Month: April 2009

PrtScr

Technical documentation, typically, requires screenshots and I, like many, have been through the gamut of software applications that can be used. Currently I’m quite happy with Gadwin Printscreen, but recently stumbled across something a bit different.

Whilst I don’t use it at work, I have a MacBook at home and I use an application called Skitch on there to do random screengrabs and so on. It is a simple, friendly little application that is aimed at the casual user. It’s very easy to grab a screenshot, markup an area and save both image and markup to JPEG.

PrtScr is a similar kind of application for Windows, allowing a free drag and grab style screenshot capability, and the option to add simple, hand drawn markup. It’s very simplistic and whilst I seriously doubt it would find a place on the desktop of most technical communicators, it’s a nice little option if you are looking at doing something a little less formal.

I have a revelation!

Apparently, and this MAY come as a shock to some of you… in fact, before I continue perhaps some of you should make sure you are sitting down, even if you already are. So, please could you (yes, you) double check that you can feel your body weight being supported by your arse on something (hopefully) cushioned.

I mean that the seat is cushioned, of course, not that I think you have a fat arse..

In fact perhaps some of you should prepare yourselves by making sure you have a stiff drink ready, purely for medicinal purposes of course.

OK.

All set?

Right.

The revelation is….

Actually perhaps I should mention that this is not a Revelation with a capital R, this is no biblical tale of the coming of the New Earth and whatnot (and apologies to those of faith, my knowledge of the Book is lacking). It is, however, a revelation of the more everyday sort, so perhaps all this hyperbole is overplaying things a little.

But then, I tend to do that, don’t I. Waffle, some would say.

Yes please, with maple syrup…

Ahhh, but I jest, and even I have to admit that it now feels like I’m just stringing you along further in the vain hope that someone, ANYONE, is still reading (hellooooooo ?), rather than reveal what is likely to be recognised as less a revelation and more a rather obvious fact that everyone already knows.

Guess I should get on with it then.

So.

Did you know that you can turn computers off?

*click*

Evil Pharma

Like a lot of people, myself included, Louise is almost always on a diet. Last night, whilst I was watching the football, she was on the laptop surfing her way around some diet websites and blogs and stumbled across one called Sandras Diet Secret.

The site was written by a local lady, from our home town, and her most recent blog post was about a drug that she had found that was really working well for her. So far, so what, right?

Well apart from the small fact that the pictures that “Sandra” was using, showing herself before and after her amazing weightloss – all thanks to a wonder drug, don’t forget! – weren’t of “Sandra” at all, but of the lovely Shauna Reid. The same Shauna who came along to one of the first Scottish blogmeets I organised, the same Shauna whose blog I’ve read before she even ventured to these shores, the very same Shauna who makes dieting both funny and uplifting in her book The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl, a book I bought for Louise, which includes photos of Shauna, before and after her REAL amazing weightloss!

After some investigation it turns out the entire blog is fake, in fact it isn’t a blog at all, it’s a single page with faked comments, which inserts a ‘recent’ date at the top of the page and uses a script to match the IP of the visitor (you) to make it look like it’s being written by someone in the same local area. The drug is called ThermothinPlus, and all the links on the website point there.

This is the first time I’ve had firsthand experience of something most of you, my dear readers, already know. That you cannot simply con your way to having a good “online presence”, that blogs take work and effort, care and attention, and that, ultimately if you cock something up or try to con us we WILL find you out.

Similarly to the recent #amazonfail shit storm (and yes I did try and start a little hashtag storm) it highlights the new world that we live in. One where there are still mistakes made.

The optimist in me hopes that people are still learning how to operate in this new world, and that’s on both sides of the fence. I hope that when contacted directly, the people who make the drug which has the fake blog promoting it, one which deliberately tries to trick people, will realise some of the errors of their ways.

There are many examples of this happening, it does happen.

The pessimist in me sees something shiny and bright being dulled and spoiled by, what is largely, the few. The large corporation will do what many large corporations do, even if they don’t consider themselves “evil” they will still talk their way around such things, or point the blame inwards at a faceless department that will look into the matter.

There are many examples of this happening as well, it does happen.

The difference, today in this new world, is that these things happen a helluva lot faster than they used to, the likelihood of getting caught out is exponentially higher and once that happens, word travels fast.

Obviously I’ve not linked to the fake blog, nor the drug website itself here. I don’t want to send them any traffic at all (go on, humour me in my one man boycott (ohhhh new domain!?)) but for the rabidly curious amongst you: sandrasdietsecret dot com and sandrasdietsuccess dot com.

The drug in question is called ThermothinPlus, and they do have a very smart marketing campaign full of “doctor reviews” and even, allegedly, mentions on CNN and the BBC (no links to said programmes though). The whole thing smarts, in my opinion, of a very slick scam based around a gullible and desperate target audience, making it very very sleazy. But, that’s just my opinion, I’m sure you can all make your own, and I’m sure you ALL know better than to buy drugs from the internet without really knowing what is in them (aka, never trust what you read on one website).

Related links:

Finding the balance

No big revelation but life is all about balance and, currently, mine is a bit skewed. This is completely my own fault, having broken one of my own rules, one which I’ve written down and published.

I only work on one site at a time

And I’m not, I’m working on two, not to mention now having three blogs, and a monthly newsletter article to write.

Somehow, in the midst of all that, I’ve got to find some time to get to the gym. Yes, I’ve decided to try the gym, again. But having failed to find the time to read more books, how on earth am I gonna find the time to get to the gym.

I mean apart from all the time I spend playing games on the PlayStation, or generally noodling about online reading articles and blogs, or … sleeping … working … eating??

Part of me lives by the premise that is something is important enough I’ll get off my ass to do something about it. Part of me likes the comfort of what I know, and another part of me is constantly disappointed in myself as I do always want to better myself, and do the right thing and yet even writing this stuff done has me shaking my head at the angsty, whiny teenager that has appeared.

Honestly, you’d think that, at 35 years old, I’d have this shit figured out by now. Apparently not.

Elements of Style

To my American colleagues, who recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of their much used Strunk & White style guide, may I gently prod you in the direction of this article by Geoffrey Pullum of the Language Log.

I’ve seen Professor Pullum speak, hilariously, about english grammar and whilst I’m certain that he could find many issues with the content I publish here, I’m certain he would never be nasty or vindictive in his comments. However, in this post, in which he responds to some of the people who have commented about his article, he proves that he has the wit and style to handle such things. Both are well worth a read, even if you don’t agree with his point of view.

Fitness Fail

So, as I slowly start to get this year back on track, I need to consider getting some level of fitness back.

Alas my knee injury will require a few more months rehabiliation, so I need to find a low-impact way to exercise. In other words, swimming, cycling or… yeah, something else.

Living at the top of a hill makes cycling a bit tricky, and we did have bikes for a while but sold them on as we hardly got the use of them. But it’s a consideration.

Swimming is another option but I’m not that great a swimmer, I can only really do the front crawl and only at the one pace which, usually, means that after 5 or 6 lengths (ok ok, 2 or 3) I’m puffing hard and already looking at the clock. I can’t really pace myself to sustain it.

In the gym there is, of course, a lot of non-impact equipment and so I guess it’s time to head down to the local sweatshop and see what’s what.

Now I just need to find the motivation.

Long Weekend

A long weekend then, although as yesterday was spent doing pretty much everything we need to get done I’m wondering what the next couple of days will bring..

Spent a few hours in Stirling, including a wander up to the castle, then visited my parents for dinner and then on to a few drinks in the evening to celebrate my brother-in-laws birthday.

And today I was in the garden, tidying up and mainly just lifting the remnants of the winter. Add in a run to the skip and it’s now possible to walk from one end of the garage to the other. Just. It’s a start though.

Aside from that, my only other plans are to finish one website, and sign off on the design of another so I can start building it. Hopefully, with a couple of clear days, I can get all that done, and who knows what else!

Alas there does appear to be one thing missing at the moment. We are without Easter Eggs!! Although as I’m supposed to be trying to lose weight then I guess that is a good thing… right?

I am the chairman

Everyday I am someone new. Today I am bored. The mundane day to day churn has nothing to alleviate it but it keeps me busy, and we are told that being busy is good so, by definition, today must be good.

But it isn’t. It’s boring and, more than that, it is slow. I look up from my screen and the view is flat and uninspiring. My email lies silent, and the task that stretches before me aren’t exactly engaging (tidying up the layout and styling of lots and lots, like tens of thousands, of paragraphs of text).

I’m bored. Listless. Lacking. Missing. Absent.

But let’s be honest, being bored isn’t really something to complain about, is it?

I have a job, that pays for a house and food and clothes. I’m reasonably well educated and live a comfortable existence. My lot is not a bad one, it is, to all extents and purposes, a good one. I have nothing to complain about, yeah I’ve had a shitty month but that’s past and the future holds much promise.

It’s probably just because I’m tired, staying up too late last night, candle burning, then up early to light a match to the other end of said candle. I know my sleep patterns have an effect on my mood, and too many late nights make Jack a dull boy.

Which prompts the question, who the hell is Jack? The only one I know isn’t even real (but he IS kick ass and never ever needs to pee).

It also prompts other questions, perhaps I need a good blowout. A night on the tiles might just be the answer. Yes, I need to get my thinking cap on and get something organised. Get plans in place and execute! Yes! Be a go-getter, be proactive and positive and make it happen!

But.

You know.

Until then.

BORED!

Embracing Social Media

It’s safe to say that I’m fully hooked into the Web 2.0 world. I manage my email, calendar and task list online, as well as write and share the occasional document. I blog (in three places), I twitter, and I follow a wide swathe of information via RSS feeds. If the internet disappeared overnight I’d be lost, for any time I think ‘information’ I think internet, I don’t think book, or library, or even online help. I think internet.

This is even more prevalent when I’m looking for a solution, an answer to my current burning issue. At that point I’m looking for information from my peers, from other users or anyone else who has had, and solved, a similar problem, and nine times out of ten I’ll turn to the internet to search for that information.

Whilst such answers can be hard to track down, it feels productive to be searching for the specific answer to my specific issue, even if that takes some time and effort on my part. Once I’ve found an answer I’ll usually do a little bit of double checking – perhaps others have added a comment to say that it worked for them – and then I’m happy to accept that it is correct, knowing that if it’s not I can always head back to Google and start again. Caveats apply here, of course, depending on the severity of the issue I’m dealing with.

My point is that I freely trust the information I find based on some cursory checks, I am fully hooked into the Web 2.0 world and believe in the wisdom of the crowd (thankfully I have evidence of this as well, it’s not all hearsay).

Providing information and answers is a key part of our job as technical communicators but I am concerned that my view of the information world and how I use it may be tainting my thoughts. Do the people who use the information we produce really want to ‘just google’ for information? Am I projecting the way I think and work onto the people who use our documentation?

The obvious answer is to ask those people, and I’m in the fairly lucky position that I can do just that. A large portion of our documentation is used by our own staff, so I have direct access to my audience. So, obviously, I should just ask them: “How would you like to access the documentation?”

But I think that’s the wrong question.

Whilst it will be useful to hear the answers to that question, it is far too open ended and, to repeat an old adage, ‘the customer doesn’t always know what the customer wants’. Instead I need to figure out what the most common usage scenario is and work from that, before presenting a limited set of choices from which the audience can make an informed decision.

One thing is certain, the way I access information, the way I think about how information is structured and presented, from my professional background and my knowledge of some of the information design theories that are in use, is very different from the way I use information in my day to day life. The more I find myself leaning towards more ad-hoc, random and casual sources of information, the more I begin to wonder if the world of the professionally written and presented technical communications needs to change tack and find a comfortable middle ground, embracing all that is good about the web 2.0 internet.

Social media works because it is based on people and the availability of information (and metadata about that information). It seems all too obvious that the world of technical communications needs to make bigger strides in that direction. Many technical writers have started that journey, and whilst it means yet another set of skills that you’ll need to learn, ultimately it means that the technical information you produce will be more valuable in the longer term.

Informationally Overloaded

Those of you who have been reading for a while will recognise the title of this post, as it used to be the name of this blog. Then I realised how naff it was and dropped it when the ‘one man’ stuff was borne.

The phrase itself remains particularly apt, probably more so than when I first used it and, with reference to the exponential growth of Twitter, it is coming back into prominence. Social media applications, and the use thereof, shows no sign of slowing. This is a good thing because I firmly believe that social media applications (think Facebook, Twitter and the like) can be useful to many and the basic model of all of these things is based on the premise that “the more people that use them, the more valuable they become”. Which, of course, is (sort of) in direct conflict with those of us fighting information overload.

Of course, we only have ourselves to blame, as the bulk* of the online information we digest is driven by either opt-in or by deliberately choosing to monitor or follow a particular thread of information. This point is crucial. If you feel you are being overloaded by the amount of information you are choosing to receive to parse, be it by RSS feed, email, or directly from a website, then you can choose to reduce that load.

Twitter remains a bit of a mystery mind you, every morning I gain another follower or two, sometimes based on a product name (hello Dyson Airblades) and sometimes on a completely random basis. Or at least I assume they are random because I don’t recognise the person following me, nor do I recognise their website (yes, I do check profiles in case it’s just a username I’m not familiar with) and, as of yet, there is still no easy way to find this out. I’m presuming that this is the same for everyone, and it is just the usual clamouring for ‘Friends’ that so many people seem to think a good thing to do.

Each new social media application brings with it yet another raft of gurus trying to exploit and harness the “wisdom of the crowd” for themselves in a hope of forcing a “Tipping Point” even if their idea isn’t “Made to Stick”. What they don’t get is that this is not just another marketing bandwagon to jump on, not this time. The phenomenon of social media and the way it allows people to connect can be very powerful, but the important piece thing to understand isn’t the fact that people all over the globe are connecting, but because it’s PEOPLE that are making the connections.

The opt-in model is still the most powerful part of all of this, ensuring that those people who are passionate about a product or service can seek each other out and share their thoughts and ideas. Over to Matt Haughey who suggests that companies should:

make awesome stuff that gets people excited about your products, hire people that represent the company well, and when your stuff is so awesome that friends share it with other friends

Twitter continues to be the buzzword of the moment, the numbers rise and more connections are made. I glad to say that I am benefitting from being on Twitter, something I wasn’t sure of even a few months ago. Particularly as some of my peers are now on there, posting ideas and links to articles of interest to my profession. The iPhone is a boon for such things, particularly as Twitterific and InstaPaper to keep a track of “to read” articles and blog posts (Twitterific has built-in Instapaper bookmarking capabilities).

So whilst I’m not blogging here, or on either of my other two blogs, you can find me on Twitter, or read the links I post to my Instapaper account, browse the random things I find and post to my Tumblr account, or keep an eye on the websites I bookmark using del.icio.us. You can see my photos on Flickr, and see what music I’m listening to on Last.fm.

It’s a bit scary seeing all of my online data listed out like that. What’s even worse is that I do have an RSS feed that monitors them all… talk about information overload!

* I’m aware that many social applications (or whatever we are calling them today) generate a lot of email notifications, but again, you can usually either turn them off or, you know, opt out of that application.