Friday, June 27, 2014

If you decide to use LibreOffice for your work, you need to think it through carefully first

As a fan of open source and Linux, I never thought that I would come to feel this way about LibreOffice but if you need to use it for business or work, it's probably not for you.

I've used it on Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux in it's various versions since about 2009. Since January 2014, I've used it intensively for a work project where I needed a spreadsheet to handle 10 000 rows of data and afford me advanced auto-filter capabilities.

It has been an intensely frustrating experience. I have had random crashes, I've encountered unintuitive dialogs and menu options (for me, anyway), odd quirks and unexpected behaviour, bugs that get fixed only to re-occur in a subsequent version, documentation that doesn't provide examples, looping behaviour (most recently LibreOffice Calc 4.2.5 seems to get stuck in an auto-save loop, crashing and then failing to recover your file) and slowness - sorting or filtering big spreadsheets is painful, and using lots of vlookups in a big spreadsheet can freeze the application, crash it or just leaving you waiting for what feels like ages.

It has been very disappointing. I am usually the one in my workplace to advocate open source software,  but from my experiences I cannot say that LibreOffice has been very reliable or robust. And, when you you realise that you are spending more time recovering from crashes, looking for solutions to problems, or trying to understand some feature of the software, then you need to face the facts.

I'm aware that there are many users who rave about the software, and I was one of them. And I realise that one can have different experiences of the software on different hardware and operating systems. I run on both Windows XP and Ubuntu 14.04, and most of the issues I've encountered I seem to have encountered on both operating systems. I've had my laptop tested and my RAM checked, and I am not experiencing significant or similar issues with any other software, or dare I say it, with Microsoft Office.

I must state that, from my limited interactions with them, the LibreOffice community and developers are awesome and their enthusiasm and dedication is evident when filing bug reports or asking questions, but this takes time and certain skills which we do not all have - after attempting to file a few, I realise I am one of those people who do not have the time or skills required. I am not always able to duplicate a problem, or use the right terminology to describe an issue or ask a question. Internet access is slow in my part of South Africa, and my internet connection speed is usually way below the advertised 2 Mbps of my ADSL line. I am also not blessed with always-on internet access everywhere. Further, my day job is in a local government environment which poses challenges of its own.

So, my opinion after 6 months of using this software in my job, is:
  • It IS awesome software with great features;
  • It DOES have a great team of developers and supporters;
  • BUT it is not (yet) robust and reliable, and might cause you more delays and problems than you can afford in your work. Keep using it, but only for non-critical, non-production related work.
Of course, I may well be criticised for adopting this view, because the whole idea of community-developed open source software is participation - working together to make it better. I get that that, and support it. But what do you do if you just need really reliable, robust tools to do your job and don't have time or skills/knowledge to meaningfully participate? So, you really need to know what you can do and what you can take on. Plan wisely according to your abilities and resources. Open source might not be the way for you to go if you don't have the time, skills, knowledge and resources to commit to the participative, community-oriented aspects of working with it, or the time and patience looking for solutions or workarounds to problems you encounter.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Canon EOS M - first thoughts - more to come...

Recently, I splurged and bought myself two cameras. I don't usually spend this kind of money on myself in one go like this, and I suspect that I bought on impulse because I needed cheering up. It was a Sunday, I'd had a long, tiring week, I was feeling irritable and grumpy, and the thought of my upcoming birthday was not helping matters. Hmm, I digress.

One of the cameras that I bought is the Canon EOS M. I've been growing fond of mirrorless cameras since I first bought a Samsung NX100 when it was on sale. By the way, the Samsung NX100 is a lovely little camera, and if you can get one cheaply, I doubt you'll be sorry - it is attractive, and while the image quality is not as good as the Canon EOS M in my opinion, it is not bad either.)

The battery life on the EOS M does not seem good compared to my Samsung NX100 but it is possibly still too early to say for sure. Some sites state it has a battery life of 200-230 shots, which is about half that of the NX100. I would suggest turning down the brightness of the LCD and turning the camera off quickly between shots, or buying one or two extra batteries. The image quality is superb, I think. It has a solid feel and also has image stabilisation which the Samsung does not have. But the EOS M does not have the attractive retro look of the NX100.

One of the things that I feel one wants a mirrorless for, is low light shots - like at a party or evening function. I was impressed by the quality of the images at ISO 3200 and 6400; while they are obviously not as good as images taken at ISO 100, they are pretty darn good for high ISO images, and would be quite usable for most purposes (the photo of my cat you see below was shot hand-held at ISO 3200 with a shutter speed of 1/10th sec,and is unedited except for resizing - the sepia effect is one of the camera's built-in effects).

Photo - Sphinx the Siamese
Sphinx, the Siamese catching 40 winks next to me on the couch
I won't explore all of the features of this camera right here (you can go to Camera Labs for an in-depth review), but it has all the features the average user would need in a mirrorless camera. The recent version 2.02 firmware update has addressed some issues, chiefly focusing speed, but note that focusing is still rather slow. As I've stated above, I think the camera's low light shots are pretty good, and camera is small and easy to carry.

The EOS M has a touch screen LCD on which it relies heavily for most settings. It has no view finder, and no built-in flash. I have yet to test the LCD under full sunlight. The touch screen is responsive, and while touch screens are not my favourite, it works well and I had no problems with it. The lack of built-in flash is not a drawback for me, as I seldom use a flash - I feel it destroys the nuances of an image. The 18-55 mm kit leans is sharp. I have a minimalist view when it comes to photography (less is more) and I don't like to carry lots of lenses - the 18-55 mm kit lens is enough. After all, if you have a mirrorless camera you want to travel light.

The camera comes with a data cable and battery charger, but regrettably the data cable doesn't charge the camera. This means you have to carry more stuff with you if you are travelling.

My first impression of this camera is that I like it. It is easy to use, takes great photo's, and would be a great family camera, first camera or extra backup camera. I'm seriously impressed with the clarity and sharpness of the images, and with the build quality of the camera.


Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why I've never used Photoshop, OR Photo-editing on Linux

I'm an amateur photographer. I started in October 2010 when I was looking for a hobby that would help lower my stress, allow me to be creative, incorporate computers, and teach me a new skill. Photography is amazing, and I seldom feel as focused as when I am behind my camera, concentrating on the shot I'm trying to get.

The reason I will probably remain an amateur is that photography is expensive. It takes serious money to afford lenses, tripods, filters, and so on. It boggles my mind how lenses and cameras can be as expensive as they are, and my common sense tells me that by now consumers are probably being ripped off quite badly. I don't know much about lens manufacture, so maybe I am just full of hot air, but normally with most kinds of production manufacture, costs drop off sharply after you have produced a certain quantity of an item, and your initial tooling up and outfitting is where the major expense lies. So, to my mind, by now we should be able to buy most standard lenses (which have been produced in bulk) quite cheaply, yet this seems not to be the case. So why are cameras and lenses still so expensive? Could it be corporate greed?

Anyway, it is fortunate that today's cameras are very powerful, and there is a lot you can do with relatively inexpensive low-end D-SLR's and middle-of-the range compact cameras. If you are looking for a hobby, if you want to be creative, if you like computers, and if you have some bucks to spend on a camera (even a compact will do to get you started), consider photography.

Of course, photo-editing today is what a personal dark room and developing equipment was to film photographers prior to the advent of the digital camera. Most digital images really benefit from photo-editing, except possibly for those images taken using a really top-of-range camera. Most people have heard of Photoshop, and it seems to be the most popular choice for professionals. I've never used it, and it will probably be a long time before I do. Why? Because of the price - I just can't afford it. Besides, my operating system of choice is Ubuntu Linux, and Photoshop would probably not run on it even if I could afford it.

So, I use GIMP (http://www.gimp.org/). Like Linux, it is open source and free, and performs most photo-editing tasks very acceptably. There are plenty of plugins for it (see GIMP Plugin Registry at http://registry.gimp.org/) and GIMP remains in active development, and getting better and better with each new version. There are some drawbacks, of course; mostly that GIMP isn't as user-friendly or as automated as Photoshop. But, I've found that using GIMP has taught me a lot about photography, light, how the human eye sees, and about photo-editing. There are also lots of GIMP tutorials all over the internet, and a very interesting GIMP magazine (http://gimpmagazine.org/) which is well worth reading.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

"Team building" is one of my pet peeves

"Team building" is one of my pet peeves. This is usually how it goes:

Morale and employee productivity in your business have been steadily declining through the year. You, the manager, conclude that you need to do something to "fix" it. SO, you opt for "team building". This usually takes the form of a staff lunch, or a staff outing to paintball/casino/beach/braai/bowling, or you get a "productivity expert" to come in and take your employees through various "team building exercises".

In most cases, you, the manager have probably missed the real issues leading up to your employees low morale and productivity, and there are a few things you need to understand about human nature in the real world.

A meal or an outing does not make up for year-long abuse. If you don't know how to work with your employees, how to capitalise on their strengths, how to bring the best out of them, then you need to face the fact that you need to acquire the necessary skills to be a real manager and leader.

A meal or an outing does not magically fix bad working relationships between employees. I work with a woman who hardly ever responds to my emails, who does not give me her best effort, and who simply does not bother to try to help me when I ask for it. Unfortunately, we are co-workers  - so I do not supervise her. Taking the situation up with her supervisor produced no improvement, and in fact made for extra surliness in my usual dealings with her. In Texas parlance, "a meal or an outing ain't gonna fix that!"

A meal or an outing does not compensate for lack of systems and procedures, for lack of planning and vision from Management, and does not make incompetent managers or employees suddenly, magically competent.

Well, you say, this all sound very negative! (Funny, I'm often told I'm negative when I point certain things out...)

OK, so when does "team building" serve a useful purpose? Paradoxically, "team building" works when things in the workplace are already going well. It works to strengthen bonds and enhance relationships when bonds are already strong and relationships are already good. It is not a substitute for good management, for planning, for systems, and it does not provide a "quick fix" for working environments that are troubled. You, Mr or Ms Manager, need to find other ways to resolve those issues.

My thoughts on LibreOffice in my day-to-day work

LibreOffice is an open source cross-platform source office suite - you can read more about it here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LibreOffice) and at it's home page here (https://www.libreoffice.org/).

I've used a few open source office suites over the years - StarOffice (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StarOffice), OpenOffice.org (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenOffice.org), Apache OpenOffice (https://www.openoffice.org/). I presently use both Microsoft Office and LibreOffice at my workplace, and in the course of my work.

What work do I do? Well, actually, I am working as an HR Practitioner at the moment (read Human Resources Officer, Personnel Officer, or whatever else HR-types are called in your company.) I do a lot of work that requires word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, macros, and working with PDF formats. I also have a need to maintain collections of files (read data in the form of advertisements and letters) in html and text formats, and to compile these into Windows Help (.CHM) format. LibreOffice handles all the document conversion for me, easily converting MS Word files into html and text formats from the command line.

I also use LibreOffice to create PDF forms and PDF documents with bookmarks. And I use it to maintain lists of information, and spreadsheet databases.

I love that it's open source, free and cross-platform. I love that it's powerful, and under intense development. I love that it can read and write many other file formats, including most Microsoft Office files. I love that I can use it from the command line in scripts and batch files.

For the most part, LibreOffice is good enough for normal office use, and it has some great power features. But it also still has lots of bugs and odd quirks, and there are little features that I miss. For example, in Excel I can use CTRL+" (the ditto key combination) to copy the contents of the cell immediately above into the present cell, but LibreOffice Calc has no similar key combination. And in Calc, using fill down sometimes produces strange results, or just doesn't work as expected - for example, filling down  a date seems to increment or decrement the year instead of incrementing the day (UPDATE - this seems to depend on how I format the date.) Error codes in LibreOffice are still very cryptic, and LibreOffice doesn't provide the sophisticated online help that Microsoft Office does. Some of the formulas I use in Excel just don't seem to work in LibreOffice, or else don't work quite as expected - I must point out, though, that this seems to be getting better and better all the time.

There are instances where LibreOffice seems to lack polish - for example, the Find command just does nothing. You have to use Find and Replace instead. (UPDATE - Ahem, I filed a bug report on the Find command, and someone got back to within minutes, pointing out gently that the Find command opens a search toolbar at the bottom of the LibreOffice window! Somehow I missed that!) Mail merge, while powerful, is far from easy to use. There are lots of extensions (add-ons) for it, they are almost all developed by the LibreOffice community. Some of the extensions enjoy updates and regular maintenance but many do not. LibreOffice doesn't make it easy for to work with parentheses in formulas, and I often find that I get stuck trying to unravel exactly where I made a parenthesis error in a formula.

I would love to see LibreOffice become the office suite of choice in the private and public sectors, but I can't honestly say that LibreOffice could do that just yet. Make no mistake - I'm in love with it, and I won't stop using it, but some of the bugs and quirks I've encountered are frustrating enough to give me reason to feel that mass migration to LibreOffice (or Apache OpenOffice) right now would be a mistake. I don't think the ordinary office worker would be able to just use it out of the box without good  in-company support mechanisms and access to the internet (for user groups, etc.)

BUT, I do think that businesses should start deploying LibreOffice to power/advanced users. I think LibreOffice is going to grow, and get better and better. I think it has fantastic potential, and that it is worth investing time and money to get a business' power users familiar with it, and skilled in its use.

Spreadsheet tool - simple, printable perpetual calendar with South African holidays

In 2004, the company I was working for at the time decided to introduce the ISO 9001:2000 quality management system. One of my tasks during this time was to produce an audit schedule detailing when certain quality audits should happen. and to make sure the schedule was revised each year.

After giving the matter some thought, I decided to set up a perpetual calendar so that I wouldn't have to do too much work revising the calendar each year.

I originally created the calendar using Microsoft Excel, but later updated it for LibreOffice. Here is a link to the spreadsheet: https://sites.google.com/site/grantthegeekspersonalpages/home/my-spreadsheet-tools/perpetual-calendar

I can't guarantee the accuracy of this spreadsheet or its fitness for any kind of use, and if you download and use it you agree that you do so at your own risk. Having said that, you have my permission to download it, use it, or print it out. It is not password-protected and if you so choose you may update it, amend it, change the formulas, put your own name on it, and re-release it or re-publish it. If you do, though, I do ask that you email me, or leave a comment for me, and include a copy of or a link to your version that I can look at, use, take apart and learn from. So please download it and improve it.

UPDATE: For those of you who want to create a useful calendar, and don't want to learn spreadsheet formulas to do it, check out: http://www.timeanddate.com/

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Spreadsheet tip - Conditional formatting is good, but sometimes =IF() is better

In my last post, I mentioned that I recently worked on a big mail merge exercise producing 6000+ employee letters.

Well, as part of that exercise, one of the things I needed to do was merge data from a few other spreadsheets into one big worksheet. (I'll explain how I did that some other time.)

When merging spreadsheets, usually there is also a need to compare data and mark (or otherwise identify) differences in the data. Most spreadsheet applications provide conditional formatting as way to do this. Conditional formatting allows the user to mark or highlight cells based on content or formula rules. But, it is not always useful to use conditional formatting only, as there is often no easy way to filter data based on cell formatting.

(OK, yes, there is this Microsoft knowledge base article: https://support.microsoft.com/kb/213923 - but, I have to say it seems complicated compared to what I am going to explain next.)

A simple method I use is to insert an  =IF() formula in a separate column to give my spreadsheets something to filter. For example, when I've merged data from different worksheets, a simple thing I want to know (and filter on) is whether two cell values are the same. So the formula t use is something like:

=IF(A2=B2,"","X")

This translates to:

if Cell A2 is equal to Cell B2, then do nothing; else if Cell A2 is not equal to Cell B2, show "X"

After copying this formula down through all the rows I need to compare, I can set the spreadsheet to filter on "X", and show me all the cells where the data in Column A is not the same as the data in Column B.

=IF() formulas are very useful and versatile, and you can create a range of formula "rules" from simple to complex.

To beautify my spreadsheets I often combine conditional formatting with =IF() "rules" of this kind. They go well together, and very often the same =IF() formula can be used to create the conditional formatting.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mail merge with LibreOffice - TIP: Make sure you are not using embedded fonts.

Recently, I was involved with a fairly big mail merge exercise. I had to create and print individual letters for 6000+ employees. No big deal, right? It's fairly standard mail merge project.

But, knowing that many employees will misplace or discard the letters and come seeking copies, I wanted to create PDF copies of each letter, stored on the company network, and with a unique file name comprised of inter alia the employee's cost center number, employee number, department name and job title. Again, no big deal but my outdated version of Microsoft Office wasn't going to do it, so I used LibreOffice 4.2.

It should have been plain sailing, but I experienced crash after crash, as LibreOffice just rebelled on both the Windows and Linux operating systems. And when it worked, it was SLOW.

Well, eventually I found the problem. It was small, and not something I would have thought of straight off, but with hindsight I guess it makes sense. MAKE SURE YOU ARE NOT USING EMBEDDED FONTS IN YOUR MAIL MERGE TEMPLATE!

Once I turned off embedded fonts, LibreOffice did its stuff quickly and efficiently. I was able to produce mail merges of all the letters in both the MS Word .doc format and PDF format. Printing worked smoothly, and the company's printing unit handled the inserting of the printed letters into window envelopes.

If you haven't tried it yet, you can check out LibreOffice here: https://www.libreoffice.org/

First post in a long time

This is my first blog post in a long, long time. I've played with blogs in the past but found I always ran out of things to say. It took me a while to realise that the reason for that is I'm always hiding myself from myself and others. Strange, isn't it?

Anyway, realising that it is far too easy to wear different masks for different occasions, I've finally decided to start a web site and a blog where I can share all the things that interest me, and where I can start to disclose more about myself over time.

Mostly the things that interest me are, well, geeky things. I'm into linux, spreadsheets, photography, books, meditation, thinking, and learning. And yes, it may seem contradictory, but the older I get the more I find I am into the mystical side of life, the universe and everything. The universe, or perhaps the multiverse, is vast - much vaster than most of us are able to comprehend.

I also have a Tumblr (http://grantstumblething.tumblr.com/) where I post my own photography, and share the photo's of others that I find interesting, or beautiful. And I've just started a personal web site (https://sites.google.com/site/grantthegeekspersonalpages/home) which is under construction at present.