Microsoft Word’s formatting garbage, quantified

Anyone who’s spent any amount of time working on the web dreads it: content delivered in Microsoft Word format. Word adds tons of formatting garbage that results in bloated files and messes up the presentation when content gets brought into HTML.

When Microsoft released Office 2007, they touted switching to an XML-based document format for all of the apps. But all XML is not created equal.

Case in point: I am currently working on a project that is going to involve receiving content for a number of web pages in a tabular form, either in Word or Excel format. A spreadsheet, essentially (if not technically), with each page represented by a row, and its text content in a cell. I will be writing a PHP script to parse the spreadsheet data and generate a set of HTML files with the content loaded in them.

I’m currently trying to determine if Word or Excel would be the better format to receive the content in, which involves opening up .xlsx and .docx files in BBEdit and looking at the raw data stored within them. I’ve managed to identify the embedded XML files in each that hold the actual content. These files store the same actual text content, but their XML schemas vary based on the needs of Word and Excel.

So… how do they match up? The XML file I pulled out of Excel is 14 KB. The one from Word is 202 KB. For the mathematically inclined amongst you, that’s a little more than 14 times larger. Yes… another (perhaps more hyperbolic) way you could say it is that the Word document is exponentially larger.

That’s just ridiculous.

What makes up the difference? Well, the Excel file’s XML is nothing but basic tags. There are no attributes on any of the tags, as far as I can tell. It’s pure semantic structure. The Word XML, on the other hand, is almost nothing but attributes. And there’s nothing smart about them either. Most of them are assigning fonts to the text. The same font names, over and over and over again throughout the file.

That’s… beyond ridiculous.

Changing the rules for biological parents, decades after the fact

The Girls Who Went Away by Ann FesslerA recent editorial in the Minneapolis StarTribune addressed proposed legislation that would change Minnesota’s state laws concerning adoptees’ access to their birth records, without the birth parents’ consent. The point is moot for those adopted after 1982, as laws enacted in that year gave birth parents the choice of whether or not to allow the records to be made available to their children after they turned 18. (And, if I understand the poorly-worded sentence from the article correctly, 90% of birth mothers, given the choice, have wanted to allow access under those circumstances.)

As it happens, I have a particular interest in this matter, as I was adopted in the state of Minnesota, before 1982.

My records are sealed until either I or my biological parents die, but it’s of little matter now, as some careful online sleuthing (along with a good bit of luck) allowed me to find and make contact with my birth mom. Although due to geography and the complexity of daily life, we may never have a very close relationship, we do have a relationship now, and have been a part of each other’s lives for the past five years.

Up to that point, her identity, and truly the very origins of my existence, were shrouded in a mystery that I had long known I may never solve. If you’re not in the situation, I would imagine it is difficult to understand. And for some people, including a good college friend who’s also adopted, the curiosity just isn’t there, which is fine. But for those of us who do need to know, it’s not just (in the words of the article) “genealogical curiosity.” It is a burning hunger to understand oneself.

As I said, I was lucky. Circumstances made it unexpectedly easy for me to locate my birth mom. (Credit goes, too, to three websites in particular: Google, Switchboard, and to a lesser extent, US Search. Avoid giving US Search your information, or worse, your money, unless you find it absolutely necessary. But enlist Google and Switchboard, and watch them do wonders.) We were exchanging emails two short weeks after I first made a concerted effort to find her, in 2003. But the urge to take action had been there for years.

Unfortunately the only avenue open to me in the pre-Google years was to work through the agency that placed me with my adoptive parents. That would have required nearly $600 in fees, along with several notarized documents, all with no guarantee of success. Most adult adoptees who are seeking their birth parents are stuck with this as their only option, however, and the situation is even worse for the birth parents. Mostly they just need to sit back and hope their children want to find them, knowing that they may not even be aware that they’re adopted.

So I see both sides of this story. Birth parents (mothers in particular, it seems) overwhelmingly want to be found by their children, even if they were forced by the laws and practices at the time of the birth to give up all rights to contact, forever. But if they’re in that 10% minority, they do deserve to have their rights protected, too.

Ultimately it’s a good thing that the laws were changed. Adoptees who are a decade or more younger than I am may never have to face the kind of agonizing “curiosity” that my generation and those before me have lived with since we first learned we were adopted. (Again, I believe I was lucky, in that I’ve known since I was a young child — too young to understand the stigma I might have felt if I learned as a teen or an adult.)

Despite the feel-good reunion stories that are, for the most part, the general public’s only exposure to issues of adoption, and ham-fisted legislative efforts to right past wrongs, as is currently underway in Minnesota, the true, anguished story of birth mothers (many of whom in past decades were compelled against their wishes to give up their children) is still largely unknown. I would encourage everyone who has the slightest interest in issues of adoption to read Ann Fessler’s excellent book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade.

Good source for wallpapers (or as we call them in the Mac world, desktop images)

As is usually the case, I’m probably the last sentient being in the known universe to discover this, but anyway… I was in the mood to find some new wallpapers today. (I’m running OSXplanet on my Mac desktop but I needed something new for when I’m running Windows… and the ones that come with XP leave a lot to be desired, such as the proper resolution for my widescreen laptop display.)

So I googled “1280×800 desktop images” and this is what I found…