Month: November 2007

Stepping Back

I was recently chatting to someone who has a plan.

He is retiring at aged 50 and going off to live in the wilds of Canada. He’s Canadian so it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds, but the really scary part is that he is deliberately going to be “off-grid”. He’s a self-confessed geek so this is quite a step and, when he told me all this I suggested that it was some form of backlash against the grip of technology, a deliberate swipe at the lifestyle we all find ourselves living in modern society.

“But of course it is” he grinned.

I harbour a similar desire, namely to retire aged 50, but as yet have no plan to get there. It’s unlikely to happen and as such will remain a dream but, it is something I’m now thinking about. If I did retire early, what would I do? Where would I go?

The idea of living remotely appeals to Louise and I, even if it isn’t that far removed from civilisation. Being off-grid, no internet, limited phone access, is another deal entirely but given that I do so enjoy snatched moments of solitude, an afternoon lost in a book, a stroll round the park, it is worth considering.

Personal space is something for which we all hunt, something we aim to manufacture by donning headphones and blocking out the rest of the world. Regardless of where we are, the message remains the same and annoyance comes from those that don’t even realise that is the aim. It’s not just about listening to music, it’s about creating a place that only belongs to me. It’s most significant when wandering city streets to your own soundtrack, the reverie snapped by Big Issue sellers and small women with big umbrellas. Elsewhere this method of isolation can be more reliable yet the one place where I could be assured of true solitude would be at home and I rarely, if ever, use headphones there.

Perhaps true solitude is only possible when you are in the middle of nowhere, for any manufactured space bears the scars and remnants of modern day living. At home the phone demands an answer, walking down the street you are considerate of others as you navigate the myriad of shoppers and so forth, even lying in the park on a summer day is fraught with stray dogs and misplaced footballs.

I treasure quiet moments. Snippets of a day to pause and reflect before returning to the headlong plunge of life. Some people enjoy the helter skelter existence we seem to have these days. The incredible rush of even the most basic day is at times a sad indictment of our society, at others a thrilling embracing of being alive. Recharging our batteries is reserved for sleep, yet surely there needs to be more, surely we must pause more often to gather ourselves before the next onslaught?

Those that retain the ability to stepback have a skill to envy. One simple step creates the space I crave yet can so rarely find.

I need to learn to step back now and again.

Recently Read

With the TICAD conference last week, a couple of days in my sick bed, and the imminent product release I’m working towards, I’ve not had a lot of time to post here. However, the RSS feeds keep trickling in, so here are a few items that caught my eye over the past couple of weeks.

What Beautiful HTML Code Looks Like
I’m a terrible coder. Which is just as well because I’m not a developer but as I do dabble in HTML and CSS quite frequently (hey, and PHP too), then this is a good reminder for me to develop my own best practises.

Code is Tabbed into Sections: If each section of code is tabbed in once, the structure of the code is much more understandable. Code that is all left-justified is horrific to read and understand.

Includes a neat infographic, downloadable as PDF, which is now pinned beside my desk.

Procedures: The Sacred Cow Blocking the Road
An update on a (yipes) 10 year old article. I don’t think I read it when it was first published but I have read it. Well worth another visit though.

“It takes a surprisingly short amount of time for a user to feel unstuck. When I was a usability consultant, I used to advise clients to put the critical information in the first three words of a sentence.”

IA Deliverables
From Content Surveys, to wireframes, Personas and Use Cases, a brief overview of each is followed by a sample template. Not only a useful resource but a good overview of the typical process an Information Architect will undertake, a lot of which can be adapted to more traditional product documentation.

Collaboration is not a dirty word
Collaboration on content (not documents, even if that is where the content ends up) was a key part of my presentation. It’s good to see the switch from document-centric to info-centric taking place.

I love things being this easy. I love getting (almost) zero emails with attachments. I love not having a hard drive full of Word documents.

DITA Troubleshooting specialization

The Troubleshooting specialization creates a new topic type that is well-suited for problem-solution information.

7 Ways to keep the post-conference buzz
Not long back from a conference myself, I have already done a few of these things (item 3 in particular) but some good ideas here.

Wikis for Documentation?
Steve Manning isn’t sure about using Wikis for Documentation but does think they could be a big hit in another, related area:

Most writers have to guess about their users. Few writers get the opportunity to speak directly with users. Few get any sort of feedback at all. They are left to do their best. How useful would it be to be able to post your document on a Wiki and have users be able to comment topic-by-topic? To see the questions they ask?

I totally agree. All I need to do is figure out how this works within a single source environment, and tackle a few issues around governance and change management and it could be an excellent working model.

And finally…
I’ll be updating the TechComms RSS feeds download soon, so if you think you should be on the list (or even if you aren’t sure whether you are or not) then let me know. It includes all kinds of stuff which is loosely related to Technical Communications, and I’m always on the lookout for more sources of inspiration. Leave a comment if you think of anything.

(Don't) Call me

I need some advice. I want either cheaper TV, Broadband and Telephone calls, how do I get them? Actually that’s a lie, I only really want cheaper telephone calls.

Currently we have contracts with both Sky and Virgin Media.

We have Sky for our TV viewing and we take all the movies and sports channels, although I am considering cropping the ‘standard’ channel package down a little. My parents have Virgin Media for their TV service and, ignoring the fact I’d have to invest in a PVR system of some sort to get back the functionality I’d be losing, I happen to think the Sky service is better. It certainly seems easier to use and Virgin don’t give you the choice of what to record (hence the separate PVR).

We have Virgin Media for our telephone line and broadband and, from what I’ve read, the Sky broadband service isn’t the greatest and I’m loathed to move from Virgin Media (was Telewest) as the broadband service has been solid and reliable for the past 6 years, and we DO spend a lot of time online (Louise increasingly so). The telephone line is… well it’s a telephone line. We have caller ID and cheap(ish) calls to Europe.

We both have contract mobile phones, and once my contract (with Orange) is up I’m considering moving to PAYG… but in saying that I do miss not having a good phone with internet access and reliable Sync with my contacts… so I might hold out and aim for one of the HTC devices (running Windows Mobile). I am currently reducing my contract at every opportunity.

Basically, given my reluctance to switch broadband and TV suppliers, then the phone service is the one I’m focussing on. Largely our phone calls are within the UK, bar two or three calls a week to Spain.

I’ve done some digging in various forums and websites and think I know the answer but thought I’d see if my wonderfully intelligent readers could offer me another insight.

Given the restraints, what is the best phone service for us to switch to? Should we just ditch the landline altogether? What is the impact on people calling us (actually that’s a moot point, both mobile phones have very poor reception in the house so that wouldn’t be practical)? Do I need to do some more research into VOIP?

And yes, I am one of those bloggers who has just received a months trial with a Skype mobile. So that may be an option I can explore.

Any further comments, thoughts and suggestions are welcomed. Or should I just shut up, because, frankly, this isn’t that big a deal really.

Torrents of TV

In response to a plea on Twitter, where I’d just mentioned that I’d thoroughly enjoyed Episode 7 of Series 2 of Heroes (and with apologies for the delay), this post will take you through how I get the latest greatest episodes of my favourite US TV shows long before they are shown in the UK.

This is illegal. I am a bad bad man. Torrents can be used for good and it is only my twisted evil that is using them for nefarious purposes… umm.. that and the people who are recording the shows, and posting them online to be downloaded.

Ohhh and I’m presuming you’ve got an internet connection and a computer, then all you need is one piece of software and access to a specific website.

The software is μTorrent, the website is

First, download μTorrent from the link above and install it. It includes a built-in RSS reader to monitor RSS feeds and, when new items appear, μTorrent will start downloading them. Great eh.

Next, head to, and search for the series you want to keep up-to-date with. You probably only need the show name and series number to start with. Once the search results are displayed, you should see a list of torrents, and at the top of that list is the “Search based RSS feed”.

Copy the link location of the Search based RSS feed (right-click the link) and head to μTorrent. Open the RSS Downloader and, on the Feeds tab, click Add. Paste the RSS feed link location and click OK.

Now you should filter the feeds, moving each show into a dedicated folder.

In the RSS Downloader go to the Favorites tab, and click the Add button (bottom-left). Give the New Filter a name (to match the show name) and with it still selected, enter a Filter (typically the show name) and enter a location where the files will be saved (I keep three different shows in three different folders). You can also select a feed from the drop-down list, but typically the filter should be enough (especially as you can’t easily see what feed it is you are selecting).

Here’s what mine looks like:

That’s it. Each time you start uTorrent, it will check the RSS feeds and, if it finds any new items will start to download them. Simple.


I would suggest you spend sometime getting a good RSS feed. If you just search for “Heroes” you’ll get around 4 or 5 different downloads for each episode. These are usually a different format or by a different person (or group). Alternatively you can filter the results in uTorrent’s RSS Downloader, again this will take a little experimentation but is pretty easy to figure out.

Full details of this can be found in the provided uTorrent RSS tutorial, and if you aren’t sure about torrents at all then check out the uTorrent Guides.

Any questions? (I’ll happily deal with the ethics of doing this separately)

Dilbert does it again (again)

(What are the odds? If he smashes the nail on the head again tomorrow I WON’T post it here, I promise)

I really don’t know how Scott Adams manages to tap into these things, or is the software industry REALLY that similar the world over?

As the discussion of what we call ourselves, how much we should earn, what we do, why and what we need to justify, and why few seem to really GET what we can offer to a company (but that last one is kinda our fault), continues to rage across two mailing lists, this seems timely:

(click for bigger)

Dilbert does it again

I really don’t know how Scott Adams manages to tap into these things, or is the software industry REALLY that similar the world over?

Regardless suffice to say that, in our Extreme Programming (XP) development group (XP is a form of Agile development), todays’ Dilbert raised a bit of a chuckle:

(click for bigger)

Quiet your moaning

I hate people who moan.

Which is odd as I do like a good old-fashioned whine from time to time but that’s more a cathartic reaction to a crap day than a perpetual state of bloody-minded dourness. Some people probably spend large portions of their life wondering why they have few friends and why they never really feel happy. Actually that’s not true, the moaners of our world have a habit so deeply ingrained they are undoubtedly unaware of themselves and the annoyed by-standers who would really like them to just SHUT UP.

Of course when it comes to any form of self-loathing, everything is relative. MY life sucks more than yours, MY day was worse than yours, MY luck is worse than yours… and so on.

It does seem to be on the rise, this insistence that I have to listen to every gripe and groan, no matter whether they are valid or not. So I’m doing what I can to combat it, fighting back in the only way I know how.

I’m being the cheeriest bugger in the office.

Admittedly it seems to be freaking people out a little but hey, whatever works, right?

I wish I could understand the motivation behind the constant moaner, surely no-one is THAT miserable ALL THE TIME? Surely there is something that offers them a glimmer of hope, a hint of happiness… I mean something OTHER than Celebrity X-Jungle Dancing, or whatever it’s called.

Site Notes

Just a couple of things to point out.

RSS Feeds
Adrian pointed out, quite rightly, that I have 4 RSS Feeds when I only really need 3, and even then they aren’t brilliantly titled.

So I’ve sorted that out. If you have any issues you may need to resubscribe. Sorry for the hassle.

Switched out the “smart archives” plugin for “smarter archives” plugin. The archive page is a lot quicker loading now.

Thanks to a heads up from.. eh… someone in my RSS list, I’ve added comment previews. The buttons are a bit wonky right now but I’ll get them sorted soon.

Not sure if anyone else spotted this one but that vertical line between the head and the text, it had a funny background colour for some reason. Thought I’d fixed it a while ago but apparently I hadn’t. Fixed now.

Not bad for 15 mins work eh.

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Just wanted to let you know that I may not have commented in a while but I’m still reading.

Your avid reader,


(no, this post didn’t take long to pull together at all, read on if you want the how to…)
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This is not a video

As I mentioned previously, the opening presentation at TICAD was by Adobe and featured their vision of the future of Technical Communications and information development. Apparently that future includes video.

Video has been available to many for a few years now, yet it is never really the main focus of a documentation team. Tom has questioned this as well:

“For too long I’ve minimized the importance of the audiovisual. Captivate — the industry standard tool for creating screen demos — is actually a relatively simple application. Mastering it and integrating audiovisual into user help will take it to the next level.”

This echoes what Adobe suggest, no big surprise there, but I have to admit that I don’t fully agree.

As a quick learning tool, I’m sure videos (screen demos) are useful, but I wouldn’t really know as I’ve never used one as a primary source for learning about a product and I’m not sure I know anyone who has. Of course that’s not to say they don’t have value and with some research into the intended audience I’m sure it can be proven that they have a valid place in the product documentation set.

However my initial thoughts on the matter are hard to shake.

It may be one of the unwritten rules of documentation, the rules that few people question and may well be inaccurately applied, but I’ve always operated under the assumption that people only use the documentation when they are stuck.

Of course this is a broad sweeping statement but I believe that it is true for the majority of software users. So, if that is the case, what is their mindset when they finally give in (having asked a co-worker and searched Google to no avail) and fire up the online help or open the user guide? Typically they will be annoyed and want an answer or fix pretty damn sharpish.

Why, in that case, would they even consider sitting through a 2 minute video that explains how to use the functionality with which they are currently battling?

To be fair, Tom isn’t suggesting this approach but I think it’s wise to counsel against this trend lest it be used too heavily. A few short demos of how to complete core tasks, accompanied by a comprehensive help system or user guide is the best balance.

My fear is that the “cool” effect will override sensibilities and we’ll be plagued by popup videos and worse in the future.

The written word certainly isn’t the only way to effectively communicate information, and as technology progresses we will all need to carefully match the available delivery mechanisms with the information we need to deliver. The key word here is “carefully”.

I’d love to hear from anyone who is already doing something like this, I’ve not used Captivate, nor offered any form of video as part of a documentation set before as they didn’t match the audience profile but I’d be interested in hearing how successful they were.