Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Christmas Presents for Geeks


    I guess it's that time of year when I ought to acknowledge that the festive season is upon us. You can always tell when Christmas is on the way because computer magazines are full of "ideas for presents for computer users". I don't know about you, but a 2GB USB memory stick doesn't really seem like a present I'd want to give somebody, unless perhaps it came dressed in a Santa outfit and long flowing beard. Likewise, a Webcam. I mean, they'd probably expect me to start visiting their FaceDiggSpace page to see how ugly they look when viewed from eight inches away.

    However, when my wife asked me what I really wanted for Christmas, I suppose I unfortunately revealed an even deeper level of my geekability when I said I needed a new fan for a Dell 1400SC server. The one that was in it had decided to reach its MTBF and had started howling like a banshee. I can't trace one anywhere, but she has that wonderful knack of being able to find the weirdest things that we need in some charity shop, second-hand emporium, or bargain store. But I guess this quest was beyond even her legendary capabilities.

    OK, so I found a spare fan in my junk box and managed, using my vast experience in percussive maintenance, to persuade it to fit into the server. But it only has two wires instead of three, which means that the server doesn't believe there actually is a fan, even though there's more wind coming out of the back than you'd get from a flatulent elephant. So whenever the server reboots, it stops to ask me whether I want it to carry on and run Windows and do something useful, or do I want it to just sit there forever still running (and, you'd assume, overheating if there was no fan) but doing nothing.

    At one time it used to do the same if the KVM switch wasn't pointing to it when it booted (with the extremely useful message "Keyboard not detected, press F1 to continue"), but I found out how to disable that in the BIOS. But there seems to be no way to tell it to ignore the "system fan not detected" error. I did wonder about just shoving 12 volts onto the third pin on the motherboard, but even my non-averse approach to experimental maintenance suggested this was probably not a wise move.

    So, my Christmas present is a pair of cheap Dell Quad core Xeon servers with tons of disk space, 8 GB memory, and three network cards in each one. Yep, I'm going to have a virtual Yuletide and play with Hyper-V to see if I can drag my remote office server and network infrastructure into the 21st century. It will be interesting to see how long it takes to get all the stuff I need, such as AD, DNS, DHCP, ISA, Exchange Server, and a couple of Web sites up and running again. If I seem to have gone very quiet over the next month or so, you'll probably find me in the garage with my head in the server cabinet emitting streams of expletives.

    It's probably a good thing that nobody gave me a Webcam for Christmas.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Under Compression


    Last week I was creating short introduction videos for our Architecture Guide project. You'd assume that this would be easy enough - write some slides and record the commentary, and then generate a WMV file from the recording. I used Camtasia, which integrates with PowerPoint and makes it really easy to create the recording and edit it. Only then, when I generated the WMV file, did I start to appreciate just how large these kinds of files can be.

    You see, the problem is that we are limited to a maximum file size of 4MB and five or six minutes. Yet the first attempt using the default settings produced a 12MB file. So that's when I started digging around the settings, and reading up on video options and formats. You'd think that with the power and usability of modern software there would be some setting, like there is in Windows Movie Maker, saying "just make it fit into 4MB and be wonderful". No such luck.

    Yes, I did try taking the WMV and exporting it from Movie Maker into 4MB, but the quality was so bad you couldn't even read the slide titles. So I tried recording in AVI format and converting that, with approximately equally awful results. In the end, I used the "Slides and Audio (Medium)" setting in Camtasia and edited the commentary (such as removing pauses and superfluous waffle) until it was just below 4MB. And then repeated the process for the other ten presentations on my "to do" list. The final quality is acceptable, though the audio compression makes me sound like I've developed a lithp.

    Perhaps I just don't grasp the technicalities in enough depth. You can edit a whole range of audio and video parameters for the encoder, so in theory you can delicately tweak the settings to get an optimal output quality. But none of it seems to do quite what you'd expect. You reduce the frame rate from 10fps to 5fps and little dots start crawling all over the slides like a disorganized army of ants slowly eating the words. You change the keyframe interval from 1 second to 5 seconds, and you end up looking at the introduction slide for the first two minutes of the video. You reduce the audio bandwidth from 22KHz to 16KHz (mono) and it sounds like someone playing a kazoo.

    It's rather like if your TV changed channel every time you adjusted the volume, or if the phone company rearranged the digits of your telephone number whenever someone tried to call you. I even worked diligently through a set of recommendations from some clever people who do this kind of thing all the time. It took ages to locate all the settings and make sense of them, and I wish I'd read the instructions from the end backwards rather than starting from step 1. When I finally got it all set up, I discovered the final paragraph of the document contained the rather less than useful comment "Using these settings, I managed to get the file size down to below 6MB per minute!" Wow, that's a lot of help when I need to get 5 or 6 minutes into 4MB...

    Of course, after I finally did manage to squeeze my output into the required dimensions (if you'll pardon the expression) I thought it would be a good thing to document what I'd discovered. I mean, I work for the documentation team, so I probably ought to produce some dregs of documentation now and then - if only to justify my existence. Of course, in this brave new media-based world, it's actually "guidance" I create, not just boring old documentation, so I did think it would be neat to do a video on how to record videos. A sort of "guidance on guidance" thing. Only trouble is, I couldn't find a way to get Camtasia to allow me to record myself using Camtasia... There must be some way to do it, probably using a VM (or an ordinary video camera). Or by installing another video capture program to capture you using the original video capture program. I wonder if the guidance team at TechSmith (who make Camtasia) have to secretly smuggle somebody else's software onto their machines to create their guidance...?

    Mind you, even better, next week I'm doing "train the trainer" videos to teach people how to teach people to use our gleaming new Architecture Guide (I bet you'd forgotten that this post was about the new guide). So if I create some documentation on how to do that, is it "guidance on guidance on guidance"? It's all starting to sound a bit like Chinese Whispers (or "Telephone" in the US). You know, the game they play at the kind of parties I'm never invited to where you have to pass on a whispered message and then see what it comes out as after ten or twenty people have communicated it.

    I remember reading how, in the trenches during the First World War, supposedly they would pass commands back to the reserve lines in this way. Although it maybe won't make sense to any non-UK readers, the command "Send reinforcements, we're going to advance" is said to have been delivered to the reserve lines as "Send three and fourpence, we're going to a dance". At least it would probably be more entertaining than the videos I'm creating.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Head in the Clouds


    What is it with airports? I mean, if I built an airport in the town called Mansfield, I would probably seriously consider calling it "Mansfield Airport". It seems a good name since it identifies where the airport is, and what region or area it serves. The island of Madeira has only one airport (which, I guess, is not surprising as 95% of the island slopes at around 45 degrees), located next to the town of Santa Cruz. However, it's not called "Madeira airport", or even "Santa Cruz airport". It's called "Funchal airport"; I suppose because Funchal is the island's capital city. I wonder what they'll do when they finally bulldoze enough of the island to build another airport?

    Imagine if we followed that approach here in England - we'd have dozens of airports called "London airport". Strangely, however, we actually do have four called that already; "London (City)", "London (Gatwick)", "London (Heathrow)", and "London (Stanstead)". And only one of them is in London. Maybe they ought to rename a few US airports the same way. I can start asking for a ticket to "Washington (Seattle)", which will be really confusing because Seattle is in Washington state... I think I can feel jet lag coming on already.

    Mind you, renaming airports seems to be a growing sport. Here in England they renamed Liverpool airport to "John Lennon airport", just in case anybody that knew who John Lennon was didn't know that the Beatles came from Liverpool. And Doncaster airport got renamed to "Robin Hood airport", even though it's 50 miles from Sherwood Forest. In fact, Mansfield (just across the motorway from where I live) is within the boundaries of the old Sherwood Forest. I wonder if, when I build my airport, I can ask for the name back.

    Best of all, though, is the airport we flew from last week. For as long as I can remember, it's been called "East Midlands airport" (EMA). It's in the East Midlands, just inside the Derbyshire boundary and not far from Nottingham. Recently, however, Nottingham city council tried to get it called "Nottingham airport", though that meant they'd need to change the name of the existing airport at Tollerton that's called "Nottingham airport". But then Derby city council got upset, so they considered calling it "Nottingham/Derby airport".

    However, it's not far from Leicester either, so they obviously decided they wanted their share and that it should be called "Nottingham/Derby/Leicester airport". I discovered that they resolved the situation by calling it "East Midlands Airport Serving Nottingham, Derby and Leicester". It's a good thing they built the new arrivals hall, or they wouldn't have had enough room for the sign.

    Still, maybe the airports thing is just change for change's sake. Worse are changes due to stupid bureaucracy. Today, as I was reading Motor Cycle News while waiting for a haircut, I discovered that the nameless bureaucrats who run the People's Republic of Europe have stipulated that the new driving test for motorcycles will include a "swerve" test to be executed at 50 kilometers per hour. In real money, that translates into 31.07 miles per hour. Unfortunately, almost all of the existing driving test centers are located in built-up areas (obviously) where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour. So, have a guess what the solution is:

    a) Allow the "swerve" test to be taken at 30 miles per hour
    b) Build 220 new driving test centers outside urban areas

    If you answered a), you obviously are not familiar with European bureaucracy. Yep, they stipulated that the test can only be taken at an urban test center. OK, so a few of the 220 new test centers are due to be ready (perhaps) when the change takes place. I wonder how many hospitals they could have built with the money...?

    After all that, it's good to know that we, here in the software industry, aren't tempted to change the names of things just for fun and for no reason. I'm absolutely convinced that the next version of Windows will be called "Windows 2010", or maybe "Windows XP Extra", or perhaps "Windows Vista II". And it will integrate seamlessly with Hotmail, or MSN, or Windows Live. And provide an architecture for building applications based on SOA, or SaaS, or S+S, or (like airports) it may have varying cloud cover.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Time Flies Like An Arrow, But Not At Frankfurt Airport


    As a writer, I enjoy the weirdness of words. In the English (and US English) language, and particularly in technical writing, words often mean something distinctly different from their initially apparent meaning. When I'm looking at text provided by other members of the teams I work with, such as developers and architects, I often come across a word or phrase where the usage and context is obviously familiar, yet the real meaning is totally inappropriate. And fixing the text sometimes takes a determined effort as I try to bend my brain away from the obvious to look for the appropriate.

    For example, "Use a protocol like HTTP or TCP" or "May negatively impact performance". So what's wrong with these? Well, "...like HTTP or TCP" could mean "...have fond feelings for HTTP or TCP". In the same vein as the well-know expression "Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana". And "...negatively impact performance" might be taken to mean it actually improves it. You see where I'm going?

    Bear in mind that everything we produce must follow strict style and word selection guidelines so that it is easy to assimilate by those whose first language is not English. And, of course, it must also be easily translatable by mechanized tools into other languages. OK, so the tools these days are very good. I read in a computer magazine last week about a guy who did the obvious test - he took some English text, fed it through an English/French translator, and then fed the result through a French/English translator. The result was understandable, if not actually fully readable, but it was "good enough".

    Of course, I immediately decided it would be interesting to push this a bit further by piping some text through several languages to give mechanized translation a real test. Time for an experiment I think. We'll start with this week's opening sentences:

    "As a writer, I enjoy the weirdness of words. In the English language, and particularly in technical writing, words often mean something distinctly different from their initially apparent meaning."

    The automated translation into Spanish gives:

    "Como escritor, gozo del weirdness de palabras. En la lengua inglesa, y particularmente en la escritura técnica, las palabras significan a menudo algo distintamente diferente de su significado inicialmente evidente."

    Interesting that they don't seem to have a word for "weirdness" in Spanish. Maybe it only applies to English people. Anyway, when translated back into English, it comes out as:

    "Like writer, joy of weirdness of words. In the English language, and particularly in the technical writing, the words often mean something differently different from their initially evident meaning."

    Wow, pretty close. And I reckon "joy of weirdness" and "differently different" are fine descriptions of most of my blogging activities. However, now we'll take the Spanish version and convert it into Russian, which produces this:

    "Как сочинитель, утеха weirdness слов. В английском языке, и определенно в технически сочинительстве, слова часто намереваются что-то по-разному отличающееся от их первоначально очевидная смысль."

    Which, when translated back into English comes out as:

    "As writer, the joy of weirdness of words. In the English, and definitely in technically the writing, the words frequently will intend that- t. p - different being differed from their initially obvious."

    Amazing. That's almost closer to the original. OK, so we got some extraneous letters in there that may affect the next step, but we'll push on regardless and stretch the bounds of reasonableness by taking the Russian version and translating it into Swedish:

    "Som författare uttrycker glädjen av weirdnessen av. I engelskaet och bestämt i tekniskt handstilen, uttrycker vanligt ska ämnar den t. p - olikt som skilja sig åt från deras initialt tydligt."

    And, finally, back from Swedish into English:

    "As authors, the blessing expresses of weirdnessen of. In engelskaet and certain in the technical script, expresses commonly will intends it t. p - different that divide itself at from their initially clear."

    I don't know about you, but I reckon that's a pretty remarkable demonstration of automated language translation. OK, so the original was not exactly complicated but the results are not a million miles away in meaning, even if the grammar could do with some attention. No doubt that, if a native speaker of those languages had edited the intervening versions, they would have been even better. All of these translations were performed by the online translator available at WorldLingo.com.

    Anyway, talking of words, one that struck me as odd the other day was "stereotype". My first thought was that "stereo", being our shortened word for "stereophonic", means "two" or "double". Especially as we use "mono" for musically-oriented stuff that isn't stereo. So how can "stereotype" have the meaning of "all the same" or "the same as all others of its type"? And deeper exploration reveals that the original meaning of the word "stereotype" is thought to be the name for a duplication made during the printing process (see Gale Cengage Learning). Again, reinforcing the "two" or "different" meaning.

    It was only after some research I found that "stereo" is a prefix that comes from the Latin word meaning "solid". Aha! The people who dreamt up the concept of piping music through two different channels obviously meant it to have a more solid sound, so they called it stereophonic (where "phonic" means "acoustics" or "relating to sound"). Maybe they invented "monaural" afterwards for people who could only afford one speaker, or - like me - are deaf in one ear. And it fits with "stereotype" actually meaning "a solid type" or "of the same type".

    So while we're talking about stereotypes - the topic I originally intended to discuss when I started this post (which seems like several weeks ago now) - I never considered that I was affected by stereotypes of people or places. OK, so stereotypes are useful as a staple ingredient in stand-up comedy. Let's face it, a joke that starts "There's these three ordinary guys who do ordinary jobs, and have no obvious distinguishing marks, in a boat..." would have some way to go to be funny. And, when you travel a lot, you soon discover that people don't really conform to some stereotype for their country or nationality anyway. What I found really surprising, however, was that airports don't either.

    I mean, you'd assume that Schipol airport in delightfully laid-back Amsterdam would be populated by people smoking various brands of weed, so it would all be a bit disorganized and your luggage would probably go via Outer Mongolia and the Faroe Isles. Meanwhile, Frankfurt airport in extremely efficient and organized Germany would be so well designed and run that you wouldn't even notice you'd been there.

    Ha! No chance. Travelling to Redmond via Amsterdam was totally painless. Same terminal for arrival and departure, no security lines, arriving and departing on time, and luggage waiting on the belt after clearing immigration in Seattle. Meanwhile, Frankfurt was three (yes three) security barriers, recheck your passport and re-enter all the information even though you've got a boarding card because the computer is playing up, and nowhere to sit down meantime. And the departure was late.

    But worst of all, they insinuated that I own an iPod and they think that my passport is a dangerous implement. I travel regularly, and am relatively organized about the security check thing. My watch, belt, phone, wallet, loose change, and other stuff are in my carry-on. I wear slip-on shoes to save time. And I have my laptop out of the bag ready. So in Frankfurt they don't let you put stuff in the plastic trays yourself - you have to wait for an assistant - and they keep asking if you've got an iPod. Maybe it's a new security scare?

    Then I was surprised when the scanner bleeped like crazy as I walked through when the only metal near me was my wedding ring, the zip on my trousers, and the fillings in my teeth. Turned out, after a "pat-down", to be my passport that set it off. OK, so it's got a biochip and half a mile of aerial wire in it, but I've never known that happen before. Meanwhile, the guy kept saying "iPod" until I finally gave in and showed him my non-iPod MP3 player - at which point I was frog-marched off into a separate area while they tested it for a whole range of dangerous stuff. Maybe the X-ray machine had detected the rather potent 70's punk music it contains, or it objected to my comprehensive collection of classic Goon Shows. I suppose I can't blame it for that.

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