Month: February 2008

Intermission

The past week was comprised of several acres of sleeping, a variety of coughs from a phlegm-shifting bark to a wheezy airless hack, the swallowing of many small sharp edged rocks, and the application of an ever-tightening metal band around my head.

In other words, I have man-flu.

More technically, I have a chest infection (confined to my left lung) the result of which means I have 4 weeks worth of antibiotics to take. I’m on the mend.

Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Q10: Text editor with a difference

Recently I’ve been toying with some software tools to try and focus my writing a little better, stumbling across an application called Q10. A full-screen text editor which is, according to the website, “a simple but powerful text editor designed and built with writers in mind.”

Whenever I start a new piece of work I tend to write up notes in text files first, before moving them into FrameMaker for formatting and publishing. This was largely borne from limitations in Structured FrameMaker, and sits well with our usage of an internal Wiki for content collaboration. Q10 helps with this approach by doing one thing very well.

Like most well-designed products, the features are usable out of the box, but there is enough scope for tweaking things to get a system that suits you. The full-screen aspect of Q10 is the most important, blacking out the rest of the screen and leaving you with a blank slate on which to focus your thoughts. There is no menubar, with options only available through keyboard shortcuts, including one to turn off the typewriter noises which I’ve left on as they are somewhat soothing… oddly.

You can set the file encoding, a target number of words (handy if you are writing an article), change the font and colour settings, and it supports quick text allowing you to replace given character combinations with whatever you specify (I use this for product names, although you have to search and replace on the underlying text file if the name changes).

At first I was only really using Q10 for writing blog posts and articles, but I’ve started to extend it into my set of ‘work’ tools and it’s proving very useful. Sure it gets some odd looks as people glance at your screen but I certainly seem to be more capable of focusing on my writing these days.

I’ve tried a few other full-screen text editors (for Mac and Windows) but as the bulk of my writing time is spent on Windows machines, Q10 is proving very useful. Best of all it’s free!

What is art?

During a Saturday afternoon wander in London, joining the throng of tourists meandering along the river, I decided to head to the Tate Modern. It’s been some years since I’d been there (Anish Kappor’s Marsyas was the installation at the time) and my art tastes veer towards that end of the scale so I do enjoy visiting it

The current installation is a large crack in the floor of the old Turbine room, installed by Doris Salcedo, and represents:

Whilst I’m still trying to figure out HOW the crack was made (it’s definitely the original floor, or a very very good copy), what was more interesting to me was how people were reacting to it, and interacting with it. Like myself, most people started at the top end, nearest the entrance, and traced the crack the length of the hall, peering down into the depths, occasionally glancing back. Young children hopped over it, adults stood astride it, intrigued, puzzled and in no small matter fascinated.

Wandering the entire length of the hall only to find that the end of the crack doesn’t reveal anything more, or less, than the beginning, I wondered what had driven me to do that. Surely there must be more, surely it can’t just be a crack in the concrete? I wasn’t alone, with huddles of people at the bottom end of the hall discussing the whys and wherefores.

As ever it was the human interface to the art, seeing the piece through the eyes of others, that was most interesting. To those standing astride the chasm there was almost a sense of dominance, of man over matter. The ability to overpower something that was not fully understood perhaps? Given that the crack, even at it’s deepest point, was no more than 7 or 8 inches deep then surely the subconscious was more at play than any conscious thought?

Moving upstairs to view a few of Munoz’s pieces was a completely different, and personally far more disturbing experience. Two pieces in particular, both of which deliberately feature midgets (his words, not mine) to challenge our preconceptions of sculpture and beauty. The pieces themselves were simple, a young man standing on a table, clutching a chess set, a young woman on tiptoe to view photos of herself spread out on a pool table. The featureless faces adding to the discomfort of viewing. Interesting experience.

Alas, the rest of my wander round the galleries wasn’t as inspiring with the Idea and Object level being particularly hit or miss but I’m glad I went. As far as art goes, like most people, I know what I like but I’m also open to being challenged with what I view.

What is art? The question is the answer to itself if you ask me. If you have to ask, you’ve already been provoked/challenged/intrigued enough to consider the question and that, is art. Although, re-reading that sentence, isn’t it just the kind of self-righteous, head-up-arse response you’d expect from an artist… oh dear.

The tool is not important

The tool is not important. The tool is not important. The tool is not important.

I have been repeating this mantra in my head for the past week or so, over and over, like a broken record. I’m in the middle of pulling together the requirements and scope for a new technical community website for our users, which will become the key focus of our technical information. The more traditional product documentation set will be maintained as we move forward, so there is some thought to be given towards how we manage the information as well as how it is published, or rather where.

I must stop considering the how. The tool is not important.

At present I have a list of requirements, all of which I’m thinking through from the point of view of how the process will work as far as creating and maintaining the information. Who will be access the source, who will be viewing the published information, who can edit what, how will the information be used by the audience? All the while there is a part of my brain dragging me towards HOW this will work. What tool will be able to handle our requirements?

The tool is not important.

I enjoy a challenge, and this is most certainly a new venture for me, but the basic foundations of this idea are rooted in things I know well, single sourcing content, developing online communities (I run a website for Scottish Bloggers (currently dead after our hosting service disappeared)). As such I’m confident I can get this off the ground, but even so I’m being careful to properly gather requirements, and fully understand the impact of changing our publishing model. Note I said “model”.

The tool is not important.

So with a list of requirements, and a full understanding of the processes that will be involved both to maintain the main documentation set and the development of other supporting information (culled from internal Wikis, mailing lists and anywhere else we stumble across something useful) one change is the way in which we plan, design and write product documentation.

As I’ve said, this is all about the processes that support the way we work. I’m being quite deliberate in how I pull together the requirements, focussing discussions on the audience, the expectations, the information and processes, with no mention of the technology which will need to support the new website.

The tool is not important.

Last year’s X-Pubs conference drilled this message home, and it’s good to be able to draw on the information and knowledge gained there. Get your requirements sorted out and agreed, understand the impact of changing the way people access information, and the impact of changing how people work, figure out how best to handle the reaction to change and agree the expectations and limitations of your system. Decide which models you will follow, how the processes will hang together and outline the various roles that will be required, and make sure they understand what is required of them.

Then and only then should you consider what tools you require and make sure they are serving you.

Publishing

Prompted by the You’re Not the Only One… wait, you’ve not heard of it! Well a few bloggers are:

…putting together a book for WARCHILD written by bloggers and here’s where you come in:

We would like you to submit a written piece about something you’ve been through from any aspect of your life that you want to share. It can literally be about anything: your relationships, your past, a road not taken, being a parent, an illness or your regrets etc. We’ve called it “You’re Not The Only One” to reflect the camaraderie of blogging.

[All] Proceeds will go to WARCHILD

If you are interested the full details are on the site, submissions need to be in by the 29th February. I’m sure it’ll be a success, and even if you don’t contribute, or don’t make the final edit, make sure you buy a copy – for charidee!

I’m considering submitting something from this, as I’ve had a few emails over the years thanking me for sharing my experiences here, largely because they had been (or were going through) something similar. One piece leaps out but I’m not sure I want to revisit it…

So I’ve been trawling my archives to see what else is hidden away in there and I have to admit that I’m shocked, and somewhat disappointed in myself. Place is bloody littered with bad grammar, spelling errors and general sloppiness. Now, I’ve always stated that this blog is informal and I certainly don’t apply the same strict rules here as I do in my daily work but still, it’s embarassing.

I really must buck up and start checking my posts before hitting Publish.

Of course, I say that but…

*clicks Publish*

Been and went and done it

I spent the weekend in London and have a posts garnered from a rather wonderful weekend. Here’s the first one:

Friday evening, a pub in London, and a gathering of bloggers. What can I say, a great night in the company of smart, funny people.

I’ve been blogging for a while now, and over that time I’ve retained a central group of blogs that I always visit. They are my daily reads (at least they were, the advent of RSS means they are now the “read as soon as they’ve posted” reads) and their popularity is well deserved.

During the evening, at a point that is slightly hazy (not only are they nice people, they are very generous too, hic!), I suggested that us bloggers should be less self-effacing and be proud of what we do. Sitting around the table were people who have been published, people who write for magazines and newspapers, and all of whom share one thing. Quality.

Then there was little ole me… (yeah, I don’t handle praise all that well…).

Quite seriously I had to pause myself during several points of the evening to take in the slightly surreal gathering. To give a comparison, most people, when asked, could provide a list of people who’d they invite to a dinner party. You know, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Hitler.. that kind of thing.

Well Friday night was my equivalent. Although, with all respect to the people who turned up, not QUITE in the same league. I mean who would bother chatting to Gandhi if mike from Troubled Diva was there?! (for the record, mike couldn’t make it, and truth be told it would be a hard decision to decide between him and Gandhi…).

My “list of bloggers I want to meet” has suddenly shrunk, far further than I thought (I retained a fear of sitting alone in a pub in London, desperately hoping someone, anyone, would turn up, only to be turfed out at the end of the night, alone).

Anyway, I guess I’d better name and shame. To all of you, thank you for taking time to come and meet me (even if not everyone managed to remember which pub it was in, and left a panic-stricken message on my voicemail, no names though…).

A list of attendees then, in no particular order as I after the first few drinks I kinda lost track…

Phew. God, I hope I’ve not forgotten anyone.

I did take some photos as well, but I managed to capture everyone at their worst. So I’ll plead ‘privacy’ on those and they’ll remain hidden anyway (in reality I’m just scared that, if I were to post them, I’d be hunted down and forced to start up a MySpace page!).

Once again, thank you. Thank you thank you thank you. It really was a great evening, and I only wish I’d managed to get more time chatting to each of you. Of course that was just the FIRST time I’ve meet you, here’s to many more.

Spain was Spain

Peggy enquired how we got on in Spain last week and I guess I should mention it.

Thing is it’s not really a holiday as such. It’s more a sojourn, or retreat, or… some other words that has the connotation of going somewhere warm and doing sweet fuck all.

On holiday I like to do things, visit places, learn about the area, sample the cuisine, the nightlife, the culture etc etc. But when we go to Spain we are there to visit my father-in-law and so we fall into his routine. We’ve seen the surrounding area and he’s not big on doing tourist stuff anyway… so our days were pretty straightforward:

  • Wake up around 9am, sometimes later, sometimes earlier.
  • Breakfast, coffee, then up onto the roof terrace for some sun.
  • Midday, lunch. Usually in the flat, sometimes out for tapas.
  • Either back to the roof terrace or out to the local shop for supplies.
  • 4pm, pub for a couple of hours. A couple of beers and a coffee or two (Dos cafe con leche, por favor)
  • Home for dinner.
  • Siesta at 7pm.
  • Back to pub at 8pm
  • Home around midnight for a nightcap and bed.

We did venture up into the mountains one day, and had dinner out a couple of nights but that is largely our schedule for the week.

Peter, my father-in-law, like other ex-pats in the area, tend to develop such a routine. We see the same people come and go in the pub(s, he visits more than one) whilst we are there, and if someone doesn’t appear on time a phone call is made to check up. It’s a very tight knit community out there, and it makes it much easier on Louise to know that her Dad is taken care of… not that he needs it of course, but his little girl does worry about him sometimes.

Louise and I occasionally walk along the beachfront and just to prove that I was in Spain, here I am trying to look nonchalant whilst the locals were walking past wearing jackets, hats and scarves.
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Happy being ordinary

I think it’s safe to say I am a fairly average guy, with an average life. I spend my working week at the grindstone, pottering about in the evening, watching TV occasionally, playing computer games, or mucking about on the computer. Weekends are usually full of family or the usual lot of the average man; B&Q, IKEA, and as much time spent sprawled on the sofa watching footie as I’m permitted. Occasionally we got out for dinner, or visit friends, or attend parties. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary.

It’s safe to say that I am not extraordinary.

And you know what, I’m quite happy with that. I’ve made peace with the fact that, whilst everyone is unique, mostly we’re all similar. We have similar habits, similar patterns to our daily to-ings and fro-ings. Yes, I’m happy being ordinary.

To a point.

Not being extraordinary does mean that you miss out on things. It means realising that others, those that shout louder, will get the attention and all too frequently the glory. I mean they do say “Nice guys finish last”, don’t they.

That makes me sound bitter when I’m exactly the opposite. I’m sweet. I’m sugar. Candyfloss and marshmallow am I.

Because, you know, one of the advantages of being ordinary is that when you do make a little noise, it goes a long long way. The rewards swing round, and you realise what you suspected all along.

Sure, the extraordinary noisemakers get the glory, but us ordinary people, we get respect and kudos. And you know what.

That suits me just fine.

The Big Picture

Deliverables are dead. Long live multi-format, anytime, anywhere delivery of information!

The more I think about it, the more I am beginning to see that creating content, writing and styling and planning, for “print” is no longer valid.

Quick caveat: Know your audience and the requirements. Many places mandate printed documentation in one format or another. I am purely talking about my own experience in a software environment.

I’m the first to admit that whenever I start thinking about updating a manual I think in print terms. I think of entire chapters of information, I think of how the user will be able to navigate and understand the layout and construction of the document. Changing those habits is proving hard but I’m slowly getting there.

Part of that change has come about by focussing on the information types we are going to be using as the building blocks of our single source system. Making each topic unique and complete within itself requires some thought and planning, and with that planning being focused on tasks, you soon get a simple outline of the required documentation including the type of information that you’ll be writing for each chunk.

As that realisation begins to sink in, the possibilities of re-use suddenly make themselves clear. It becomes a simple matter of drag and drop to create an entirely new manual, and a new delivery method becomes a simple matter of publishing to a new format.

The latter fits nicely with some current thoughts around how we get our technical information to our customers. Whilst I don’t think Author-IT would be the best solution, or at least the complete solution, I can see us focussing more on a web-based delivery of information, pulling other available content (from mailing lists and wiki pages) into an MSDN-like community website. Add in a blog and some interaction and it could very well be the shape of things to come.

As I’ve mentioned before, for a lot of people in the software industry, the internet is THE source of information. So rather than try and force how we want the information to be delivered (maintaining legacy documentation) I’m looking at how we can deliver something our customers will use, without succumbing to the Web 2.0 crazies. Yes it could have a blog, but does it need one? Yes we could use Twitter to provide ‘from the floor’ thoughts from the development group but who would sanitise them first!

Wikifying the doc set (to borrow a phrase) is a possibility of course, but that would only be part of this solution, and would have to include the ability to package it up as a different deliverable (PDF for example) so the information can be accessed when the internet isn’t available, a requirement of our documentation.

There are other considerations of course, all of which are still being thought through and will need discussion and buy-in.

Exciting times ahead I think. More on this as it develops.

Ready or not

I have made the lists.

I have checked the lists.

The lists do not lie.

I think I finally have a grip on … dammit … just remembered something else.

OK, let’s start over.

The coming few weeks will be hectic. The arrival and fitting of a new kitchen requires preparation, the erecting of a new fence in the back garden requires a little preparation too, and there is the small matter of an (overdue) website, on top of some new stuff at work which is REALLY exciting and which I’m trying not to let intrude into my ‘downtime’ (I’m failing on that count but I don’t really mind).

So I have a list of things that need to be purchased. A list of things that need to be done, ordered by when they need done by (paint the kitchen ceiling before it’s fitted, for example), and split into things that need done on the computer, and things that don’t. Fairly simple.

This is always the way of things, I no longer get (too) stressed out knowing that, in the end, things will come together and with everything safely stored NOT IN MY HEAD, then I can tackle the tasks as and when needed.

Although I’ve just thought of something else I need to do…

Right, I THINK I’m prepared now. Maybe.

Lemme just check that list one more time…