Friday Four

Friday, September 16, 2016

1. Have you ever wondered why files from Microsoft products are often not-quite-compatible with third-party applications? Wonder no more:

You see, Excel 97-2003 files are OLE compound documents, which are, essentially, file systems inside a single file. These are sufficiently complicated that you have to read another 9 page spec to figure that out. And these "specs" look more like C data structures than what we traditionally think of as a spec. It's a whole hierarchical file system.
The author notes the original design considerations, as well, such as having to open quickly on old computers. And, much later:
They have to reflect the history of the applications. A lot of the complexities in these file formats reflect features that are old, complicated, unloved, and rarely used. They're still in the file format for backwards compatibility, and because it doesn't cost anything for Microsoft to leave the code around. But if you really want to do a thorough and complete job of parsing and writing these file formats, you have to redo all that work that some intern did at Microsoft 15 years ago. The bottom line is that there are thousands of developer years of work that went into the current versions of Word and Excel, and if you really want to clone those applications completely, you're going to have to do thousands of years of work. A file format is just a concise summary of all the features an application supports. [bold changed to italics]
I usually avoid Microsoft products unless I am being paid to use them, in part because of compatibility-related issues. But having read this, I will find them a little less annoying next time. At least there is a non-nefarious, non-incompetent reason. (That helps me, anyway.)

2. It has been an amusing week to listen to feminists: One has accidentally admitted that the gender pay gap is a crock; and another unintentionally put into words what "has been obvious to even the casual observer" about "the style of a great deal of modern feminism."

3. I never eat them, but I was still glad to hear that automation saved Twinkies:
Where Twinkie once employed 22,000 workers in more than 40 bakeries, their workforce is now down to just 1,170, reports the Washington Post, relying mostly on robotic arms and other forms of automation. "This 500-person plant produces more than 1 million Twinkies a day, 400 million a year. That's 80% of Hostess' total output -- output that under the old regime required 14 plants and 9,000 employees."

"We like to think of ourselves as a billion-dollar startup," Hostess chief executive Bill Toler said Tuesday, announcing that Hostess Brands, which had twice filed for bankruptcy, now plans to become a publicly-listed company valued at $2.3 billion. [format edits, links dropped]
For more details, see the linked article at Slashdot.

4. The breathless headline reads, "Snorting a Brain Chemical Could Replace Sleep," to which my immediate reaction was, "Sure it will. I'll let the 'biohackers' and early adopters sort that one out." The article does, nevertheless, discuss some interesting sleep research that may ultimately help narcoleptics or provide an alternative to stimulants.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

#1 reminded me of something that happened in graduate school. My professor got an email from a researcher in a former Soviet country, which he could not open. He sent it to me, I opened it in OpenOffice (free open-source equivalent to Microsoft Office), and sent it back to him as a Word file. Turns out many paleontologists in former Soviet countries use OpenOffice because it's free, and (if you remember to save the document as a .doc document) it's compatible enough with Word and Excel that for the overwhelming majority of users the differences are not noticeable. This was the same researcher who once shipped me a set of fossil casts in a box made out of scrap cardboard from food containers. It always struck me as a sign of the strength of the human spirit: these people don't have the funds to purchase what, in the USA, was considered standard equipment, but they did their research anyway!

Gus Van Horn said...

You remind me of an amusing comment by a long-ago colleague in a Lab That Shall Remain Nameless. Upon seeing me improvise something, she told me, "You would do well on a desert island."

That said, I think the complement might better apply to the researcher you mention.

Snedcat said...

For a while I used a similar free Word-compatible software package, LibreOffice. It worked 99% of the time fairly well, but it could not handle tables at all; any files with tables in them that I edited and saved as a doc or docx file were unreadable and unopenable by Word. It also could not delete empty comments, no matter how many times and ways I tried to delete them. Since avoiding any trace of this nonsense was necessary for work, I had to give in and get the latest Microsoft product. Hello, tax deduction.

Gus Van Horn said...


My main use for Word is in the final stages of editing documents, often that I have written in Libre Office or as HTML. (Interestingly, the author of that piece recommends HTML as a work-around for composing in Word.) Primarily, this is so I can exchange comments during editing.