Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer
Anyone unfortunate enough to have followed my frantic ramblings over the years (though this blog and my diary from a previous life) will know that, in our house, we are fully paid up members of the modern all-singing, all-dancing, digital media and entertainment society. Well, OK, so we have a Media Center that is our main TV, DVD player, music jukebox, streaming device for our favorite saved videos, and presentation mechanism for a huge library of digital photos. We even use a photo screensaver, so we can relive those wonderful memories of the past whilst daydreaming in our armchairs in the evenings (pipe and slippers being optional accessories).
So, you can image the massed panic and total disruption to our daily life when, the other day, my wife pressed the button on the front to fire it up - and nothing happened. Of course, I didn't panic. Or, at least, I didn't panic immediately, knowing that it was just a glitch that the big red switch on the wall would resolve. And when it didn't, I panicked as well. But after the requisite period of running around waving our hands over our heads and howling in anguish, I came up with the solution: "No problem, we'll just buy another one."
Ha! Where did they all go? Only a couple of years ago there were dozens of different ready-built and off-the-shelf systems available, but a search of the Web revealed that now there seem to be only two - neither of which will work with our aging non-HDMI screen, nor have twin digital TV tuners. And digging deeper, it seems that they are both discontinued products anyway; in fact, if Sony is an example, the retail lifetime of a new model is about six weeks. The young sales guy at our local Sony Centre had never even heard of the two unsuitable ones I found still listed for sale at a few suppliers.
Eventually I found a company locally that advertises some nice-looking custom built machines, with a huge range of tempting options for power supplies, video cards, and the rest. But they don't have a showroom or any machines you can look at, don't do demonstrations, and only take orders over the Web. From previous experience, I reckon that a Media Center machine is definitely something you need to see working (and hear how loud it is) before parting with the not inconsiderable volumes of credit card.
But then I found a refurbished Acer 510 (like we have now) available from a London company, and snapped it up - and it turned out to be just as faulty as ours. The refurbishment obviously consisted of losing some of the screws, bending the cabinet lid so it didn't fit properly, and disconnecting the power button. So it's gone back to them. In fact, the behavior was not unlike that of our own broken one, which is currently languishing in the workshop of a local PC repair guy. I've told him he needs to get it to work, even if it means bodging an external power supply (which seems to be the fault), but he doesn't seem to hold out much hope.
The alternative looked like some consumer-related setup such as Sky Plus (satellite), or a "normal" TV with a slot for a memory card. But none of these can provide the total immersive experience of Media Center. And I've yet to find a "standard" PC that, while it might have Vista with Media Center installed, is quiet enough for the living room - or hibernates and wakes reliably to record stuff. For the last few days we've been using a very old Humax DVR that I bought in a sale when they were discontinued some years back, but the interface and capabilities make you feel like you're using a home computer from about 1985.
And then, after much more Web research, I came across the I.US range of Athlon-powered Media Center machines. The prices are a bit scary, but they get great write-ups from the H-Fi magazines (they seem to be aimed at hi-fi-retailers rather than computer dealers). I even found some available from Amazon, so - with a view to regaining marital harmony - I've bitten the bullet and flashed the cash. At least it's a nice looking case, so we can use it as an ornament if nothing else.
So, here's the question: As the average Joe (and Joanna) become more and more media-immersed with their digital cameras, downloaded music, and huge wall screens, surely there should be more systems available rather than fewer? I can't even find systems that use the competitors to the Windows Media Center software (Dell did have a version at one time). And why don't those cinema sound systems or digital video recorders that seem to be obligatory with modern TVs have facilities for seamlessly displaying photos and playing music?
Footnote: Interestingly, I've had replies from a couple of companies that do Media Center systems, which never showed up in my endless Web searches. One company (Russound) tell me they tried to get into the market but just couldn't sell them. Maybe it's just too specialist an area - I know only one other person who uses Media Center. Yet, once you're into it (and accept that it is, after all, a computer so it does need some TLC at times), you'll never go back to "ordinary" TV again.
FootfootNote: I also found this site that UK readers may be interested in if searching for a ready-built Media Center system: http://www.mediacenter-tv.co.uk/. I don't have any other information about them, but they do seem to list plenty of highly configurable systems.
FootfootfootNote: You might also like to take a look at http://www.media-centre-pc.co.uk/index.php?dispatch=categories.view&category_id=165 and http://www.vivadi.com/Media%20Centres.html.
It's a strange experience when you open the curtains in the morning to be faced by men in high visibility jackets and hard hats only a few yards away, and 30 feet above the ground. Mind you, the noise made by the assortment of cranes, diggers, and other plant they use - combined with regular hammering and occasional swearing - means you don't get to overlay in the mornings. I've even got to know most of them, and give them a cheery wave as I try and convert from half-asleep to some state of semi-awakeness. Though they do seem somewhat reticent about waving back to a zombie-like character with a dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards hairstyle, and still adorned in a bright blue check dressing gown.
What's interesting, though, is how they seem to build houses these days. In some ways, it's quite reminiscent of the agile process, which we follow here at p&p. OK, so they do have a detailed plan when they start, but you can see the way that this gradually morphs as they turn it into bricks and mortar. And even more so with some of the actual construction processes they follow. For example, the bricklayers leave slots in the wall for the scaffold poles as they build upwards, but obviously nobody told them how long a scaffold plank is - so they leave slots at seemingly random intervals. This means that the scaffold guy has to bodge together extra bits so the joints between the planks are properly supported. Maybe nobody thought of implementing an IScaffoldPlank interface.
And they leave nice neat holes in the wall for the pipes and stuff as they build, but they never seem to be in quite the right place. Though they do have metal frames they build into the wall for the windows, yet they tell me they don't order the windows until they've measured the holes after the brickwork in finished. So even if they do have specifications, they don't actually trust them. I suppose it's their equivalent of test driven development.
Agile development encourages completion of iteration tasks as chunks of a complete project, and the bricklayers obviously follow this technique. They even do paired development (funny how you never seem to see just one). And in an effort to complete their part of the process during the current iteration, they even build the extremely precarious "sticking out bits" on the corners that finish off the end of the fascia where walls, tiles, and gutters meet. And then, when the carpenters lift the roof trusses into place, they invariably knock these off. And even when they don't, the bricklayers seem to have to come back and alter them because they don't line up with the other bits.
After the roof trusses are in place, the roofers arrive and carry bundles of tiles up onto the roof and place them in nice equally-spaced heaps over the whole roof area. Yet when they come to lay the tiles onto the roof, they have to start at the bottom so that they overlap properly. By the time they are a third of the way up the slope, hammering in the fixing nails has the occasional interesting side effect of causing tiles to slide off the heaps above them and crash down onto the scaffolding - often narrowly missing them. Mind you, the experts seem to be able to catch these as they go past, like it's some kind of game. They rest end up in pieces in my garden.
You'd think that it would make sense to just carry them up onto the roof as they needed them. Yes, I know they have to build up equally on both sides of the slope (or the roof will fall off the walls with the unbalanced weight), but I reckon they do it so that they can see if the roof will actually take the weight of several hundred concrete tiles. The fact that they seem to put them all up there and then go away for a couple of days only reinforces this opinion. Probably it's their implementation of experimental spikes.
Still, it's going to seem very quiet here in a few weeks time when they've finished. I know you can buy CDs that just play the relaxing sounds of waves and birdsong. I wonder if I can get one that plays building noises...
So here's an interesting approach to merchandising and pricing your products. Imagine, if you will, that you have set up a company to build sports cars, and you reckon your can sell 50 in the first year. Or maybe, closer to home, you have invented some fabulous new piece of software that you're convinced will sweep the world off its feet and find a home on every desktop and server out there (yes, when I was a lot younger I started out like that as well...). Anyway, after a year, you discover that you are only selling half what you budgeted for, and so you're losing money. What do you do?
Well, you could decide to trim your costs to get back on budget. Or you could redouble your efforts in selling the cars/programs/whatever-it-is-you-do to reach your initial target. Or you might instead consider improving the product so it is easier to sell, making up the gap that way. It's a fair bet that one of these approaches - or, more likely, a combination - will solve the embarrassing "hole in the finances" problem...? Or, maybe, instead of any of these, how about just doubling the price?
If that sounds like a daft idea, and may in fact result in reduced sales, you obviously aren't familiar with the way that Government departments tackle this kind of not-unheard-of problem. After all, they are a monopoly in many areas of public service and provision, such as the people who look after registering land ownership or issuing passports. Here in our little Communist corner of the People's Republic of Europe, the Land Registry and the Passport Office have both announced that, because people can't afford to buy houses or go on holiday any more, these two offices are both running over budget. It seems that the income from the fees they charge has dropped dramatically during the recession.
In fact, one of my wife's friends works in the local Land Registry office and she's regularly been regaling us with tales of how they have nothing to do - and are having to look busy by reorganizing the filing system, re-sharpening their pencils every hour, and moving everything from one room to another and back again. She was worried that she'd be made redundant, but that's not the way they do things. Instead, they just put their price up for each registration. And no messing about with 5% increases here, add another 75% on instead.
And then there's passports. Or, as they have now become, "combined identity and travel documents". Not only have they doubled the price, but it seems that the Government doesn't know enough about us already and now they need to put every detail on some database that they can then sell to make some extra money. Of course, it will be really useful in reducing crime and terrorism, and make us all feel safer because we'll have an extra plastic card that we can wave around to prove who we are. Maybe they'll be able to do all the fancy things you see on these TV forensics programs as well, like identify people from the perfume or aftershave they wear, or by the color of their socks. I watch C.S.I. so I know about these things.
In fact, my favorite one was where they were at some big trucking company office where there was a huge map showing lots of red dots where all the trucks were wandering around the roads of the state. A pal of mine has been involved in this kind of project for a local council, so I know it can be done. Though I seem to remember they only did snow ploughs and grass cutting machines, so it was a bit less exciting. My theory is that they could afford only a limited number of geo-location devices, and they figured they wouldn't be doing much grass cutting in the snow.
But I'm wandering off topic. So, as we watched these trucks on the big screen blinking their way around the map, the C.S.I. people started firing questions. "Can you remove all the ones where the driver never goes on route 17?" Three taps on the keyboard, a satisfying bloopy noise, and some of the red dots flash and then fade away. "Now remove all the ones where the truck was off the road last Tuesday". Click, click, click, bloop, gone. "How about all of the trucks with a dent in the passenger door?" Tap, tap, tap, bloop, gone. "Now remove all the ones where the driver has never had whooping cough". Well, you get this picture... after a few more iterations there's only a single red blinking light left, so that must be the murderer!
But I still can't figure why, when you want to search some incredibly huge database of fingerprints, the system decides to make the most of its processing capabilities by retrieving all the ones that don't match and drawing a picture of them on the screen. Still, at least when it does find the right one, it flashes in a very attractive manner and all of the information you could possibly want scrolls across the screen. I wonder if they use an HTML Marquee tag. And our police will soon be able to do the same after we've all been photographed, iris-scanned, and fingerprinted like criminals for our new "combined identity and travel documents".
That is, of course, if they actually get the stuff into the database with some semblance of approximate accuracy (supposedly most of the Government databases have at least 10% errors, and the driver and vehicle one has nearer to 20% errors). I even read this week that they've still not got a system that's supposed to transfer court records to the police national database working because "some of the information is too complicated". It was supposed to be up and running three years ago, and they've already spent on it, according to my rough calculations, a sum of money equal to the entire tax take from our village for the next 75 years. I can't imagine how us people that live in the real world (and obviously only have to work with simple information) would get a way with that - even by doubling the price.
I'm fast coming to the conclusion that you actually need to be quite stupid to use a computer these days. Within a few years those with even a minor modicum of capability, or just a hint of innate common sense, or even mental agility that verges on a level around normal, will find themselves completely excluded from the ever-present, always-connected, online virtualness and technological future of man (and women) kind. We'll be reduced to writing on stuff called "paper" and sending these hand-written messages to others by buying "postage stamps". Or actually talking using ordinary words over a voice connection called a "telephone".
OK, so this partly comes about as a result of my daily battles with software that is either so simplified and "user-friendly" that it's almost impossible to make it do what you want, or which seems intent on trying to hide from you anything that does not involve answering inane questions. Yes, I know I've ranted on about this in probably far too many blog posts in the past. And I appreciate that software should be as intuitive and easy to use as possible to open up our wonderful world of computing technology to the widest possible audience.
But this week I've seen with some horror the effects of our attempts to achieve this in gory close-up detail as I've tried to help some friends get set up with their new computer. And these aren't stupid people trying to do difficult stuff. They have both run retail businesses before they retired from full-time work, and can quite successfully manage things like programming a video recorder, working the latest types of mobile phones, and eating gum whilst walking. And what's worse, they actually had another friend who is technically quite competent help them get their modem and Internet connection set up and working, yet fail to complete the job.
So these people looked on in horror as I tried to get them started with a bit of basics on using a GUI, starting and stopping programs, and gentle Web surfing. Questions I never even anticipated, such as "Why are there so many different ways to do the same thing?" and "What are all these little pictures on the bottom for?" (the notification icon area which contains no less than 11 icons that do nothing when you click on them). And even "How do I turn it off?" They didn't seem to intuitively grasp that you need to click the button that says "Start" if you wave your mouse pointer over it when you wanted to stop.
Then there's the free 60-day trial of Office that continually pops up a dialog asking you to register it, sends you (after several clicks) to a page that gives you a product key and tells you to copy it into the Office "register" dialog, but then sends you an email to tell you to do it all over again. Or the Norton program that nags continually until you click the "Fix" button, then does a few tricks, and then starts to "check your system" - at which point everything stops with no indication of what it's doing or how long it will take. And then it starts to "backup your files" to some online repository (no idea where). It says you can carry on working, but reports that the process failed when you close the nag window.
On my first visit, I set up a Windows Live email account for them so they wouldn't have to keep changing their email address when they change ISPs (I've read enough horror stories about the one they are with, though I suspect that all ISPs have a reasonably equal number of these circulating the 'Net). But the next day they told me that they hadn't managed to get into it again because they couldn't figure out what to do when presented with the initial Home page. "Why do I have to wave my arrow thing all over the page to see which bits do something?" they asked. I'd explained that links were usually blue and underlined, so they were completely fooled by links that are black and only go blue and underlined when you move the mouse pointer over them; and doubly fooled by the main login one that lit up blue. Though no doubt, after a while, they'll get used to the strange and often unintuitive conventions we take for granted (like "I can understand Maximize and Minimize, but what does Restore Down mean?").
Still, all of this is just a familiarization process, and they'll soon become proficient and inclusive members of our high-tech community. Though where the fun really started was trying to get their ISP email working so they could receive messages and online bills. My ISP (British Telecom) allows you to specify any email address to receive the "important information about our services" messages. But their ISP insists that you use their own email system, so we had to persuade Windows Email (a.k.a. Outlook Express) to talk to their mail servers. No, you can't just use the Webmail feature because the email setup process (which you have to do yourself) requires that you verify mail server registration using an "important information about our services" email that they send you before you can log in (?).
You kick off this registration process through their own Web site, after logging into it with your "broadband account details" - which are different from your email account details they send you in the welcome pack with your modem (even though you don't yet have an email account). And here we come to the nub of the issue that drove me (and them) crazy. The ISP provides a password to log onto their site in the "welcome" letter. But after endless attempts we couldn't make it work. So we phoned the automated "password reminder" service. The nice electronic lady read out the user name and password - exactly the same as in the welcome letter.
Now I don't know about you, but faced with a password (and this isn't the real one) such as "H6C2W9A3", and being canny enough to guess that - like most systems - it is case-sensitive, what would you type in? My guess is the same as we did over and over again: "H6C2W9A3". What you actually have to type is "h6c2w9a3". Yes, it's case sensitive, but to save confusion they print it in the welcome pack using "letters that look the same as the ones on the keyboard". And the automated password reminder service read it out as "haych for Henry, number six, see for Charlie, number two, double-you for Whisky, number nine, 'ay for Alpha, number three". Not even a suggestion that there might be some lower-case stuff in there.
Now you see what I mean about stupid people? The only people who will be able to use the Internet in a few years time are those who WRITE EVERYTHING IN CAPITAL LETTERS and don't even realize that there are such things as "small letters". And, after all that, when we finally did get to the "My Account" page, we found the following message (and note the interesting use of grammar): "My Account is currently unavailable. We making some improvements to our customer service and online systems over the weekend".
Probably they're making them more compatible with stupid people...
There's some ethereal guy called "system" wandering around inside my servers stealing stuff. It's a bit like when you were a kid and your parents hid things from you. When my hamster died, my Dad told me it had gone to live on a farm. Of course, when I got a bit older and my Grandmother passed away I realized he was telling fibs because she suffered from hay fever and was afraid of cows, so there's no way she would go and live on a farm. Yet, even though I've now reached the age where people generally feel they can tell me the truth (often, worryingly, to may face), I discover that Windows Server 2008 is still hiding stuff from me.
I suppose it's all related to the poor decisions I made when ordering my servers. Ever since I set them up with Hyper-V, and virtualized all the machines I find I need for my diminutive network here at chez Derbyshire, I've been struggling for disk space. It seems that 300GB is just an aperitif when you get serious about virtualization. OK, so the Server 2008 docs do say you need a minimum of 40GB for a standard installation, but I made the VMs only 30GB. My Windows 2003 Server VM that runs ISA is 30GB and has 22GB free. Though the Windows 2008 VMs that don't have very much at all installed are both showing only 8GB free of 30GB so maybe they were right...
Anyway, although my math skills may have waned since leaving school, I managed to calculate that I could run four 30GB VMs on a 150GB disk (yes, I know you're supposed to put them on separate disks, but my network loading is somewhat less than heavy - none of the machines goes above about 3% CPU utilization). Yet I could never get all of them onto the disk. OK, so Hyper-V does use some extra space for each VM when it's running (about 2GB for a 30GB VM), but I should still have space for four of them. In fact, as one of the VMs is a tightly locked down copy of Windows XP used for browsing and troubleshooting while I'm pretending to be a system administrator, and its only 10GB, I should have space left to swing several cats round simultaneously. But I could only ever fit the three 30GB VMs onto the disk.
I did try reducing the size of the VM with the 20+GB of free space using the Hyper-V tools, but (as they say in several blog posts I found) it's not a trivial exercise. You can convert the VM to a dynamic disk and compact it (it went down to 5.6GB), but when you convert it back to a fixed size disk there is no option to specify the size because it automatically grows to the partition size specified in its boot sector. You need to edit the partition size to reduce the physical disk size, and I didn't fancy playing round with that on a Sunday afternoon. Please, Hyper-V guys, can we have a tool to do this (and better docs that explain why you are wasting good gardening time playing with the existing tools).
So I've put off dealing with this issue for the last few months since setting everything up, but now that we are suddenly experiencing tropical conditions here in Little Olde England I decided I needed to find a way to get this sorted so I could shut down the "spare" server and reduce the searing temperatures in my server cabinet (see last week's ramblings for details). So out comes the calculator: three times 32 (the three VMs on the disk) equals 96. Check the disk properties and it says 133GB used, 14GB free. So where did all the spare disk space go? Maybe it's got some lost clusters, so I schedule a disk check and reboot. After restarting, look in the bootlog.txt file and - lo and behold - around 40GB is described as "in use by the system". What on earth for? Is it hiding secret documents from me? Does it need some spare disk space for playing Mahjong when nobody is watching? Is it full of dead hamsters that never made it to the farm?
So I did the usual, check the properties of each folder and add the total sizes together. 96GB. Then turn on "view operating system files" and do the same. Still 96GB. See what I mean? Most things made of metal expand when they get hot, so my disk drives should be getting bigger not smaller. I even considered looking underneath to see if there was a pool of congealed clusters that had leaked out of the bottom (OK, so not really). But then - "Aha!" - I remember seeing the occasional error message in Event Log about something to do with "Not sufficient disk space to create shadow copies". One of those messages that I've conveniently been ignoring.
So after furkling through the properties of the disk, I find that Windows has allocated 41GB to shadow copies. I suppose the fact that you can see this in the Shadow Copies tab of the Properties dialog means that it's not technically "hidden", but where is the file? You can't see it in Windows Explorer, even with "show operating system files" and "show hidden files" turned on. And how do you stop it happening? After reading some online docs and blog posts, it became clear that the shadow copies are there because the disk has a share set up, and it allows connected users to get at the previous deleted or updated data that was on the disk. I have the disk with the VMs on shared at admin level to be able to do backups, so I can't really just turn off sharing. And according to the Shadow Copies dialog, they are disabled on the disk anyway.
I had a go with the vssadmin command line tool that is part of Server 2008, but that said it couldn't find any shadow copies (that system guy obviously hides stuff from Windows as well). It seems that vssadmin can only delete shadow copies you create manually. And to make it worse, the more I tried enabling and disabling shadow copies, the larger the shadow copy got. After ten minutes it had grown to 55GB! In the end, more by luck that any administrative capability on my part, I found that by clicking the Schedule button and deleting the two existing scheduled shadow copy tasks, and setting the size to 300MB (the minimum you can specify), the shadow copies magically just disappeared. Suddenly I've got tons of spare disk space on all of my drives!
Of course, now I can't sleep at night worrying that shadow copies aren't occurring for my shares, but seeing as how: a) I didn't know there were there before, b) I've never had reason to use them, and c) I can't see why I'd need to get a previous copy of a VM when they are all exported and backed up in multiple places regularly (and don't actually change that much anyway), maybe I'm just being as paranoid as usual.
I suppose I'll find out one day when the sky does fall in, and I can't get to the Internet to update my blog. You'll probably be able to tell when this happens because the post will suddenly end in mid
OK, OK, so one month I'm complaining that our little green paradise island seems to have drifted north into the Arctic, and now I'm grumbling about the heat. Obviously global warming is more than just a fad, as we've been subjected here in England to temperatures hovering around 90 degrees in real money for the last week or so. Other than the gruesome sight of pale-skinned Englishmen in shorts (me included), it's having some rather dramatic effects on my technology installations. I'm becoming seriously concerned that my hard disks will turn into floppy ones, and my batteries will just chicken out in the heat.
Oh dear, bad puns and I only just got going. But it does seem like the newer the technology, the less capable it is of operating in temperatures that many places in the world would call normal. There's plenty of countries that get regular spells of weather well into the 90's, as I discovered when we went to a wedding in Cyprus a few years back. How on earth do they cope? I've got extra fans running 24/7 in the computer cabinet and in the office trying to keep everything going. I'm probably using 95% of my not inconsiderable weekly electricity consumption keeping kit that only uses 1% of it to actually do stuff from evaporating (the other 4% is the TV, obviously).
Maybe the trouble is that, here in England where we have a "temperate" climate, we're not really up to speed with modern technology such as air conditioning. Yes, they seem to put it in every car these days, but I only know one person who has it in their house, and that's in the conservatory where - on a hot day - it battles vainly to get the temperature below 80 degrees. I briefly considered running an extension lead out to my car and sitting in it to work, but that doesn't help with the servers and power supplies.
I've already had to shut down the NAS because it's sending me an email every five minutes saying it's getting a bit too warm. And I've shut down the backup domain controller to try and cut down the heat generation (though it's supposed to be one of those environmentally friendly boxes that will run on just a sniff of electricity). And the battery in the UPS in the office did its usual summer trick of bulging out at the sides, and throwing in the towel as soon as I powered up a desktop and a couple of decent sized monitors. It's no wonder UPS are so cheap to buy. They're like razors (or inkjet printers) - you end up spending ten times more than a new one would have cost on replacement batteries. Even though I cut a hole in the side and nailed a large fan onto it.
Probably I'm going to have to bite the bullet and buy a couple of those portable air conditioning units so my high-tech kit can stay cool while we all melt here in the sun. In fact, my wife reckons I've caught swine 'flu because she finds me sitting here at the keyboard sweating like pig when she sails in from her nice cool workplace in the evening. At least the heat has killed most things in the garden (including the lawn) so that's one job I've escaped from.
By the way, in case you didn't realize, the title this week comes from a rather old BBC TV program. Any similarity between the actor who played Gunner 'Lofty' and this author is vigorously denied.
Listening to the radio one day this week, I heard somebody describe golf as being "a series of tragedies obscured by the occasional miracle". It struck me that maybe what I do every day is very similar. If, as a writer, you measured success as a ratio between the number of words you write and the number that actually get published, you'd probably decide that professional dog walker or wringer-out for a one-armed window cleaner was a far more rewarding employment prospect.
Not being a golfer myself (see "INAG"), I'd never heard that quote before. However it is, it seems, quite well known - I found it, and several similar ones, on various golf Web sites. Including a couple that made me think about how closely the challenges of golf seem to mirror those of my working life. For example, "Achieving a certain level of success in golf is only important if you can finally enjoy the level you've reached after you've reached it." How do you know when you've reached it? Or can you actually do better next time? Or maybe you should just assume that you're doing the best you can on every project? That seems like a recipe for indolence; surely you can always get better at what you do? But if you keep practicing more and more, will you just end up creating more unused output and reduce your written/published ratio?
Or how about "Golf is the only sport where your most feared opponent is you"? I find that writing tends to be a one-person activity, where I can concentrate without the distractions of the outside world penetrating the whirling vortex of half-formed thoughts and wild abstractions that are supposed to be elements of a carefully planned and managed process for distilling knowledge and information from the ether and converting it into binary data. I always assumed that professional developers tended to have the same issues, so I have no idea how they can do paired programming. Imagine two writers sat side by side arguing about which words to put where, and if that should be a semi-colon or a comma, while trying to write an article.
I've always maintained that the stuff I create should, by the time it actually pops up in the Inbox of my editor and reviewers, be complete, readable, as free of spelling errors and bad grammar as possible (unlike the subject of one of my previous posts), and - of course - technically accurate. OK, so you can't always guarantee all of these factors, but making people read and review (and, more to the point, edit) stuff that is half-baked, full of spelling and grammar faults, and generally not in any kind of shape for its intended use just seems to be unprofessional. It also, I guess, tends to decrease the chance of publication and reduce your written/published ratio.
Ah, you say, but surely your approach isn't agile? Better to throw it together and then gradually refactor the content, modify the unsuccessful sentences, and hone the individual phrases to perfection; whilst continually testing the content through regular reviews, and comparison with reality (unless, I suppose, you are writing a fantasy or science fiction novel). Should "your most feared opponent" be the editor? I'm not sure. When it comes back from review with comments such as "This is rubbish - it doesn't work like that at all" or "Nice try, but it would be better if it described what we're actually building" you probably tend to sense a shift in most-feared-opponentness.
I suppose I should admit that I once tried writing fiction (on purpose), but every page turned out to be some vaguely familiar combination of the styles of my favorite authors. Even the plot was probably similar to something already published. Thankfully I gave up after one chapter, and abandoned any plans to write the next block-selling best-buster. And I couldn't think of a decent title for it anyway. Written/published ratio zero, and a good reason to stick with my proper job of writing technical guidance for stuff that is real. Or as real as a disk file full of ones and zeros can be.
And while we're talking about jobs, they have a great advert on one of our local radio stations at the moment. I've never figured out what they're trying to sell, but it does offer the following useful advice: "If you work on the checkout in a hand-grenade shop, it's probably best not to ask customers for their PIN". However, in the end, I suspect that none of the quotes can beat Terry Pratchett's definition of the strains of the authoring process: "Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds".
I've been trying something new and exciting this week. OK, so it's perhaps not as exciting as bungee jumping or white-water rafting, but it's certainly something I've not tried before. I'm experimenting to see if I can use Team Foundation Server (TFS) to monitor and control the documentation work for my current project. As usual, the dev guys are using agile development methods, and they seem to live and die by what TFS tells them, so it must be a good idea. Maybe. But I suppose there's no room in today's fast-moving, high-flying, dynamic, and results-oriented environment for my usual lackadaisical approach of just doing it when it seems to be the best time, and getting it finished before they toss the software out of the door and into the arms of the baying public.
So, dive into the list of work items for the current iteration and see if I can make some wild guesses at how long the documentation work will take for each one. Ah, here's a nice easy one: fix some obscure bug that hardly anybody was aware of. That's a quarter of an hour to add a note about the fix to the docs. But it seems like I can only enter whole hours, so I suppose I'll have to do it slowly. And here's another no-impact one: refactor the code for a specific area of the product. And these three are all test tasks, so I don't need to document them either. Wow, this is easy. It looks like I'll only have three hours work to do in the next fortnight. Plenty of time to catch up on the gardening and DIY jobs I've managed to postpone for the last year or three.
Next one - completely change the way that the configuration system works. Hmmm, that's more difficult. How many places in the 900 pages will that have an impact? And how long will it take to update them all? Oh well, take a wild guess at four days. And the next one is six completely new methods added to a class. That's at least another three days to discover how they work, what they do, and the best way to use them. And write some test code, and then document them. After a few more hours of stabbing in the dark and whistling in the wind, I can add up the total. Twenty three days. That should be interesting, because the iteration is only two weeks. Looks like I need to write faster...
Now skip forward to Friday, and go back to TFS to mark up my completions. How do I know if a task is done or not? Will the code change again? Will changes elsewhere impact the new updates to the docs? When will test complete their pass on the code so I can be sure it's actually stable? And do I have to wait for test to review my docs? Or wait for the nice lady who does the English edit to make sure I spelt everything right and didn't include any offending letters (see Oending Letters). I guess I've finished my updates, so I can mark them as "Done". But does that mean I need to add a task for review, test, and edit for my updates? Surely they won't want to work through the doc until it contains all of the updates for that particular section of the product?
So this isn't as easy as it may have seemed at the beginning. In fact, I've rambled on in the past about trying to do agile with guidance development (see Tragile Documentation). I can see that I'll be annoying people by asking them to test and edit the same doc several times as I make additional changes during the many upcoming iterations. Perhaps I should just leave them all as "In Progress"? But that will surely mess up the velocity numbers for the iteration. And they'll probably think I went off on vacation for the two weeks. Not that the sound of the waterfall in my garden pond and the ice cream van that always seems to go past during the daily stand-up call won't tend to reinforce this assumption.
Still, it will be interesting to see how it all pans out. Or whether I spend more time fighting with my VPN connection and TFS than actually writing stuff...