Darren Barefoot
Darren Barefoot


Thinking Chaos, Thinking Fences

All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared hearer. -- Robert Louis Stevenson

24 February 2003

I've been a longtime subscriber of TECHWR-L, a popular listserv for technical writers. I recently suggested a poll: As a technical writer, do you maintain a blog? The results indicate that 57% do not and probably will not or never will, while 20% do on an at least occasional basis.

While I'm frequently dissapointed by the lack of technical (and technological) savvy demonstrated by some of my colleagues, I think this is a pretty good result. If you went out into the general populace and asked them this question, you'd probably get 1 in 1000 people saying they maintained a blog. More significantly, 800 of those people wouldn't know what the heck a blog was.

In my experience, the average technical writer isn't very intereted in technology. To modify Fred's comment, 'technology is a job, not a passion.' Most tech writers, like most employed people the world over, go home and pracitce carpentry or play baseball or watch TV. The last thing they want to see is a computer.

However, I think we all will agree that blogs are a valuable communication medium. To me, the simplest application of blogs for the technical writer is as an information capture and distribution mechanism. For example, much like in an online forum writers, developers and (possibly) users can all participate in creating a blog that addresses a particular aspect of a product.

Both Jenny and Fred indicate that tech writers typically aren't comfortable giving up control over the information. This is probably true (and I've certainly got colleagues like this), but it's not very healthy. To me, the future of technical writing is fast, loose and messy. It's about delivering the information the user requires when they need it. Users don't care about kerning and white space when thier product doesn't work--they just want it fixed. Generally, when I've got a problem, the first place I go are online forums. They're likely to provide an answer (and, just as importantly, confirm that others have experienced a similar issue) faster than technical support ever will. Blogs hold a similar promise.

A technical writer should be a content-generating machine. It's a little surprising, then, that most of them don't (or don't intend to) blog. You'd think that these sort of curious communicators are the likeliest bloggers. They're comfortable with the written word, and generally have things to say. Mind you, as I said at the start of this item, I think 20% is a pretty good result.

Gordon Meyer has a few interesting ideas on blogs and help systems. I like this one in particular:

Think about a library book shelf. Before you are three books about, say, sewing. One is slightly pulled out and has a visibly worn and cracked binding. The other two look like they've never been opened and might even be a little dusty. That's a social cue that one of these books is really popular and is clearly worth a peek. Can a concept like that be applied to onscreen Help, and would it be useful?

10:36:34 PM    comment []

I loathe pre-movie commercials. I particularly hate them here in Ireland, where they're particularly inane, low-budget and rarely changed. Because I go to a lot of movies, this means that I have to suffer through the same idiotic ads over and over and over again. Some New Yorkers have had enough, and are suing theatres for consumer fraud:

Theaters are committing consumer fraud when they claim in advertising that a movie starts at a certain time but it really starts a few minutes later because of the ads, said Mark Weinberg, a Chicago attorney who filed the two suits.

'A few minutes'? Try fifteen.

2:09:36 PM    comment []

While looking for photos of a BC Ferries arcade, I happened upon Infiltration: the zine about going places you're not supposed to. It's pretty interesting reading, particularly if you're trying to sneak into a Toronto-area hotel swimming pool.

1:14:24 PM    comment []

Paul Graham offers some excellent thinking on why nerds are unpopular. In short, being popular is a skill. It has to be learned, practiced and constantly applied. When nerds have to choose between putting effort into being popular or getting smarter, they're always going to choose the latter.

Few smart kids can spare the attention that popularity requires. Unless they also happen to be very good looking, or natural athletes, or have popular older siblings, they'll tend to become nerds. And that's why smart people's lives tend to be worst between, say, the ages of eleven and seventeen. Life at that age revolves far more around popularity than before or after.

Thank goodness that in addition to being very bright, I was also handsome, athletic and had an older sibling.

Actually that's a big lie, excepting the part about having an older brother, and that probably did more harm than good, as older kids could pick me out of the crowd. In truth, I grew up in a pretty posh neighbourhood, so it was generally accepted that being smart was a valuable thing. By the time I'd reached grade twelve, I'd like to think I'd achieved a delicate balance between the various cliques. I was sort of a clique go-between.

1:05:38 PM    comment []

While it's an inspired idea (and should sell like hotcakes), does anybody else think that 'Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire', a game where adults and kids strap a lie detector on each other and ask them questions, is a little freakish? Can you say 'post-September 11 atmosphere'? ABC news reports that:

Just as the mere presence of a lie detector in a police station sometimes gets an accused criminal to confess, Liar Liar Pants on Fire is intended to spark parent-child conversations. The instructional manual shows parents how to use the game to raise questions about drug use and other difficult subjects.

'Madison, this children's game indicates that you're on crack. It think it's time we sat down and discussed this with you and your pimp.' What's next? 'Pre-teen Random Drug Tests'?

12:58:07 PM    comment []

Ah, those BC Ferries journeys and Chuck E. Cheese visits of my youth...those misspent days of yesteryear. Those misspent parental hand-outs. Good times.

GameSpy.com offers a definitive list of the top ten Atari arcade games. They're all here: the short-lived Rampart, the down-right stupid Paperboy, and the sublime Star Wars. Of all these games, I probably spent more money (along with my geeky friends) on that multi-playing ground-breaker Gauntlet. 'Valkyrie need food badly' indeed.

12:40:57 PM    comment []

The good (if overly Germanic) folks at Hammacher Schlemmer (c'mon, what's your real name?) are offering this giant circular monitor. It's five and a half feet tall and has a resolution of 2 million pixels. This is getting a little too Minority Report for my liking. What I want to know is: how big do my desktop icons look on this screen? Is that Outlook icon going to be the size of my head? Will the Start menu be longer than my arm? It's the ideal gift for the rich and visually-impaired.

12:28:37 PM    comment []

© Copyright 2003 Darren Barefoot.



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