June 2010 - Posts

Old file formats - how to read Microsoft Works 4.x files

Its not just NASA that has trouble reading old files sometimes those of us with less important missions have problems too. J has been doing some family research recently and came across a CD that had been sent to her some years ago by a distant relative, G,  who has since passed away. G had spent a lot of time doing the same research and after questioning lots of family members he had recorded his notes in a state of the art application called Microsoft Works. Apparently the family tree was also somewhere on the CD too.

There was a handful of JPG files which were easily read - SCORE #1 for mass supported open formats.

The rest of the CD contained a single .PAF file, multiple .WKS, .WPS and .MAX files.

The .PAF file is from a program called Personal Ancestry File and even though the file was last saved in 2002 and was multiple versions old it imported into the newest version of the program with no apparent problems. SCORE #2 for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The .MAX format is a proprietary format used by ScanSoft for their scanners. Its likely that the latest version of PaperPort will open it but I wasn't about to drop $99 jut in case especially since I only had a handful of these files. After some google time I found a direct link to the old ScanSoft ftp site which is still up and has the PaperPort 7.0 viewer available. There is no export but viewing the images at 100% fitted just fine on my monitor so SnagIt was able to grab it cleanly.

Which left me with the .WKS and .WPS files which are both from Microsoft Works. But which version? There's no way to tell. Word 2010 will import Works 6-9 and it wouldn't read this file which matches the 1998-2000 dates on the file. Its likely Works 4.x or 2000. Excel doesn't even try to load Works files in .WKS format. I found a commercial conversion tool for the WKS to Excel conversion which is only $10 and has a trial. I found an online conversion tool called ZamZar which was a complete failure. I tried opening them in notepad and realised I can see the text - but several of the files I know have images that we really needed (scans of 2 civil war letters). There is plenty of evidence that older versions of Word (and Excel) would read the files. Thankfully I have an MSDN subscription that contains old versions of office back to Office 95 and so that I don't have to mess up my normal machine I have a handy VMWare virtual machine running Windows XP. So I spent the morning installing Office 95, Office XP, Office 2003 and not a single one of them would read my files. Thank goodness for the VMWare snapshot feature - after each failed attempt I could roll back the machine to its previously clean state with a couple of clicks. The more I researched the more I came to the conclusion that Office 97 or Office 2000 were the versions I wanted but those are not available anywhere. We can thank the Sun lawsuit for that apparently. At this point I'm ready to head over to ebay to buy a copy of works but I still don't know if its 4.x or 2000 and we really needed to open these files this weekend.

So I broke the law... sorry Mr Gates/Ballmer but I fired up a torrent client and found myself an installer for Works 4.x and a license code. (No I'm not going to help YOU break the law find them yourself). Its pretty clear that even in the pirate world nobody cares about old versions of Works. It took a lot of looking through sites with naked ladies on them (yes all the ads on torrent sites seem to be adult in nature) to find what I needed. Of course I have to be paranoid about viruses and the like. Thankfully I have my virtual machines and even on those I install Microsoft Security Essentials. Once I'd downloaded the file I disconnected the VM from the internet and installed it. All the files loaded first time and allowed me to save them in old versions of word which will happily load into Office 2010 for conversion. I've also saved each document in PDF format too. Both proprietary I know but I suspect they will be around for a long time to come.

It made me think though that as more and more of our life becomes digital what will our kids and grand kids be able to see when they inherit an old machine/usb key whatever with family 'heirlooms'. Paper has its own problems too. I'm looking at pictures from 50 years ago that are horribly faded and damaged and newspaper clippings so delicate I don't want to touch them. Seem like 'the cloud' may be a good solution. I assume if JPG ever becomes unused Flickr/Picasa will be able to do a batch conversion for me. Of course then there's a privacy issue that some folk don't like.


Writing a book ????

Every since XNA was released my visibility in the community has meant I get the occasional email or phone all about authoring a book. I've resisted for several reasons.

  1. Its a BIG time commitment and I don't have much of that
  2. The $$ return is terrible

When I mention #2 to the publishers they always tell me that "many authors do it for the increased visibility and not for the profit". I usually point out that they are calling me because I already have the visibility which rarely goes down well.

So how little money do authors make? Its hard to get all the details of course but you can find general information out there. I have a good book on self publishing that might be a little out of date now.

Lets take 7 XNA 3.1 books (I ignored Dan's book as it seems to be on super sale). The average 'list price' is $38.55 and the average actual price is $25.23 so pretty much every book is sold at a 35% discount.

As an author you will negotiate your pay usually in 2 ways. An advance and a per book percentage. Obviously both vary but O'Reilly are very up front about their 10% rate and 5% on translated copies on publisher NET sales. If Amazon is selling our imaginary XNA book for $25.23 you know they paid less than this so lets assume the publisher sold the book to amazon for $20. So from the $38.55 'list' price the author is going to see about $2 a copy.

That's not too bad if you are Stephen King but technical books have a rather limited audience. I've seen several places that talk about 10,000 copies in the 1st year being considered a 'best seller' in the technical book space. Lets say the average book sells 5000. That's a grand total of $10,000 before any taxes for your hard work. I've seen advances around the $10,000 mark so its no surprise that common advice is to negotiate as big advance as possible because most books will never pay beyond that.

So how long does it take to write a book? I asked a few folk some years ago and though it was a pretty wide range the estimates were between 500 and 700 hours by the time you have got everything done, edited, proof read and produced the code samples, supporting web site etc.

That gives us a pay range of $13-$20 an hour assuming your book. I've mentioned this figure to some authors and been told thats 'if you get lucky'.

So back to the publishers - how many of them pay their staff $20 or less an hour? It just seems wrong to me that the person who puts in the effort gets the lowest wage? When you buy that XNA book does it cross your mind who is getting rich off it?

So last time I was asked to write I suggested a $25,000 advance to make it worth my time and you can imagine how well that went down.

So why do authors continue to write books? Well there are many intangible rewards. Some folk do it for the increased visibility which can get you jobs, MVP awards, speaker gigs at conferences, some folk do it because seeing your name on a book is just plain cool. Others do it as a challenge - its something that they have always wanted to do. Others think that $20 an hour is worth their time as a second/side job. I can totally understand all of these reasons and heck I need to thank many of the authors for doing it - I own hundreds of your books. For some folk its just a hobby that they would do for free so the money is a nice bonus - heck I've probably put in more free hours on the xna.com forums over the years and rarely felt exploited.

However I just can't get over the feeling of being shafted. I can bill much more than $20 an hour for regular work and as my blog readers know I have plenty of other hobbies that take up my time.

But.... with George and Chris writing a Windows Phone book the topic has come up once again in my circle of twitter friends and I've got to admit it would be nice to see my name on a book in a book store.  

So given there is no way I'm working for $20 an hour (max) I've dug out the self publishing book and taking a look at the options there.

Here's some questions I posted on twitter and I'd appreciate feedback in comments or email.

  • How much does the publisher of the book vs the author name affect your buying decision?
  • How do you find your books? Brick and Mortar browsing? Online browsing? Other?
  • Do you still buy paper or are you all buying eBooks now? Do you care about DRM? Can I trust you not to upload the eBook as soon as you get a copy?
  • How big do you expect a book that costs $25? I understand you care about content but if you are in a book store and you grab a thin book you are less likely to buy it. The 7 XNA 3 books range from 336 to 792 pages. Average is 496. The bigger the book the more 'value' in terms of pages per $. That ranges from 25 pages per dollar down to 12 pages per dollar.
  • I also asked about color as I see it starting to appear in technical books. I see its use in game books and in reading VS code but after a quick look I realised that its just not economical for self publishing yet.
  • What do the big publishers get wrong? What drives you nuts that would make you buy MY book instead?
  • What is missing in the XNA books? What do they do wrong? What do they do right?

No this doesn't mean I'm going to write one for sure... all of the time constraints about still apply and it seems like the successful authors have some amazing ability to sleep less than 4 hours a night and let me tell you - I love my bed!




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