facto standard, so it was with great trepidation that I pulled out the copy of WordPerfect 11 that came with my current machine.

What a dreamy word processor is WordPerfect 11!  It converted my huge Word file flawlessly, and then I proceeded to seriously fall in love.  It lets you search for a word forwards or backwards with one click.  It has a terribly handy pocket thesaurus that you can set to be always active, so again you get access with one click.  You can tell it all kinds of things, like that you prefer to use two spaces after a period.  WordPerfect seems to have been designed, lo and behold, to work the way you want it to.

Oh, was I a happy lad!

Then the novel was done, and I chose a printer, and they told me that they needed it in PDF format, so I spent $300 on Adobe Acrobat.  Didn’t even mind, and for two reasons.  One, this way I would have total control over typesetting, and two, the printers who would accept a file in word processor format wanted as much as $800 to convert it.

So I cheerfully loaded up Acrobat, which promised to convert files from ‘any program that can print,’ and discovered that WordPerfect is not ‘any program.’  It would begin to convert the file . . . and then I would have to reboot the computer.  I tried this many times, changing parameters and settings, and rebooted many times.  Carel the IT god spent way too much of his time coming up with possible solutions for me, each of which resulted in another opportunity to reboot.

One of his suggestions was to look for upgrades.  Turned out that my brand-new copy of Acrobat 7.0 was already obsolete by eight — count ‘em — eight revisions.  Surely, one of them would resolve my problem.  I optimistically downloaded patch #8, figuring that it would include the earlier changes.  Wrong.  I downloaded and installed #1.  I downloaded and installed #2.  I downloaded and installed #3.  There was no #4.  I downloaded and installed #5, and was informed that #5 included fixes 1 through 4.  Who says that software engineers have no sense of humor?

This was all being done at dial-up speed, which meant that I spent a long evening and a night on this, waking up twice to select the next download.  Bright and early, I fired up Acrobat 7.0.8, fed my file into it . . . and rebooted.

In desperation, I did the unthinkable: called Adobe support, my credit card at the ready because they blithely charge you $40 to help you figure out why their product doesn’t perform as advertised, but after sitting on hold for twenty minutes, their phone system hung up on me.  I didn’t call back.

Instead, I serendipitously discovered that Acrobat would play nicely with WordPerfect as long as I only asked it to convert a single page at a time.

I seriously considered converting all two hundred and some pages individually, then gluing them together, but then calculated the quantity of tequila such an undertaking would require, added that to the possibility that something might go wrong and I would have to run through the whole process a second time, and decided to try converting the WordPerfect file back to Word 2000.  Acrobat sniffed at the Word file, but then decided that it needed to open up Word itself, which, of course, crashed.

My original deadline for getting the file to the printer had come and gone.  But Acrobat absolutely promised me that it was specially designed to convert a Word file with one click, so I took my still-smoldering credit card down the street and bought the Word 2003 upgrade package.  A steal at a hundred and ten bucks.

Installed it, used it to convert the WordPerfect file, and then spent a few leisurely hours fixing all the formatting errors.  Tried the one-click conversion from Acrobat.  Just one click! . . . and nothing happened.  But asking Word to print the file to the ‘Adobe PDF Printer’ worked just fine.  I thought.  Until I realized that what had been a 216-page document had mysteriously grown by seven pages.  Adobe sets type with just a little bit more space between elements than Word does.  Which meant that I had to go through and correct all the places where my chapter breaks no longer looked right, and add blank pages so that the first pages of sections would be on the right.


Does this entry seem to be going on much too long?  That was my impression, too.  You should have been around when I printed out my shiny new PDF file and realized that not only had Word become confused about my two old-fashioned spaces after periods, which still looks better despite what they say, but that all of the curly apostrophes and single quotes (‘) had been replaced with the generic-looking straight quotes.

At first, I wasn’t even scared.  I changed the preference in Word, and reconverted the WordPerfect file.  No change.  I tried a global ‘find and replace’ in Word.  No change.  I manually searched the entire 223 pages, replacing as I went.  How many apostrophes and single quotes do you suppose there might be in 223 pages?

This took two days, and required, in addition, much of the tequila that I thought I’d saved by buying Word.  If you find, in the first printing of the book, that I missed a few, I will not be surprised.  My apologies.

One more thing that I can’t resist mentioning – Word 2003’s spell-checker does not recognize the word ‘blog.’

How long has this gone on so far?  About two weeks.  After I finally uploaded the PDF file to the printer, I took a nap.  When I awoke, the tension that had been building, for those two weeks, in my neck and shoulders, had mostly disappeared.

I sure miss WordPerfect.  Maybe I’ll make another descent into software hell before I start the next novel, put Lucifer in a headlock until he coughs up the answer to the incompatibility issue.  Assuming there’s an answer.


Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, seems to me in some way responsible for this.  He was a sucker for technology, especially as it affected the writing trade.  He invested a fortune in an invention for setting movable type.  It had about a zillion moving parts, and demonstrated a marked proclivity for going wrong.  It finally came to market the same year as the Linotype, a vastly simpler and more reliable machine.

More to the point, Clemens was the first author in history to submit a type-written manuscript to his publisher.  Dependence on technology is a slippery slope.

At times, during my sojourn in software hell, I fantasized about how nice it must have been to scrawl out your work on foolscap and let the scribes sort it out.  Then again, scribes were not always reliable, and their errors would be repeated in each new copy.  And hand-written books were exorbitantly expensive.  I could never afford to sell you a whole book for twenty bucks.


Jack Kerouac . . .  No.  I’ll save Kerouac for another day.  He and Hemingway are emblematic of two diametrically-opposed approaches to writing that I’d like to talk about.  It’ll be nice to write about writing again.