Month: May 2009

The Hourglass

I’m running out of time. All of a sudden it’s Friday and I’ve only JUST bought FIFA ’09 for the PS3, where on earth am I going to find the time to master it before I go on holiday??

Seriously though, what is up with time these days?

It’s either way too fast, I mean it’s almost June for fricks sake!, or it’s way too slow and no end of stern glares will make the minutes pass any quicker. It’s not like I’m just passing the time of day either, for time is, always, of the essence! Yes, still I can’t seem to control time, it flummoxes and bemuses me, for the time being at least.

Oh god, I’ve just realised, it’s because I’m getting old, right?

So not only do I have hairs growing in places where, frankly, hair is just not required (what is up with that, by the way, haven’t we evolved far enough that we really REALLY don’t need hair on our backs?), not only do I judge a pub based on volume and the comfort and availability of seats, and not only do I catch myself murmuring and grumbling about how things weren’t “this way” when I was young, or how spoiled kids are are “these days”, now I have to come to terms with the fact that my days are drawing to a close.

I mean, I’m 35, everything after this is shit, right? Surely, when it comes to the vagaries of time, and other such phrases, the key message here is “we can’t control time”. So if we can’t slow it down, when it’s running too fast, and we can’t speed it up, when it’s crawling along at snail pace, then we truly are at the whim and mercy of the timelords.

No, not THAT timelord, … bloody geeks (he was better in my day ya know…).

It seems that the realisation that time and tide wait for no man, even though we are all pressed for time, is only brought to bear with the passing of time itself. And, to be honest, it’s about time I got a grip and realised such things are outwith my control.

So, I’m quite happy for the time being at least but if action is required, we’d all do well do remember that time and tide wait for no man, and there is certainly no time like the present.

To Wiki or not to Wiki

The other day one of our genius developers (I think his official ranking is Jedi Knight) asked me why we don’t provide the product documentation on a Wiki. I answered him stating that it was because I wasn’t allowed. That’s not strictly true.

My answer should have been that, quite simply, I’ve failed to provide a good enough reason to my boss (and my bosses boss) as to why that may be a good thing.

And the reason I’ve failed to do that?

Because I’m still not 100% convinced that it is a good solution for our product.

What is more likely is that, if we do decide to embrace Wikis (we haven’t managed blogs yet, but that’s another issue) we take a split approach and offer a knowledge base style information centre (something like the Author-it Knowledge Center) and host a Wiki as a way of capturing and sharing what I refer to as ‘grey information’.

It’s this latter set of information which, whilst it has always existed, has never really had a place to live until the internet came along. These days all it takes is a quick internet search and you’ll find masses of information, all generated by the users. Some of it is useful, hints and tips, ways to workaround product limitations, and clever uses that were never thought of by the manufacturer.

To me, that user created content is where Wikis hold their true power and finding the balance between that content, and the content provided by my team is still something I’ve to get my head around. Ultimately the argument (business case) for investing in the creation, maintenance and policing of a Wiki needs to be focussed on how much value we will gain (ROI).

On that basis it shouldn’t be a hard business case to put together, the tricky bit is making it such a compelling argument that it moves to (close to) the top of the list, and that will require a lot more discussion around why embracing Wikis, and blogs, will stand us in better stead in the future.

Panic!

There is a sense of mild, but controlled, panic in the air.

I’ve only just realised that, a week today, we’ll be flying to Spain for a week in the sun. Don’t quite know how this has taken me by surprise but there you have it. All of a sudden I’m in the “pre-holiday zone” where every choice of t-shirt needs to be carefully considered, and the locating of cables, chargers and other sundry essentials starts in earnest.

That said, we are taking hand luggage only, and all I’ll need are:

  • 7 Books – already stacked and ready to go.
  • 5 t-shirts – I have so many t-shirts that I’ll just take whatever I pick up on Monday morning
  • 4 pairs of shorts – 2 longer ones for the evenings, 2 shorter ones for the sunbathing
  • 5 pairs of socks
  • 5 pairs of boxer shorts
  • 1 iPhone + cable
  • Speakers for iPhone
  • 1 Camera + battery charger
  • Mains USB socket
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Passport + Money
  • Toothbrush

Thankfully I’m pretty well organised to I can leave all of my packing until Monday morning. So the only real panic is deciding what music and movies to put on my iPhone. I mean, I’ve only got a week!!

Switching off

Nothing of substance. Truth be told I’m killing time whilst I wait for some software to install. Aren’t you lucky, dear reader, that I’m so thoughtful.

I’m installing software because I’m working today, which from the looks of the weather doesn’t seem like a bad option now, typically holiday weekend weather outside. In other words, it’s chucking it down. Mind you, I’ll be in again on Monday as well so, frankly, the weather is the least of my concerns.

The office is quiet, so I’ve got my new XMI X-Mini Max speakers hooked up to my laptop to test them and have to admit that, for such a teeny tiny speaker system, the sounds is pretty acceptable. Perfect for taking on holiday.

Speaking of which, I’m starting to realise that I’ve only got a week left to pack… ohh wait, what am I thinking, it’ll take me all of 20 mins, 10 of which will be deciding which t-shirts to take.

What will take more time will be making sure I’ve got the right movies and music ready on my iPhone (and a new iPod Touch that some will be getting as an early birthday present… ssshhhhh). Never an easy task that one, although I do tend towards Soul, RnB and Pop and away from my usual fare. That said I can’t NOT have the new Prodigy album on there… but I’m open to suggestions.

What’s your favourite sunshine album?

I’ll start that task tomorrow, as well as nipping to the gym for a while (yeah, I do that now!) although that depends wholly on the state of my hangover as we are visiting my tequila monster friend this evening. I swear the woman is determined to destroy my liver.

So that’ll be the sum total of my day tomorrow, a day off which will be spent sorting out the various gadgets that accompany us to Spain, watching the Grand Prix, some footie and generally not doing a whole lot. I can’t bloody wait.

Chapter 3

Hands sore from the cold, she carefully places the carry-basket on the counter and murmurs quietly, soothing her old friend inside. A paw reaches out through the bars, and she reassures with soft strokes of the dark fur. She feels suddenly sad and old, but knows that it was always going to come to this moment. Life always does.

The soft face of the young girl behind the counter tries to reassure her, but she is beyond that, has been beyond that for a long time. She knows death, understands it better than most and knows too that she must go. She says one final goodbye, turns away and walks to the door, her eyes brimming with silent tears. She pauses there, catches herself and corrals her emotions with a long deep and purposeful breath.

She remembers her past, remembers how she once was and feels the swagger of times gone by return as she steps out into white flurries of cold, the surge of adrenalin pumping through her body, completely alive, completely now. Determined to be strong, knowing she has been stronger, she hopes her courage will return once more and bring with it the headstrong and foolish girl she was once. She pauses once more and leans on her cane as passersby swerve to avoid her, invisible as she is, an old woman in her long grey winter coat.

She stands there on the pavement for the longest time and slowly realises that she unsure of what to do next, the building realisation that what she was has long since passed and all that there is now are some more steps along this path. She turns slightly, looking this way and that and before long the cold wind pushes her to a decision. She decides to walk a block or two and see what comes of that.

She takes her time, feet less certain than they were despite the help of her cane, hindered by the cold and patches of ice hidden under snow. Concentrating hard she slowly makes her way across the road, happy to be outside for now, happy to have something else to concentrate on, something else to fill her mind.

She passes steep stairs leading to old apartment buildings, shop fronts loudly declaring the latest offers and garish new products, an old laundrette purrs gently as she passes and the homily smells of apple pie and fresh baked bread creep across the street, catching her as she inhales. She stops and turns, and in looking across the street her mind shifts suddenly, history and reality flood her senses.

The familiarity is overwhelming, she has been here once before. She lifts her head and gazes around as passersby hurry past, huddled against the wind, shrouded in speckles of snow. An old woman is all they see, possibly lost, possibly senile, standing in their way.

Her eyes cast over the buildings, the shopkeepers and bank tellers glimpsed through windows, the patrons of the cafe across the road with their steaming mugs of coffee, wholesome slices of fresh apple pie, the regulars repeating their repartee, the waitresses laughing and flirting on cue, all wide hips and generous smiles.

She hears a sound further ahead and through the biting wind spots a recess, no, a doorway dark in the murky daylight. The stark lines of the door frame picked out by the blaze of neon in the street, the deep recess broken only by a glimpse of a face. Startled, her cane falls from her grasp, clattering and cracking on frozen stone. Around her heads turn to the sharp noise, and the face in the doorway doesn’t move.

“Ma’am? Ma’am, are you ok?” says a distant voice, fading as the world tilts once more, murky daylight replaced by blooming black.

Moments later she blinks her eyes open. Lying on the pavement, the cold seeping through her bones she stares through the legs of her samaritans, she watches as the face emerges from the doorway and starts across the street. Every muscle in her wants to scream out, every instinct is fight, every moment crawls as the face is slowly revealed, burned blue and orange by streetlight and shop sign. She knows she must do something but all she can manage is her last breathe.

XAMPP

In my copious spare time I have been known to design and build websites. The first website I ever built was for the first company I worked for, back in 1996, so I’ve been at it a while.

However it’s only been the past couple of years that I’ve started to get some larger clients with grander ideas, and that has meant getting a bit more organised. As such I now have a standard questionnaire that I ask all prospective clients to fill in, a standard design proposal document which I use to present back my ideas based on the answers to the questionnaire, and I have a nice little area of my PC which is dedicated to building websites.

The key part of which is XAMPP.

I discovered this marvellous application about 3 years ago, and if you are building websites, or installing and customising anything that requires MySQL and PHP then you must give it a look.

Many people know from their own experience that it’s not easy to install an Apache web server and it gets harder if you want to add MySQL, PHP and Perl.

XAMPP is an easy to install Apache distribution containing MySQL, PHP and Perl. XAMPP is really very easy to install and to use – just download, extract and start.

It really is that simple. Once you’ve downloaded it, start up the Control Panel, start Apache and MySQL, then head to http://localhost. Done!

A lot of my web design work is creating custom themes based around WordPress, sometimes it is just a look and feel but more often than not custom code is required. Now, rather than having to upload a file to a test web server somewhere, I can work locally on the php files, and just refresh the browser to see my changes. Much faster.

XAMPP is one of those applications that, after you’ve used it once you think “how the hell did I manage without this!”.

Given that a lot of technical communicators are looking towards other distribution models (blogs, Wikis and so on), then XAMPP is an easy (and free) way to get a test system setup, allowing you to run short proof of concept projects. I hope you find it as useful as I do.

Nota Bene

Just a quick note to say that there is nothing of note to note here because, like everyone, I’m pretty busy at the moment.

I’m heading into a period of 6 day work weeks, from now until the end of June.
I’m close to finishing off a website for a client despite a fairly snag ridden build. Something I’ll need to invest some time in to investigate a better way of working.
I’ve started going to the gym. Aiming for 3 times a week.
I’m also off to Spain for the first week in June.
We are getting quotes to get a new bathroom fitted.
I really must get the car booked in for a service soon, MOT is due soon as well.
I’ve got a presentation to write for a conference in September (about blogging!).

So, obviously, this evening I’m off out to the cinema. Angels & Demons apparently.

Anyway, if you are really bored feel free to scour my archives, they really are quite good.

Podcasts

No, don’t worry, I’m not going to subject you all to my dulcet tones but I would like to mention two sets of podcasts which are well worth monitoring.

Not normally something I make time for, I’ve recently started going to the gym and it’s an ideal time to zone out and catch up on these. For those of you using iTunes, you can subscribe to RSS Feeds for both and they’ll be downloaded whenever they are published.

First up a fellow Scot (even if he is from the ‘wrong’ side of the country 🙂 ) Alistair Christie produces a regular podcast on a variety of technical communication related topics. He’s been at it for a few years now and has some excellent interviews which you can find in his archives. Well worth subscribing to this one.

Also worthy of a listen is the Tech Writer Voices sessions by Tom Johnson. He has interviewed many well know names in our field of interest and, like Alistair, has been publishing podcasts for a while now. His archives are chock full of fascinating interviews, and of course you can subscribe to his podcast series as well (via iTunes too).

Any other podcasts I should be listening to?

Star Trek

IMDB information
Metacritic reviews

Star Trek sucks. There, I said it. I’ve never been a fan, never really ‘got’ the whole vibe of the show and so it’s far to say that I really don’t understand the fanaticism that surrounds it. But then I don’t really understand why anyone would want to dress up as a Dalek StormTrooper Bajoran and go out and spend a weekend wandering round a lifeless conference centre with other fans.

Yet still I found myself watching the opening scenes of the latest Star Trek movie in the hope that it would prove me wrong, that this particular universe was one worth getting to know. Having seen the original TV show a few times, I had half a mind what to expect and given that JJ Abrams was at the helm I knew, if nothing else, that it would be slick and funny if nothing else.

A couple of hours later I left the movie with a big smile on my face. What a blast!

First things first, the choice of actors/accents. I think that, overall, the visual and vocal similarities to the original characters was spot on. Without losing the new actor within them, each gave a nice portrayal that gave a respectful nod to the original character. Quite a hard thing to do and whilst it didn’t always hit the mark, I think it was a nice homage.

The plot of the movie is fairly straightforward, with time travel being the main device in play. You are, of course, being introduced to Capt. Kirk, Bones, Spock, Scotty and all the others for the ‘first time’ and there were no real surprises. It’s not really about character development though, it’s about how the crew of the Starship Enterprise ended up together. No spoilers from me though.

Overall this is a big summer blockbuster movie, set in space. The fact it’s about Star Trek makes it somewhat familiar but don’t let it put you off, like me, you need no nothing about the particulars of this universe to enjoy the movie. And you should enjoy it. It’s smart enough with being complicated, well paced, the dialogue is crisp and funny, and there is a huge sense of fun about everything.

Definitely one to see if you are in the mood for a nice big sci-fi blockbuster.