Monday, February 28, 2011

Frank Buckles 1901-2011

Frank Buckles, who lied about his age to get into uniform during World War I and lived to be the last surviving U.S. veteran of that war, has died. He was 110.
Buckles, who also survived being a civilian POW in the Philippines in World War II, died peacefully of natural causes early Sunday at his home in Charles Town, biographer and family spokesman David DeJonge said in a statement. Buckles turned 110 on Feb. 1 and had been advocating for a national memorial honoring veterans of the Great War in Washington, D.C.
When asked in February 2008 how it felt to be the last of his kind, he said simply, "I realized that somebody had to be, and it was me." And he told The Associated Press he would have done it all over again, "without a doubt."
On Nov. 11, 2008, the 90th anniversary of the end of the war, Buckles attended a ceremony at the grave of World War I Gen. John Pershing in Arlington National Cemetery.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Manual is the Product

There are always nuggets of great information out there. Here's one I stumbled across today:
A few random notes from my 23+ years of tech writing:
Words can take a person from point A to point B. If a person isn't at point A, or doesn't want to go to point B, then the text will be a mismatch. The better you define point A, explain it, define point B, explain it, and then accurately keep A and B in mind as you're writing, the more successful you'll be with the readers.
As an expansion of the previous point, I write books and columns to a single reader, whom I usually call "Joe". I define what Joe knows at the beginning of the book, and at the end of each chapter, and then I keep Joe in mind as a real, single reader while I'm writing. Seems to work nicely, and keeps me from handwaving or forgetting prerequisities.
In product documentation, the manual is the product. If a feature isn't defined, it doesn't exist as far as the user can tell. If a feature is described badly, the user will percieve the product to be a bad product. Thus, do not skimp on the documentation.
When you write a piece, read it aloud to a friend, or the wall if you have no friends nearby. If it doesn't make sense when read aloud, start over. That'll keep you from writing stuff that "looks good to your English teacher", but is truly useless in the real world.
-- Randal L. Schwartz, Perl hacker
It's rare to find such specificity in tips. "Do a lot of research" is great, but here, Mr. Schwartz says, "the manual is the product" and features don't exist if the technical writer doesn't take the time to define them. I've created a few basic manuals, but I wish I could have gone back to flesh them out more.

Always have someone read what you've done. Well, always have someone qualified, and someone who can use a critical eye to help you fix what might be broken. It helps when you marry a Literature major.
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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Stand When You Work

Sitting down is really not good for you:
In a 2005 article in Science magazine, James A. Levine, an obesity specialist at the Mayo Clinic, pinpointed why, despite similar diets, some people are fat and others aren't. "We found that people with obesity have a natural predisposition to be attracted to the chair, and that's true even after obese people lose weight," he says. "What fascinates me is that humans evolved over 1.5 million years entirely on the ability to walk and move. And literally 150 years ago, 90% of human endeavor was still agricultural. In a tiny speck of time we've become chair-sentenced," Levine says.
Hamilton, like many sitting researchers, doesn't own an office chair. "If you're standing around and puttering, you recruit specialized muscles designed for postural support that never tire," he says. "They're unique in that the nervous system recruits them for low-intensity activity and they're very rich in enzymes." One enzyme, lipoprotein lipase, grabs fat and cholesterol from the blood, burning the fat into energy while shifting the cholesterol from LDL (the bad kind) to HDL (the healthy kind). When you sit, the muscles are relaxed, and enzyme activity drops by 90% to 95%, leaving fat to camp out in the bloodstream. Within a couple hours of sitting, healthy cholesterol plummets by 20%.
The data back him up. Older people who move around have half the mortality rate of their peers. Frequent TV and Web surfers (sitters) have higher rates of hypertension, obesity, high blood triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and high blood sugar, regardless of weight. Lean people, on average, stand for two hours longer than their counterparts.
The chair you're sitting in now is likely contributing to the problem. "Short of sitting on a spike, you can't do much worse than a standard office chair," says Galen Cranz, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. She explains that the spine wasn't meant to stay for long periods in a seated position. Generally speaking, the slight S shape of the spine serves us well. "If you think about a heavy weight on a C or S, which is going to collapse more easily? The C," she says. But when you sit, the lower lumbar curve collapses, turning the spine's natural S-shape into a C, hampering the abdominal and back musculature that support the body. The body is left to slouch, and the lateral and oblique muscles grow weak and unable to support it.
This, in turn, causes problems with other parts of the body. "When you're standing, you're bearing weight through the hips, knees, and ankles," says Dr. Andrew C, Hecht, co-chief of spinal surgery at Mount Sinai Medical Center. "When you're sitting, you're bearing all that weight through the pelvis and spine, and it puts the highest pressure on your back discs. Looking at MRIs, even sitting with perfect posture causes serious pressure on your back."
Much of the perception about what makes for healthy and comfortable sitting has come from the chair industry, which in the 1960s and '70s started to address widespread complaints of back pain from workers. A chief cause of the problem, companies publicized, was a lack of lumbar support. But lumbar support doesn't actually help your spine. "You cannot design your way around this problem," says Cranz. "But the idea of lumbar support has become so embedded in people's conception of comfort, not their actual experience on chairs. We are, in a sense, locked into it."
In the past three decades the U.S. swivel chair has tripled into a more than $3 billion market served by more than 100 companies. Unsurprisingly, America's best-selling chair has made a fetish of lumbar support. The basic Aeron, by Herman Miller, costs around $700, and many office workers swear by them. There are also researchers who doubt them. "The Aeron is far too low," says Dr. A.C. Mandal, a Danish doctor who was among the first to raise flags about sitting 50 years ago. "I visited Herman Miller a few years ago, and they did understand. It should have much more height adjustment, and you should be able to move more. But as long as they sell enormous numbers, they don't want to change it." Don Chadwick, the co-designer of the Aeron, says he wasn't hired to design the ideal product for an eight-hour-workday; he was hired to update Herman Miller's previous best-seller. "We were given a brief and basically told to design the next-generation office chair," he says.
The best sitting alternative is perching—a half-standing position at barstool height that keeps weight on the legs and leaves the S-curve intact. Chair alternatives include the Swopper, a hybrid stool seat and the funky, high HAG Capisco chair. Standing desks and chaise longues are good options. Ball chairs, which bounce your spine into a C-shape, are not. The biggest obstacle to healthy sitting may be ourselves. Says Jackie Maze, the vice-president for marketing at Keilhauer: "Most customers still want chairs that look like chairs."
Now, why aren't there more Swoppers out there?
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Friday, February 11, 2011

So Long to a Few More Bookstores

This is sad:
Borders Group may file for bankruptcy reorganization as early as Monday or Tuesday, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
The No. 2 traditional bookstore in the U.S. also plans to close about 200 of its 674 stores and cut thousands of jobs, the newspaper reported, citing sources it did not name.
Is it a good thing for bookstores to disappear and go away? Does everything have to be on an electronic media device now?

I like media readers and devices like that. I just wish there was a way to keep everything as it was. That's wishful thinking, perhaps, and change is ever present, but sometimes a book is a book and a flat screen that glows is a poor substitute.
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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Eliminate That Ambiguity

One of the things I practice is the ambiguity exercise, which is, "can what I've written have a hidden meaning that I do not intend?"

Here's something that expands on that:

Lexical ambiguity
In the "Do you serve prawns?" question above, the ambiguity hinges on the fact that you can use the verb "serve" in more than one way - you can serve prawns to a person, but you can also serve the prawns themselves. This type of ambiguity - where one word can have two or more meanings - is known as lexical ambiguity. It isn't just verbs that can do double duty in this way, as the following examples of lexical ambiguity show:

  • Let us remove your shorts - sign on an electrician's van
  • A troupe of Girl Guides went for a tramp in the woods (actually, this one is a double yolker when it comes to ambiguity - both the phrase "went for" and the noun "tramp" can have at least two meanings…)
  • Mrs Gandhi stoned at rally in India - newspaper headline
Syntactic ambiguity 
It is possible for a sentence or phrase to be ambiguous when none of the words has a double meaning. In this case, the ambiguity arises because the words are in the wrong order or some of them are missing.  This is known as syntactic ambiguity.  Here are some examples:

  • Always wait for the green man to cross - This is an actual road sign near where I live! (A better way to phrase it would have been Always wait for the green man to appear before you cross the road, but perhaps Kent County Council didn't have a big enough sign for that.)
  • For sale: antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers - Better (but less funny) to have written For sale: antique desk with thick legs and large drawers. Suitable for lady. Notice the extra punctuation - see below for more on this subject.
There's more at the link, but I didn't want to copy too much of it. You never want to put yourself in a position where ambiguity ruins something into which you've just put a lot of effort.

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How Did the Oscars Get so Lame?

The Oscars will sink to a new low this year:
Oscar producers are taking "thanks, Mom" to another level.
Producers Bruce Cohen and Don Mischer say they'll incorporate nominees' mothers, who they call "mom-inees," into the Oscar show.
Proucers are looking for nominees' mothers to post updates on Twitter and to appear during the 90-minute pre-show program, they said Monday during the 30th annual Oscar nominees luncheon at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Mominees? What the hell kind of crap is that? What do these producers do if "mom" turns out to be too drunk to Twitter and, instead, sends out the social media equivalent of a wet fart in church? What then? There are mothers out there who should be in prison. Then there are mothers out there that are the entertainment industry equivalent of handing free liquor and car keys to teenagers. Not good.

Never leave it to chance. They would be better off trying to stage a skit with little kids, cute animals, and Gary Busey.

The nominees, of course, are as follows:

Best Picture:
Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter's Bone
Actor in a Leading Role:
Javier Bardem, Jeff Bridges, Jesse Eisenberg, Colin Firth, James Franco
Actress in a Leading Role:
Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams
Black Swan, The Fighter, The King's Speech, The Social Network, True Grit

Lame. Never saw any of them, don't care. Yawn. 

Ten nominees for Best Picture? That's the surest way to institutionalize mediocrity. Now, no one cares if a film gets nominated. It's supposed to make ten films, rather than five, "more marketable." Please. Hollywood can't come up with ten good films in a year.
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Friday, February 4, 2011

Word Works

I suppose there are always going to be those who are for or against Microsoft Word. I think it is an indispensable tool. I don't know how you could move from position to position as a technical writer without being exposed, in some way, to Word. If you stayed with the Open Office system, sure. But if you're freelancing for different companies, you are bound to find yourself needing Word skills.

Six years ago, I was using Word for large-scale publications. My answer to this question is below:
Here’s a serious question that deserves some thought: Could you use Microsoft Word in a large-scale corporate technical publications environment, and if so, how would you do it? I know I am on record as saying that it’s not quite the right tool for the job (or words to that effect), but there are many corporate tech pubs departments that do use Microsoft Word.
From what I have heard over the years, a lot of non-tech-writing effort goes into supporting that. On its own, Microsoft Word has a reputation for being unstable and unreliable (see Farbey’s Law), and it is often criticised for being so tightly integrated with the Windows operating system that you never know whether a particular setting needs to be changed in the document, the application, the Windows Registry, or the Active Directory Group Policy. In this post I’m going to suggest what an ideal set-up for corporate tech pubs use of Microsoft Word might look like.
Microsoft Word works well when the people who use it have been trained to use it well. Sounds like a cliche, but when I was involved in using Word to create, edit, and collaborate on documents that were published in-house, the only problems that would surface were user-created, not application created. If best practices are followed, losing a document due to some supposed "instability" of the application should be a rare occurrence.

Not many people understand what best practices really are. They are a guideline that you follow, as best you can, every day. You can't enter the network, start opening documents, and start working on them if you're not organized and have a clear purpose. Always slow down, edit carefully, track changes, and save your work as a matter of habit whenever you are transitioning to something else.

If the phone rings, mentally remind yourself to hit the "save" icon. Know where that icon is, and habitually save.

If you begin with best practices, which is to start with a template that all users would adhere to, the application being used is almost not a factor. For a manual that would incorporate work from six or seven individual researchers and would have fold-out tables, charts, graphs, and images, there really was no issue in assembling the document into one Word document. In the editing process, the person charged with assembling the document would have to make the styles consistent across the board. That might mean eliminating some stray Arial font text or it might mean going through all of the endnotes to make certain they followed the correct format.

Once that editor had control of the document, it made publication easier. It made converting the document to a printed soft-cover book easier as well. Even pdf conversion was a quick and painless process.

So, yes. Word is fine. You can't have rogues out there, deviating from the template of the finished product. And you have to invest in the editing process. But work, it does, and it did in my experience.
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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Don't Admit Anything, Lindsay

I hope this goes away, and soon:
It's reported that Lindsay Lohan could be in trouble with the law - again -- and this time, the allegations are more serious than ever. 
Lohan is said to be under investigation in the theft of jewelry - possibly a single piece valued at $5,000, which would make the alleged crime a felony. 
"Law enforcement sources tell Radar Online that Lindsay is suspected to have stolen a high-end piece of jewelry, most likely a necklace," Dylan Howard Sr., executive editor of the celebrity gossip website tells CBS News.

America can't handle another phony Lindsay Lohan scandal.

I never believe anything they say or write about her. I think that the editors and bloggers made up their minds several years ago to destroy this young woman and that's pretty much what they have accomplished. Once they have accomplished this, they'll find some other young person to destroy.
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