Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Planet Earth Recorded

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    This week marked the start of a much hyped new BBC TV series called Planet Earth Live. Of course, being nature lovers, we had to tune in. Let's face it, who could fail to be tempted by a program that promises to reveal the intimate lives of wild animals, and is presented by two of our most lovable TV stars (neither of which, unfortunately, are wild animal experts - but that's just a minor detail).

    And I have to say that the photography was just as amazing as we've got used to from similar BBC blockbusters such as Plant Earth (not Live), The Blue Planet, and the amazing Frozen Planet. Though showing some unrelated scraps of film of a lion's teeth just to illustrate how clever the camera operators are seemed a bit self-congratulatory. And the dreadful attempts at humour by the presenters, or that the one who specializes in shows about fast cars had to keep pointing out which of the big four wheel drive vehicles was his, surely didn't gain them any fans.

    But where I began to wonder about the whole nature of this nature extravaganza, which will be broadcast twice a week for the rest of May, is that pretty much none of it is actually live. Other than the presenters doing the "walk and talk" stuff and some fairly vague "chat with map" bits that really told you nothing, everything was "action that we recorded earlier". Of course, it doesn't help that "live" here in the UK is the middle of the night where they are. Or that it was raining so heavily in the Masai Mara that nobody really wanted to go outside.

    I suppose you can't expect a program to actually be "live" because it's likely that you'd sit there for the whole hour that it's on and nothing would happen. And it was cute to see the trailer for the bit where the meerkat is sitting on the cameraman's head. But, like so many of these programs, the focus is on "the human story" (even though they are animals) and focusing on the ones that aren't going to (or didn't) make it to adulthood.

    While there are four huge prides of lions in the area, and it would be great to see how they live and behave, we instead had to watch a lone mother with a cub that is starving. Likewise, we had to see how a clueless mother in a leaderless group of elephants will (and did) lose her baby, and be told in detail how bad a mother one of the black bears is (until, thankfully, we discovered at the end of the sequence that she actually isn't that bad). But never mind, they did replay the cute "Ahhhhhh" moments several times, even accompanied by the presenter who'd just had a baby herself crying a bit to emphasize it.

    But I suppose it's not as bad as The Big Cat Diary series where they were so short of material they had to show every clip six times, and then have three different people analyze each one. Or, as in the other nature program currently gracing our screens (Foxes Live: Wild in the City), keep telling us what other viewers are tweeting. If I wanted to know that, I'd look on Twitter. At least with Foxes Live you can go on the web and stare for hours at the live view from a camera, where nothing is happening.

    It's a good thing David Attenborough is still alive or he'd be turning in his grave...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    I Can See Your House From Here

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    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.

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    I Can't Yell Any More

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    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...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Hands-Off Labs

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    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?

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