Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer
I bet you didn't know that the word "Wikipedia" actually means "fast child". And that the towns of Pendle Hill in Lancashire and Bredon Hill in Worcestershire both have names that mean "hill hill hill". No, neither did I until I bought Mark Forsyth's book "The Etymologicon" (which, incidentally, means "a manual for one who studies the history, and change in form or meaning, of words").
Mark writes a fascinating blog about etymology called The Inky Fool, and you can find links to the book on his blog. If, like me, you have a fascination with where words come from, how their meanings change over time, and how they relate to each other (and, in my case, how you can even make up your own new ones) then you really do need to buy a copy of this book.
The subtitle is "A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language", and it certainly seems like it does both the hidden connections bit (which must have required an immense amount of research) and the circularity (especially as the final paragraph ends with "continued on page 1").
To give you a flavor of the style and content, I'm sure Mark won't mind me quoting some extracts from the very start, where he discusses what a book actually is. And, of course, due to the circular nature of the connections, the very end of the book does the same to complete the iteration:
"This is a book. The glorious insanities of the English language mean that you can do all sorts of odd and demeaning things to a book. You can cook it. You can bring a criminal to it, or, if the criminal refuses to be brought you can throw it at him."
From here, the topics move swiftly to "bookmakers" (who used to make books, but now take bets), to "a turn-up for the books" (which is really about bookmakers and not about books at all), to throwing stones at chickens in France.
Later, there's a section on frequentative suffixes that explains how people get to be gruntled (by grunting very often) before they can be disgruntled, one that discusses where the Cybermen came from (no, it wasn't Earth's twin planet Mondas), and one about how Bluetooth connectivity wouldn't have been called Bluetooth if the guy who invented it hadn't been reading about Vikings at the time.
And, most amazing of all, an explanation of why Winston Churchill's demands for wartime secrecy meant that tanks (the big iron things with tracks underneath and a gun on the front) didn't end up being called "carriers", or even "landships".
Meanwhile, the book will also tell you what the thing that used to be a "taximeter cabriolet" actually is today, and how the Von Trapp family were cruelly deceived because "do" is not a deer, a female deer, and "re" is not a drop of golden sun.
But if you want to know why Wikipedophiles are taking advantage of fast children, and why some people living in Lancashire and Yorkshire can't think of better names for their hills, you'll just have to buy a copy of the book...
Perhaps all countries, states, and regions are naturally capital-city-centric, but it's not often I am brutally reminded of that fact here in Ye Olde England where nowhere is very far away from anywhere else - at least in geographical terms. But, here in the wilds of rural Derbyshire, it's becoming increasingly clear just how far away we are in practical terms from the rest of the country.
Reading the newspaper, it seems like the world is about to end because of the most severe drought for fifty years. Reservoirs are empty, rivers have dried up, and it's so bad that our local water company is actually selling water to others elsewhere in the country. I read last week about how Severn Trent is pumping water into a local river that eventually feeds into the River Trent where Anglian Water is sucking it out again. I'm not sure how they know which water is theirs, or whether there'll be floods if they don't pump it out quickly enough.
Of course there's already a hosepipe ban on now in the majority of the country, with the most severe restrictions ever. They say that there'll soon be standpipes in the street and water rationing unless people start bathing in just half an inch of water. You'd think that we lived in the middle of a desert.
And every day there's a new crisis. Boat cruise companies will go out of business because the canals are closed. Public parks will become waste grounds as all the trees and bushes wither away. There'll be hundreds killed on the roads because cars will be so dirty you can’t see them. Garden centers will go bankrupt because nobody will buy plants. And then, when it does rain, there'll be flash floods because the ground is baked hard.
So while most of the country is reported to be drowning in both debt and drought, here in our glorious little haven of tranquility we're drowning in a lack of drought. Last December was the wettest for years, and it rained for most of March and all of April. At Easter it snowed. My lawn in like a quagmire, my fishpond is overflowing, and you need waders to walk through the woods next door. At one point recently it was raining at a rate of five inches per hour, and we even had hailstorms twice last week. Someone wrote to the letters page of my daily newspaper yesterday to ask if this was the wettest drought since records began.
Mind you, I did hear that our local recreation center is doing its bit to help. Due to the water shortage, they've closed two lanes of the swimming pool.
It seems to be a general rule now here at p&p that every guide we produce must have an associated set of practical examples so that users can get their hands (and keyboards) dirty playing with the technologies. It's almost like we're worried that our readers won’t believe the stuff actually works; or might think the text of the guide was dreamed up by the marketing department during one of their going forward, 360 degree, base-touching idea showers.
It's weird that I always dread the moment when the project manager suggests it's time to start on the Hands-On Labs (HOLs) for the guide we just shipped. The work involved in producing them always seems to vastly exceed any benefit users may get from them. Yet, once we get under way I really do enjoy working to the highly structured and predefined format. OK, so it takes an age to get the screenshots, the code, and the order of tasks correct; never mind the regular changes to the plan and the content. But it usually goes much better than I initially feared, stuff tends to work more easily than I expected, and it often comes together more quickly than I originally envisaged.
As you may have guessed from this pre-ramble, I'm doing HOLs at the moment; this time for the Windows Azure Hybrid Applications guide we recently released. And despite pages of instructions for setting up Service Bus, ACS, Traffic Manager, Azure Connect and more, the stuff is working as it should with only the minimum level of cursing and swearing at the technologies. We're well over half way through the ten labs, and still working to the original plan. Surely something must go wrong soon...
But where I am struggling is with the complexity of the technologies and the examples. Working with hybrid applications that use a wide range of networking services over the Internet means that the opportunities for simple one-line explanation of the operation are few and far between. Now combine that with features such as federated authentication, a fully architect-compliant application design that incorporates interminable levels of redirection, dependency injection, two MVC websites, WCF services, reliable messaging and connection retry mechanisms, and a multi-level Entity Framework based data model.
The result is that every step requires additional explanation of what the code does, and why. The rules for HOLs suggest each step should be a single instruction followed by a code listing or a screenshot, and that there should be minimum distraction from the steps themselves. Yet I'm finding I need to have up to three or four individual instructions in each step to be able to achieve something worthwhile in less than 20 steps, and each one seems to require a paragraph or more of explanation in a background box. And all this while complying with our new accessibility standard.
Users should be able to complete a HOL exercise within 30 to 40 minutes, and a complete lab in under an hour. Maybe that's possible if the exercise is how to create a class file in C# or write a WCF service that returns "Hello World", but it sure takes a lot longer to show users how to configure Service Bus and ACS when connecting a new partner organization to your existing hybrid application. Or to deploy the application to multiple datacenters, along with the data in SQL Azure and DataSync configured between all the instances.
What's mostly of concern, however, is the amount of time users of the labs will actually need to devote to understanding the theory and background to the exercises. Each lab has an overview with a schematic of the architecture for the example and the exercises, and then each task explains the objectives and the results. Meanwhile many steps have a couple of paragraphs explaining what's happening at each stage, and the code listings are interspersed with descriptions of how they work.
I guess I include all this extra content because I can’t see the point of someone going through the exercise just blindly following the instructions in the steps, without actually gaining any understanding of why they need to do it or any appreciation of how it all works.
But if our users end up spending more time reading than they do clicking and typing, have I actually created Hands-Off Labs?
Talking to an acquaintance over email the other day, I was taken aback when he asked me when I'd exchanged my old car for a new one. As I hadn't, I asked what had prompted this inquiry. He lives at the other end of the country and hasn't ever been to my house, but he'd happened to wander virtually down our street on Google Street View (he knows my address) and seen a visitor's car parked on my driveway. So I thought it would be interesting to ask what else he could discover about my house and lifestyle, in particular from a security and privacy point of view.
A couple of days later the results were in. Google maps confirmed that I have a fishpond in the garden which might contain valuable fish, and a conservatory at the back so there is likely to be a vulnerable patio door; which is not easily visible from the road or from other houses. There are trees next to our house that could provide useful cover, while the wooden front and back doors would probably not take a huge amount of effort to force open.
As well as a large well-maintained garden, there's also a garage that's likely to house valuable tools and garden equipment. The patio furniture also looks as though it stays outside all the time. And we're only a mile or so from the motorway, so an easy and quick escape with stolen goods is available. Mind you, he also confirmed that there are many more desirable cars than mine parked on the street and driveways around us; he particularly fancies the Mercedes CLK just a few houses away.
I know that we really shouldn't expect much privacy these days, and that persons with nefarious intentions probably always cruised around the more affluent areas sizing up opportunities. But how much easier is it now to case the joint remotely with absolutely no chance of arousing suspicion? Want a new Range Rover in dark blue? A few hours on Street View will find you one, and maybe even give you some idea of how easy it will be to break in and steal the keys.
Mind you, I can't help wondering why there are so many cars parked on the street and on driveways. There's about a twenty houses around us and all have at least one garage, yet I know of only one person besides me who ever puts their car in it. Most people seem to think it's more important to store worthless junk there and leave a valuable car outside.
Of course, as any newsgroup or forum will tell you, worrying about stuff like this is just a sign you are paranoid. Street View doesn't show anything that isn't visible from the street, and the satellite images are supposedly too fuzzy to reveal anything useful. And you can always complain to Google and get your house or car removed or blurred; which, of course, just makes it even more interesting and attractive to virtual nefarious passers-by.
But thankfully our faceless bureaucratic rulers here in Europe are looking after our privacy. Starting this month they will be enforcing the new browser cookie rules that ban the use of tracking cookies without obtaining a user's prior consent. So at least when your car, garden tools, patio furniture, goldfish, and everything else valuable have been stolen you'll be happy in the knowledge that you can visit all your favorite websites without seeing targeted adverts.
Unless they also stole your laptop.
I suppose it just shows how poor my business skills are. If I ran a hugely successful business directory company called "Yellow Pages" and wanted to extend it to the web, I'd have kept the name and made the web pages yellow. Instead, they changed the name to "Yell". I guess it works to some extent in that it's a verb so you can "Yell for a plumber", in the same way as you might Google or Bing one. But why, at a cost supposedly running into six figures, have they just decided to change the name again?
According to the newspaper, the new name is "hibu". I suppose I should applaud the fact that, in line with our own style guidance here at Microsoft, there is no unnecessary capital letter. But I can't see how it will work in relation finding a business in their directory - I suspect that few people will instinctively "hibu a plumber". The only reference I can find to the word is the name of the Norwegian college Hogskolen i Buskerud (Buskerud University College) or "HiBu". And they do manage to include some capital letters.
It's a bit like the weird name change that the mobile phone companies T-Mobile and Orange underwent after their amalgamation into one. The choice of the name "Everything Everywhere" has already been described as silly by no less than their chairman Stephane Richard. Meanwhile I confirmed that you can't buy a tin of baked beans from them, and your phone probably won't work on the Moon, so the name obviously contravenes some regulation or other.
Of course, the problem is finding a name that isn't a rude word in any language, and for which you can register an Internet domain. A colleague of mine owns a company whose name contains only a meaningless string of lower-case letters. Perhaps he chose it by entering letters at random into one of those web sites where you buy domain names until it came up with an available .com domain. Maybe we'll need to get used to company names such as "hwudniq", "clxystwm", and "odsengto" (all of which are, at the time of writing, still available).
But coming back to "hibu", it seems that I just don't appreciate the intricacies of modern marketing. The company declared that the new name is "short, easy to pronounce (though they had to include a note to say it's pronounced "high-boo"), edgy, and innovative". The CEO Mike Pocock even reminded people that names such as "Apple", "Google", and "Yahoo!" don't have any real meaning as words, and were unknown years ago. Well so was "Microsoft", but I can't see that Steve Ballmer will suddenly decide to swap it for one of the currently available names I mentioned earlier.
And I reckon Adam and Eve would have something to say about "Apple" not having any real meaning...
While my car was in the dealer's workshop having its annual checkup last week I did the usual nerdy thing of sneaking into the showroom to play with the toys in the new models. OK, so my car has some nifty electronics built in, including satnav with traffic updates and a connection for my phone. But, wow, the latest stuff is mind-blowing. It took me back to Microsoft's Web Tech-Ed in 1998, when a guy drove a Jaguar onto the stage and proceeded to talk about the vehicle-integrated Internet.
Supposedly, way back in 1998 (which was, you realize, 14 years ago) we were on the verge of having a PC built into our cars that would give full access to the Internet, email, messaging, and more. Yet it never really happened; the nearest I ever got was plugging my laptop into the cigarette lighter and driving round looking for a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Anyway, when the sales guy finally decided he should come over and shoo this scruffy geek out of his pristine showroom, I managed to distract him by asking lots of technical questions. It seems that as well as satnav with full satellite image overlays stored on a hard drive built into the car, it also allows you to upload compressed music files and play them just like in Windows Media Player or an MP3 player. Or you can play music direct from your smartphone.
And, of course, the satnav uses address data stored on your smartphone, while the integrated phone system even stores a list of contacts with phone numbers you can call directly in conjunction with your smartphone. And it displays, and even lets you send, SMS text messages through your smartphone. What's more, if you have the right smartphone it will even display and let you compose emails through the onboard menus and commands. Which are also voice-activated.
Yes, there's a calendar built in which will display the appointments stored on your smartphone. And, yes, you can browse the web. In fact you can use the web to find destination locations for your satnav, and even call phone numbers displayed in web pages (in conjunction with your smartphone). Plus, when you play a CD in your car (yes, it still has a CD\DVD player) you can even use a special web-based service to look up the album details and display a picture of the album cover. Though you probably need the right smartphone for this as well.
It's all very amazing, but what it means is that your car is really just a huge and very expensive Bluetooth headset. And it only works fully if you have the right kind of smartphone. Maybe, in future, changing your car won't be a matter of finding one with the right performance/running cost ratio, number of seats, and color. Instead, you'll need to look for one that's compatible with your phone.
And if you lose or break your phone, and buy a different one, you'll probably have to change your car as well...
I was quite proud of the fact that I've finally managed to expunge all vestiges of Windows XP from my network, and my client machines are now running only Vista and Windows 7. So I suppose it's time to think about the next upgrade - Windows 8. But how will I get on with it when my computing requirements are so narrowly focused and task specific? Will it do for me what Windows 7 already does so well?
I was prompted to go down this thought path by a couple of recent events. Firstly, whilst on a shared desktop conference call with a colleague who's already upgraded to the preview version, we both experienced the "where's the menus" conundrum when trying to figure out how change the way a schematic was displayed. It was shown full screen, and only after a frenetic session of scrolling from the edges, tapping, pointing, and swearing did we figure it out. I only hope that there's still room in my head for a new interface paradigm.
And then a friend emailed me to ask when "the Windows Tablet" would be available to buy. I explained that he'd be able to buy a tablet computer from several manufacturers with Windows 8 installed later this year, but he can't wait that long so he asked me about buying an iPad instead. I know a few people who have iPads, and I usually ask them what they do with them. Typically the answer is "browse the web, Facebook, Twitter, and email".
So I asked my friend (who is just starting out as an author) what he wanted to do with a tablet computer and he mentioned things like using Microsoft Word and Visio, Adobe Illustrator, Excel, and several other office and design-oriented applications. I don't know about you, but none of these are things I'd like to try and use with an on-screen keyboard and by poking at a tablet with my big stubby (and usually grimy) fingers. I already have to try and do this with my phone; and I imagine that attempting to highlight some text in the middle of a paragraph, or draw one-pixel wide borders around a schematic, is not going to be easy with my 150 pixel fingers.
But I can use a mouse and keyboard with Windows 8 on my work machine, and maybe even change the default menu screen so that something useful replaces the tiles for all those social networks and life-sharing apps I never use. And maybe one day I'll get round to replacing the two big monitors on my main workstation with touch-screen ones so I can leave greasy fingerprints all over them much more easily.
Of course, this would expose me to the inherent risk of digital (as in finger, not binary) injury. No doubt you heard the story about the fellow who was explaining to his doctor how every part of his body was painful. "When I prod my cheek it hurts, when I poke my leg it hurts, and when I press against my chest it hurts" he explained. After a thorough examination the doctor was able to confirm that he wasn't suffering from some all-encompassing illness by explaining that he just had a broken finger...
Last Christmas I bought my wife an unusual present - a bird box with a camera installed. I didn't expect much this year, but in fact we've been treated to one of the wonders of nature in big-screen format. So I hope you'll excuse the departure from technical themes this week as I do the "new Dad" thing and pass round photos of our seven new babies (though unfortunately the quality is mediocre because they were captured over wireless video link).
In early May we saw nest building start, though it was a week before we got to see blue tit Mum.
And then, three days later, it was clear that the nine eggs were beginning to hatch.
Within two days, Mum and Dad were fighting hard to satisfy the appetites of the newborn chicks.
They seemed to grow bigger by the hour, no doubt due to the hundreds of caterpillars and seeds being delivered.
A couple of days later, their eyes were open and they were starting to look like baby birds.
As the days went by, they grew and grew, and were continually hungry.
And then a sad sight. One had died during the night and Dad struggled for over an hour to remove it from the nest.
Meanwhile the rest continued to do well, and we even noticed their individual personalities coming through. One very dominant male, with two feathers that resembled horns, soon became known as "The Devil Child".
Like all kids, they had an unhealthy interest in poo. One decided to investigate some that hadn't been removed, but Mum soon arrived and took it away for disposal outside.
We lost another the next night, though it was a great deal smaller than the rest and hadn't looked as though it would survive. However, the rest seemed really healthy. And there's always one that has to pose for the camera.
On May 25th they started to become very restless and took it in turns to fly up to the hole and gaze out at the world outside. But none were quite brave enough to leave just yet.
However, by lunchtime the next day there were only four left in the box. The time had obviously come, though Mum and dad continued to feed them.
Then, on May 27th the final rush for departure began. A cacophony of squawking and fluttering carried on through the morning as they jostled for position and prepared themselves for the wild blue yonder.
And then, by early afternoon, they were all gone. The magnificent seven had flown the nest.
I wonder if we'll be so lucky again next spring...
To see more, check out this short video clip (around 7 MB)