Where OpenOffice could do better

Some may argue that you cannot fault the quality or features of free software, so if MS Office still offers a few bells and whistles that are a tad more polished than their OOo counterparts, a potential user need simply decide if these refinements are worth £200+. Yet OOo Writer has emerged not only as the main competitor to MS Word, but as a serious challenge to the domination of one software giant, 40% of whose revenue stem from business's addiction to its ubiquitous Office Suite. In many respects OOo Writer is more powerful than MS Word with full support for master documents and structural markup, enabling encyclopaedia-length tomes with thousands of pages to be fully indexed. What a shame that just a few extra refinements stand in the way of making OOo a true MS Office replacement for professional writers working with others locked into the MS Office paradigm. Yes one can use a good text editor and layout engine such as VI and TeX, but in the real world you need to return an edited MS Word document in exactly the same format complete with comments. I hope in the near future wider adoption of ODF and further development of online writing tools such as Writely will make MS Word a thing of the past, but for the time being any alternatives must enable seamless collaboration with users of existing de facto standards.

  • User-friendly comment-editing facility so writers collaborating on a project can easily add explanations for amendments and view comments inserted by others. Currently text entered in the notes dialogue box will not word-wrap, so lines longer than 60 or characters must be horizontally scrolled.
  • Tabbed interface: This has now become standard in the new generation of web browsers and could easily be implemented to emphasise the tight integration between components of the open office suite and discourage users from quitting the whole application just to close one document and open another.
  • Faster start-up: This has admittedly improved with version 2.0.3., but even with preloaders Open Office still lacks the virtual instant access that the MS Office suite provides.
  • Dashed and dotted table cell and frame borders. Why has this option been omitted? Currently the only way to achieve this effect is to manually add dashed borders from the Draw menu.
  • Simple command to cycle through upper case first (or Title in case), all upper case and all lower case, a handy features when editing documents with incorrect or inconsistent capitalisation.
  • Full support for SVG imports. With its growing use in Wikipedia and support integrated into Firefox 1.5+, SVG is fast becoming the standard vector graphics exchange format. Additionally SVG should be used for all clipart and custom widgets. The custom bullets, icons and borders supplied with the OOo are really quite naff and pixelate if enlarged.
All in the Mind Power Dynamics

Two add Two equals Five because Four is a Racist Number

Racism, or more correctly in most cases xenophobia, is matter of ethics. It seems fair to conclude that racism has no place in any caring society because nobody benefits from being victims of prejudice based on arbitrary ethnic distinctions. In the real world prejudice is a natural by-product of extreme variations in wealth, rampant materialism, heightened social competition and growing duplicity (namely the contrast between our anti-racist rhetoric and selfish behaviour). I doubt the Hotel Ritz has a specific policy to bar natives of Mozambique, but few Mozambicans could afford to stay there just one night if they saved up for a whole year. It's a club that cunningly excludes anyone who can't pay, but is probably surprisingly tolerant of any billionaires with genetic traits that may otherwise be subject to prejudice.

By comparison environmental sustainability is a matter of scientific inquiry. Naturally as our appraisal of the facts is imperfect, we may reach different conclusions. Supposing someone stated that "Britain's long term carrying capacity probably ranges between 20 and 40 million, because blacks are ill-adapted to our culture". The conclusion may be correct, but is not supported by the premise. The stated rationale is of course inconsequential to the matter at hand, makes an extreme generalisation, assumes the superiority of our culture and is as such patently racist. The country's carrying capacity is an equation of total human impact (population times per capita consumption), available resources and efficiency. As available resources can be temporarily boosted by plundering resources from other regions and the sustainability of new technology is open to debate about its side effects, different interpretations of the same empirical data may lead to different conclusions, but ideally not biased by emotions.

Now let's suppose I called a plumber to investigate a leak with water dripping down slowing through a tiny crack in the bathroom ceiling after a week of subzero temperatures. I may feel better if he informed that by simply filling the crack I could stop the leak. If, however, the leak came from a burst pipe and as soon as I turned on a tap downstairs water would come gushing down flooding the whole house, I should like to know. It may cost me £200 to employ the plumber to replace the burst pipe now, but that's still cheaper than several thousand pounds to repair any damage that may result from a flood. So an honest and dependable assessment would be in my best interests, however much I hate rip-off plumbers.

In the recent debate in the UK media over immigration and the fact the kingdom's population has just topped sixty million, liberal pundits have accused proponents of tougher immigration controls of racism, while the gutter press has highlighted the criminality of some sections of the immigrant community. So by this logic whether or not this archipelago can support a population of 60 million and continue to run such a huge trade deficit in food, raw materials and manufactured goods boils down to mere taste. Liberals are supposed to be supercool and tolerant of all things groovy, so we just need more immigrants enriching our diversified multicultural melting pot, while reactionaries selfishly hate all newcomers. Some are at least consistent in slamming the green movement altogether. Spiked Online, formerly LM Mag, has long advocated material and demographic growth as the only means to progress. In a 2005 Channel Four series on the immigration debate, one of Spiked Online's regular columnists, Kenan Malik, showed picturesque scenes of vast expanses of rural East Anglia to substantiate the claim that Britain could support millions more human beings. Viewers were not asked to consider how many hectares of farmland, woodland, raw material extraction (mining, oil drilling etc.), industrial estates and how many cubic metres of potable water each resident needs. The UK can only survive with its current population and level of consumption because we import most of what we consume and export a good deal of the pollution generated by our lifestyle. This is only feasible if other regions produce huge surpluses and are willing to buy services from us. The harsh reality is that the island's medium term prosperity is tied inextricably to global trade and, more specifically, international finance. Should the US economy collapse and with it leading multinationals responsible directly or indirectly for hundreds of thousands of the country's best paid jobs resulting in a crash of the housing market and mass unemployment, how could we afford to source the relatively cheap imports we now take for granted? Spanish tomatoes seem a better deal because fossil fuels make it relatively inexpensive to ship tonnes of refrigerated fruit and veg thousands of miles and store them for several months. With fossil fuel prices destined to rise as the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) decreases, we may soon have to relocalise our economy, using up every acre of available farmland. If predictions of dwindling per capita energy resources owing to the recently named phenomenon of peak oil prove unfounded and we have a bright future with nuclear energy and/or abiotic oil, then these assumptions had better be based on hard science rather than wishful thinking. However, wars of conquest in the Middle East and the behaviour of the world's superpowers (US and China) reveal growing competition over access to vital energy resources. The sum of two and two is easy to verify. Claiming it were five, would in effect redefine the meaning of five unless we were to conclude that 2+2 = 2+3. Likewise, the arguments of many neo-liberal apologists for global hegemony do not differ much. A scientifically flawed statement is wrong whatever the ethical rationale. They appeal to our emotional empathy with the plight of the poor to support the introduction of more cheap labour into a country with an artificially inflated economy.

"Britain's carrying capacity is much bigger than the current population because to suggest otherwise would be racist".

Again the premise does not substantiate the claim. If we are genuinely motivated by altruism, we might consider how best to help people in the regions of greatest emigration. However, even a cursory analysis of migratory flows would reveal a very different picture than just a continuous stream of new immigrants to wealthy countries. As cheap labour flows into the country, chiefly to help big business, more and more well-to-do native Brits buy property abroad, so Spanish, Cypriot and Bulgarian coastal resorts are filling up with ex-pats as Poles and Lithuanians flock to London, leaving whole communities in Eastern Europe deprived of their younger population and acting effectively as a brain drain. As a result the economies of many Eastern European communities begin to depend on income earned abroad leading natives to abandon agriculture and seek employment with export-oriented businesses reliant on global trade, locking them into a global system dependent on cheap fuel and technology controlled by a handful of transnational corporations.

Rather than foster a climate of reciprocal respect and tolerance, these trends further disempower local communities and generate growing distrust towards outsiders. Ironically the ruling elites play a shrewd game of sewing the seeds of xenophobia by shipping cheap labour to regions with higher incomes and suppressing dissent within native working classes through the imposition of political correctness. Fifteen years ago in the grim years of Thatcher's rule, many unemployed blamed the government or big business for their plight, but fast forward to 2006 and many unemployed are persuaded they have a mental illness or lack key skills that many new migrants have.

In all fairness it is xenophobic to demand more than the average global living standard. So if the world can only support 650 millions personal motor vehicles, we'd better raise our person-to-car ratio to 10:1 rather than the current 2:1. If current technology and energy resources can only supply each global citizen with 1600 kg of oil per year (based on 2001 figures), then the UK should cut its 4000 kg per capita to 40% of its present level, indeed to reduce our dependence of fossil fuels we'd need even greater reductions, unless we seriously believe that all 6.5 billion global citizens can sustainably consume as much as Western Europeans do.

Revised statement: "The UK's high-consumption lifestyle is xenophobic because it affords us with a bigger slice of the global cake than our proportion of the global population warrants".

Now that begins to make sense. Of course one could state "The UK can support a much greater population because genetically modified food, nuclear energy and outsourcing of all industry to Mars will significantly boost our planet's carrying capacity" which would make sense if the rationale were scientifically feasible. Likewise one could assert that "2 + 2 = 5 if the value of the number two increments by one after the plus sign". It's the same fuzzy logic.

All in the Mind

You’re just an Individual

Whether you read psychiatric literature, social work reports or listen to the speeches of leading politicians, you'll find ordinary citizens increasingly referred to not as women, men, people, human beings or citizens but as individuals. Whether you lead an atypical lifestyle, are considered to suffer from a disorder or disease, are addicted to an obsessive behaviour or harbour subversive opinions, someone somewhere will probably refer to you as an individual with some label or other. A quick Web search for "individual with" (in inverted commas to narrow the search to that exact string) returns a plethora of references to disabled or psychiatrically labelled subjects. But the application is gradually spreading to encompass a wider cross-section of misfits, miscreants and deliquents, even blurring essential distinctions between the groups. A misfit is someone who simply finds it hard to assimilate into mainstream society for whatever reason. A geek fascinated by outmoded programming languages and oblivious to dressing norms may be a misfit in a fashion-crazed culture. A miscreant fails to believe the official doctrine, someone who fails to believe in the veracity of the latest terrorist scare is a miscreant setting her or himself against the dominant media outlets. A deliquent deliberately behaves in a socially irresponsible and potentially destructive way or may be so engrossed in the pursuit of pleasure that she or he is simply unaware of the social consequences of her or his actions, e.g. An alcoholic gambler may soon become a deliquent forced into crime through mounting debt and a risky lifestyle. Yet to statisticians all these categories just comprise individual specimens of humanity in need of classification.

New Labour enforcers seem to have four responses to well-argued condemnations of the government's actions. They may define the opinion holder as an extremist aligned with authoritarian regimes or fundamentalist religious sects. They may write off the view as a mere conspiracy theory. They may call into question the challenger's appraisal of the facts appealing to their residual party loyalty. However, when none of these options appears expedient, a classic tactic is simply to acknowledge awareness of the individual's personal beliefs. So if Tony Blair claims that the failure of the British foreign secretary to vote for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon following over 1000 civilian deaths is "the right thing to do to secure peace in the Middle East", we are supposed to believe he is privy to information to substantiate this claim. Yet if an opponent exposes the sheer hypocrisy of Blair's position in siding with aggressors, their views are dismissed as the personal opinions of individuals. Likewise if a woman becomes addicted to Internet gambling, her psychological dependence on this pastime and the resulting bankruptcy are considered personal problems of an individual with an obsessive compulsive disorder. Those responsible for deregulating and promoting the activity are just politicians and entreprenuers responding to public demand.

Most words have their uses, but the gradual semantic shift of this adjective and noun reflects a trend to alter language in order to blur distinctions and substitute implicit meanings. In NewSpeak an individual is a subject of investigation, while a man or woman are persons in their own right.