Sunday, May 08, 2005

Bitter Lessons 

I spent a large part of the weekend preparing a database of names to produce nearly 300 merge letters tailored by name and address. The database needed extensive corrections, and it took me about six hours on Saturday to get them done.

I don't find databases all that difficult to build but Bitter Lesson no. 1. There is no easy way to correct a database of names. One must slog through and work down errors bit by bit. With hundreds of names, this is possible in a day or so. With thousands of names, it isn't. The hardest part is doing data entry when one's fingers no longer work well after hours of typing. Suddenly your fingers are spastic, and there are still 50 entries to code. Not a great feeling.

Bitter Lesson no. 2 came with preparation of the merge letter. Suddenly, I got a call and was informed that the group I was working with wanted to change it -- this in spite of having the letter more than a week. I pointed out to the group that we have a deadline, and if I didn't work this weekend, the letters wouldn't get done. I was not happy. But a few hours later, this was resolved, and I moved forward. Get everyone to sign off on a merge letter EARLY, then DON'T let them change it.

Bitter Lesson no. 3. Mistakes multiply. With merge letters, any error is multiplied hundreds of times. Check and recheck text. Think of every way copy can be misconstrued. Look for dropped commas and semicolons. Decide whether all Mr and Mrs are with periods after the names or not. DON'T trust your own eyes. Have someone else look at the copy too. My wife was the long-suffering editor for this project.

Bitter Lesson no. 4 was my fault. ALWAYS have extra printer cartridges on hand when starting to print merge letters. I finished the first run of 60 letters and discovered to my horror that the last eight were faded, and the cartridge had run out of ink. I didn't have a spare on hand, so I drove quickly to Staples where I was informed that it is a special-order cartridge, and it would take one to four business days to get it. Frantic, I drove up the street to the computer store where I had purchased the printer in a faint hope that it might, just might, have a cartridge that I could borrow, or even, one for sale. An elderly salesperson looked about the store a bit and checked the inventory to discover that the store was supposed to have three cartridges. Luckily, we found one, and I raced home.

Bitter Lesson no. 5. Sometimes merges don't work properly even with the latest editions of Microsoft Access, Word and Excel. (It was Word, Access and Excel I was using.) For some damn reason, when Access exports data to Excel, quirky things can happen. I use Excel as the datasheet from which to perform the final merge in Word. This time Excel or Access (I don't know which) cut off two digits of the zip code. I couldn't figure out why, and I didn't have time to explore, so I deleted the zip code from the address block of the letter. One notices the absence but not much.

I got done -- finally, and the letters are packed to go to the group. But, a weekend has passed, and I don't remember what I did but mow lawns and work on merge letters.

Now, if someone wants to make a change on Monday...


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