Archive for August, 2010


When was that?

August 23, 2010

I had some issues installing an Adobe Acrobat 9.x update  over the weekend (eventually I didn’t install it as it stuffed up my PDF printer driver… but that’s another story).

One of the suggestions from Adobe’s website was to repair the Acrobat installation using Add/Remove, so I tried that (it didn’t work, by the way). And while I was doing that I saw this in the Add/Remove programs list:

I last used Adobe Acrobat in February 2073! Wow! I wonder how they calculated that date.

By the way, the update error I had (Error 1402) was to do with insufficient permissions on a Microsoft Windows registry key. I was logged in under full admin permissions, but I added explicit permissions to that key anyway. That didn’t work. So I tried repairing using Add/Remove — that didn’t work either. I then tried repairing via Acrobat 9.x and that seemed to work — I got my PDF printer driver back. But I’m loathe to try installing the update again in case it breaks… again. Two hours later and I’m no better off than I was before. The only thing I’ve discovered is that others have had this same error on and off for a few years. But no-one seems to have a solution that works.


Australia Post: Inequitable charging

August 21, 2010

After my little rant about Australia Post the other day, I had to deal with them again yesterday. This time I needed to send a small parcel to the US. The parcel weighed well under 500 g and was about 2 cm thick. The contents were inside an Australia Post Tough Bag envelope. The cost to send this item to the US? $15.70, not including the cost of the Tough Bag.

I was taken aback, but not really surprised as parcel rates jump exponentially if you don’t meet Australia Post’s very strict weight limits.

But what really got me thinking was the inequitable postage rates set by Australia Post. Here’s a recent example:

A week ago I ordered some cases of wine for delivery to our home address. The postage cost via Australia Post for a single case (that’s 12 FULL bottles of wine) was $7.95, and for two or more cases was a maximum of $15.90. So some businesses (like wine merchants and wineries) seem to get special rates from Australia Post that lets them send a very heavy box containing glass and liquid anywhere in the country for less than $10 per box. If I — as an ordinary citizen — tried to mail a case of wine, I bet that I’d have to pay much much more than ~$10 per case (I once thought about mailing two bottles of wine to the US — it was going to cost me more than $50 to do so, greater than the cost of the wine!).

So how can Australia Post charge less than $10 for a winery to send out a case of wine weighing many kilos, yet charge me almost $16 to send a small parcel weighing less than 500 g to the US?

There’s something wrong here, and I suspect it’s the ordinary Australia Post customer who’s getting ripped off.


Telstra. Bastards!

August 20, 2010

I’ve been monitoring my internet speeds for some time now. Since we moved house 6 months ago, I’ve been getting around 3 to 6 Mbps (averaging around 3-4 Mbps) on my 8 Mbps plan. I’ve been OK with that, given the limitations of an 8 Mbps plan.

However, since 11 August 2010, my download speeds have not gone over 2.5 Mbps (uploads and ping rates have remained about the same). I’ve still been able to do my work, though the download speed has been slower. Yesterday, however, my connection to my client’s servers was really ‘flaky’, dropping out at least 10 times, though fortunately not late in the day when I had to upload a 20 MB file.

So I called iinet (my ISP) this morning to see if there’s a reason for the consistently slower speeds and for the flakiness. Well, nothing was obvious for the flakiness, but Paul, the support guy I spoke to at iinet, diagnosed the problem with the slower speed almost immediately.

And it all comes back to Telstra.

Because we live more than 8 km from the Telstra exchange, we’re on a RIM (or sub exchange). However, there’s a limited amount of bandwidth available on the RIM, so if there’s congestion, Telstra will do what’s called RIM shaping. Meaning that they will impose a limit on an individual’s download speed, no matter what plan or how much the individual has paid for their connection. Paul said that even if it was possible for me to shift to an ADSL2 (24 Mbps) plan (not possible where I live), it would still go through the Telstra RIM exchange and Telstra would still shape the speed to a max of 3 Mbps if there was congestion. So I could pay squillions for a 24 Mbps service, and still only get 3 Mbps!

There’s no consideration taken by Telstra as to how much someone has paid, what plan they are on, what usage they are making of their connection (work for me; perhaps movies for others), etc.

Bastards. I wonder if I can sue them for restricting my ability to work….

The sooner we get a National Broadband Network, and break the back of this Telstra monopoly, the better.

Analogy: Let’s say 20 people turn up at a restaurant and all order the $40 steak. But there are only 10 steaks. So the restaurant decides to give some the steak they’ve ordered, give others a cheaper cut of steak, and yet others a smaller portion or ground beef — all for $40 each. Those getting the cheaper cuts, smaller portions, or the ground beef would be mightily p***ed off, especially as the restaurant won’t entertain the idea of any sort of discount or compensation for not being able to provide them with the goods they ordered AND PAID FOR. That’s exactly what Telstra does.

Update 5 November 2010: I spoke with someone at Telstra today. Bottom line: This shaping is for everyone on the exchange I share, and it’s an infrastructure thing, so it’s not going to go away until the infrastructure is upgraded…. Details at the end of this post:

See also:


Australia Post: Why make it so hard?

August 19, 2010

On certain aspects of their user experience, I have to give a ‘fail’ to Australia Post.

On 11 August 2010, I placed an order with a US store where I’ve shopped online several times before. I left a message in the Notes field that my postal address had changed since my last order and asked them to please make sure they sent the two packages to my new address. Unfortunately, that message got lost somewhere in their system; my packages were sent out promptly, but labeled with my old address.

I received automated emails from letting me know that my parcels were on their way. However, I noticed that the postal code for both tracking IDs was for my old address. I emailed the US store immediately to ask if they’d been sent to the old address and they had — they apologized profusely for their error.

Not to worry — I figured I could call my  previous Post Office and speak to one of the two people I knew fairly well there (first name basis) and ask them to redirect the packages when they arrived. The formal mail redirection was for 6 months and expired on 16 August 2010, just a few days before I expected these parcels to arrive.

And here’s where it all started to go a little pear-shaped! Why?

  • You cannot find a direct phone number for an Australia Post post office, so I could not contact my old PO. I searched White Pages, Australia Post’s website, did various Google searches, but no — the only phone number you can call for ANY post office is 13 13 18. I can find a direct fax number for a specific post office, but not a phone number.
  • When you call 13 13 18, you go through the ‘press 1 for xx’ dance, then get put on hold because all their ‘customer service’ (there’s an oxymoron, if there there was one!) representatives are busy.
  • When you finally get through, you have to explain what you want and why you want it — in detail. I asked for the direct number of my old PO, but had to go through 20 questions from the girl on the other end explaining my story and why I needed to speak directly to someone in that PO. After I gave her the first names of the two main people who ran the PO, she put me through to one of them. She did NOT give me the direct phone number and I still don’t have it.
  • On getting through to a real live person, I had to repeat the information. The PO person said she’d do what she could, but said that the sorters came in at 5:30 am and were finished before she started on the counter at 9:00 am. If they didn’t read the note she was going to tape over the front of my old PO box, they would throw the parcels in the ‘Return to sender’ pile! She suggested I put in another redirection notice, but she agreed that the parcels would probably have been and gone by the time Australia Post processed the redirection application.
  • Assuming she tapes a note to the PO box and the sorters see it, I might get my parcels. It seems the sorters ‘memorize’ all the redirects and don’t necessarily look at the box! Sure, it’s a small post office, but it serves some 5000 people in the town and district — committing redirection information to memory only has huge potential for errors to be made.
  • If the sorters don’t see the message, they will put the parcels in the ‘return to sender’ pile and they will travel all the way back to their origin in Virginia. The people in the store (whom I’ve emailed to tell them that this is a possible outcome), then have to resend the parcels back to Australia, all because a mail sorter didn’t look at a note taped over a PO box.

So Australia Post fails on two user experience counts:

  • No direct phone numbers listed for post offices throughout Australia.
  • Mail sorters relying on memory to take action on mail addressed to specific addresses.

And yes, the original error was with the US store. But in trying to take action to get my parcels delivered to me before they get returned to the US, I’ve discovered that Australia Post prevents me from contacting a specific post office, and allows its mail sorters to commit redirection requests to memory.

I’ll let you know if I receive my parcels next week…. I’ll be very surprised if I do.

Update 24 August 2010: Surprise, surprise! I just had a phone call from my previous Post Office to tell me that there was a parcel for me. The person who called wasn’t the person I spoke to last week, so she wasn’t aware of the redirection request. But she’s redirecting it for me now. I should have it within a day or so. Well done, old local Post Office — you’ve restored my faith (a little) in Australia Post.

Update 31 August 2010: I might have spoken too soon… A week after the phone call saying they’d redirect the parcel, I still haven’t received it! I live an hour away from the old post office — how can it take 7 days to not even get here???

Update 1 September 2010: Yay! I got my parcels. But not without some delay. The PO hadn’t put a card in my PO Box to tell me the parcels had arrived some time LAST week, when I expected them. There was a card in there today but for a totally different package. So while I was at the counter collecting that package, I asked them to check to see if there was anything else for me. There was — my parcels from the US! The lady at the counter explained away the lack of a card to inform me by saying that someone else was on duty on Friday, so therefore ‘It must have arrived on Friday when<name> was on’. Not good enough. I thought the procedure was to put a card in every day unless there was already a card in the Box (showing that the owner hadn’t yet collected their mail). Obviously that didn’t happen.

[Link last checked August 2010]


Word: Unknown blue squiggly

August 18, 2010

Back in July 2010, I wrote about what the blue squiggly lines mean in Word 2007. But I’ve seen a few others that I can’t figure out. They don’t fit the two alternatives I wrote about in that blog post, and are applied inconsistently, even in the same paragraph.

The example below uses the word ‘mounds’ several times in the paragraph, in slightly different contexts. Only one is flagged with a blue squiggly underline even though there’s another instance of the same word used in the same context just a line earlier! (See the arrows in the screen shot below.)

If anyone can explain what the blue squiggly means in the context shown above, I’d be grateful. Right-clicking on the word with the blue squiggly doesn’t reveal any clues at all!

It’s got me baffled. I’ve also seen the same blue squiggly under a word like ‘groyne’ — a legitimate word for a breakwater. That one has me baffled too.

[Links last checked August 2010]


Word annoyance: Spell checking duplicate species names

August 17, 2010

In my current contract, I’ve been editing hundreds of environmental science reports. Many of these reports contain Latin names of species, families, genera, etc. And some reports have thousands of these Latin species names.

So that I’m not continually faced with these when I run a spell check over each document, I’ve added many to my custom dictionary so that Word doesn’t tell me these Latin words are spelling errors.

However, Word does not deal with duplicate Latin species names very well. For other spelling errors, there’s an Ignore All option, but not when there’s a duplicate word.

For example, when Word’s spell checker comes across Rattus rattus (the Latin name for the Black Rat), Caretta caretta (Loggerhead Turtle), and the like, it flags the first word as an unknown word.

I add it to the dictionary so that it’s not flagged again. But now Word skips to the next word (rattus in the example above) and flags that as not in the dictionary either because it’s a lower case variation. So I add it to the dictionary too.

Then Word won’t automatically skip to the next word as it now flags the second word (the one I just added to the dictionary) as a repeated word. The only option I have is to Ignore OnceIgnore All (which is what I really want for this scientific name) is grayed out and is not available for me to click.

So even after adding both forms of the word (initial capped and lower case) to the dictionary, Word still flags the second word as a duplicate EVERY time and I have no other choice except to click Ignore Once. As many of these scientific reports I’m editing use LOTS of Latin names and repeat many of them throughout the document, that’s an awful lot of time I waste just clicking Ignore Once on the repeated word, which is a very legitimate repeated word in species nomenclature, by the way.

I tried adding the two words together to the dictionary but that made no difference either. Word continues to flag the second word as a repeated word. After I’ve clicked Ignore Once several hundred times in a document, I get pretty annoyed with this limitation.

Update January 2019: It seems spellcheck doesn’t deal with compound words separated by a hyphen (and possibly an en or em dash) either. Someone on Twitter asked me about that, so I did some testing by adding a made up hyphenated compound word (cott-effectile) to a custom test dictionary file. Then I opened a new document and typed in that compound and a few similarly random compounds (e.g. catt-effectile, citt-effectile, cott-effective). Neither ‘cott’ nor ‘effectile’ were deemed correct, even though they were in the (active) custom test dictionary. This leads me to think that Word treats the hyphen as a space. In fact it seems to ignore BOTH words, not even accepting the first as a legitimate spelling—just like it does for the duplicated Latin words above.

Microsoft could improve the spell checking functionality to deal with things such as Latin names by any of the following:

  • Provide an ‘Ignore All’ option for a repeated word.
  • Allow two- and three-word scientific names or phrases—and compound words—to be added to the dictionary — and recognize them. This could be expanded to other ‘words’ like email addresses that Word sometimes wants to flag as incorrect, either in part or as a whole. If a short phrase or compoud is added to the dictionary, then Word should treat it as a correctly spelled word every time.
  • Add an option to the Spelling & Grammar options to ignore italicized words. We can tell Word to ignore uppercase words and those containing numbers—why can’t we choose to ignore those in italics too?
  • Add an option to the Spelling & Grammar options to ignore case variations of a word. For example, if I add Rattus to the dictionary and have the ‘ignore case variations’ option checked, then I shouldn’t be told that rattus/rAttus/RAttus etc. are new words. This option should be used with caution, but it should be up to the user to decide whether to use it or not. Currently, case variations (except all upper case) are treated as new words and are not ignored.

Do you have any other suggestions you’d like to see for checking spelling?

Do you have any other workable suggestions for dealing with these repeated Latin names, so that I don’t have to click Ignore Once all the time?


Message to Microsoft: Fix Word’s cross-reference dialog box. Please.

August 16, 2010

I use Microsoft Word — a lot. I’ve been using Word since the heady days of Word 2.0, and I’ve been using Word 2003 and more recently Word 2007 day in/day out for the past two years on my current contract. I’ve been getting up close and personal with Word, as evidenced by the number of blog posts I’ve written on Word’s idiosyncrasies. While there have been many improvements in Word 2007, there are areas that still have a way to go.

Most of the documents I’ve been working on for the past two years are long scientific reports — a single document can have hundreds of cross-references to figures, tables, plates, sections, appendices etc.

As a result I’ve opened the Cross-reference dialog box more times than I can count. And that dialog box alone sucks as far as usability is concerned (‘sucks’ is a technical term!). While there have been some improvements to this dialog box in Word 2007, there’s a lot about this dialog box that just doesn’t work efficiently. (NOTE: I have not used Word 2010 yet, so these comments are about Word 2007. I’d appreciate it if someone using Word 2010 can report if any of these issues have been fixed.)

So, if you’re listening Microsoft, here are 10 productivity improvements I’d like to see made to this dialog box (numbers are used for reference only — they do not imply priority or sequential order):

Update August 2016: There’s now an add-in for Word for PCs that solves most (all?) of these issues. See

  1. Remember dialog box resizing. In Word 2007, this dialog box is resizable (yay!). But don’t get too excited… When you close the dialog, the size you’ve dragged it to is not ‘remembered’, so as soon as you re-open the dialog, it’s back to its default size and you have to resize it again. This gets ‘old’ very quickly. Yes, I know I can keep the dialog box open while I’m doing other things in the document, but sometimes I need the screen real estate and so I’ll close it only to re-open it again a few minutes later, and have to resize it again.
  2. Resize the drop-down selection lists to fit the available selections. The current situation is just bad design, in my opinion. Even the default Reference type list includes more selections than are visible in the drop-down list. And if you’ve added more (e.g. Plate, Equation, Photograph), then the list is even longer. But someone, somewhere at Microsoft decided that this drop-down list would only ever display 6 items! Which means if you have a list longer than that, you have to scroll. Oh, and for bonus points, someone at Microsoft decided not to list these selection options in alphabetical order!
  3. Increase the number of items displayed by default. The default size of the dialog box only displays 12 items in the list of available headings, figures, tables etc. Long documents can easily have hundreds of headings. If there are only a few items in a particular document, then keep the default at 12, but if there are many more than 12, make the default something like 30 items. Surely a simple if/then statement in the code could make this possible? Of course, if Word remembered the dimensions of my resized dialog box (see item 1 above), this point about the default number would become moot.
  4. Give me the option to expand/collapse headings. As mentioned in item 3 above, a long document can have hundreds of headings. Some documents I’ve worked on have 30+ subheadings (at various levels) within a major heading. If I need to set a ‘heading’ cross-reference to section, then I really don’t want to scroll through every heading in sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 as I do now. Yes, I know I can type the first character of the heading I want and skip to the beginning of that section quickly (e.g. type 8 to go to the 8.x headings if using an outline numbered list), but I still have to scroll to get further down to section If this list had expand/collapse functionality, then I could collapse all headings I didn’t want to see and just expand the section I was cross-referencing. Of course, ‘collapse all’/’expand all’ options should be available too. By the way, typing the first character only works effectively in the Heading and Numbered Item lists; however, if your table and figure lists start with the words Table or Figure, then typing a number or letter does nothing, and you have to scroll.
  5. Hide Reference Types not used in the document. This one is related to item 2 above. The documents I’ve been working on don’t use footnotes or endnotes, yet these are listed in the Reference type list. Why? If the document doesn’t use them, then they shouldn’t be available for selection. If I want to reference something in another document, then I can’t do it via this dialog box anyway.
  6. Remember my ‘Insert reference to’ preference for each Reference Type. This one is REALLY annoying. Because I switch between inserting cross-references to figures, tables, sections etc. within a section of text, I’d like Word to remember my Insert reference to preference FOR EACH TYPE while I’m in the current session. It can forget my preferences after I close Word, but while I’m working I’d like it to remember each insert preference for each Reference Type. Let me give you an example of how it works now:
    1. I select Table as my Reference type, then Heading number (no context) as my Insert preference, then I select the table.
    2. Let’s say the next item I have to insert a cross-reference to is another table. I can leave the dialog open, select another table and the Heading number (no context) selection also applied. So far, so good.
    3. The next cross-reference is a Figure, so I select Figure as my Reference type, then Heading number (no context) as my Insert preference, then I select the figure.
    4. Now I have to cross-reference another table. You’d think that Word would remember my previous table insert preference, but it doesn’t. I have to select Table and Heading number (no context) as my Insert preference AGAIN.
    5. And if the next one is a figure, I have to repeat that.
    6. Repeat for all the other Reference type/insert combinations. With potentially hundreds of cross-references in a single document, and hundreds of documents, this one gets old real fast.
  7. Let me set default Reference type/Insert combinations. Perhaps a better option than ‘remembering’ my most recently used Reference Type/Insert combination (see item 6 above) would be a setting where I could set my default Insert preferences for each Reference Type — that way, I could set it up once and not have to bother with it again. I’d still have the option for changing the insert options for an individual cross-reference, but the defaults would apply otherwise. This setting could go under Word Options > Display settings, or Word Options > Advanced where everything else seems to get dumped. Update for Word 2013: This aspect has been improved a little — when you set, say Table > Only label and number, then close the dialog, when you reopen it in the same document or another document in the same Word session (yes, even a new document created after you set that x-ref combination), that setting holds the next time you open the dialog box.
  8. Provide an option to list Level 1 paragraph styles in the Heading list. My client uses a special style for Appendix headings. This style has its Outline Level paragraph setting set to Level 1 so that it gets picked up and displayed in the automatic Table of Contents. However, these appendices do not use a standard Heading 1 to 9 style so are not listed in the Reference Type list for Heading — to find the appendices, I have to select Numbered Item and scroll to the bottom of that list. The writers on my team are scientists, not Word experts — they invariably cannot find the appendices when inserting cross-references, so they have to ask me to fix them.
  9. Let me assign ‘preserve formatting’ to the inserted cross-reference field from within this dialog box. Occasionally, and for no reason I can discover, the ‘preserve formatting’ option for an inserted cross-reference field goes missing. I don’t know whether it’s on insertion or something that an author does with it later (which is hard to believe as most of the authors I’m dealing with have no clue that these are fields, let alone how to fiddle with them). So a check box on this dialog to ‘preserve formatting’ might be useful as long as it didn’t mess up anything else with these fields (like become a toggle switch).
  10. Provide a double-click option to insert the cross-reference. When I find the correct table, figure, section cross-reference etc. to insert, I have to select it from the list, then click Insert; or select it then press the Tab key to go to the Insert button, then press Enter; or select it and press Enter. Another option I’d like for inserting a cross-reference is the ability to double-click the selection. With the existing options, you have to select the item (usually with the mouse), then do another one or two different actions (press a key, move and click the mouse) before you get the selection inserted. With a double-click option, double-clicking a selection would save mouse movements and prevent you having to switch from mouse to keyboard etc.

As I mentioned in my earlier blog post about the annoyances on this dialog box, these things would probably not bother someone doing the occasional insertion of a cross-reference. But for writers and editors working with long documents, reports, proposals, etc. who have to insert many cross-references, streamlining the functions of this dialog box would save many mouse movements and a LOT of frustration.

Does anyone know how to make suggestions to Microsoft? There used to be a ‘wish list’ address that was monitored, but I no longer know what that email or web address is, nor whether suggestions such as those above even get considered. If you know how to contact Microsoft, please comment below.

Update Nov 2013: Some information on merging cross-references, such as ‘Tables 4 to 8’ instead of ‘Table 4 to Table 8’:

Update September 2015: Five years and at least two versions of Word later and most of these issues remain… And there’s another one — if you have track changes on and delete the first character of a heading, then that heading isn’t shown in the list of Headings in the Cross Reference dialog box. It’s still listed in the Numbered Headings list, but that’s only applicable if you use outline numbered headings. See this post for the circumstances under which this occurs, and some workarounds:

[Links last checked September 2015]