Feburary 2016 Column

We are pleased to present a new Computing at Chaos Manor column from Dr. Jerry Pournelle. His recent experiences with Outlook, Word, and using his computer after his stroke are instructive as always. – Editor

Chaos ManorI like Outlook and Word. I suppose there may be better mail/calendar and text creation programs, but I’m used to these, and they’ve always worked for me; and moreover I am used to their quirks. When Word 2007 went from the old Word 2003 interface to the famous – or notorious – ribbon, I resisted the change for years, but eventually I found sufficient reason to give Word 2007 and its ribbon a try, and discovered that it really wasn’t all that bad, and grew to like it. I did grumble about the ribbon taking up a lot of screen space, but it was about then that I moved from big bottle monitors to 25, then 27 inch flat screens, and I could hardly kid myself that I didn’t have screen space to spare; indeed I wasn’t using all I had since I don’t like to have lines so long I have to turn my head to see the whole line.

So: I adopted Word 2007, and then went to Word 2010 when that upgrade came out, and I’m not sorry I did. Since my stroke in December 2014 I have been unable to touch type, and I have to stare at the keyboard rather than look at the screen when I write, so I often don’t bother using Control-F1 to hide the ribbon; I can’t be distracted by it because I’m not looking at the screen when I type.

The problem with being a two finger typist, at least for those sloppy like me, is hitting two keys at once. It happens often, and you will see words like “wou;ld” a lot. The remedy for me is AutoCorrect. Of course it must be used with care, but in my case my AutoCorrect file consists of many impossible letter compositions fairly commonly made by striking two keys at once, each to be converted into the word I obviously was trying to type. Of course some are ambiguous, and then there’s nothing for it but to let the spell checker show it with the red underline and choose; but some have only one rational intention, and I have AutoCorrect deal with those so I never see them. This has worked well for me.

With Word this is made simple; right click on a red-underlined word, and you are shown a list of words the system thinks you intended; click on one and it changes to that. Word 10 adds a feature: when you right click you are also offered the AutoCorrect option; choose that and it shows the list of candidate words. Often there is only one. If you click on a word in that list, the particular misspelling and the correct word are added to the AutoCorrect dictionary, and you will never see that particular mistake again. I have used it on this machine – Alien Artifact, a Windows 7 system – and it has saved me much time.

Alas, with Office 365 you get Word 2016, and that does not have this method of adding words to AutoCorrect. I have not yet found how to transfer the AutoCorrect data file on Alien Artifact to my Microsoft Surface Pro 3, and have had to build a new AutoCorrect data base on the Surface; and with Word 2011 this is a longer and more painful process. The “Improvement” to 2011 was a drastic error for the work I do, and I am still trying to figure out what to do about it.

Eric Pobirs, Chaos Manor Advisor, said:

   The main problem with AutoCorrect is that the Word team has a different scenario in mind for its use than Jerry’s situation. The implementation could easily be made to accommodate those in Jerry’s situation if they exposed a few more controls to allow configuration of its behavior. I keep hoping someday I’ll reach the right person in Redmond to convey this.

It appears to me that AutoCorrect has become focused on allowing those with a lot of frequently repeated text, text that isn’t quite lengthy enough to keep in a boilerplate file, to create their own custom shorthand system. Word’s configuration menus also refer to AutoText as a separate function, even though this appears to be the exact same thing.

I believe it would be quite easy for MS to add a ‘clumsy typist’ mode if they were made aware of a sufficiently interested portion of the user base.

Peter Glaskowsky tells me:

“Interestingly, Office 2016 on my Mac does still have this exact feature.

Online I found this web page offering a Word template to put the function back in (basically re-creating it in VBA) but it doesn’t seem to work on my Windows 10 machine with Word 2016.


I have had similar experiences with other attempts to add the feature to Word 2016.

This all became more acute when I had my Outlook misadventure. I have Outlook 2010 on Alien Artifact, my main machine, in part because Outlook 2010 also has the simple method of adding to the AutoCorrect data base, and I often use it when answering email; I don’t type as much in answering mail as I do when writing fiction or non-fiction, but I do it a lot. I have also paid a lot more attention to rules and sorting email in the Outlook in Alien Artifact, and thus this remains my main machine for Outlook as well as Word. Of course I also get all the mail on Precious, the Surface Pro 3, but she doesn’t have the same sorting system and sub-folders; I could put them there, but I haven’t done so.

Outlook saves all your work in an enormous file called Outlook.pst; and by all, I mean all, not only all your mail, but the rules, account information, categories for manually or automatically sorting mail, calendars, appointments, etc. Obviously I could try to synchronize my various machines running Outlook, but I haven’t summoned up the energy; things have been hectic here at Chaos Manor since my stroke. I had a lot of recovery in 2015, but what with Roberta getting pneumonia and me getting bronchitis in early January, 2016 has been a bit slow.

All this is background to my latest adventure.

Outlook 2010 Crashes

Friday, January 29, I was dealing with the mail, answering some, deleting a lot, and sorting the rest into categories like “To be answered” and “To Be Posted” and such when I received an email of the final edit of There Will Be War, Volume IX, which will come out next week. I wanted to do a final proof reading, even though I know that Castalia House does a pretty good job of that, so I opened the epub file in Calibre; or at least I intended to open it. Calibre is infuriating: you can’t just open an epub file, you must first insert it into the Calibre library; but when I went to do that, I was informed that there was an update available, didn’t I want to download that first?

All right, I thought, and attempted to do so. It took a long time; so long that I decided to stop the process. It wouldn’t stop, so I went to Windows Task Manager to stop it. Then I decided to restart Windows; sometimes that helps when things slow down. Restarting Windows takes a while since you must close all ongoing applications. After I restarted it took a very long time to come up; far longer than usual. Outlook didn’t seem to want to start. OK, time for more drastic measures. Restart, then do a virus search. Something, I thought, is wrong, so I used the Shutdown button to completely turn the system off.

I did that, using an external search program. Nothing wrong. No malware found. Alien Artifact came up about as fast as usual, and everything seemed OK, so I opened Outlook. The system trundled for five minutes, but the program would not open. Now I really had a problem. Everything else about the system, Firefox, internal network connections, Word, seemed to work fine, but Outlook would not start.

Rick Hellewell, Managing Editor of Chaos Manor Reviews, tells me he did the Calibre update recently and it went smoothly, so I suspect that Firefox had one of its glitches that come with my bad habit of leaving a lot of Firefox windows open as an aid to my memory; when it slows down I find that restarting Firefox, and sometimes restarting Windows, fixes the problem, and it was an attempt to do that that generated this problem.

Eric had thoughts on Calibre and upgrades:

Calibre is a very active project and sees update releases with great frequency. If you don’t use it at least weekly it can seem like it wants to update with every single use. This would be less annoying if it had a less primitive method for updating and instead did things like Firefox or Chrome. If they released a version that was distributed through the Windows Store, that would also provide a much better update mechanism.

Alien Artifact has an SSD C: drive where we keep programs such as Windows and stuff that needs to load fast, and a terabyte spinning metal D: drive where we keep data. Because the machine is several years old and was built when SSD drives were quite expensive, the C: drive is only 250 gigabytes, so the terabyte D: drive gets a lot of use. Among other data on the D: drive are the Outlook data files, including outlook.pst. I looked at the Outlook data folder. There wasn’t an Outlook.pst folder. Or, rather, there was one, but it had a date of last change of 1/25/2015 which was impossible; I’d been using Outlook all through 2015 and of course the first month of 2016.

Now I had a backup of Outlook.pst on My Book, a very nice Western Digital 5 terabyte external drive. I admit I bought it partly because it was on sale but mostly because I was rather thrilled to have a 5 terabyte drive; my first computer had 8” floppy disk drives of 64 kilobytes for “mass” permanent storage.

Anyway, I had that backup on the external USB drive, so this was not a disaster of great proportions, but it was annoying; I’d have considerable work reconstructing all I had done in the several days since last backup, but I certainly had all the incoming mail I’d received in the past few days, both on Precious, the Surface Pro 3, and Swan, a Windows 10 system in the back room. It would be tedious, but I could do it. However, it would be better to find out what was wrong here.

Years ago I had a problem with a corrupted Outlook.pst file, and fixed it by running a Microsoft program, scanpst.exe. Worth a try, anyway. All I had to do was find scanpst.exe.

Microsoft keeps changing the default locations of programs, and the “improved” search program in Windows 7 and later sucks dead bunnies compared to the older Windows internal search programs, but it does work; only it could not find the program.

I told it to do an extended search on “My Computer” which includes all the other computers mapped to this one, and after long trundling it found scanpst.exe on Bette, a Windows 7 machine asleep upstairs. Bette was previously a main machine, but except as part of my extended backup procedures I hadn’t looked at her since my stroke – going upstairs is a bit of an expedition now.

But there was the program, in Program Files (x86) meaning that it is a 32 bit program. I double clicked on it, so that it would run on Alien Artifact, and Lo! it ran fine. It asked what file it should scan. I browsed to Alien Artifact’s D: Outlook Data file – it’s buried deep in the Jerryp Documents Library – and told it to scan that.

I knew it would take a while so I went to lunch. When I came back it said, Yep, that’s a corrupt file, back it up and I’ll fix it.

No problem. I used Norton Windows Commander, still one of the best file management programs I know, to create a “backup” folder and copied the misdated Outlook.pst into it, then told scanpst.exe to scan it again; this time it went very fast and offered to fix it, please make a backup first. Since I had made a backup I told it to go ahead. Trundle, but not for very long, and it said it was fixed.

The only problem was that the file still had a “last changed” date of 1/25/2015. Very interesting. I figured it could not hurt to open it – after all I still had my 4 day old Outlook.pst file on my backup drive—so I opened Outlook. It came right up. It was up to date, had all of today’s mail up to the moment I had shut down Outlook, and so far as I could see was in perfect shape. All my rules worked.

Not only that: Firefox was fast again, the Calibre update worked smoothly, and I’m working on proofreading There Will Be War Vol IX; I am also preparing a preface to the 2016 edition. It should be published soon.

Eric added this about searching for files in Windows:

The changes to Windows Search started in Vista. The big difference is that the old search in XP started from scratch every time while the newer version uses indexes maintained in idle periods to give far faster results.

The tradeoff is that indexing EVERYTHING would get really slow and most of it would be for indexing areas that most users will rarely or never need to access, especially system files.

Further, many of those files default to hidden from user view to keep them out of trouble. It only takes one radio button in the File Options control panel to change this but it can be annoying if you’ve forgotten about it or are using somebody else’s PC (as is often the case in my job) but it put an end to a lot of incidence of people deleting portions of the OS or program files because they didn’t know what this stuff did and it seemed to be taking up a lot of space for nothing.

It was always one of Window’s weaknesses from evolving out of a DOS shell that it lacked the basic protections that had been normal all along on operating systems that started on large multi-user systems and became available on micros as they grew in capability.

Anyway, the index scope of search can be made to include the entire volume but it means the indexing will require a lot more system time and the benefit would be non-existent for the majority of users whose only concern is finding data files stored in the provide library locations that are part of the default scope.


Two Finger Typing and Lost Text

This is the second time I have written this story. One problem with Word and two finger typing is that alt-spacebar does something. It opens a mini-window that I do not quite understand, but there are then keys you can press that delete everything you have done on that Word file. By delete I mean delete; the text is gone, not to the recycle bin, but gone. The Word window you were writing in is closed, and all unsaved text is lost. So far as I can tell there has never been a “Are you sure” warning; certain keys will simply close the Word Window without saving. It doesn’t happen often, but it can happen.

When you are two-finger typing you do not see the screen, so you do not see this mini-window that opens in the upper left of the screen; and if you are typing fast it is possible to hit keys – I am not sure which – that result in closing your Word window and deleting all your text. I did it yesterday, losing 1500 words of text, and that so depressed me that I went into a funk despite my success with scanpst.exe. If you are a sloppy typist, be very careful of alt-spacebar. It’s an easy mistake to make for a sloppy typist and the result is disaster.

Eric’ provided some thoughts about Alt-Spacebar

This is what ALT+spacebar does. It’s part of a set of commands that lets you do window manipulation stuff you’d normally do with a pointing device, in case none is available. I imagine somebody has a situation that requires them to memorize these commands but it must be quite rare. It’s an interesting novelty to play around with but I cannot remember the last time I had a functioning keyboard but no option for a pointing device and the need to for GUI manipulation. Some devices for enabling use by the handicapped make use of these commands to enable interaction with software that has little or no good support for disabled users.

The accidental use probably opened the drop down menu normally found in an app’s upper left corner and defaults to highlighting CLOSE, the equivalent of ALT+F4. If you were near the end of a paragraph when this happened and hit ENTER, the system thought you wanted to close the window. This should have resulted in a “Are you sure?” or ”Do you want to save?” dialogue but another fast ENTER may have dismissed that before it was noticed.

Word keeps a hidden backup of the work in progress to allow recovery from things like power failure but this file gets overwritten by the next session if it isn’t put to use immediately after such a failure. With the speed of the systems today, especially the storage, there is no penalty for greatly reducing the autosave period as a safeguard. There was a time when AutoSave would disrupt input but you’d have to be working on a fairly massive file on a modern system for it to be noticeable. This, of course, is one of those subtle improvements the super-fast PCI-e SSDs will give us.

[More information about Alt-Spacebar is here http://cnet.co/1QVjamp ]

Rick Hellewell recalled an early story about Windows keyboard equivalents:

A friend from early Windows was really a techie about computers and Windows. He like to delve deep into the hardware and software of PC’s and Windows. I recall that he disconnected his mouse from his computer for a week to force himself to learn all of the keyboard shortcuts available in Windows.

The moral of this story is simple: save early and often, as we did in the old days.

When I first started writing with computers, back in S-100 days. I used to save after every paragraph even though I was saving to an 8” floppy and that took time. I hated losing text.

As the years went by, disasters became more and more rare. When I had this one, I opened Word and went to File >Options > Save and discovered that my auto-save was set to ten minutes. I can write a lot in ten minutes, and apparently did yesterday before I lost it all. I have since set the auto-save time, first to 3 minutes, and when I found that I did not notice that, I have reset it to 1 minute; I don’t notice that either. Saves, even of large documents, are fast. I suspect that if I have a whole novel up I will probably change auto-save back to a longer time. But perhaps not. Ten minutes, though, is entirely too long.

Regarding alt-spacebar, It is certainly possible that I hit Return just after alt-spacebar, but there is simply no “Are you sure” warning before the Window closes with loss of all text. I’ve experimented. With fast drives it is not a large problem: I have set all my machines to save every minute, and I have not noticed having done so; I can’t lose more than a minute’s worth of text now, and while that would be annoying it would no longer be a disaster. Hurrah for faster drives! Still, alt-spacebar is a dangerous, and in my judgment a needless “feature”.

Transferring AutoCorrect Dictionaries

Eric Pobirs reminds me:

‘Technically, we know how to transfer AutoCorrect settings but the multitude of identically named files is such that we gave up in the face of the lengthy trial and error that would have been required to make it work. There is probably an app out there to sync such things but they tend to be pricey for single users across multiple machines. Microsoft has been implementing more and more sync functionality in Windows and Office, so it is possible it will be built-in someday.”

To which I can only shout encouragement to Microsoft. It is time they took some notice of the inconveniences they cause normal users in their constant efforts to add “improvements”. For some of us the improvements are needless and sometimes interfere with the program’s utility for us, even if it does add some feature useful to other users. I know it’s a bother to look into how people actually use software, but isn’t there some obligation to long time users?

The Dreaded 550 Error

While I was dithering about what to do with my lost outlook.pst, I went to Precious, the Surface Pro 3 with Surface Pro 4 keyboard, because of course I could not use my main machine to read or answer mail; once that outlook.pst file is corrupted, Outlook won’t open until it is scanned and fixed, or replaced.

Precious was doing something odd: I could reply to certain mail, like mail from my advisors group, but ordinary mail, whether a reply or original mail, got a message from “System Administrator”:

Your message did not reach some or all of the intended recipients.

Subject:     Sent from Surface Pro

Sent:  1/30/2016 10:50 AM

The following recipient(s) cannot be reached:

Alex Pournelle (alexp@xxx.net) on 1/30/2016 10:50 AM

Server error: ‘550 through this server.’

This no matter who I tried to send to. I can send mail to myself, or to certain lists, but nowhere else. I have discussed this with my advisors, who are pretty sharp. I have also looked on-line but the discussion seems confusing. I know that Swan, a modern Windows 10 desktop running the same version of Office as does the Surface Pro, does not have this problem; and of course the Windows 7 Alien Artifact does not either.

It is merely annoying at the moment, since I only use the Surface to keep track of experimental Windows 10 changes; but it is an annoyance. The loss of Outlook on my main machine caused me to do a good bit of work on Precious, and I find that the Surface Pro 4 keyboard is the best two-finger keyboard I have yet found, better than the Logitech K360’s I have installed on Alien Artifact and Swan; and while I have mixed emotions about the small screen, I also notice the screen as I am typing; with a desktop the big 27” screen is at eye level so when I am staring at the keyboard, as I must, I do not see the screen at all.

It is possible that I will be able to work on novels on the Surface Pro; that Pro 4 keyboard really is superior. The keys are large, and they are well separated; I don’t hit control-spacebar very often. On the other hand, I only have Office 365 on the Surface, which means teaching AutoCorrect about woul;d and so forth is much more difficult.

It is possible that some Outlook setting has been changed, although it would have had to “just happen” since I did not use that Surface Pro at all since the last time I answered mail with it; I’ll keep looking, and perhaps someone will have a cogent suggestion.

And perhaps Microsoft never will get around to fixing the 550 error, meaning that my Surface is useless as a travelling machine. I keep thinking it must be Microsoft and one of the recent updates to Windows 10, because I have barely used the Surface recently.

When I first connected the Surface Pro 4 keyboard to it, the Fingerprint ID system worked just fine; then there was a period of a couple of weeks when it did not work at all, and I had to type in the password; then another software revision, and the fingerprint system worked fine again, worked much better that the IBM system on the ThinkPad.

I had done nothing to the system; all the updates were automatic. The fingerprint worked, then did not work, then worked again; no word from Microsoft, just automatic updates. I can hope that another update will fix the dreaded 550 error.

On the other hand, Outlook works just fine on Swan, a Windows 10 system with Office 365; I’ll have to dig to find its Outlook settings; perhaps they differ from those on Precious, but I don’t see why they would; I certainly never changed anything. Anyway that’s for another time.

Winding Down

The book of the month is Angus Deaton, The Great Escape, Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality.
Deaton writes well, and is careful in what he says. I suspect he and I would not be in great agreement on many things, but he is very careful of his data. He also points out that both the poor and the wealthy now have access to benefits, particularly in health, that the wealthiest and most powerful could not have had a few years ago; that world health among the richest and the poorest has become much better in the last hundred years, and continues to rise. That includes life expectancy. See Matthew 6:27.

We didn’t get to the movies this month. I get DVD’s of many of the acclaimed nominee movies, but I have not been looking at them; frankly, Birdman was so disappointing to me last year that I am a little leery of critical acclaim. I’m sure that will pass.

I will try to be more regular with these observations in future.

We invite your comments below. Be aware that Dr. Pournelle does not respond to comments due to time considerations, but we welcome your thoughts. – Editor