Sunday, October 11, 2009

Microbiology for Dummies

No, this post is not really about microbiology; panic is not therefore indicated. It is about the great illusion that we can teach complex arts to Dummies by giving them cute little icons and buttons to hit. I capitalize the word because it is a status symbol. All this began with Apple’s Macintosh, and the people at Microsoft must have gone white with anxiety, not because the point-and-click is so advanced but because it opens Atlantics and Pacifics of marketing opportunity. The times (O tempora indeed) lend credence to the illusion because vast layers of persuasion swirl through the ether trying to condition people to believe that the word Free in an ad actually means “No money changes hands yet you walk away with something of real value,” and that the word Hurry in an ad really means that, “If you miss the sale it won’t ever return.” Nothing is free and the sale will come back, just give it a fortnight—if you know what that word means.

What occasions the heat? When I acquired my current computer I bought Microsoft Word 2007 and retired its predecessor. The software is part of the Office 2007 package. I had been using this package for a year and had absorbed the body blows to habit the changes in this package brought with it—no doubt to suck up to Dummies. The old menu system has been improved by making it visual—as if the word “Picture” on a menu is beyond the comprehension of Dummies unless accompanied by a graphic, in a frame, showing two mounds with a sun suspended above them—as if the word “Equation” were incomprehensible by itself but, if prefaced by the Greek Pi, π, fog lifts and everything is crystal clear. The new Word also features binoculars. What does that icon mean? It means “Editing.” Hearing that word my first thought isn’t “Editing.” I’m usually much closer to the screen; for highly mobile Dummies, however, binoculars may be necessary. To accommodate this barrage of pictures, the menus now form a horizontal band; they are divided into unequal corrals. But—surprise—if pictures are too much for you, if you’re still just aspiring to Dummyhood, tiny little arrows in boxes, pointing as it were in the direction of Gehenna, let you get to the old-fashioned menu displays too, but only after you have feasted your eyes on a table laden with delicious images waited upon by discrete little words in dim, small type.

Microsoft Word is an excellent tool. Far be it from me to denigrate the complex and powerful typesetting engine that this software has gradually become. But to use the powers of this engine in any kind of serious task, thus editing real manuscripts (in effect doing the typesetting yourself), you have to have a depth of knowledge no cute changes in menus can accomplish. In the old MS Word I had become very proficient in forcing Word to do my will. The other day, using the new software for typesetting on a long manuscript for the first time, I discovered that I had to master the package all over again, meaning that I had to discover where all of my old tools have been secreted away, covered over, and blocked from view by those oh-so-informative icons.

Complex, difficult tasks cannot be made easy. I can use MS Word as a typesetting tool because I know a great deal about the craft. Thus I know what wrenches, saws, and pliers to deploy. But why is it necessary, at every upward movement in the spiral of computer technology, to make it seem that this environment is just a snap for Dummies because a picture communicates and words are strange objects from the Stone Age, meaning 1965. Meanwhile, it takes ever more time to reach the tools at the technical level. I must engage in twice the clicking I had to do before, even now that I know where the goods are hidden. These products try their utmost to hide technical detail lest Dummies become confused, frustrated, and drift away into the realm of the handheld device, cute things you can practically text on with your tongue.

Ranting to my captive audience, Brigitte, on the difficulties of discovering how to make running heads behave properly in a big job that I had just finished, I carried on in the manner above and said: The good Lord save us if doctors or microbiologists in the future start reading Microbiology for Dummies—and nothing else.


  1. Have you considered OpenOffice? It can do most of what Word can do, its interface is very close to Word's before 2007, and it's free (to you). I used it once to typeset something for Lulu and found the results acceptable.

  2. Thanks for the tip, Paul. I've downloaded the package, and the software looks quite sophisticated, i.e., it lets you create templates and so on, meaning that it has advanced features and a much handier interface than MS Word. I'll start playing with it and may comment on it later.

  3. I feel your version-shifting pain, all the more so because I have Office 2007 on my home laptop and Office 2003 on my work laptop.