Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “XyWrite”

Twenty-one years old — the best word processor

It’s now 21 years since I began using XyWrite III+, a program whose word processing functionality has never been surpassed.

It seems that rival word processors, unable to compete directly, have got ahead by reducing hardware functionality.

How do they do that?

It now seems to be virtually impossible to get a computer printer that doesn’t require Windows to work (what do Linux users do?)

So I find that XyWrite and other MS-DOS programs I use every day cannot have their output printed directly. Hardware limitations reduce the efficiency of the program to that of its bloated competitors. Any time saved by greater ease of use is lost by having to find workarounds for less capable hardware.

One of the hardware limitations was introduced quite early — the “enhanced” unergonomic keyboard. Whoever decided to move the function keys on keyboards from the left to the top must have hired a whole team of inefficency experts to come up with the most ergonomically clumsy design.

The result is that the two-finger XyWrite functions for delete word, delete sentence, delete line etc now become two-hand ones, which take longer to perform, and probably increase the liklihood that one will get carpal tunnel syndrome and some other weird typing diseases.

After all, how difficult is it to manufacture an ergonomic keyboard with function keys on the left?
After learning to do things the easy way, I still, after 15 years, find it annoying to be forced to do things the hard way by the stupidity of keyboard manufacturers.

One has to jump through all sorts of hoops to print a doccument, like finding a way of importing the output into a Windows document.

One of the programs I use for this is XyWrite 4.0. It can convert documents to RTF, which can then be imported into Windows word processors like Open Office or MS Word to be printed. And Open Office and MS Word are still clunky compared with XyWrite. Oh yes, they have lots of bells and whistles. What they lack is basic motive power.

The analogy of bells and whistles is taken from old-fashioned steam locomotives. You can design a steam locvomotive that can play tunes on its whistles in four-part harmony, which is just the thing if you want to park it at a fairground and use it as a steam-organ once a year. But if it means that you have to break a train in half and haul one half up the hill and then go back for the other half, and you have to do this every day, are the bells and whistles worth it?

The fancy Windows word processors can do all sorts of things you might want to do once a year, or once every five yesrs. What they don’t do as well is process words — the kind of stuff you want to do once every five minutes.

XyWrite remains the best word processor I have ever seen. I still use XyWrite III+ every day, even though it is now 21 years old.

One of the nice things it does is that it can take output from other programs and turn it into fully-formatted word porcessing documents. One can write a report for a database program that does this.

It was very useful for writing journal abstracts. Just enter the abstract into the database, and set up a report that inserts XyWrite formatting commands (which are Ascii, and similar to HTML codes). One can’t do that with MS Word, and not even with WordPerfect (though at least with WordPerfect you could see the formatting codes in a document).

Why is it that whenever you have to upgrade your computer, you have to accept a downgrade as well?

Another problem — I keep getting urged to upgrade to MacroMedia Flash 9.0, and every time I do so, it breaks my batch files, and I have to go to a system restore point and undo the installation. I use my batch files every day. I use Flash 9.0 once a month or less, and when I see something that needed Flash 9.0, it wasn’t really worth it.

So there’s my rant on computer development — that minor conveniences come at the cost of major inconveniences. Now we’re offered Windows Vista. I’ve looked at a list of stuff that it’s supposed to be able to do, and can’t think why I’d ever want to do those things. Not one of them.

The cult of information: computers and civilization

Nearly 20 years ago I wrote in my journal

I got a book from the library called “The cult of information” and began reading it. It is a kind of antidote to Toffler’s “The third wave”, and pointed out the danger of confusing the quantity of information with quality, and information processing with thinking.

It is true that there is a fascination with computers that goes beyond their usefulness. A computer gives one access to lots of information that one could not otherwise obtain, but when one actually gets it, it is often banal and not worth having. A computer can make the task of writing easier, but one needs to have
something to say in the first place and one of my great fears is that, having better tools for writing, I actually have nothing to say. Like John Aitchison, I seem to have said it all, and to have nothing left. The tools should free one for creative writing, but they seem to inhibit it.

That was my journal entry for 5 September 1988, and the book referred to was The cult of information : the folklore of computers and the true art of thinking by Theodore Roszak.

And what I didn’t reckon with back then, at least not so much as today, was that I would have to spend quite so much time learning to write. I learnt to write at the age of 5, to ride a bicycle at the age of 6, and those skills stayed with me. I can pick up pen and paper and write now.

Word processors were supposed to make writing tasks easier. Back then I used XyWrite, a word processor that is still unsurpassed at its primary task of processing words, especially since in those days computer keyboards were ergonomically designed with function keys on the left, so editing a document was a breeze. XyWrite fitted on a single floppy disk – not a stiffie, a floppy, a 5.25 inch doublesided disk that held 360k. But it had better functionality than the bloated multimegabyte word processors of today. And it ran faster on an 8 MHz computer running under MS DOS 3.2 than it does under Windows XP on a 2 Ghz machine.

I still use XyWrite every day, but for documents I want to share with others I use MS Word, which has more bells and whistles, takes up a lot more disk space, and is much more clumsy and difficult to use to process words. And soon the Word 97 document format will be out of date, and so one will have to buy another piece of bloated software, and learn to use it all over again.

Computers give one tools for saving time, but they waste as much time or more that must be spent in relearning to use the tools all over again. If only it was as easy as jumping on a bike!

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