Sunday, 30 November 2008

Convert MS Word .DOC to PDF, free

How to convert a Microsoft Word DOC document to an Adobe Acrobat pdf file: use the free, open source OpenOffice software suite, which is available in many languages on popular computing platforms i.e. Windows (95 upwards e.g. Vista and Windows XP), Mac OS X and Linux (and even some obscurer operating systems).

You can download OpenOffice for:

Once you've downloaded and installed OpenOffice (in version 3 as I write), if you want to "print to" a PDF file (i.e. save your Word document in PDF format), then the conversion method is very straightforward:

  1. Launch OpenOffice and choose Open Document or Open Text Document; or just launch OpenOffice Writer.
  2. Open the Word document you want to change to PDF (menu File, Open).

  3. In the File menu, choose Export as PDF.
  4. That's it, it's that easy! Choose a filename and location for the PDF, and you can then open, email or upload the converted PDF (Portable Document Format) file as you wish.

Another good thing about OpenOffice is that it does the conversion pretty well. Some other free "conversion" tools can mess up the formatting a little. But obviously, it's still a good idea to open your PDF and check it before you send it out etc.

Note that the PDF export in OpenOffice only works for Microsoft Office XP or Office 2003 .DOC documents (or earlier versions of Word / Office), not the latest Microsoft Office 2007 .DOCX format.

As you can tell I think Open Office is good stuff - it's worth trying it out generally as a full free replacement for Microsoft Office; it can save documents to .DOC format as well as its native .ODT format, handle spreadsheets, presentations, etc, and I know a lot of people who use it as their main word processor or indeed full Office replacement suite. Of course you can export .ODT wordprocessing documents to PDF easily from Open Office too.

I was surprised to find out recently that quite a few people - even some very IT-literate ones - don't know about this free conversion method. So I hope this tip helps. (I've also previously blogged a suggestion on how to convert Word DOC, Excel .XLS or PDF files to HTML for free.)

Friday, 28 November 2008

Win mobile gadgets by donating to charities?

There's a MIR Christmas Presents prize draw at Mobile Industry Review.

Donate to Childline or the UN Foundation (see the links in their blog post) and forward your receipt to them (again see the post for the email address) before, I'm guessing, 8 or 9 December 2008 (as the draw takes place on 10 Dec) - and for each £5 or US$10 donated they'll give you one prize draw ticket to win a gadget from their list.

It's open to anyone from anywhere in the world, not just the UK / USA.

Prizes on offer include netbooks as well as Nokia and Sony Ericsson mobile phones, Bluetooth accessories and Spinvox accounts, and it's for good causes - so do consider donating and entering, and help Ben Smith from MIR by spreading the word!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Neil Gaiman on piracy vs obscurity, being a writer in the digital age, & e-books

Below are some selected quotes from an excellent 28 October 2008 talk by science fiction / fantasy writer Neil Gaiman (pictured above) on piracy versus obscurity - given at a session for the Open Rights Group, of whom he's patron. (I've transcribed those bits in full for the benefit of those who like me much prefer, for things informational anyway, to have quickly-scannable text rather than slow, linear audio / video.)

He made some very good points about copyright in the digital age, in the context mainly of authors and book publishing, but also covering some broader, more general issues in relation to creatives / artists and their work.

The full audio recording of the session is well worth a listen. He's a very articulate and entertaining speaker as well as being one of my favourite writers ever - the Sandman and Death series are in my top 10 or 20, they're what persuaded me that comic books could, in fact, be true literature, and, while I rarely buy books these days, I have my own physical copies of almost all of his.

Here's the MP3 of the talk (click the arrow to stream it live, click the title to download; it's over 1 hour long in total):
Piracy Vs Obscurity: An Audience With Neil Gaiman, ORG talk, 24 October 2008
(recording also available in available in Ogg format).
(The sound quality is good but note that the microphone didn't pick up most of the questions from the audience during the Q&A (which started at about 33:30 for those interested), though it did record his answers.)

And here are some quotes from the session (for a taster, and to feed the search engines, bearing in mind that audio still isn't properly indexed or searchable). Unfortunately I can't deep link to the exact time spots in the recording as you now can with YouTube videos, so I've tried to indicate their approximate time positions (in "minutes : seconds" from the start).

Will electronic books replace books? Douglas Adams: "Books are sharks" (at 12:07)

Neil Gaiman discussed with writer Douglas Adams some 15 years ago the idea of e-books: did Douglas Adams think there was any chance that ebooks would replace books? He replied: "No".

"Books are sharks. There were sharks before dinosaurs and there are sharks now. And the reason that nothing has actually come along to replace the shark is, nothing is better at being a shark than a shark is. Nothing is better at being a book than a book is, given cost, given size, given what it takes to power it - mostly solar power! You can drop them without causing any major damage. And they're portable. And they're lightweight."

Neil thought that he had a point. Places where books tend to die tend to be those places where they're weighty and heavy, e.g. encyclopedias.

"...the experience of reading a book, at least at present, in book form, is more pleasant than reading on screen... there is a pleasure in the object. And as I said, quoting Douglas before, books are really good at being books, it's a marvelous invention that has evolved fairly well. They work. Do I worry? A little. Having said that, I think that if we ever get to the point where a book, a full colour, beautiful, wonderful book reading experience, is as good on some kind of device as it is in a book, then I will be selling an awful lot of those to people, and I will worry significantly less about the ones being passed around." (at 35:57)

But there was maybe just a teensy bit of a suggestion that, perhaps, if e-books do become as easy to use and practical as physical hardcopy paper books, authors might end up in a similar position to where musicians are today - needing to find new business models, ways to make money (merchandising, cover art etc?) other than by controlling access to copies of their works (don't forget that Shakespeare and Mozart made a living and produced great works in their day through patronage and commissions etc, without the benefit or incentive of any "copyright"!):

"...if we ever get into a world in which I'm essentially selling one copy of a book to people who immediately duplicate a million copies of it and do all the translations themselves and, you know, suddenly it's wikinovel world or whatever, I can go on the road, I can do readings - there's always stuff that you can do that nobody else can do, it's just the stuff that's more unique, which is always the nature of [the world]." (about 51:18)

"'s certainly a hypothetical possible way that things could go, that books could return to what they were in the 17th and 18th century where you buy the insides of a book and then you take them to your leather binder who would bind it beautifully…" (about 52:23)

Is it bad for new writers to put their work out on the Internet? (from around 44:00)

It's always a hot topic, this: are you're shooting yourself in the foot if you "give" your work away for free by publishing it on the Net for anyone to read (or view or listen to) or download?

Well, Neil Gaiman made this point in the first part of his talk: how many people discovered their favourite author (all of whose books they've since bought) by randomly buying some book? The vast majority of people found their fave writer through being lent or given a book, or borrowing it from a library - or reading excerpts from their work on the internet, etc. In other words, through having first sampled the author's work (I'll come to sampling shortly below).

Here's what he said about the Net as a promotional / marketing device:

"I think the internet is the best promotional tool that new authors have ever had. You can tell new authors, because they tend to be convinced that people are going to steal their stuff and make fortunes out of it. ...I know it's logical, I know it makes sense, I know it is so obvious that if you're writing a novel and you put it out on the Web nobody would then buy it, but it's not true. It may be logical but the truth is, there are things out there... "Diary of a Wimpy Kid", which has been sitting on the American bestseller list now for the last 78 weeks, was a website thing, it was all out there, everything in that book has been up on the Web...

Again, it goes back to where I began this whole thing. The danger is not piracy, the danger is obscurity… I was a young writer. You had an incredibly small number of ways that you could get people to read your stuff and each of them had a gatekeeper who metaphorically had a very large three-headed dog, sharp weapons and was not interested. So you were going to have to get something through a gatekeeper in order to have a chance of getting it in front of people.

Now, there is no gatekeeper. There really isn't. You can get your writing in front of the world by posting it. All you have to be now is incredibly good and interesting and readable, which is a different challenge. But if I were a new writer right now, I would love this."

Now, from a diginomics viewpoint, putting your creative work up online can actually make economic sense for the creator (certainly when it's extracts or samples of your work) - see my post on why, based on standard principles of economics, DRM (in its current form) doesn't work and in fact encourages piracy, and why it's hard to make money from Web 2.0.

In this context, writings, music, art, movies or videos etc are what's known to economists as "experience goods": as a consumer you can't assess their value to you until you've experienced them, e.g. heard a song or seen a movie, so you're not willing to pay for it before you've tried it! That's why "sampling" or offering free trials or tasters in fact helps publishers persuade more people to buy the full final product (assuming it's any good, of course), and yet very few publishers provide samples.

That's the economic rationale, anyway. So, from an economics perspective, it's not in fact obvious or logical that putting your work out there on the Web will result in no one wanting to pay for your work. Quite the contrary. Posting your writings (or music, etc) online is an excellent way to provide samples to future customers, introducing them to your work and thereby hopefully enticing them to buy it (or more of it) in future. (Not that any publisher has approached me to write a book yet. I can but hope!)

What about public domain, copyright term and its extension (from about 53:19)

Brilliantly put:

"The problem with the ever retreating public domain is it's a very recent thing and it's been added and wiggled on… What do I think? It honestly depends on which side of the bed I get out of in the morning.. Mostly I think it's stupid and then occasionally I think, yeah, but.. and I think no, it really is stupid.

...copyright for life, I like that, that's good, that way you never turn around at the age of 60 and see something you've done out there everywhere and go "But I'm making no money out of this and here I am starving in my gutter" or whatever. I like copyright for life. I think copyright for life plus a bit is fine too.

I think copyright for life plus 50, which is where things used to be, was pushing it. I think copyright for life + 75, which is where things are now, is just wrong. Because it keeps things that should be part of the cultural dialogue out of the cultural dialogue. And it also gets really problematic and really really odd once you get past 1923, the points where you watch people re-copyrighting, that weirdness that'll happen when they'll go "OK we found the original manuscript so we're going to publish that now". It's not being published because it's better, it's not being published because the world needs it, it's not being published because it's urgent that everybody gets to see where every [] was, it's being published because… the corporate entity that's now publishing it now has a 90 year copyright on it that they didn't have before and stuff like that, so no, I think it's wrong.

I think you should be able to allow things into the cultural dialogue and I also think you have to balance that with compensating the creator for the creation - but life plus 75 is just.. how do I put this. I love the idea that the stuff that I write is going to feed my children. I'm not entirely sure that it needs to feed my grandchildren. And I think the idea of it feeding my great-grandchildren is foolish."

Miscellaneous things

"It is never going to get cheaper or more difficult to copy information. That genie has not only left the bottle, it's made a million other genies..." (33:30-ish)

After you publish something, does it remain yours, do you really "own" it? Are you actually giving anything away? Interesting philosophical discussion from about 38:50.

How Neil Gaiman feels about adaptations of his work - 56:33. (Anyone who wants to can freely make a movie or video of his writings, it seems! Good on him.)

Friday, 7 November 2008

Aeron, RH Logic review: chairs, computing & back


If you spend lots of time in front of a computer, it's important to have a decent chair with proper lower back support if you want to preserve your back. You may not notice or care now, but you'll notice it in a few years! Prevention is better than cure & all that.

In many offices in the City of London, it's quite common to see Aeron chairs (with mesh seat and back - public domain photo shown above), which are supposed to be ergonomic and have won design awards.

But, a physiotherapist who treated me for my back recommended that I stop using an Aeron chair. The issue with those chairs, he said, is that you can't adjust the angle between the seat and the back - it's fixed, so if you tilt the seat forward or backward the back tilts by exactly the same amount too, and vice versa.

I was using an Aeron chair in my office up to that point. I don't know if that chair caused my problem; I suspect there were other contributing factors like general bad posture, but I took his advice to change my chair, given how many hours a day I spent at my desk.

The chairs he recommended instead were RH Chairs, which seem to be available only in Europe including the UK (there's an importing business opportunity for an American!).

So I got an RH office chair, the RH Logic 400, pictured below. Almost everything is independently adjustable - there's even something at the back that you can squeeze to pump up or decrease the lumbar support! I'm very happy with it.

I also heard a different physiotherapist (at a talk on practical office ergonomics) recommend RH chairs too, which is a comforting extra independent endorsement for RH.

(I can't however recommend RH's UK or head office PR departments, or perhaps it's whoever monitors emails to their and head office email addresses, as both offices failed to respond to my email requests for permission to reproduce a photo or diagram of their chair from their website for this review - PRfail definitely!! A photo of my own chair still wouldn't be detailed enough to show how flexible the RH is. So I'm just showing the little Amazon preview.

Their website at least is decent, so go there if you want to see pictures of the chair and the kinds of adjustments you can make to it (here's a Flash example) - they have a good wizard which walks through what model of chair would suit you depending on the environment it's to be used in e.g. Office/administration, Industry, School, Counter/reception, Control room/24 hr use, Laboratory work/medical, Dental, even Hairdresser.)

RH chairs aren't cheap (a couple of hundred quid or more), but neither is the Aeron. Think of an ergonomic / posture chair as a long-term investment for your health. It's possible that some employers, if they're made aware that you have a back problem, may be willing to pay for a decent chair in order to avoid the risk of being held responsible for health & safety issues. Unfortunately, I don't know if they'd be willing to buy you a decent chair if you don't already have a back problem, even though prevention is better than cure.

Also, at least whoever you buy an ergonomic chair from should be able to help set it up for you for free - which is very, very important. It's no good getting an adjustable chair if it hasn't been adjusted (by someone who knows what they're doing) to fit you properly, as everyone's body is different; a poorly adjusted chair can be as bad as a bad chair. So do make sure you take advantage of that service.

My point is, once your back goes, it'll never, ever be the same again - back pain will always be a looming threat. A "slipped" disc isn't in fact a slippage, something slipping or moving out of place (like a dislocated shoulder); "slip" is a misnomer - it actually involves a physical tearing of the membrane. While the rupture will hopefully heal, it'll never be as good as having a totally undamaged disc.

So if you use your computer a lot, or just spend a lot of time sitting still at a desk, you owe it to yourself and your back to sort out a decent chair for yourself, R H or otherwise (there are other options) - sooner rather than later. Or you may regret it.

Note: I am not a physiotherapy or medical expert, this post just reports on my personal experiences. Different chairs may suit different people. You should seek advice from a suitably qualified health or medical professional if you have back pain issues (and take with a pinch of salt the sales pitches from shops that supposedly sell ergonomic products, obviously many of them mainly want your money!).

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

YouTube: deeplink to exact time in video, & other improvements

You can now link direct to a particular spot in a YouTube video, so that someone clicking the link will be taken to the video at that exact spot.

I think this deeplinking is the best of the many enhancements which Google-owned video sharing site YouTube have been rolling out recently.

How to deep link to YouTube video

To deep link to the exact spot you want in a YouTube video, while watching the video just note down the desired time position, and then include the time position at the end of the standard YouTube URL using the format:


where X is minutes and Y is seconds - e.g. will take you to the video linked to, but directly to the spot that's 0 minutes and 21 seconds in.

(Cleverly, it in fact seems to take you to the video at a second or two before your indicated time, so that you don't miss the start of the spot.)

How to deeplink to YouTube video in a video comment

This works in a comment to a YouTube video too, in fact it's easier - if when posting a comment on a YouTube video you mention a time location in your comment (in format m:s e.g. 0:21 for 0 minutes & 21 seconds in), then the "0:21" becomes a direct deep link to that time location in the video concerned.

So, the syntax for a clickable time position link in a video comment is just:


See for example my test comment to the same video.

One gotcha to watch: do not include any punctuation or anything except a space right after the Y, or else it won't work; e.g. "0:21." won't be made into a deep link but "0:21" (without the quotes, of course) will.

Other YouTube improvements / enhancements

Some other interesting features on YouTube over the last few months (as well as a personalised customisable homepage) are:

  1. Video annotations - the ability to, as YouTube put it, "add background information on-screen, create branching ("choose your own adventure" style) stories or add links to any YouTube upload, channel, or search results page -- at any point in your video... adding speech bubbles, notes and highlight boxes anywhere you want". Including, now, even for embedded videos.
  2. Hot spots - the ability to get a graph showing at which points in your video readers are leaving (if at all), and which spots in the video are the most popular with your viewers.
  3. Captions / subtitles for videos - the ability to add captions and subtitles, now with real time automatic machine translation of captions too, into several languages.
  4. YouTube for free film distribution - with the ongoing "From Here to Awesome Festival".
  5. Click to buy feature - some may bemoan this commercialisation (or e-commerce-ialisation!) but let's face it, YouTube aren't a charity, they need to make money at some point somehow.

    I actually like the idea of embedding Amazon / iTunes links to songs etc in some YouTube videos, as often I hear a good song in a movie or video soundtrack but have no idea what it's called or how to get it.

    I can imagine "product placement" increasing in YouTube videos, with "click to buy" links for products shown in videos too, but as long as the product placement isn't too overt and isn't subliminal conditioning, again I'm quite happy to have the opportunity to buy something I like from a video - I sometimes covet certain jackets I see actresses wear on TV, for instance!

    This sort of thing looks set to be a growth area, in my view - for TV, video and film generally, i.e. all things "celluloid", not just Web-based video.
  6. Earn ad money from YouTube videos - the ability via Google's AdSense to get a cut of advertising revenue if you embed certain YouTube videos (some examples)/

Of course, the increasing efforts to monetize YouTube will inevitably bring up issues such as a copyright owner demanding all the ad revenue if you include their song in your YouTube video - but in my view, given the attitude of the music industry, that's progress compared with the record companies' former fave strategy of simply suing you or getting your video taken down!

(Note on YouTube blog links: but there's something weird about their site - if you're in the UK, the US link won't work, and doesn't forward properly to the equivalent UK site page. So I've included both links where possible; hopefully if one doesn't work for you t'other will!)

Video / audio wishlist

It would be great if YouTube enabled the deeplinking feature when you embed a video in a blog post or webpage too. I tried it, and adding (e.g.) #t=0m21s to the end of the URL in the embed code just didn't work, the video started from the very beginning. Maybe in the future?

While I'm on it, while YouTube now allow the upload of higher quality videos, I do which they'd let all users upload videos of more than 10 minutes long. They introduced that limit, they said, for copyright reasons (they seem to think most videos more than 10 minutes long are likely to be copyright infringing clips, I'm not sure I'd agree) - but as many of my videos are of (non-copyright breaching!) geek talks, I have to use Blip instead.

If Blip were to introduce the features YouTube have, particularly deeplinking, I'd use them even more!

Speech to text technologies for video and audio

Finally, my biggest wishlist item: automatic speech to text transcription. Google Research's speech team introduced an Elections Video Search gadget a few months ago, using their speech recognition technologies to enable searching of politicians' spoken content and jumping straight to the relevant part of the speech.

Google Labs then launched Google Audio Indexing (GAudi) (that page can take a while to come up), and recently Google rolled it out for their Google News Election page so that you could search Presidential candidates' YouTube channels for particular words.

I've always thought that one of the biggest issues with the increasing proliferation of video on the Internet, yes and audio too, from MP3 podcasts to YouTube and other videos, is the difficulty of indexing that information so that it can be searched and found. This problem is why including metadata helps both publishers and readers / viewers / listeners, from the viewpoint of searching etc (see 6 Sayings for Search Engine Success (Top Tips to Boost Blog Ranking), though arguably from an economics viewpoint adding metadata benefits the audience more than the publisher.

Given Google's avowed corporate mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful", I really hope that working on speech to text for audio as well as video is a priority for them.

I'd love to be able to feed Google the URL of a sound file or a video file (any file, not just one on YouTube, and not just politicians' speeches), and have it automatically transcribe the audio or video into lovely, readable, skimmable, searchable text. And I really don't mind if they want to include contextual ads on the resulting webpage too.

I couldn't agree more with what one of my favourite columnists, Jonathan Guthrie of the Financial Times, said (in an article on corporate webcasts) about the big disadvantage of the video medium:

"It is slow. A webclip lasting a couple of minutes may contain just 200 spoken words. You can read 1,000 words of text in the same time... In the beginning of mass communications was the printed word. It will remain crucial until the end, too."

In my view, the audio and video media are both excellent for entertainment. But they are serial, sequential forms by their very nature. If your aim is to extract /analyse any useful information, it's too painfully slow to go through the audio or video of speeches etc, even with fast forward and rewind. Whereas a single page of text gives me lots of words, lots of information, at the same time. It's denser, but much quicker to scan, from an information retrieval viewpoint. And I'm too impatient to listen or watch through an "educational" podcast or video, most of the time - so give me text (with or without pictures) any day!