Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    A Bluetooth Headset on Wheels

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    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...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Keep Taking the Tablets

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    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...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    Hyphenless Decapitalization

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    According to Readers Digest, there's a dyslexic agnostic insomniac out there somewhere who lies awake all night pondering on the meaning of dog. Thing is, it really should be "doG", not "dog". But it seems that, according to our most recent style guide here at Microsoft, capital letters are fast becoming obsolete, although it's probably not so that jokes like this will be more accurate.

    The aims of the style guide updates are constructive and practical. We should provide help and guidance only where it will be useful, and phrase it in such a way that it appears friendly, open, and easy to assimilate. All very sensible aims, though I've yet to discover where simplifying content so that it makes it harder to use, or sprinkling it with exclamation marks and apostrophe-shortened words (such as "don't" and "shouldn't") is advantageous.

    But behind all this is an undercurrent of practical mechanisms for actual word styles and structure. For example, in the previous paragraph I committed the sin of "excess-hyphenation" (or, to be more exact "excess hyphenation"). I'm sure Microsoft style gurus aren't aiming to purge documentation of all hyphens, though it sometimes feels like it. I now have to use "bidirectional" instead of "bi-directional", "rerouting" instead of "re-routing", and "cloud hosted" instead of "cloud-hosted". Though it seems I can still get away with "on-premises", as in "deployed to an on-premises server". Perhaps "onpremises" is just one step too far. Though I do like that they ban the use of "on-premise" because a premise is, of course, a proposition upon which an argument is based or from which a conclusion is drawn.

    And then there's the race to remove capital letters from as much of the content as possible. Things that used to be a "Thing", such as "Windows Azure Storage" are now just a "thing", such as "Windows Azure storage". Tables are now tables, and Queues are now queues. I did think that "BLOB" might survive the cull because it's an acronym for Binary Large Object, but sadly no. It's now a "blob" in the same way as a patch of spilled custard is.

    Mind you, there are other rules that make it hard to create guidance that reads well. I still haven't found a solution for the repetitiveness in phrases such as "stored in an Active Directory directory", or the fact that the Access Control Service (ACS) is no longer a service; it's just "Access Control" and can't even have "service" after it. So "authenticated by ACS" now becomes "authenticated by AC", which seems too vague so I end up with "authenticated by Windows Azure Access Control" and repetitive strain injury.

    I get that over-capitalization and excess hyphenation can make the text harder to read and assimilate, and that we need to provide friendly guidance that uses familiar words and styles. And thankfully I have wonderful editors who apply all the rules to my randomly capitalized and hyphenated text (though, sadly, not to my blog posts). But I wonder if we'll soon need to start writing our guidance in txt speak. imho well mayb need to 4go sum rules b4 its 2 l8...

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    The Magnificent Seven Fly The Nest

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    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.

    Mum sitting peacefully on nine eggs

    And then, three days later, it was clear that the nine eggs were beginning to hatch.

    The first one hatches, and it's hungry!

    Within two days, Mum and Dad were fighting hard to satisfy the appetites of the newborn chicks.

    Lots of mouths to feed

    They seemed to grow bigger by the hour, no doubt due to the hundreds of caterpillars and seeds being delivered.

    They still look like ET

    A couple of days later, their eyes were open and they were starting to look like baby birds.

    Eyes open and a real handful

    As the days went by, they grew and grew, and were continually hungry.

    Where does all the food go?

    And then a sad sight. One had died during the night and Dad struggled for over an hour to remove it from the nest.

    A sad job for Dad

    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".

    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.

    Investigating poo

    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.

    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.

    Hey guys, you won't believe what's out here!

    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.

    Only four still living at home

    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.

    Me next...

    And then, by early afternoon, they were all gone. The magnificent seven had flown the nest.

    And then they were gone

    I wonder if we'll be so lucky again next spring...

    To see more, check out this short video clip (around 7 MB)

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