Monday, December 12, 2005




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A New Alex Essay on his love affair with Los Angeles

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The Evil Word Virus That Wasn't


Alex Pournelle

Updated 29 June 1998

A few days ago at one of my biggest customer's offices, I ran into a very peculiar problem with Word 97, a/k/a Word 8. For some reason, one guy's Word documents wouldn't spell-check; you could type garbgae garbage text and it would never show the squiggly red lines meaning it was misspelled. Doing a manual spell-check (the "ABC" check-mark on the toolbar) would also show no errors.

Oddly, this behavior propagated: If you copied text from one document to another, any future text you might type (in that document) wasn't checked, either.

Eric was helping me at the site; it's a big installation. We downloaded the Word Macro virus checker from the Microsoft Office virus site, silently thanking the customer for their good taste in having an ISDN link. For good measure, I got the Excel virus checker, too. I also noticed that Access now has its own virus(es), and its very own virus checker, too--you have been warned.

The Word Macro virus check found nothing. Eric checked bugnet. We downloaded the latest McAfee virus-checking info, and checked the entire system, including the server. Cruised the Dr Solomon's and Symantec sites. No soap-the entire system was virus-free, and no database had heard of a spell-check virus. That made me feel both better and worse. If this wasn't a previously known virus, we'd have the pride of discovery. But, oh, the consequences. How did it get onto this computer? The users don't download stuff from the Internet, only I do, and I only get known files.


A day later, I ran into the same thing--only now on my own PC here at the lab. The text for a particular document (Part of our upcoming Real-World NT Graphics book--worst place for it) wouldn't spell check, automatically or manually.

Like most good spellers, I'm somewhat ambivalent about the Word spell-checker in the first place. This goes double for the friggin' grammar checker, which is always giving me green wavy lines on perfectly fine sentences. (Pournelles tend to write long sentences, and Word doesn't like that.)

I started diddling around with the file, looking for the reason behind this odd bit of behavior. Before worry had quite mutated into desperation (about being called Typhoid Alex, the carrier of the Spell Check Virus) I tried spell checking a test document. Lo and behold, the solution appeared in a text box, which said:

"Text set to (no proofing) was skipped. To find (no proofing) text, click Edit/Replace, then More, Format, Language."

I didn't know what (no proofing) text was, but the context was pretty obvious: (no proofing) means the text will blithely be skipped on by.

The late magazine Popular Computing once ran a reader survey about killer games one time (this was in the text-based adventure days). One reader said that the second hardest game to win was WordStar. Clearly, Word has easily supplanted WordStar in the degree-of-difficulty game.

How to Avoid The Mysterious Spell Problems

 A few conclusions I reached after this little episode.

  1. Ensure that your "Normal" template has a language set. (Format menu, Styles.) Note: it doesn't show on the main style pane; you must go to Modify, Format, then set the language. If you find any evidence of (no proofing) in your styles, or any style based on another, you will need to remove them.
  2. Also go to the Tools menu, Options, then Spelling &; Grammar tab. Ensure "Check spelling" and "Check Grammar" are on, and that "Hide spelling" and "Hide grammatical errors" aren't.
  3. Make sure your appropriate dictionary is installed, or all this is for naught.
  4. You can more easily get at the default language from the Tools menu, then Language, Set Language, choose e.g. "English (United States)", then "Default" and Yes.
  5. You can search and destroy all (no proofing) references within a document by following the text box's instructions. Just set the "Replace With" to the appropriate language and search it end to end.
  6. Since the Normal style (usually) has a language set, but doesn't consider it a change to the usual way of doing things, reapplying styles based on Normal won't changed the text attributes from (no proofing) to the correct language.
  7. Text within a referenced Table or Picture ID label (e.g., "Table 3", which is referred to by number reference elsewhere) is not set to have a language in it. A definite bug, in my estimation.
  8. You'll only find the "Text set to (no proofing) was skipped" reminder in Word if you complete a spell-check all the way through.
  9. Download and install, or buy, the Office Service Release 1 update disk, which seems to aid considerably in making Office 97 more stable. There's a Service Release 2 in the offing.


The Morals of the Story? (1) Word is mysterious and vast, a gigantic puzzle palace into which you can pour many, many hours of time. (2) Microsoft needs to build an Office Administrator's Kit (Resource Kit?), for debugging Office. No one will, because the second MS sees a market, it'll be all over for them. (SR2 may contain some of these features.) (3) Keep a good copy of the Normal template around for just such an occasion. (4) The online help inside Word is staggeringly incomplete. (5) Word is so pervasive and all-consuming that I'm still going to use the thing despite its many warts and bloat.

Later: Well, all the above is still true. Yours truly has begun debugging the book's text--I never thought I'd say I was "debugging a book", but there it is. I was running through the "Real World" source and found many sections which were set to (no proofing) though I can find no reason that they should be. The styles all contain no references to (no proofing). This is a rather Sherlockian sort of anti-proof though, because it is the lack of the dog barking rather than the actual article. Moreover, if there is already a language set, you cannot impose one. It will not actually impose a language unless you change it twice.

Moreover, the original problem at the customer site persists! He doesn't have (no proofing) text anywhere in his troubled documents. Back to the drawing board on this problem.

JEP HERE: I had this problem early on with WORD. It's worse than you think. Sometimes Word will pretend to have copied text when in fact it didn't because of that proofing error set. I forget which column I discussed it in; it was years ago. Enraged me, it did.

ANYONE WHO USES OFFICE 97 witrhout the SR-1 fixes is playing deadly games with his work. Believe me. I wouldn't let Niven use Office 97 until SR-1. If you don't have SR-1 of 97, DUMP 97 and go back to Office 95 and thank the Good Lord that you didn't find out the hard way.

Office 97 SR-1 is stable and what I use; Office 97 in 1997 was an abombination before the Lord. JEP



Why I Love LA

Be warned: This essay is an ode to the beauty of weather by a resident of a town that, by most people’s standards, doesn’t actually have any. Your reaction should be measured appropriately.

Saturday and Sunday were cold. Ok, not cold to an Easterner, not worry-that-Grandma-will-freeze cold, not put-the-pets-in-cold, just sweater weather, worry about the homeless weather, close the windows and be glad for gas heating weather. (Yes, Mom, I did run my floor heater. Unfortunately, it was designed by Commander James Montgomery "Scotty" Scott of the United Federation of Planets and has only two settings: "Off" and "She’s going to blow!", so I’m either cold or sweating with all the blankets off in the morning. But I digress.) Cold enough, in other words, to make an Angeleno turn the car heater on and seek out warming foods; I’m sure sales of hot chocolate were booming. Cold enough to make us sybarites and lazy weather weenies appreciate just how good we got it the other 350 days of the year.

Part of that cold came because of the wind’s arctic bite, which truly did dip temps below freezing in a few places and generally drove all activity indoors. Evidently we’re having a weather exchange with the East Coast this week; they’re having 75 degree highs while we pretend we’re shivering. Signs are good that this multiculti claptrap is about to expire, that our birthright to perfect temperate weather is about to revert, but it’s rather a bother until then, no?

Sunday’s wind was particularly spectacular. The sea was covered with whitecaps as far as I could see, big foamy windblown crests where the air pressure had shoved a small hole in the ocean, camouflaging the few sailboats brave enough to try their luck. The beach was even more dramatic, or rather what was usually the beach, because its entirety was reclaimed by wind-driven waves, all the way to the foot of the sandstairs and splashing up over the beach access road’s foot. Seagulls hung motionless in the steady low pressure of the wind, too perfectly still to be real, clearly set dressing by an amateur crew using string and models. Even the surfers had had a dose of reality; most seemed to be practicing the better part of valor rather than brave the stiff onshore. Besides, the waves were blown out.

The wind also scrubbed the coastline, leaving it with a gleaming coat of undiluted December sunshine to dazzle the eye. Out in the backcountry where my sister keeps her horse, but still in view of the coast, the wind had polished the scrub desert to an unnatural (for us) dark green, aided by the recent rain. That wind was strong and persistent and highly directional, arranging the few clouds in perfectly surveyed field-corn lines, horizon to horizon. I don’t remember much from my brief flirtation with soaring, but I remember the ground school illustration of such clouds, how they indicated endless miles of easy transit without thermal-hunting. "The lift," I said almost to myself, remembering that picture, "is booming. You could make 200 miles before sunset, even in a brick with wings like a Schweitzer 222."  Another long-closed door of memory reopened briefly and I contemplated looking down from up there, how hanging motorless from the sky in a good sailplane would feel right now. (And then thought, more briefly, how rotten it was to get older and realize you couldn’t, no matter how hard you tried, do everything in one lifetime. Feh.)

The rest of the weather was just as ideal, ideal for taking pictures in one’s mind, if not on film. (It was too blue. No clouds means hard shadows, no diffusion, unflattering angles. Do you know how hard they had to work to make good close-ups in Lawrence of Arabia?) The meandering wild valley of the backcountry, the pond where my sister took her dump from a horse, the path under our feet were spectacularly lit for this pair of human eyes, burning pictures to recall in less perfect times.

So? I like the wind. In the right doses. One of my favorite scenes from any movie is in "LA Story", starring Steve Martin, on the magical evening when his car moves of its own power, seemingly drawn by the wind to a potent spot. (If that spot was a freeway message sign, it just says that LA is also an ironic and silly place.) Despite their "Devil Winds" moniker, the Santa Anas have always had more white than black magic for me. This film somehow captures that essence with no more than the blowing ferns on a lawn and perhaps one out-of-place hair on Steve’s perfectly styled grey-black head. Such magic flows for real during warm summer night zephyrs, all there for the taking.

So, out I went tonight, to enjoy this little airshow of nature’s, to see if warm would in fact be on the menu, before sitting down to the evening Email. Indeed, the arctic tinge of the wind was fighting a losing skirmish with late-fall Santa Anas, pushing against my leather jacket with persistent force, making my contacts smart with dust. (I contemplated sunglasses in defense, but that would be just Too LA.) The sky was clear and clean, dark black and dusted with stars up above and almost daylight blue at the horizons. Closer to Earth, the willowy yielding strength of a 50-odd-foot Oak undulating in the wind, branches forth-and-backing in tune to the gusts, leaves flapping, trunk creaking audibly from across the street. The crazy patterns of light its leaves made on a lawn and house, thrown by a streetlight almost enveloped by the tree. The feel of my bare ears, slightly red and quite cold, against the bluster.  The taste of the hospital-clean air (the smog didn’t have a chance), still crisp from cold but hinting at future warmth from compression heating.

My ex-roommate, Tim, always thought I was nuts to get bundled up (at least, to put on a jacket  I like the cold, at least in small doses) and walk through this bluster. But some calls of nature are too strong even for urban man to ignore, and the rustling of leaves and tapping of branches on windows is my siren, my sign to go out and wander the streets, sharing them with parked cars, leaf piles, and the wind.  I love this city.

--Alex Pournelle,

    Alex Pournelle, Freelance Thinker

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