Month: September 2007

Magpie

I like new things, as my Belbin team role suggests, I am the person who likes to start projects and enthuse others about it before… eventually.. I get bored with it and… ohh shiny! .. something new comes along.

I’m aware of this trait and have developed some internal habits that help me overcome it’s downsides, in other words I’ve figured out when I’m getting bored and so I start to change how I work to make sure that I see the project through to completion.

However my enjoyment of new things is beneficial and I’m constantly looking for new ideas, new inspirations from which I can learn, and for ways in which those ideas can be cross-pollinated (ok ok, stolen) and used in new ways.

One example came about when I first picked up on, after many years of being told to read it by my peers, Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. It’s a fascinating book and several of the key points can be translated into the technical writing world. One in particular stood out, the premise that an idea could be made ‘sticky’, and got me thinking about how I could adapt some of the methods into my approach to writing and structuring documentation. To my great pleasure that premise has been further developed by Dan & Chip Heath in their book Make it Stick and, although I’m only partway through it, I already have some ideas which may help make the documentation I create more useful to the readers.

There has been some discussion about our profession recently, whether it’s “just a job” or a vocation for some. I think I, like others, fit somewhere in the middle. Whilst I doubt technical writing/technical communications can be seen as a vocation, it’s certainly more than just a job to me, spilling over into my everyday life and thoughts. Typography, design, architecture, marketing and, basically any form of communication, has me questioning and prodding it to see if I can reuse any of it.

These days with personal publishing also a hobby for many, myself included, obviously, then anyone who is interested in communicating ideas and information is able to draw so much from such a wide pool of sources that, and I hold my hand up in admission here as well, I’m somewhat surprised that we have been a little slow to grab onto these new ways of communicating. Mind you, blogs, wikis and the like, are all still very new so I expect that to change over time.

But it won’t stop me constantly scanning the horizon for something new.

Have you taken inspiration from an odd source? Spotted a clever way to tackle information, or noted an idea or two after reading a, seemingly, unrelated book. How much of a magpie are you?

the offended people

I don’t link to his column very often but he is routinely excellent and always readable, particularly this week. Charlie Brooker on “the offended people” ~ “They come in two flavours – huffy and whiny – and it’s hard to know which is worst… Combined, they’re the very worst people on the planet – 20 times worse than child molesters, and I say that not because it’s true (it isn’t), but because it’ll upset them unnecessarily, and these readers deserve to be upset unnecessarily, morning, noon and night, every sodding day, for the rest of their wheedling lives.”

Cocoon

I’m currently playing with the new O2 Cocoon, a mobile phone cum lifestyle friend, or whatever warm fuzzy marketing spin they are putting on it.

Essentially a mobile phone with media player leanings, there are a few nice touches that elevate this above your standard mobile phone fare. I’ll post more about how it handles day to day usage in a week or so, but first impressions are good.

And, these days, first impressions start with the box, or more accurately with the unboxing experience. When I picked up the phone from the Post Office I was a bit perturbed at the long thin box I was presented with, had I been sent a keyboard by mistake? I was relieved to see the word Hello, spelled out in an LED font, lightly embossed on the surface of the box.

After cutting through a small piece of tape, I opened the magnetic catch and swung the box lid open to reveal the phone nestled in a large soothing background image of sky and flower blossoms. But where were the usual cables, booklets and other paraphernialia that accompanies every gadget these days? Twisting the box round a small tab labelled “Pull” caught my eye and, on doing so, a drawer slid out containing all of the above and more.

Unlike other mobile phones I’ve received, the dock, a headphone splitter and two sets of cables greeted me.

Now, like most people, I’ve owned a mobile phone or two, so I know the first thing to do is get the battery charged. Extracting the slim white usb power adapter (which will handle other usb powered gadgets, hello iPod?) and the battery from the box. Now all I had to do was figure out how to get the cover off the phone so I could insert the battery. Does it slide? No. Umm.. pull? No. How the hell?? Ohh wait, what’s that little button on the side? Ahhh, a lock for the battery compartment, how handy, if a little different from any of the other mobile phones I’ve used before.

Once I’d cracked that little puzzle, I plugged in and there I saw the first flash of something different, the light blue OLED display on the white plastic surface. Unless you’ve seen one before it’s hard to explain, suffice to say that what looks like a solid plastic surface, actually contains a set of lights underneath, through which information can be displayed. In the case of the Cocoon, it will display the time, message info when received, and the title of the currently playing track. Kinda neat and leads us to the dock which is supplied with the phone. Sitting the phone lengthwise in the dock, the display acts like, well, a clock. Upon investigation I realised that this was a key feature of the Cocoon, and that using it as an alarm clock, was part of the core design.

Thinking about it, it does make some sense. You set an alarm, dock your phone, and you have a nice subtle clock on your bedside table. After all, how many of us have a bedside alarm clock that tells us the time all day, when we aren’t even there. Hmm there are “green” connotations afoot!

Once charged, and with the PAYG sim inserted, I had a quick play with the interface and it’ll come easily to previous Nokia users I’m sure, but I’m not one so it feels a little ‘off’ to me. But that’ll change as I use the phone more often. Nothing is particularly hard to find.

Alas I can’t tell you much more as I can’t get it to talk to my PC, the USB will charge the phone but I can’t connect to it to try and sync my contacts. I’ll try on the Mac later.

Ohh and if you are wondering, no I didn’t buy the phone, yes I was given the phone as part of a promotion, no I don’t need to blog about it if I don’t want to (and if I end up not liking it, it may find itself on eBay). Am I whoring myself out? Perhaps, but if you were thinking of buying the Cocoon then hold off a week or so and I’ll let you know what I think.

Finally, a quick word on O2. One of the thing that has plagued Louise and I is the signal coverage in our house. Orange and Vodafone are sketchy at best but the Cocoon gets a good signal in all parts of the house so, if nothing else, I’ll probably be switching to them when my Orange contract is finally dead.

On my Mac

Well I’ve had it for a while now so here are some of the goodies I have installed on my MacBook. I’ve tried a lot of apps over the past few months, the following are the ones I’ve settled on.

One thing to note is that there does seem to be a different kind of software community built up around Macs, and I guess it is because the audience (whilst growing rapidly) is still small in comparison to the Windows community. There also seems to be more of an emphasis of home/fun usage, something Apple have concentrated on in the PC vs Mac adverts. I’m still not yet using the Mac as my main computer, largely because I can’t get my wife off the damn thing.

I am using a lot of the Apple supplied applications, Address Book, iCal and things like that, so most of the applications I have downloaded are either specialist or fit with the way I use a computer.

Anyway, at the moment, I am using:

  • Adium – instant messaging client that supports all the major IM channels.
  • AppDelete – which provides an easy way to delete installed applications. Installation on a Mac is, mostly, very simple. Removal less so, hence the thinking behind this application.
  • Aurora – an MP3/iTunes aware alarm clock. Ideal when travelling, can wake the Mac from its ‘sleep’.
  • Bean – for basic word processing requirements
  • Cyberduck – FTP client
  • FuzzyClock – rather than 13:45, displays “quarter to two”.
  • Growl – a wonderful little app which provides subtle (skinnable) notifications for various system events. Extendible using plugins, and feels like it is part of the OS
  • iConiCal – sets the dock icon for iCal to the correct date. Normally it’s a static icon until you open iCal, this app runs at login to change the icon. WHY this doesn’t happen this way within the OS I have no idea.
  • iStumbler – a better way to discover what wireless connections your MacBook can ‘see’. Includes Wifi, Bluetooth and Bonjour connections.
  • MagiCal – a replacement clock and drop-down calendar. Ideal for a quick check on a date.
  • MarcoPolo – automatically runs scripts to change settings when you change your wireless connection. Handy for me as I take my MacBook into work on occasion, when it picks up the wireless connection at work, it mutes the sound.
  • QuikSilver – at one level a keyboard application launcher, on another level (which I’m not at yet) a hugely powerful tool to help automate and quicken basic tasks and file manipulation.
  • Seashore – a handy graphics app, good for quick edits.
  • Skim – a PDF reader.
  • TextWrangler – handy text editor with support for most text based filetypes, good for quick code hacks.
  • VLC – an excellent video player with support for, well, every type of video I’ve tried.

All of the above are free, as in beer (where DID that phrase come from?). I have donated to some, and have bought other apps, most notably Adobe PhotoShop, but those are the ‘finds’, the none obvious stuff which I highly recommend you check out.

One type of app I’ve yet to settle on is which web browser to use. I immediately installed Firefox to give me something familiar, and coupled with my use of Google apps and Google sync, it doesn’t look like that will be changing anytime soon. Oddly though, I have far fewer extensions installed on my MacBook than I do on my PC.

There are three other items that I’ve purchased for my MacBook which I’d like to point out. One is a Radtech screen protector, a simple cloth would do to be honest, but this doubles up as a screen cloth for the shiny glass effect MacBook screen. The other is a set of Cool Feet, which sucker onto the base of the MacBook, helping circulation and cooling, and providing a nice typing elevation. Finally, my Wrapper, a customised sleeve for when my MacBook is fast asleep. Provides a little bit of protection and keeps it clean!

There are a myriad of other tweaks (check out the Kinkless Desktop and an application called ‘Hazel’ for a key part of my desktop workflow) but those are for another post. For now, the applications listed above should give you a good starting point, and none of them will cost you a penny.

Recently Read

I’ve had my head stuck in various planning documents, so a shorter list than usual but, hopefully, thought provoking none the less.

  • Documentation = dollars ~ “Software development without documentation is self-centric. Documentation is a signal that the developer actually cares about her downstream users. For projects that actually want downstream users, write good documentation. It won’t cannibalize buyers: it will create them.”
  • TechComm Pros Wiki – could grow into a very useful resource, and as it’s a Wiki you can help.
  • TICAD 2007 – OK, this one is a bit cheeky as I’m going to be speaking at it. More on that later, but the programme looks interesting and has some excellent speakers (I’ve shared dinner with Bernard Aschwanden who is smart, engaging and… tells a dirty joke like you wouldn’t believe).

That aside, the issue of blogging came up on TechWR yesterday, with some people stating that they didn’t read blogs as they were just one persons opinion… but to me that is entirely the point. Admittedly weeding out the opinionated from the passionate, and the intelligent from the insulting can be tricky, but you soon gain a good radar for such things.

And I guess I should ask, which am I?

Content Analysis for re-use

The basic premise of “single source” can be summed up in one word.

Re-use.

Sounds simple enough but there is a wealth analysis and work that is required before that, somewhat elegant, aim can be met.

Analysing your content for potential re-use opportunites is, by and large, an onerous task. Whether you do it all by hand, printing out reams of documentation and annotating by hand, or electronically compiling spreadsheets using colour coding or obscure (“they made sense to me at the time”) codes, it takes time to do it properly and there are no shortcuts. Sorry to break it to you so bluntly.

However it does mean that you are forced to spend some time re-reading your content, content which you might not have visited for some time or in some cases, may not have written yourself. You’ll likely find inconsistencies in the content itself, styling errors and quite probably a completely different writing style. Whilst it may seem obvious I urge you, should it arise, to fight the urge to start editing as you go along.

My basic understanding of single source, and the re-use of information, is that there are times when you’ll need to rewrite content so it can be easier used in multiple locations. A change of tense perhaps, a rephrasing or reconstruction of a sentence may be all that is required, and hell, if you have the document open in front of you, why not just go ahead and make that change? Suffice to say that editing content that you are analysing has only one potential outcome. Chaos. Regardless of how well organised, how well planned your analysis is, if you start making changes to your content on the fly, you will soon find yourself with a blurred view of the very thing you are trying to analyse.

Yeah, I know. It’s sounds obvious, and it is when viewed from a distance.

However what I really wanted to discuss, for I’m certainly not 100% certain on this, is at what level does content granularity become too granular? If I want to re-use a paragraph then, obviously, breaking up content to the paragraph level makes sense but that immediately seems like overkill in many cases. So I’ve been steering away from that kind of structural thinking, away from paragraphs and sentences into semantically discrete blocks. So a short product description, containing a heading and a paragraph, is one block and a long product description, containing a heading and several paragraphs, is another. I’m pretty sure this is the correct approach but it does mean that, once you’ve made that decision, you are stuck with fairly large chunks of information.

I’m hoping that this is a good balance though, for if we are to break our content into smaller granules, the overhead of maintaining and manipulating them surely increases. Remember, in a single source system we are concerned with more than content, we also have to contend with the metadata associated with that content, and the more pieces of information we have to maintain, the increase in risk that the metadata becomes so complex as to be useless?

I think. Maybe.. I’m really not that sure.

Have you conducted any content analysis? If so how did you approach the granularity issue? I get the sense that, for a lot of people, the level of granularity is reached once the content analysis is complete, that it basically decides itself.

As we slowly progress towards a single source solution, I’m intrigued as to what to expect next, any thoughts or comments are much appreciated. After all, all the articles, conferences and books in the world can replace real life experience.

Notes:
This post was, in part, inspired when pondering if semantic analysis might be a way to tackle this but, for now, I wonder if it is perhaps a step too far for most?

Let Go

I’ve mentioned this before, and much as I hate to go on, it’s a subject I want to try and tackle one more time. I’m going to focus on one particular application, but the principals are applicable across many, they are not limited to a particular type of file but there are some thresholds which factor into this discussion.

Specifically, I want to discuss iTunes and the MP3 phenomenon.

I don’t want to discuss whether MP3s are ‘killing CDs’ or why Ogg Vorbis is a much better format, nor do I wish to bemoan the features of iTunes. However I think it’s easier to talk about a specific example, than to talk about “library applications” (applications which will act as the interface to your files) and “numerous files” (as we are only talking about applications that handle 1000s of files at a time, not those that are concerned with one file at a time). So, with that in mind…

Whether you like it or not, MP3 is the de facto choice for music files. It has won the battle and is unlikely to be replaced and, as such, the number of MP3 files is only going to increase. Making the decision of which file format to use was something I didn’t really bother with, I just followed the crowd. Many others have done exactly the same.

Over the years as I’ve slowly added MP3s to my music collection, I’ve swayed between different MP3 applications, FooBar, Winamp, and others. Winamp held the floor for quite a while, and when they added a library function to help organise the thousands of MP3 files that soon accumulated I started to rethink how I handled my MP3 collection.

In the Winamp days, I spent a lot of time managing the MP3 files themselves. Making sure the internal information, or tags, correctly listed the artist, track, album and so on. I would then make sure the files were in appropriately named folders organised by first artist, then album name. Even the filenames themselves were carefully managed and all in all I had a fairly streamlined workflow that kicked in whenever I was ripping a CD to MP3. It used two different applications, one to handle automating the tagging process, another to tidy up any erroneous tags and intelligently rename the files (Tag & Rename if you must know).

Then one day a company called Apple released a version of their iTunes application for Windows. I’d heard a bit about iTunes and, curious as to what all the fuss was about, I downloaded it and gave it a shot. First impressions were not good. It was slow, clunky, ate RAM and, worst of all, it screwed up my carefully managed folders. How very dare it!

After some searching I found some answers to solve that problem, mainly some settings to change but it wasn’t enough. iTunes just wasn’t for me. As far as I was concerned it didn’t fit in my workflow so the application was unsuitable to the way I ‘worked’.

I hadn’t factored in the Apple marketing department though, and soon as I was back in iTunes-land. Why? Mainly because my shiny new 10GB iPod preferred it.

However I was still embedded in my MP3 workflow. Rip, rename, tag, file, repeat. Rip, rename, tag, file, repeat. All my files and folders neatly arranged and tagged. This continued for some time until, and I’ll be honest and admit that I don’t recall exactly when, I had ripped a large number of CDs into iTunes and didn’t have time to properly clean them up. I figured I’d do it later.

A few days later I sat down at the PC, fired up iTunes and searched for the one of the CDs I’d ripped.

That’ll be about when it hit me. That’ll be the precise moment I realised that my renaming and filing days were over, as iTunes found my music and started playing it, based purely on the tags containing the artist, album and track information. It was, laughably, a light bulb moment. The sudden realisation that I could just leave the filenaming and storage location to iTunes and largely not really care what it did as long as I could search for a track by any of the variety of information held within the MP3 file itself.

Since then I have done exactly that. Other than specifying the parent folder into which iTunes rips or copies MP3s, the underlying folder structure, for all I care, may be a complete mess. I really don’t care as I interface with the files through iTunes.

I know there are some of you out there that are baulking at this idea and I will state that it is not solely because I use iTunes. I think the same revelation would’ve occurred if I’d been using Windows Media Player, or if the Winamp Library facility had had a search function.

I now treat my photos in a similar manner, worrying only about the metadata associated with them (location, date, occasion) and not really caring how they are stored.. Picasa takes care of that for me (and if I could find a way to get iPhoto to scan networked folders I’d have a shot with it but it seems to insist on copying the photos to the drive first).

And finally, with reference back to my post on RSS feeds, as Google Reader (my tool of choice) now allows you to search through your feeds, what does it matter if I have more than 1000+ unread items in any folder. The folder isn’t important, searching for content is.

I agree this kind of approach to data isn’t for everyone but, in our current climate of “too much”, anything that minimises the amount of work that I need to do for menial tasks like organising my ever expanding music collection is very much a GOOD THING. There is, of course, an argument for cutting back and decluttering your digital life, but that’s a different discussion.

As Obi-Wan once said, “Let go”.