Month: June 2008

The weekend that was

Friday was damp. Friday was wet. Friday was a pretty fucking good day mainly because a band called Radiohead was playing at Glasgow Green and, whilst it there was a light drizzle for most of the evening I really didn’t care. I was just happy to be there and listen to them blast their way through most of my favourites; 2+2=5, There There, Everything In Its Right Place, Paranoid Android, Just(!), Fake Plastic Trees, Jigsaw Falling Into Place, and more.

As usual there were several knobs who did their best to spoil it but it didn’t work. Why do these people go to gigs? Regardless a good time was had by all, even if by the end of the second encore we were all kind of huddled together and beginning to feel a little sorry for ourselves.

Still, that was only part one of the evening, part two was a joint leaving night for my boss and our receptionist, both of which will be missed. Having joined the throngs of people leaving Glasgow Green, we all managed to cram onto the Underground for a quick spin round to The Loft in the west end of Glasgow. The first beer was a good one, and was soon followed by another and a couple of G&Ts. Then it was onto Boho for a wee boogie and then my lovely wife picked me up at 2.30 in the morning…

… which was mainly because on Saturday we were back out to spend the day socialising with friends and family in a late birthday celebration for Louise. We kicked off at 2pm, cocktails were involved and it was only the addition of a rather nice steak that stopped me being completely dead on Sunday. As it was we got home around 3am, quite glad we had no plans for the next day.

I won’t mention that my mother phoned and woke us up… it was 11am after all.

Sunday was spent dozing and munching, sofa-bound for the day, watching crap movies (hello Enemy Within and Jumper) and enjoying Spain’s win over Germany.

And this morning? This morning I ache, with all that standing around on Friday finally kicking in. I feel like I’ve been set on a rack and stretched by some infernal torture device or something, twisted and contorted in ways for which my body was not built. All that from standing about in the rain.. time marches on, eh…

Recently Read

Almost halfway through the year and I’m still finding new technical communications blogs. If you have recently started blogging about this wonderous profession of ours do let me know. On with the last findings.

Web 2.0 and Truth
Sarah O’Keefe presented at the recent X-Pubs conference on Web 2.0 and Truth. It’s an interesting read, including three quick points which speak volumes as to where the future of our profession may lie.

1. Document publishing needs to accelerate.
2. Online documents should allow for comments and discussion.
3. The documentation needs to be explicit about product limitations and workarounds.

14 Widespread Myths about Technical Writing
An intriguing look at our profession, Tom challenges some of the myths about technical writing and comes up with some great responses. The comments are well worth a look as well. This kind of post always seems to attract attention as, by it’s nature, our profession can be very hard to nail down accurately as there as just too many variables. Tom’s approach is one of the best I’ve seen.

Using Personas to Create User Documentation
The worlds of usability, user interface design, and product documentation often overlap and in this article Steve Calde outlines how technical writers can use Personas (often used during product design) to help write better documentation. It’s basically an advanced take on “known your audience”.

Understanding what is important to your audience can help you create task-oriented scenarios that may include using several functions in a particular sequence.

Closed-Loop Publishing Brings the Wisdom of Crowds to Dynamic Documents
I’m always a little wary of these kind of whitepaper/bluesky articles, particularly because they are often written by some with a vested interest in making the topic sound interesting (they want to sell you something). However if you step past the marketing-ese language used there is some interesting points here, another pointer that Web 2.0 is going to (should already be!) shaking up our industry.

Traditionally, publishing processes have been more like a monologue than a discourse, with no formal means to facilitate this two-way exchange. This is finally beginning to change, and it has profound implications for the publishing model we know today.
The rise of dynamic documents offers an interesting parallel for this transformation. What if documents were the basis for — not just information dissemination — but a fully interactive conversation between the content publisher and the content consumer?

That’s all for now. Hope you find these posts as interesting as I did.

On Writing

One day I’ll figure out how many words I type in an average (week)day. I have absolutely no idea what that total will be but I can already guess that it’ll scare the bejesus outta me. Be they emails, instant messages, text messages, documents, presentations, spreadsheets, blog posts, blog comments, articles or just jotting down items in my to do list, words dominate my day.

I hate them.

Well I don’t hate them, but I certainly abuse them on a regular basis. Mind you, given the amount of abuse the English language gets, and given that a lot of it is brought about by the language itself, with it’s twisting, turning rules and exceptions, part of thinks the words welcome the abuse, I think they kinda like it.The English language is the sadomasochist of the linguistic world.

Of course my job makes it difficult to avoid words so between us we’ve developed a love/hate relationship. I try and use them properly, they promise not to bite me in the ass too often (although between you and me, I’m not sure it’s a very even agreement, I’m SURE the words could try a little harder to be nice).

I don’t hate words.

Truth be told I do still enjoy the thrill of certain combinations of words, the gentle flow and rhythm, the beauty of juxtaposition and the jar of the unexpected. I’ve experimented a little with such things on this very blog, the occasion attempt at something “more”, but I struggle to find my own flow and rhythm, the words jar awkwardly on the screen and every line, every construct, takes it’s toll.

I don’t consider myself a writer here, more a casual scribbler, yet with each passing word the grandiose and ridiculous thought grows in my head, maybe I could?

Interestingly Mundane

Blimey, yer a strange bunch.

In fact I’m also a little insulted. I spend hours crafting blog posts, considering the weighty issues of the day, or trying to capture the elusive quality of a moment, carefully choosing my words to be thought-provokingly poetic.

Despite all that, what are the topics that really get you going? Whether tea is rubbish and how to hang up washing to dry! I’ve not had this many comments since we discussed toenails a few years back (July 2004? blimey), well apart from that one time I ASKED for comments.

The lesson here is that the mundane artefacts of modern life are something we all feel passionately about, and such things as which beverage you drink take on whole new realms of importance. We revel in the detail and, as such things are commonplace, everyone is an expert.

I’ve heard this kind of thing, in professional terms, described as the curse of knowledge. It’s an interesting turn of phrase and seems appropriate here. We all know what we know about how we, to continue the example, make a cup of tea. We may acknowledge that other methods produce similar results but deep down we know that the way WE make tea is the BEST way. With that basic understanding in place it becomes very difficult to see things from any other point of view (professionally this is why people get annoyed when you don’t know what they know, because they no longer remember having had to learn it).

But enough of that. This fascination with the every day items and tasks of modern life continues to be a good touching point, something we all do and know, so I guess it’s no wonder that discussions about how to hang up washing to dry are so… entertaining? I was going to say interesting but they aren’t really, are they, as anyone who has read the comments on the previous post going to suddenly try a new way to hang their clothes up to dry? No, I didn’t think so…

We do love a bit of introspection don’t we. And by we I mean all of us, the people of planet earth. Some enjoy it more than others, I agree, but everyone is fascinated by themselves on some level.

Even if that level is, quite literally, navel gazing.

Anyway, it’s this kind of thing that gives blogging a bad name so I think it’s time to buck up the ideas!

Well, maybe … you see … the thing is … I do have one more question …

If you are making a peanut butter and jam sandwich (PBJ to my American readers) do you also use butter (as in, Lurpak)?

Feeling Brave

OK OK, I’ll bite.

Gentlemen of the audience. How do you hang clothes up to dry?

Presuming you aren’t just leaving them in a sodden clump, and that you hang them over a line or a clothes horse… can there really be a WRONG way to hang clothes up to dry?

The way I hang ’em up doesn’t stop them from drying, so how can there be a wrong way?? Honestly, you wummin don’t half make things complicated sometimes…

Pure distilled poison

Calamity!!

Dearest blog reader your intrepid blog writer almost did himself in this morning, so forgive me if I seem a little shaken, if not stirred.

My morning ritual at work is well entrenched and includes a cup of coffee. I’m still not sure if I’m as addicted to caffeine as I make out but I do know a nice hot cup of coffee seems to settle my brain for another day at the coalface. It’s gotten to the point where I’m almost on auto-pilot until that first glorious mouthful of not quite scalding but hot-enough-to-feel-as-it-goes-down coffee hits the mark.

This morning was no different, I popped some coins in the meter, turned on the PC, fired up Outlook to let it start downloading the usual 200-odd emails of nonsense that people keep sending me, and headed to the kitchen area.

I retrieve my mug (the superman one), fill the kettle and set it to boil, make some tea, take my mug back to my desk, open up the first of many emails and take big long sup of… ACK!! WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS VILENESS THAT HAS ENTERED MY MOUTH!!!! THE DEVIL IS AT HAND, FLEE, FLEEEEE!!!!

Eagle-eyed readers will note that for no good reason, and I really mean for no reason of any merit that has ever been found on this entire planet, nay for any reason AT ALL in the ENTIRE COSMOS EVER!, I managed to not notice that I’d made myself a cup of tea.

Now I’m quite adept at making cups of tea, as my good wife will attest, but frankly I’d rather snort lumpy mud than drink the stuff.

Suffice to say that my entire morning routine was shaken to the foundations and it’s just as well the cleaners came along as I was THIS close to throwing a tantrum at myself before leaping off the roof in disgust.

Instead I went and made myself a cup of coffee. However I remain troubled, tea has no place in my mouth and, if I’m honest, I barely tolerate having any in the house at all.

What the hell is the appeal anyway?

I’m not taking anything posh here, no Lapdance Souffle or Earl Grit or anything, and certainly none of those would-be tea pretenders that are mango and guava flavoured, or lime and essence of coconut (sounds more like a bloody cocktail if you ask me), and certainly not anything advertised by Mr. Stephen of Fry. No, I’m talking Tetley teabag tea, or that one made by PG Woodhouse, you know, the one the monkeys like, the cheap stuff that is guzzled by the bajillion gallonfuls every day.

It’s the weirdest beverage, caught between wanting to be grown up (i.e. actually have a distinct flavour… like, say, snot) and trying to be palatable for all tastes and ending up timid and slightly sweet. It truly is the kiddy schizophrenics beverage of choice.

Hey, if you disagree with me, ask yourself this; Do you know someone who drinks “baby tea”? I bet you do.

And have you ever heard anyone ask for “baby coffee”? No, I thought not.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an open-minded individual and I’m entirely willing to be convinced that, in actual fact, tea is something consumed by sensible adults. Goodness knows that there is plenty of evidence surrounding this argument but despite that I remain unconvinced.

Sometimes, in my darkest moments I wonder if it’s some weird kind of conspiracy, or worse, a fraternity/sorority of tea drinkers, a secret cabal of which I’m no part. In fact, now that I come to think of it that is the only valid excuse for so many intelligent people, people I trust and respect, to drink tea.

So, go one then, what’s the secret handshake?

Your publishing model is broken

When do you publish (release) documentation? Inline with the latest version of your product I’d expect as that’s the traditional model and, and believe me I hate to be the one to break this to you, that’s no longer acceptable.

Please don’t shoot the messenger, it’s not my fault, if you are going to blame anyone, blame Google. Or perhaps Tim Berners-Lee.

Now, to say that the traditional “publish alongwith product versions” model is broken is a bit of a sweeping statement and of course it still has a place, will be and should be followed but have you ever taken a close look at the information you provide? Is it ALL based only on new features?

Maybe it’s just me (hey, it frequently is) but a lot of the information produced is sensitive to version not time, and as such can be published as and when it becomes available providing it has appropriate meta tags. Why do we wait until a product release is due to publish non-version specific information?

Of course there are a multitude of reasons why this may not be valid for you, but having looked long and hard at the information my team produce, I’m increasingly finding that a lot of it can be published instantly and, given that most computer/internet literate people are used to demanding information immediately (thanks Google!) then this at least goes partway to meeting that need. We are lucky in that we have control over where and how our information is published, and we’re slowly moving away from a document and release centric system to a more dynamic and immediate method.

After all, if our customers want information, and our job is to provide them with information, why are we waiting?

Sudden need for habit

Everything happens at once. It’s always the way of these things, the calendar remains empty until, all of a sudden you realise you have a concert and a leaving do to attend one evening, and a day/evening session in the pub the next day.

Such is the case this coming Friday, Radiohead gig at Glasgow Green on Friday evening the same night my boss is having his leaving do (he’s sharing it with another member of staff who is leaving, double trouble!). I’m really looking forward to both, and only hope that I’m not so completely soaked that they don’t let me into the pub later on…

It’s also approaching the end of our release cycle at work, so things are starting to ramp up there. I’m launching a new website as well as writing up some of the new featuress in the product.

And as usual – why does my brain do this? why does it wait until I’m stupidly busy – I’ve also started looking at resurrecting Scottish Blogs. Hopefully I can build it using something that requires a lot less effort and administration that the previous, hand-coded, version required as I just don’t have the bandwidth at the moment.

One thing I’ve been struggling to do is get into a writing habit. I’ve never really had one for this website, but as I now have two blogs, and I contribute to the ISTC newsletter every month (and occasionally to the quarterly magazine), it’s something I really should try and foster. Perhaps moving the Playstation upstairs to where the computer is (running it through the monitor) was a bad idea after all..

Still, it’s not all bad. I’ve started doing a little exercise fairly regularly (physio stuff as well as a some work on flexibility and core strength) and I’ve managed to rediscover my reading mojo a little, so if nothing else I’m starting to find a balance. Of course all of the above is currently impacted by a certain football tournament but that’ll be over soon.

Sign reads: Occupied

Gosh the football is good, isn’t it. Way better than a World Cup, not as long winded as an entire season and, a few games aside (I’m looking at you France), bloody top quality entertainment.

Apparently there are other things that can be watched on TV at the moment but, seriously, why would you? In saying that there is still plenty of other things currently vying for my attentions.

Friday night we are out for a quiet dinner to lightly celebrate Louise’s birthday.

Saturday morning we’ve both got appointments to see the dental hygienist (the price of paying for your dental care) and then we are off to visit Peggy. Except we aren’t REALLY visiting Peggy, we are all about the ickle fwuffy ducklings!!

Sunday is Louise’s birthday proper and no doubt some people will be popping in to tell her how old she now is and that it’s “all downhill from here”.

Zip through the next week (although there are a few changes happening at work just now, plenty of gossip and rumour, which is always fun) and on Friday I’ll be one of many thousands standing about at Glasgow Green in glorious sunshine listening to the best band in the world (well, they will be that day), and after the Radiohead gig, if I can still walk, I’ll catch up with some people from work to say goodbye to two work colleagues that are leaving.

There are a couple of things occupying my mind at the moment though, namely the fact that our Sky+ box failed to record a few things last week. And by a few games I mean the 4-1 game between Holland and France! It should be fixed now (turn it off and turn it on again) but I swear to god if I miss any more football I’ll… I’LL… well I’ll probably just phone up and order a new Sky HD box.

Promoting DITA without promoting DITA

Recently Scott Abel posted a heartfelt plea to get people all psyched up about how to better promote DITA to the rest of the world. He backs the idea of the DITA Adoption Technical Committee, stating that:

“we need excellent communicators with the gumption, know-how, and network to get the word out about the many ways DITA impacts the world and those who live in it.”

I’m a fan of DITA and as I read his post I could feel myself getting quite excited, he makes some excellent points about finding real world examples of the benefit DITA can bring but something just doesn’t quite fit. It’s taken me a while to get my head around this but, isn’t a standard supposed to be a technical implementation detail, not the main focus of life changing events? Ahhh but wait, Scott agrees:

“DITA cannot be the focus of DITA adoption and publicity efforts.”

OK, so we can’t focus on DITA itself and, as Scott rightly points out, the software vendors will soon turn discussions away from DITA and towards their own feature set, so we can’t look there for an example either. In fact it’s not until the latter half of the post that Scott really hits on what he would like us to do, and in my opinion the following sentence is the key to his entire argument:

“Let’s strip away all the noise that prevents normal humans from understanding what we technology addicts find so wonderful about DITA, XML, content reuse, content management, dynamic content, personalization, and so on. … The focus has to be on the human impact. How does DITA help make the world a better place? How does it make it possible for humans to interact with one another? How will it help everyday humans in their everyday lives? How can it help governments better serve their citizens?”

Big questions.

Whilst Scott is aiming at a top-down view of the world, there are lessons there for those of us who are trying to push these things upwards. Selling DITA as the fundamental part of a single source solution now seems a little odd, particularly when most business cases are focussed on ROI and the whys and wherefores surrounding the choice of tooling, so if you can detach the tool from the business case, and focus thinking on the benefits of DITA (rendering the tooling generic rather than specialised) you can start to really crack the story behind how adopting DITA as a content standard will benefit the customers of your company, THEN you have a much more powerful argument.

So, if anyone has any answers to those big questions, do let me know…