Beyond Word Processing

Dr. Kevin Cleary, SWET member and lecturer in computers and accounting at Sophia University, talked to a small but enthusiastic group of SWET members about some of the power of modern technology, Cleary’s explanations of other ways of using computers productively were very welcome indeed.

Cleary introduced himself by saying that although he had been aware of the existence of SWET for many years, originally as a result of the “Wordcraft” publication which had been an essential standby in various jobs in the past, and more recently by the SWET mailing list. He had only recently joined SWET as a member and was grateful to have the opportunity to repay some of the debt he felt for all the useful advice that he had received over the years.

Turning to his subject, Cleary then remarked that he found that today’s Japanese students were much better informed as regards computers than their counterparts of only a few years ago. But while most now have good skills in word processing, they have had had no reason to use spreadsheets or databases, so even if they had acquired such in high school, their knowledge had atrophied. Suspecting that many SWET members are in the same situation, he hoped that his them to explore the ways in which they might be useful.

Then, it was on to the presentation, starting with the idea of computer-aided editing and breaking one of the rules laid down by Clifford Stoll (“Don’t use computer presentations”). Confounding Murphy’s Law, by the way, the technology that he had brought to illustrate his talk worked almost flawlessly, and the audience was treated to live demonstrations of the software discussed as well as to a video presentation of the future of computing as imagined by a Sun Microsystems research group.

According to Cleary (together with members of the audience who were invited to contribute their own ideas), computer-aided editing includes the reading out loud of written material by computers, spellchecking, color coding of textual changes, revision tracking, and document management. These positive aspects must, however, be balanced against the negative aspects of computing. He mentioned here as examples the learning curve needed for complex tools and the feature-bloat that now affects so much software. (Perhaps, he remarked, instead of making human beings computer-literate, we need, instead to make computers people-literate.)

The next stage will be computer-based editing, where the computer provides much more active assistance to the user of the system, in effect disappearing and becoming an integral part of the everyday working environment, taken as much for granted as is today’s writing desk. Given, however, that this happy state of affairs does not yet exist, Cleary then turned to how editors and writers can make use of spreadsheets and databases as tools in their daily to simplify or enhance their work. One example is being able to produce neatly formatted tables, as for instance when producing a glossary or other similar tabular material. And this, he pointed out, is only one instance of how useful spreadsheets can be when dealing with material that is repetitive and requires a structured format.

Cleary illustrated this point by showing some class notes that he had produced regarding a movie being studied by his students. In this case, he was able to produce a neatly tabulated listing of “problem” words and phrases, together with the scene in which the usage occurred. Since this spreadsheet has the capability of exporting HTML, Cleary was also able to show us the way in which his class notes could be published on the Web with almost no effort. His point here was that spreadsheets should be considered as a go-between application, importing and exporting text for use in other programs such as word processors and database applications. Other uses suggested for spreadsheets were for time-tracking and billing purposes, for formatting the “odd” requests that all writers, editors and translators seem to encounter from time to time, and for keeping lists.

For real list keeping, though, Cleary recommended a database. Showing how a relational database could be used to maintain a contact list, Cleary talked about how easy it is to produce personalized form letters (Murphy struck here, making the demonstration impossible), and how updating one part of a database could automatically update other parts of the database or documents linked to the database. Members of the audience then shared their own experiences in using these types of programs. The level of interest was such that the discussion continued even after the formal end of the presentation. It would seem that there is a demand among SWET members for more creative and more advanced computer techniques than can be found straight “out of the box” and a need for instructors of the quality of Dr. Cleary to impart these techniques.