Month: November 2008

Because they must

A couple wander through quiet streets and in the darkened night of early winter a storm creeps in overhead. The wind dashes leaves and litter against buildings, rattles them off glass, heralding the change. Swirling eddies race each other across puddles and fingers of icy cold wriggle through gaps in clothing.

They pull their jackets tighter, clinging to each other in warm embrace. They should be inside, they know, but on they walk. Braver now than before, happier and content with each other, relishing raw emotions that still sting as pellets of rain splatter their faces. They knew this was coming, they knew the forecast, but still found themselves eager to be outside. Neither fully understand why but press on if only to remain on the journey.

For the briefest of moments the wind changes direction but soon returns, probing down necklines and through buttoned down coats. It is a strange night to be out in the cold, in the wind and rain that seems determined to invade their every moment but, for now, they don’t care. It is a simple journey, complex by turn, easy to see but hard to navigate, so on they walk, avoiding puddles as best they can and all the while holding each other tight, fearful a gust of wind will snatch the other up into the night, into the dark and beyond.

They utter no sound, offer no competition to the howling of the wind or the constant snare of rain. They are mute with no need to repeat words once spoken, preferring to remember in the hope that memory will lead the way. On they walk.

The rain is heavy now. He pulls his collar tight as she turns and leans into him, closer still, stepping before him, taking her turn to lead the way.

A sudden flash blinds them as a car races past, slick tyres slice through puddles to offer a glance at the road beneath the water, but the tide turns quickly and soon the surface is scarred by jagged lashes.

They wander through the roaring streets, through the explosions in the air that scatters rain and leaves all around them. They should be inside, they know.

But they’d rather be here.

Red Bull

Is Red Bull the Marmite of my generation?

Although strictly speaking, Marmite is the Marmite of our generation but bear with me here…

Red Bull, that sickly sweet, caffeinated drink, the one that gives you WINNGGSSS, seems to be increasingly popular. Particularly when mixed with vodka. Standing at the bar the other night instead of vodka and coke, the tipple of choice for the 30-somethings of the evening appeared to be, almost exclusively vodka and red bull.

As an aside, why is the alcoholic part of a mixed drink always first? You don’t order a Tonic and Gin, do you? Hmmmm.

Where was I? Ohh yes, Red Bull.

Six cans of Red Bull (no vodka) got me through an overnight drive to Torquay a few years ago, and more recently several glasses of Red Bull (with vodka) got me through a night out into the wee small hours of dawn and whilst I’m not sure that it helps, or whether it’s more my ability to handle vodka instead of my usual post-beer tipple (Southern Comfort), I certainly wasn’t suffering as much as I thought I would be (and that includes several tequilas).

That said, it does seem to be a love/hate kinda thing.

So, if Red Bull gives you wings, where would you fly to?

Teaching Demos

Taking a break from the Author-it, I’ve been playing with WINK, an open source tutorial and presentation authoring software. It’s quite nice but unfortunately I’ve been having issues getting the recorded presentations rendered into Flash.

So I’ve started to look about for other options, but there are so many options out there that I’m a little befuddled and overwhelmed.

We want to record some presentations that show off the new features in our product. A few of our developers have given a few of these to internal staff, but I want to get them recorded and viewable online in our development community website. Getting the recording software to do what we want is proving the biggest obstacle though, so it’s over to you guys and gals!

Do you record any presentations? If so what software do you use to record them, and how do you make them available online? Ideally we’d like flash as an output format but as long as it’s viewable we aren’t that fussy.

Any suggestions?

I AM A WINNER!

In January 2007 a website I designed was launched. The mission of the website was to highlight great writing on personal blogs; to draw attention to blogs that you might not have heard of before; and to point you to one absolute guaranteed humdinger of a blog post, once a week, every week.

One year and several months later, I’ve been honoured to be the Post of the Week. I’m hugely flattered given the quality of the other nominations, although there is part of me that wonders what took so long!

I highly recommend you head over to the Post of the Week website to check out the other nominations from last week and all of the previous winners, the quality of writing continues to amaze and I’m humbled to included.

Dear President Obama



Dear President Obama, originally uploaded by Gordon.

There is a Flickr group where you can post a message to President (elect) Obama.

But what to say?

I’m not sure what kind of job he will do as President, he’s inheriting one helluva mess, but that’s almost secondary to the fact that he was elected in the first place. One thing at a time and all that.

With that in mind, there really was only one message to send with the hope that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”.

Sigur Ros

Just home from the Sigur Ros gig at the Carling Academy. Not quite sure what to make of it to be honest but let’s get one thing out of the road first.

I left early.

I have never, ever, ever, left a gig early before.

So I’m trying to figure out if that means that it wasn’t a great gig, or whether it just wasn’t the right gig for me.

When I bought the ticket for the gig I spent sometime listening back through the Sigur Ros albums I have, enjoying the subtle tones and instrumentation, the changes of volume and pace, and realised that this could be a very special gig. The emotional range of the music is quite broad and due to the nature of the language used is entirely open to interpretation so whilst I couldn’t quite picture how they’d convey the rich textures and tones of their music, it’s fair to say I was quite excited.

However, somewhere in the maelstro of sound that was swirling round the Carling Academy tonight, something got lost and, as yet another barrage of noise hit me I decided to leave.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a bad gig, far from it. When they got it right the music soared and swayed the hearts of the room, but if I’m honest those moments were too frequently lost amongst the next wave of distorted feedback. It’s a shame really, cos this should’ve been a wonderful gig.

I’m not discounting the fact that it might’ve been me, that perhaps I wasn’t in the right mood, or perhaps I’m not as big a fan of Sigur Ros as I thought. Certainly everyone else seemed to be having a good time.

Maybe next time.

Work that needs done

Turning the TV off I pause, considering the work that lies before me. I decide to have a coffee to get me started but, as I stand and start to walk to the kitchen, I realise that the clothes that were hung up a couple of nights ago will now be dry. I take my time folding them, sorting them into neat piles before taking them upstairs, ready to be put away.

I wander into the spare room and turn on the computer, watching the lights, listening to the whirrs and clicks as it readies itself for the day.

Bugger, I think, coffee.

Back downstairs and I fill the kettle and set it on to boil. That done I stand next to it with my hands flat on the work surface, staring through the rising cloud of steam. Out through the window I can see autumn leaves swirling and bumping their way to the ground, coaxed from branches by a lazy breeze. Thoughts of work nudge at the fringes of my mind but I ignore them.

The kettle announces itself with a loud click. I slowly fill my mug, stirring away the granules until there are none left. A dash of milk, a final stir and it’s ready. I lift the mug and slowly make my way upstairs, up towards the faint glow of the monitor, the heavy draw of work that needs done.

I set my mug down carefully and take a moment to shuffle some paperwork into a pile, making room for the work that needs done. That done I swivel in my chair and cast my eye round the room, a chair piled with clothes to my right, next to it an overflowing bin. A spark of electricity zips through my brain at this point and I turn the other way to the bookcase where my eyes quickly locate the roll of binbags I left there the last time I tidied up.

Getting up I rip a bag from the roll and empty the bin into it before wandering to the bathroom to empty the bin there, and again in the spare room. I leave the bin bag at the top of the stairs to remind myself to take it down later and return to the work that needs done.

A few streets away I can hear the buzz of power tools so I launch iTunes, sleepily watching the status bar complete it’s journey. I scroll randomly through the library, thinking that I really should clear some of it out, before alighting on a track I like. I reach over and turn the speakers up as the opening drum riff of Superstition ripples through the room.

To make sure I’m not interrupted I check my emails, check Twitter and have a quick look through some RSS feeds. I realise at this point I’ve not read any news today and load the BBC News website into my browser, spending further idle minutes reading about things that hold little interest. Out of the corner of my eye a printed document lies on the desk, work that needs done.

A noise from downstairs tells me the cat has returned home and soon he is at my feet, miaowing for attention whilst he rubs back and forth. I reach down and start scratching under his collar and with a loud purr he leans into my hand, eyes closed. After some time he wanders off, eager to find a good place to sleep.

I sit up straight in my chair and turn to face the monitor. I look down at the desk. On it is an empty mug and a printed document. There is work that needs done.

Another noise from downstairs as the postman delivers the latest bill. Without a second though I get up and wander downstairs to check.

On my desk sits a document. Work that needs done.

How do we structure our topics?

I’ve waffled on about single source and our plans for long enough so, as we are finally starting the process itself, I thought I’d capture some information as we go along. However, it’s probably good to set the scene, so I’ll cover that stuff first. Over time you’ll be able to see all the posts related to this work here.

Where should it live?

Next up in our journey towards Author-it nirvana is to decide how to store our content. Author-it stores information as topics, and as topics are designed to be reused, locating them is a key part of the Author-it solution.

One approach would be to simply dump a lot of the topics in loosely appropriate folders and let the built-in search help us find the topics we need. That way the topic names can be a little ambiguous as the content of the topic is what matters.

However that feels a little like flying by the seat of our pants so I’m keen to try and figure out the best way to store the content within Author-it not only to make it easier for the technical writers, but to future proof us as much as possible.

The Author-it Knowledge Center (sic) is chock full of useful information and includes a topic on folder structure which rightly states that:

You need to choose the approach that best suits your requirements. You can have as many folders as you need (but remember that too many, may get confusing…) and as many levels as are required. Also consider the reusability of your content. By burying objects in a myriad of sub folders, others may not know that these objects exist and end up creating multiple copies of the same information – meaning the information is duplicated in more than one place.

Another useful thing to know when creating folders is that when folders are created, they inherit the security of its parent. Therefore, when you design your initial folder structure, it is worthwhile creating some folders at the very top level to set security, and then creating any sub folders within these.

One thing my team and I are hoping to adopt is a DITA based structure. Whilst built in DITA support is not yet part of Author-it (but it’s coming) we do like the way DITA approaches topic-based writing and can easily map most of our content to the default topic types with which DITA is concerned. This also gives us an exit route out of Author-it should we ever decide to change our tooling in the coming years.

However, simply storing all of our content in 3 or 4 folders (1 per topic type) would still leave us with a huge number of topics per folder, so obviously we need some other way of structuring the content logically. And, in a nice twist, we are also going to be restructuring how we offer the published content in the future so we can’t base the folder structure on our current documentation set. That makes sense moving forward as well as we may well start offer different groupings of information anyway and I’d rather not perpetuate our current document-centric view.

So, what have we decided?

After some thought we realised that the only way to structure the content in Author-it to make it easy to locate is to focus on user role. We discounted using product terms here as some of the information we will be writing in the future doesn’t easily fall into a specific area of the product so we’d end up with a generic “Other Stuff” area which suggests that that was the wrong approach.

Essentially we have three user types for our product set; Developer, Administrator and End User. Under those folders we then break down the information accordingly into areas of product information (for example “Installation”). We tried to steer away, again, from using product specific areas but as the large part of our product is a development kit we realised that it made sense to base that information on the “tools” within the development kit, rather than trying to conceptualise the information any further.

Beneath those folders we then break out into, loosely, DITA-focused folders of Concepts, Procedures, and References, with an additional folder to hold Graphics (screenshots, diagrams and so on). DITA suggests Tasks, not Procedures but we consider a task to be at a higher-level, with one task containing one or more procedures.

So we have a basic folder structure in Author-it that looks a little like this:

    Administrator [User Role]
    	Installation [Information Area]
    		Concepts [Topic Type]
    		Graphics
    		Procedures [Topic Type]
    		Reference [Topic Type]
    

We think this will work for us, and we’ll be testing it with a sample chapter or two very soon. We definitely need to get this right now before we start converting our content over but the thoughts and details of that exercise are for another post.

There's nothing like a good book

We are off to Spain next week so there are some vital things to sort out. Namely what music to put on my iPhone (I’ve got Series 1 of The Wire on there already), and most importantly what books to take!

I’ve got a Jeffrey Deaver and an Ian Rankin on standby and have just ordered Casino Royale and Live and Let Die so that should get me through the week, in between trips to the pub and general lounging around of course.

I don’t really make time to read all that much these days, in fact I struggle to get through the two monthly magazine subscriptions I receive (Esquire and Runners World if you must know). Aside from that mostly everything I read is for work related purposes and even then I’ve got a backlog, it’s just never that high up my priority list to be honest. I’ve tried to ‘hack’ my habits to get back to reading more often but nothing has worked, my attention and thoughts continue to lie elsewhere and, if I’m honest I’m fairly happy with that at the moment. We’ll see if that changes any time soon but my take is that, if I was REALLY that bothered I’d have done something about it.

Obviously I’m not.

That said there is a part of me that is looking forward to getting away, purely to be able to completely zone out in a good book, or at the very least a trashy thriller. There is nothing quite like losing all sense of time whilst you frantically flip pages, desperate to get to the next part of the story, and the quiet sense of despair you feel when you reach the end and, just like that, it’s over. You don’t get that with every book, some just fizzle out and leave you somewhat deflated but others take you on such a journey that the temptation to re-read them immediately is almost overwhelming.

Go on then, what are you reading right now? (aside from this blog, obviously!).