The Spam Source Experiment

Let’s see who’s selling me out.

I get a lot of email and much of it is spam. That’s why I have a special email account I use for anything that’s not important. It’s a disposable account. Every few years, I simply stop using it and create a new disposable account. Then I slowly but surely update my records where I need to. The spam virtually stops.

For a while.

Eventually, it builds up again and I’m back to the point where I need to delete that account and create a new one.

And don’t talk to me about spam filters. Yes, I have one in my email client. Yes, it does work. But no, it doesn’t catch it all and, unfortunately, it misidentifies too much as spam. So I can’t trust it.

The other day, while drivinge, I came up with a novel idea. Instead of creating one disposable email account, why not create one for each organization that asks for an email address? Then use that account for just that organization. And then, when the spam starts coming, I can easily identify its source — it’ll match the name of the account.

I own multiple domain names, each of which can have as many email addresses as I like. So there’s no limit to the number of addresses I can create. And I don’t even have to set them up in my email client software! I can simply check for mail on the web if I’m expecting something. And let it accumulate on a distant server if I’m not.

Verify Address
Sure, this email address is mine. But don’t expect me to monitor it for your junk.

I started this today. I decided to use Microsoft Excel for iPad to maintain my helicopter Hobbs book (a record of hours flown) and Due List (a record of when various maintenance items were last done and next due). In order to access an Excel file stored in Dropbox from my iPad — and be able to edit it — I had to create a Microsoft account. That account needed a valid email address. So I logged onto my server and created one named microsoft @ one of my many domain names. And I used that email address to create the account for Microsoft Excel. I checked the email on the web, got the code I needed to complete the account setup, and am done.

And I never have to see any junk from that account again.

But I can always look if I need to.

Let’s see how far I can take this. I’ll report back, maybe next year.

What Part of “Leave Me Alone” Do You Not Understand?

Seriously?

It seems that every time I register a software product or sign up for a website or give anyone my email address for any reason whatsoever, a whole bunch of new email crap results. For the “reputable” organizations, I dutifully click the link in the email message to get off the list they’ve put me on. It usually works. For the rest, I just click the Junk button to flag it as junk and let my email app take care of it.

But lately even the “reputable” organizations don’t seem to understand when I tell them — using software tools they provide — that I don’t want to receive email from them. AOPA is notorious for this; they seem to make new email lists and subscribe me to them as quickly as I can unsubscribe.

Microsoft both annoyed me and made me laugh this morning when it sent this email message:

Email from Microsoft

Just getting the email pissed me off. I don’t want to receive any kind of product announcements, news, etc. from Microsoft. I don’t care about Microsoft.

But what cracked me up was the following line:

Did you know your current contact settings have cancelled our email communications to your inbox?

Yes, I did. But apparently those settings don’t mean shit to Microsoft when they send me an email message to tell me that they’re not allowed to send email messages to me.

Needless to say, I did not click the Re-Subscribe Now link.

Sheesh.

Microsoft Customer Service = User Frustration

How I cranked up my blood pressure this morning.

Back in October 2010, while working on my Outlook book, I installed Microsoft Office 2011 on my old 15-in MacBook Pro. The installation process prompted me for a product key, which I found on the product packaging. The software then used my Internet connection to “activate” the software. The process worked without any problems and the software worked fine.

Microsoft Office

Fast forward to yesterday. I replaced the 100 GB hard disk in the computer with a 500 GB disk. Well, I didn’t replace it. A computer tech did. (It’s worth $100 for someone else to deal with all those tiny screws.) As part of the installation, he copied every file off the old hard disk to the new hard disk. When I started up the computer, it started just as if the old hard disk were still in there — but with a lot more free space.

The problem began when I launched Outlook. Microsoft presented me with a dialog that prompted me to enter a key code. It was as if I’d never registered it.

Now if I were in my office, this wouldn’t be a problem. That’s where the original disc and packaging is. But I wasn’t. I was in our Phoenix condo 100 miles away.

Easy, I figure. When I registered the software, I provided all kinds of identifying information. Microsoft could look this up and give me my key code.

So I go into online chat with someone from the Microsoft Store. He says he can’t help me, but gives me a toll-free number and series of menu choices to press.

I call the number and press the menu choices. I wait on hold about 5 minutes. I get connected to someone presumably at Microsoft. I tell him my story. He tells me that Customer Service could help me. He transfers me. I wait on hold for another 5 minutes. This time, I’m connected to an overseas support person. I tell her the same story. And this is where the real frustration begins.

She asks if I have the disc. I tell her I don’t. I tell her that if I had the disc, I wouldn’t have to call.

She asks for my order number. I tell her I don’t have my order number.

She asks me where I bought the software. I tell her it came directly from Microsoft.

She tells me she’s going to connect me to the Microsoft Store. I stop her and tell her that that’s who transferred me to her.

She asks again for the disc. I tell her I still don’t have it.

She asks again for the order number. I tell her I still don’t have it.

She tells me to call back when I have the disc in front of me. I tell her that if I had the disc in front of me, I wouldn’t have to call her.

She tells me she needs product information from the disc. I tell her what product I have.

I ask her why she can’t look up the information I provided when I registered the software. She tells me that they don’t keep that information. (Yeah. Right.)

She asks again for the disc. I begin to suspect that she doesn’t understand my situation. I ask to speak to someone who can understand me better.

She puts me on hold. I wait about 5 minutes. Then I’m disconnected.

This isn’t the first time I’ve wasted 30 minutes of my life dealing with Microsoft Customer Service. The last time, I had a copy of Windows XP in front of me and needed to know whether I’d already installed it on a computer. I knew I had an extra copy but wasn’t sure which one it was. I had all the key codes and other information they should need to answer this simple question, but after bouncing between two departments for 45 minutes and not getting anywhere, I hung up in frustration.

I compare this with Apple’s customer service, which is is pretty damn good.

Even Adobe was able to help me when I had a registration issue with Photoshop after my computer’s logic board was replaced. (By the way, Photoshop still works fine on the computer, despite the hard disk change.)

Looking back at all the years I’ve been using computers, it’s always Microsoft customer service or technical support that fails to provide the help I need to resolve an issue. First, it’s nearly impossible to find what might be the right phone number to call. Then, after navigating a phone tree, waiting on hold, and telling my story to someone, I invariably get transferred to someone else and need to go through the same process. Sometimes this is repeated until I realize I’m being transferred back and forth between the same two departments. Along the way, I have to deal with people who don’t speak English very well or are reading off scripts they’re not allowed to stray from. No one is ever helpful.

Why is this?

Many people don’t use Microsoft software because they hate the company so much. I can understand this.

I have to admit that I have no love for the company at all. But I use Microsoft software — at least some of it. Word is still the industry standard word processor. My editors would not be very happy if I told them no, I can’t view your manuscript edits, changes, or comments because I don’t use Word.

And Excel — well, I’ve been an Excel jockey (and a Lotus jockey before that) since 1990. It’s the only spreadsheet software I’m comfortable with. Everything else seems just plain wacky. (Think Numbers.)

What I don’t understand is how a company that’s so cash-rich and has such an enormous installed user base can’t give proper support for its two biggest products: Windows and Office. Could it have something to do with its management? Or have they simply adopted a “we’re too big to have to care” attitude because — well, they are?

What supports that last theory is that Microsoft never sends a follow-up e-mail asking me to complete a satisfaction survey. (Apple always does.) They obviously don’t want to know how satisfied I am. Why? Because they don’t give a damn.

So my laptop will remain Office-crippled until I get home to re-activate the software. Not much productivity when your primary productivity tool doesn’t work.

Technical Support FAIL

Staff that can read, understand, and reply to requests in English would be helpful.

Two weeks ago, I needed to access a restricted area on a Web site operated by a major software vendor with beta software I needed. I’d been given an invitation link that should have gotten me access, but it didn’t work.

After searching the site, I finally found a link I could use to send feedback. Because I’m under nondisclosure for this project, I’ve redacted some of what I sent, but you can get the gist of it here:

I’m supposed to have access to the [redacted software] beta. I got an invitation. I filled out the form and it said the invitation was invalid. My contact is [redacted contact], at [redacted PR firm]. The error code I got when I tried to get a product key following the instructions of my [redacted PR firm] contact was 2f1dc2b1-4e83-4dc5-8c3b-8988079801af. I need access to the software. Can you please help me?

Several days later, I got the following response:

Hi Maria,

The reason you are getting this error is because the [redacted acronym] with which this invitation is associated is no more a valid [redacted acronym] hence to fix this you need to follow following steps:

1. The account for which the [redacted acronym] no longer exists will need to be merged with an existing (valid [redacted acronym]) account ,
OR
2. You need to create a new registered account in [redacted service] with which, we can merge this existing account.

Thank You!

[redacted name]
[redacted company] Team

I had no freaking idea what this meant, so I responded:

This information does NOT help me. I cannot get the software. Can someone PLEASE help me resolve this? It’s been going on for nearly a week and I NEED the software ASAP.

Nearly two weeks have gone by. In the meantime, I was suddenly able to access the software. I no longer had a problem. Yet today, I got the following message:

Hi Maria,

The reason you are getting this error is because the [redacted acronym] with which this invitation is associated is no more a valid [redacted acronym]. Every invitation is associated with users valid [redacted acronym] and in your case there is no [redacted acronym] a/c showing and hence to fix this issue there are 2 steps:

1. You give us a valid registered [redacted acronym] and we will merge it with your account for which the [redacted acronym] no longer exists. OR
2. You need to create a new registered account in [redacted service] with which, we can merge this existing account.

By merging we here means that all the permissions which your original [redacted acronym] had will be transferred to this new [redacted acronym] of yours.

Thank You!

[redacted name]
[redacted company] Team

Look familiar? It should. It’s almost exactly the same message I got two weeks ago. It’s even purportedly from the same person.

One thing is obvious to me. The support system of this major software vendor is broken — possibly because it’s hosted in India where the people sitting at keyboards don’t understand English. They might consider getting some English-as-a-FIRST-language support staff to help their English-speaking customers.

This is the Kind of Stuff I Get in E-Mail

Come on folks! Get a clue!

I found this message in my spam folder this afternoon:

I have xp, I have been using microsft exscel 2007 with no problems until today
the spread sheet prints with wavy lines
cells are wavy, it is not the printer because when I go back and print old spread sheets it is fine
thank you for your help

I have not edited this other than to remove the sender’s name. I had never before been in contact with the sender.

Yes, I know I’ve written books about Excel, including Excel 2007. But does that make me the go-to person for all Excel questions? Like I have nothing better to do than sit at my desk and wait for Excel user questions to come in so I can answer them?

My Contact page clearly indicates that I do not answer questions about my books via e-mail. But this isn’t even a question about my books. This is a technical support question about a printing problem. How am I supposed to know what this person — who is borderline illiterate — did in Excel to get wavy cell lines?

This message is good for one thing, however: it gave me fodder for a rant about the kind of crap I find in my e-mail in box.

Sheesh.

Word 2004 Does Not Like Mac OS X 10.5.8

It may be time to update Office.

I just started work on a new book revision. The project requires me to take relatively lengthy, style-laden Word documents, turn on the Track Changes feature, and edit like crazy. It wasn’t long before I was pulling my hair out.

You see, the other day, I updated my iMac from 10.5.7 to 10.5.8. I suspect that something in that update just didn’t sit well with Word 2004, which I was still running on that computer. After all, the iMac has an Intel dual core processor. Office 2004 was written for the old PowerPC processor that came in older Macs. Whether the problem was Mac OS X’s inability to run the old PowerPC application or Word’s inability to run on the 10.5.8 update is a mystery to me. All I know is what I experienced: text editing so slow that I could type faster than Word could display the characters.

Revisions, RevisionsAt first I thought it might be the document itself. It’s 40 pages of text that utilizes about 20 styles and fields for automatically numbering figures and illustrations. The document was originally created about 10 years ago and has been revised and saved periodically for every edition of this book. It pops from my Mac to an editor’s PC and back at least five times during each revision process. I thought it might have some internal problems. So I used the Save As command to create a new version of the document. The new file was about 5% smaller in size, but had the same symptoms as the original.

Next I sent it over my network to my new 13-inch MacBook Pro. That computer’s processor isn’t as quick as my iMac’s and it has the same amount of RAM. The software on that computer was different, though. I had a developer preview version of Snow Leopard installed and, in preparation for a Microsoft Office 2008 project I’ll be starting in the fall, I’d installed Office 2008 with both major updates. I opened the file on that machine and it worked just fine. Great editing and scrolling speed. Exactly what I needed.

So I bit the bullet and installed Office 2008 on my iMac. And the two major updates. And two smaller updates that became available on August 5. It took hours — the updates totaled over 400 MB of downloads and I’m connected to the internet on a horrible 600-800 Kbps connection that likes to drop. (I’m living in a motel right now, traveling for my helicopter business.)

The result: All the performance issues are gone. Word is snappy yet again on my iMac.

You might ask why a person who writes about Microsoft Office applications had not yet upgraded to Office 2008. This all goes back to last year’s revision on this project. I actually did upgrade but then I downgraded. It was mostly because I needed the macro feature of Word, which wasn’t available on Word 2008. I’d upgraded my iMac last year, but when I decided to reformat my hard disk to ward off computer issues I was having (which were apparently caused by a bad logic board), I reinstalled Office 2004 instead of 2008. You see, I liked the old version better.

But it’s obvious to me now that I need to keep moving forward with the rest of my technology if I want it to perform as designed. Everything must be in sync. If I want to keep using Word 2004, I should use it on a computer that has the system software available during Word 2004’s lifespan. My old 12-inch PowerBook would be a good example. It has a G4 processor and runs Tiger. That’s as advanced as it will ever get. Office 2004 is a perfect match for it.

If there’s a moral to be taken away from this story, it’s simply that if you want your hardware and system software to be new or up-to-date, there will come a time when you’ll have to update the applications that run on it. Bite the bullet and do what you have to. It’ll be worth it.

In Defense of Microsoft Word

It does the whole job.

About a month ago, I was having trouble with my Mac and decided to head off any serious problems by reformatting my hard disk and reinstalling all my software from original program discs. In the old days, before we all had hard drives measured in gigabytes, I did this every single time there was a major system software update. Nowadays, it’s a lot of work and I avoid doing it if I can. My 24″ iMac is just over a year old and shouldn’t have been giving me problems, but I figured I’d try the reformat before bringing it to a genius. (Turns out, it was the swapping out of 2 GB of RAM for 4 GB of RAM that probably fixed the problem.)

For some reason, I didn’t do a typical install of Microsoft Office 2004. I thought I’d save disk space by omitting the proofing tools for the languages I don’t speak — which is every language except English. Word, which I use daily, worked fine — until I noticed that it wasn’t checking spelling as I type. Although my spelling is above average, I count on Word to put red squiggly underlines under my misspellings and typos. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get this feature to start working.

I sent an update to my Twitter account about this as I went about troubleshooting the problem. The result was an outpouring of suggestions from my Twitter friends for replacing Word or Office with other software, ranging from Open Source Word or Office replacements to Google Docs.

Whoa!

I fixed the problem by uninstalling and then reinstalling Word. Life went on. But it got me thinking about Office and Word and why so many people go out of their way to avoid both.

Word and Me

I should probably start off by saying that I have been using Microsoft Word since 1989 or 1990. Although I got Microsoft Works with my first Mac, I soon learned Word and began teaching it in a classroom setting. It was Word 4 for the Mac in those days; I don’t know what the corresponding version in Windows was because I didn’t use it or teach it. I’m not even sure if Microsoft Windows was a player back then.

I’ve used every version of Word for the Mac since then.

My first book about Microsoft Word was The Macintosh Bible Guide to Word 6. Word 6 sucked. It was a processor hog. I remember working with it in beta as I wrote my book about it. I remember whining to my editor, asking if he thought they’d fix the performance issues before the software went out. They did, but not very well. I disliked Word 6 and the way it handled outlines and “master documents.” Everything seemed to be “embedded.” It seemed as if they’d prettied up Word to look more Mac-like and had done the job by pouring maple syrup all over the inside of my computer, bogging things down.

Word 98 was a vast improvement. From then on, each version of Word was an improvement. The interface remained basically the same but features were added and solidified. Some of the features worked with Microsoft server software, which I didn’t have, didn’t want, and certainly didn’t need. All I cared about was that Word did what I needed it to do, using the same interface I knew from years of experience as a user.

The End of the World as We Know It: Office 2007

Then Office 2007 for Windows came out with its ridiculous “ribbon” interface. What the hell was Microsoft thinking? Take a standardized interface that your existing user base knows by heart and throw it out the window. Force them to learn a whole new interface. Keep telling them that it’s easier and maybe a handful of morons will believe you.

I had to use Office 2007 for two Excel books. The only good thing I can say about it is that the complete, radical interface change — I’m talking menus vs. ribbon here, not spreadsheet basics — made a book about the software necessary. How else would users figure out how to get the job done? Fortunately (for users, not authors) Office 2007 adoption is slow.

Woe is Me: Office 2008

Word 2008 Splash ScreenOf course, I’m a Mac user and use the Mac version of Office. I held my breath when Office 2008 came out. Thank heaven they didn’t get rid of the menu bar — although I don’t understand how they could. Office 2008 retains much of the Office 2004 interface. It just adds what Microsoft calls “Element Galleries” and the usual collection of features that 1% of the computing world cares about. Fortunately, you can ignore them and continue using Office applications with the same old menus and shortcut keys we all know.

I would have switched to Office 2008 — I even had it installed on my MacBook Pro — except for two things:

  • Its default document formats are not compatible with versions of office prior to Office 2007. That means someone using Word 2003 for Windows or Word 2004 for Mac can’t open my documents unless I save them in an Office 2004-compatible format. This isn’t a huge deal, but it is something I’d have to remember every single time I saved a document. I’d also have to remember not to use any Office feature that only worked with Office 2007 or 2008.
  • It does not support Visual Basic Macros. One of my publishers makes me use a manuscript template that’s chock-full of these macros. Can’t access the macros, can’t use the template. Can’t use the template, can’t use Office 2008.

(I wrote about these frustrations extensively in a Maria’s Guides article.)

So I’m apparently stuck with Office 2004 — at least for a while.

But do you know what? I’m perfectly happy with it.

Why I Like Word

I like Word. I really do. It does everything I need it to do and it does it well.

Sure, it has a bunch of default options that are set stupidly. I wrote about how to set them more intelligently in an article for Informit.com. (Read “Three Ways Word Can Drive You Crazy[er] and What You Can Do About Them.”) It certainly includes far more features than the average writer needs or uses. And despite what Microsoft might tell you, it’s probably not the best tool for page layout (I prefer InDesign) or mail merge (I prefer FileMaker Pro). But it does these things if you need to.

I use all of the basic word processing features. I use the spelling checker — both as I type and to correct errors. I like smart cut and paste, although I have the ridiculous Paste Options button turned off. I like AutoComplete and love AutoCorrect (when set up properly). I use all kinds of formatting, including paragraph and character styles, tables, and bulleted lists. I rely on the outlining features when preparing to write a book or script for video training material. I use the thesaurus occasionally when I can’t get my mind around the exact word I’m looking for, although the word I want is usually not listed.

I’ve used some of the advanced features, such as table of contents generation, indexing, and cross-references. These are great document automation features. Trouble is, I don’t usually use Word to create documents that require these features. I use InDesign for laying out my books, which are usually illustrated. (And I admit that I’m looking forward to trying out the new cross-referencing feature in InDesign CS4 for my next book.)

I don’t jump on board with every new Word feature. I prefer the Formatting toolbar over the Formatting Palette. I write in Normal view rather than Page Layout view. I create my own templates but don’t use the ones that come with Word.

I don’t use the grammar checker; I think it’s a piece of crap designed for people who know neither grammar nor writing style. I don’t like URLs formatted as links. (Who the hell wants links underlined in printed documents?) I don’t use any of the Web publishing features; I’d rather code raw HTML than trust Word to do it for me. I very seldom insert images or objects or anything other than text in my documents. I have InDesign for serious layout work. I don’t use wizards. WordArt is UglyI think WordArt is ugly and amateurish. I keep the silly Office Assistant feature turned off.

I admit that I don’t use any of the project features that work with Entourage — although I’d like to. I decided a while back to switch to Apple’s e-mail, calendar, and contact management solutions (Mail, iCal, and Address Book respectively) because they’d synchronize with .Mac (now MobileMe) and my Treo. Entourage probably does this now, but I really don’t feel like switching again. Am still thinking about this.

The point is, I use a bunch of Word features and I completely ignore a bunch of others. The features are there if I need them but, in Word 2004, they’re not in your face, screaming for attention. (Wish I could say the same about Word 2008.)

iWork with Apple Computers

iWork '09Lots of people think that just because I’m a Macintosh user — an enthusiast, in fact — I should be using Apple’s business productivity solution: iWork. For a while, I thought so, too.

I own iWork ’08. I just bought iWork ’09. I’ve tried Pages. I’ve really tried Pages. I wanted to use it. I wanted to break free of Microsoft Word.

But old habits are hard to break. No matter how much I tried to use Pages each time I needed to create a document, when I was rushed, I reached for Word. No learning curve — I already know it. After a while, I just stopped trying to use Pages.

Why Use a Bunch of One Trick Ponies?

I know a bunch of writers who swear by one software program or another for meeting their writing needs. They use special outliners to create outlines. They use special “writing software” that covers the entire screen with a blank writing surface so they’re not distracted by other things on their desktops. They use special software to brainstorm, footnote, and index.

I’ve tried these solutions and do you know what? They don’t make my life easier. Instead, they just give me another piece of software to learn and keep up to date and interface with other software. They make more work for me.

I’m not going to forget my Word skills and Word isn’t going to suddenly disappear off the face of the planet anytime soon. In fact, it’s far more likely for one of these one-trick ponies to disappear than a powerhouse with millions of users worldwide like Microsoft Office.

Thought PatternI remember ThoughtPattern, a program by Bananafish Software. I saw it demoed at a Macworld Expo in the early 1990s and thought it was the greatest thing in the world for organizing my thoughts and ideas. I was sure it would make me a better writer. I was so convinced, I bought it — and it wasn’t cheap. I used it for a while and rather liked it. Evidently, I was one of very few people who’d joined the ThoughtPattern revolution. In April 1993, it was discontinued. I was left with software that wouldn’t work with subsequent versions of the Macintosh system software. Worst of all, the documents I created with ThoughtPattern were in their own proprietary format. When the software stopped working, the contents of those documents were lost. (Do you think it was easy to find a screenshot from software that was discontinued 16 years ago?)

So perhaps you can understand my aversion to one-trick ponies that promise a better writing experience.

Will the same thing happen with Microsoft Word? I don’t think so.

I Don’t Compute in the Cloud

Google Docs was one of the solutions suggested to me by my Twitter friends. I guess they think it’s better to avoid the evil Microsoft empire in favor of the “we’re not evil” Google empire. Along the way, I should give up the interface and features I know from almost 20 years of experience with the software and rely on an online application that could change its interface daily. Oh, yeah — and keep my documents on someone else’s computer.

Yeah. Right. Good idea.

Not.

Until I’m part of a multinational corporation that requires its employees and consultants to keep all their documents on some remote server for collaboration purposes, I will not be computing in the cloud.

One of the things I like about keeping my documents on my own computer — rather than a remote server accessible by the Internet — is that the Internet is not always available. What do I do then? Stop working?

Security is an issue, too. While I don’t usually write much of a confidential nature, I don’t like the idea of not having control over my documents. Servers get hacked. I don’t want my work suddenly accessible to people who I don’t want seeing it.

I will admit that I use MobileMe’s iDisk feature to keep some documents on an Apple server. This makes it a tiny bit easier to access them from my laptop when I’m away from home. But I’ve recently moved to a new strategy. I bought a pocket hard drive that’s bigger than my computer’s Home folder. Before I hit the road with my laptop on a trip for business or pleasure, I sync this portable drive with my Home folder. I then have every single document on my computer with me when I’m away. The added benefit: complete offsite backup.

That’s My Case

That’s my defense of Microsoft Word. I rest my case.

Please understand that I’m not trying to convince a non-Word user to switch to Word. If you’re happy with something else, stick with it! That’s the precise reason I’m sticking with Word. I’m happy with it.

I guess the reason I wrote this post was to assure other people like me that there’s no reason to be ashamed of being a Word user. You do what’s right for you. There’s nothing really wrong with Word. If it makes your life easier, why switch?