Saturday, October 17, 2009

Two Quarks for Muster Mike
(Adventures in the Software Trade)

The past week has been fairly quiet as I spent most of it saying bad words, according to granddaughter Samantha, despite her older sister Abigail's assurance that "piece of junk" is not a bad word. Grandpa admits that what he wasn't saying out loud, and what he was saying out loud during the day while the kids were in school, certainly qualified.

The process began about two weeks ago, when I realized that my departure from the newsroom had robbed me of some layout tools I still needed.

Most of my writing is just that: Writing. I can handle it all in Word, which is really a lousy program but so much the default that you need it because it's what your clients will be using. Even those who don't like, or want, Word will have it because other people use it.

And several years ago, I purchased Photoshop Elements, the stripped-down version of Photoshop that does nearly everything I need, and what it can't do are all things that a client would be tweaking at their end anyway.

But I've been working on a serial story that will be running in New York newspapers this coming spring, and, as I started work on the accompanying curriculum guide, I very quickly realized that Word's layout capacities end at the club newsletter level.

What to do?

There are two programs to be considered: QuarkXpress, which was the industry standard for several years, and InDesign, the up-and-comer that is taking over the top position. Now, I'm assured by friends who have used both that it is easy to learn InDesign if you know Quark and that the transition is painless. However, working alone means I don't need to deal with compatibility, and my layout needs are rudimentary enough that either program is far more than I need anyway. So I needed Quark.

Which brings us to the next point: Quark costs $799, which is a pretty big investment for a fledgling freelancer.

However, I didn't need the latest version, Quark 8. What I needed was the ability to lay out text and images, then create multipage, one-piece PDF files which would be the final product. Quark 6, which I used at my last two jobs, would be adequate, and there are (relatively) legitimate Quark 6 programs available on Ebay.

Easy enough. I found a copy of Quark 6 that had never been registered and got it at a very reasonable price. I spent the next week writing the guide, so that, when the disk showed up in the mail, while I hadn't finished the writing, I was ready to do the initial layout and then fill in the other pieces of the guide as I wrote them.


Except that Quark 6 is not compatible with Vista, the operating system on my new laptop. I was able to install it, but it constantly crashed, froze up, lost my files or saved them in a format it then couldn't open. (This accounted for most of the bad words as I kept reinstalling it in hopes that it would magically begin to work properly.)

No problem: I still have my desktop, which doesn't have the power of the laptop but runs the XP operating system, consistent with Quark 6. I unpacked it, set it up and installed Quark 6.

Quark is kind of a memory hog, but if I stripped everything but Photoshop Elements and a couple of browsers, there was enough to run Quark, as long as I was willing to switch it on and then go make coffee or something while it mounted and then go make another cup of coffee any time I asked it to do something complex.


Except it turns out that Quark 6 can't export PDFs unless you have a particular type of printer installed. A particularly expensive kind, common in newsrooms but not so common in home offices. Not that you even want to print the PDFs, but ... well, that's the way they set it up. And, while you can lie to Quark 7 and pretend you have such a printer, you can't lie to Quark 6.

In other words, it would allow me to lay out the guide, but then I couldn't turn it into something my clients could use.

What to do?

Well, now that I had Quark 6, I could register it and then buy an upgrade to Quark 8. Which I did, and which I was able to install on my laptop, where it runs smoothly and swiftly on Vista.

Somehow, I still managed to emerge some $300 ahead of having bought it straight out in the first place. Yesterday, I sailed through a large portion of the layout and am nearly to the point where I have to start writing again.

And next week, when Windows 7 is available for free to all of us who bought computers with Vista in the last six months or so, I will pass, thank you. We do not plan to fix that which is not broke.

Here's a 10-minute video extolling the virtues of QuarkXpress 8. I feel like I bought a Maserati to take to the grocery store. Those who understand this stuff will be able to see how wonderful Quark 8 is. Those who don't will really enjoy the pretty pictures.

For my part, I liked the pretty pictures and didn't understand more than about 20% of what she was saying. It was kind of like watching a film in a language you studied in high school -- every few minutes, a familiar phrase flies by and gives me the impression that I can understand it, but I really couldn't.

What I did know is that it will do what I need done and that, while I've just lost a week or two of productivity wrestling with it, I certainly won't feel like I should have bought something with more horsepower down the road sometime.

And I like owning a Maserati, even if I keep putting the key inside the wrong little hole. (See below)


Sherwood Harrington said...

What a sly little look by Tommy as he sings the line you quote.

That's a hard way to save $300. I almost suspect you of staging the whole thing just so you could use the headline for this post -- I would have been tempted to a) if I had thought of it, and b) if my name were a little closer to "Mark."

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Every Windows Vista purchase should come packaged with the Sophocles video.

Dann said...

Have you tried Open Office.

It is compatible with MSOffice. It exports in PDF natively.

I don't know if it would handle your layout problems, but it is free. So trying doesn't cost anything other than time.

I use it at home whenever I can.


Mike said...

Open Office was a veritable scumware infestation. One of the geeks from the office installed it on my personal computer -- this was about 10 years ago -- and I could no longer open any Word docs and have the format preserved. Nor did it do a very good job of formatting itself. Couldn't get it uninstalled fast enough. I suppose it's improved in the ensuing decade, but the name still gives me the collywobbles.

The last three papers I was at, we didn't use anything but Quark, even for letters and memos. You can make a nice letterhead template with it, and then either print it out and mail or fax it, or convert to PDF and email it. No need to mess with Word or anyone else. (The latest development with Word is that it won't open old Word documents unless you go in and play with your basic settings. This is an astonishingly bad idea, but much of my past is now locked up in files my new version of Word won't open. All hail the Evil Empire!)

Mark Jackson said...

There are also freeware packages that install a PDF writer as an additional "printer" (much as Acrobat does) so you can make PDFs from any Windows application. (FreePDF XP - which does run under Vista - is the one I use.) Worth a try if you're ever faced with the Quark-6-won't-export-PDFs problem again.

Dann said...

Ten years is an awfully long time in terms of software development.

I don't know if OO will handle your current layout needs. I do know that OO generated .doc files are readable by MSWord.

I hope you find an acceptable solution to your problem one way or the other.