I get some paperwork mailed to me that I need to fill out, but I get it right as I'm leaving on a week long ski trip (yeah, baby!). The paperwork is in Microsoft Word format -- something I rarely get (but used to -- see long story below) and don't have a word processor that reads Microsoft doc files. Worse, I'm supposed to print, sign, and fax these back -- "or send pdfs" (presumibly from scans). I left my printer (a dot matrix) and my scanner at home, and I need to somehow digitally insert my signature along with text into blanks. I tried downloading OpenOffice, hoping it would convert the files into images for me (see long story #2 below) and abandoned that. media-convert.com came to the rescue, giving me PostScript versions, but my pstoppm failed with a GhostScript stack trace/dump. Invoking GhostScript directly had the same problem. Downloaded the latest version and built it from source; same problem. Back to media-convert.com for pdfs, and thankfully, pdftoppm does the trick and gives me nice bitmaps. xpaint doesn't throw up scrollbars and it wouldn't know how to nicely paste my signature in anyway. While I could have photographed my signature with the digital camera and pased it in, I knew this was coming, and scanned a few signatures before I left. xv, ditto. So, gimp it is. gimp confuses me. After much trial and error, and coredumps, I found the signatures could be pasted in by selecting a large box in the target document, pasting the signature over, right clicking, moving to "select", then "by color", then clicking on the white part, then right clicking on it, going for "edit", then "clear", which clears away the white pixels, leaving transparency. The last hurdle I struggled with was that I couldn't check my work and verify the result until I named the layer by double-clicking the auto-generated layer name in the layers display. Since other auto-named layers had no such restriction, this confounded me. To move the layer with the positioning tool, you actually need to hit a lit pixel in it, or else it moves the background and everything else, which is pointless and obnoxious. Then off to the text tool to do some data entry in my virtual forms.
The two long stories are below. They're unnecessary detail, but here's what I got from the experience...
Sending Microsoft Word documents around quickly break out of the realm of all-digital, at least for not-especially-savvy users. Better created documents would have actual form blanks in them, but that still doesn't help with the signature -- but that's a tall order. More people seem to know how to create little PHP Web appies with forms than Microsoft Word documents with forms, and there's certainly more flexibility in processing the data in the PHP route. It would rule to be able to create Microsoft Access like forms and publish them quickly and easily to the Web. The Unix mindset is very different from the Windows one; Unix geeks never send me stuff and suggest I print it out unless its something like the do-it-yourself decahedrathon globe or something that intrinsically has to be on paper in a 3d world. Regardless, it would be neato to build a Web appie that automates much of what I had to do manually, by allowing users to upload a document that becomes the page background, and allows the user to type over top of it, and even upload and place images with the option of making the background color transparent (png!). Office workflow needs help, badly. None of those things are the answer. Google is probably closer to that. I guess I'm fixated on stop-gaps for a world that refuses to change, as a way of easing some of us over, out of this misery.
Long story 1: While working on Perl 6 Now, I'd trade Microsoft Word documents back and forth with the copy editor, editor, and the production department, and for the purpose, I had Microsoft Word 97 running under wine. A year went by and I suffered Abiword fine (which crashes a lot when trying to do things but works passably as a light-weight viewer), so I blew away Microsoft Word 97. Later, ajax-write.com launches, and Google starts converting doc files to HTML right there in their Webmail, so I blow away Abiword to make some space, and out of spite.
Long story 2: I tried downloading OpenOffice (which took overnight) only to find that their "Linux 86" version was actually "RedHat Linux x86" -- it was a tarball full of rpms, not a universal binary as one would suspect. This is after I went through the pain to sniff HTTP traffic to pick out the URL of a mirror their stupid Web form redirected me to so I could use wget instead of Mozilla/Seamonkey/Firefox, which is idiotic about downloads, never resuming an interrupted connection even though HTTP specifies how long a document is and allows for resumes. For other reasons relating to nothing working right, I can't install rpms.
I wrote a nice article over at Avogato about how office automation was done in the Unix days, predating the rise of Microsoft Windows -- it's interesting, powerful, and mostly forgotten.