Wikipedia is just fine the way it is thanks

According to Livewire, Wikipedia is a among the top 10 websites for number of hits worldwide. In fact it is consistently in the top 10, battling with tech giants like Google, Yahoo, YouTube, and various social media platforms.

Yet Wikipedia is unlike any of the other websites in the top 10.

For a start it doesn’t have a similar business model. It sole reason for existing is to provide a free resource for any internet user. Content is freely available, and can be edited by anyone, provided they stick to a few guidelines. In essence it rigidly maintains the ethos that the internet should be free to use, and open to all. It doesn’t rely on advertising, with all its operating costs covered by voluntary donations.

Admittedly Wikipedia isn’t perfect, but what is? With anyone able to edit a page, mistakes and falsehoods do creep in occasionally. Many a young aspiring journalist has fallen into the trap of accepting everything on it as gospel. But considering the sheer volume of data, it’s astonishing that the level of accuracy is so high. In fact that’s the very reason why it’s the go to online resource.

So the next time you Google something and see the first result is a Wikipedia page, take a moment to consider what it takes to run the service. Oh and if you can, give a little to maintain this wonderful resource in the way it was intended.

https://donate.wikipedia.org

When is a majority not a majority?

Yesterday, my local council ward held a by-election. As with most elections in the UK that follow the “first past the post” system, the winner was the candidate with the most votes. The system makes it clear who’s the winner, is less prone to confusion, and takes less time to announce the result.

So the system works, right?

I’m a political animal, but I’m not particularly close to any particular political party. It’s just that I recognize that politics touches every aspect of our lives. Whether you like it or not, everything from our wage packet, the transportation we use, to the way our children are taught is affected by local, national, and international politics.

This is why I always vote, and go out of my way to convince non-voters to do likewise. I find it hard to accept that 100 years ago women fought for the right to vote in the UK, yet most women don’t exercise their right to say who they’d like to look after their interests. I don’t buy the “They’re all the same” or “The party I vote for never wins around here” arguments. Voting isn’t just about wanting someone to win. It’s also about speaking up for what you believe in.

How did the by-election go then?

See for yourself below. A turnout of a little over 36%, means that two thirds of voters couldn’t be bothered to place a cross on a piece of paper. That’s sad.

Of the 36% that voted, less than 50% voted for the winner. In fact the winner’s total votes represented less than 17% of the electorate. That’s not so much sad, as tragic!

election_result

So what’s the answer?

There’s no silver bullet. No voting system is perfect, but it does seem strange that someone with less than a fifth of the available votes can be elected. Personally I’d like to see a combination of the following:

  • Compulsory voting: Countries like Australia make it compulsory to vote, with those not doing so fined.
  • A “None of the Above” ballot option: This allows disenfranchised voters to say they’re unhappy with the choice available, and it would force the Returning Officer to announce this option’s vote total as if it was a candidate. It would be striking if “None of the Above” won a sizable number of constituencies.
  • Make politics more inclusive: It’s fair to say those elected to the UK’s electoral bodies aren’t totally representative of the population. It’s improving, but much more needs to be done.

What isn’t the answer?

A more problematic solution is changing the rules, to make an election null and void if the winner doesn’t have more than 50% of the votes. This would clear up the issue of whether someone has a majority, but would cause a logistical and financial nightmare, particularly with national elections. The fallout could go on for months, with all the political uncertainly that goes with it.

You may not think that scenario would affect you, but you’d be wrong. The financial markets don’t like uncertainty. The chances are the pound would fall dramatically against other currencies. As a result:

  • The cost of government lending would increase, meaning there’d likely be less money to provide for those in need. To prevent this, the government could borrow more or tax us more.
  • The value of your pension pot would decrease meaning you’d have to save more to provide for your retirement. In turn you’d have less disposable income.
  • There’d be inflationary fears meaning everything from the price of your daily pint of milk, to the energy you use to heat your home would increase.

Do you still think politics doesn’t affect you?

No? Then for heaven’s sake please vote next time and make a difference.

Forced repatriation: where did it occur?

When you think of evidence of forced repatriation throughout history, where do you think of?

More recently you may think of the Palestinians. A lot of their land has been forcibly repatriated by Israeli settlers, and access to what’s left made more difficult. Discrimination and harassment are daily issues for them.

Maybe you can think of Crimea in Ukraine. Annexed by Russia in 2014, although most of the population wanted this to happen.

How about Tibet? Or the indigenous populations of America or Australia? Both have suffered suppression of their culture, language, and confiscation of land.

Going further back in time, think of how European colonial settlers used divide and conquer tactics to suppress opposition. If that didn’t work, they weren’t afraid to use conflict to expand their empires. It could be argued that a lot of the problems in former colonial territories today, are a direct result of these actions.

All the above are good examples, but I bet there’s one that won’t make most people’s lists.

What? You need a clue?

OK. Here you are…

  • There’s evidence that humans existed here since 10,500 BC.
  • The west tends to be wetter on average, especially in the late autumn and winter months.
  • The Pine Martin and Red Fox are native species.
  • The population is less now than 200 years ago.
  • There’s only one city with more than a million population.

Still not got it? OK here are some giveaways…

  • Their patron saint is celebrated around the world by natives and non-natives alike each March.
  • They suffered a series of famines in the mid 19th century that decimated the potato crop.
  •  Known for their like of a good tipple, they spell whiskey with an “e”.

Ireland? Really?

Yes really. 

The UK’s Tudor and Stuart monarchs implemented a “plantation” policy which saw Protestant settlers from England and Scotland aggressively colonise the country.

From the mid-16th century, Irish landowners were dispossessed to make way for the settlers. This resulted in a vicious cycle of rebellion against the English government, but only resulted in further dispossession of lands as punishment. The province of Munster was the first region to be heavily colonized, but following the Flight of Earls Ulster became pet project of King James I.

The displacement of the Irish was compounded by the threat to the Catholic church in Ireland. English Protestants dominated the Irish government, and Catholics were barred from holding state office. Additionally the Irish Parliament was subservient to its English counterpart as a result of the 15th century Poynings’ Law. Then during the early 17th century Irish constituencies were changed to allow the election of English and Scottish Protestant representatives, resulting in a Protestant majority in the Irish Parliament.

The past is your history lesson

There’s little argument, that the policy of colonizing Ireland has resulted in the issues we face there today. It is at the very heart of Irish history ever since.

Whether it is the Battle of the Boyne, Confederate Wars, 1798 Rebellion, or Easter Uprising, they’ve all centred on one aim: ending British rule in Ireland. The fact that part of Ireland is still ruled (quite literally at the moment) from Westminster, is at the heart of Irish and UK politics to this day.

If you learn one thing from this post, it’s that forced repatriation is never a good idea.

What’s a few more bytes among friends?

Users of the internet generate on average 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day, according to recent research by Domo. That’s a lot of zeros. Their report came up with this statistic having analysed publicly available data from a range of sources, including web measurement services like Internet Live Stats and news outlets like BuzzFeed.

Among the key insights were that on average, every minute:

  • The Weather Channel receives 18 million forecast requests.
  • YouTube users watch 4.1 million videos.
  • Google delivers results for 3.6 million searches.
  • Wikipedia users publish 600 new edits.

What’s more, it’s estimated that 90% of all online data was created in the last two years.

That’s a lot of data. So here’s a few more bytes to maintain the daily average.

eWriter HTML to EXE File Review

EC Software GmbH, the Austrian company behind authoring tool Help+Manual, recently announced a free converter called eWriter. According to it’s own publicity:

“It allows you to package a complete HTML application (along with all included files like HTML, CSS, JavaScript, image, etc.) into an independent and executable Windows application.”

Originally designed as a solution to all those Compiled HTML (CHM) files that no longer worked on Windows machines, it uses a lot of the same functionality of CHM files. It also supports Unicode characters, HTML 5 and CSS3.

ewriter

Test Results

Matthew Ellison of UA Europe mentioned recently that he’d tried it out using WebHelp output from Madcap Flare. It worked well for him, so I thought I’d try the same using WebHelp output from Adobe RoboHelp.

There’s a good introductory video on their website should you need it, but no help file. Thankfully the software is easy to use. It is pretty much just specifying the source and output directories, and your desired output format (.EXE or EBOOK). There are configuration options that control the size of the window and what actions users can perform, and there’s a useful option of saving the configuration to a file should you need to repeat the process.

The Adobe RoboHelp project I used had DHTML elements, embedded multimedia files, as well as customised Javascript. It also had the output from 14 other merged WebHelp projects. So it was a pretty good test.

I used the .EXE output option. The generation was surprisingly quick considering the number of files involved. Once the .EXE file was launched, the output was displayed is a browser type window, but looks exactly like the WebHelp output would. All navigational elements worked as expected. Even our heavily customised search tool worked well.

Limitations

On the face of it, this seems like a useful tool in certain scenarios. However it does have some drawbacks:

  • Whilst it is possible to run some .EXE files on non-Windows machines, it isn’t something most users want to do. Therefore eWriter isn’t a viable solution if your users have an iOS device.
  • .EXE files themselves are problematic to distribute. Firewalls almost certainly flag them as suspicious, and maybe even reject them.
  • To get around the .EXE file problem, an option is available to output just the data to an .EBOOK file. This makes it easier to distribute, but users must have the appropriate reader application on their machines to open the file.

Conclusions

eWriter works well to package up any files in a directory into a single file. That in itself makes it very easy to distribute. It also displays the output in much the same way as the original output format.

However the limitations make this a nice to know solution. To most of us, it could prove useful at some point in the future, but isn’t right now. It’s one to place in your memory banks for when it does.

Technical Communication UK Conference 2018

The Technical Communication UK (TCUK) Conference took place in Daventry, UK last week. Run by the ISTC, it is the biggest conference in the UK for anyone involved in technical communication.

As someone whose attended (and in the past help organize) these conferences, is the changing role of Technical Communicators. It is almost as if the profession is trying to find where it fits best. Are we writers, illustrators, e-learning producers, or just editors. That is perfectly demonstrated by the array of subject matter on display in the conference’s agenda.

The Conference Agenda

The agenda saw presentations on how our profession can improve the marketing and user experience (UX). It also covered more technical topics like using Github and designing a Chatbot. There was also the perennial favorite topics like DITA and videos. All in all it has something to appeal to most of us.

So why didn’t I attend? After all, I had the budget for our team to attend.

Part of the reason is our workload. Our team has two major deliverables due the week after the conference. That said with some careful planning, we could have shoehorned in a couple of days away in Daventry. It would have been pretty full on, but we’d have coped.

No. My major reason for not going was the potential information on offer. As an industry, we seem stuck in a rut, unable to answer the question of identity I posed at the start of this post. This results in a conference agenda that covers a lot of subjects, but is of little practical use to my team.

There is the argument that covering topics that are irrelevant now, gives you knowledge that may prove useful later. That’s certainly true, but only if those topics are likely to be used in the very near future. If they’re not, it’s likely that the information will be out of date when you need it.

Hashtags and all that stuff

Another problem I had with the conference this year was the lack of good social media coverage. In the past there was reasonably good use of Twitter and subsequent blog posts. This year there seems to be near radio silence. even the tweets that did appear on the #tcuk18 hashtag didn’t offer a lot, as I pointed out in an effort to change things.

There were one of two people tweeting, but most of the tweets were short snapshots of words and phrases with little or no background information. We were left in the dark as to which presentation or even subject they related to. The result was more a summary for those that attended the conference, but no use at all if you weren’t there. A basic technical communication error!

Maybe it was the poor wi-fi that some reported on day one of the conference. If so, that should have been sorted. If it wasn’t, I hope the ISTC doesn’t return to the same venue until it is. Having a good internet connection at a conference is high on the list of “must haves” in my opinion.

So what next?

Personally I doubt I’ll be attending a TCUK conference anytime soon. It has always attracted a high proportion of self employed writers. It’s a great place to network with peers and potential employers. It also has a number of professionals in full time roles, often as a solitary Technical Communicator, but who crave meeting like minded folk.

That’s all cool, but for me it just doesn’t fit well with what I want. At the moment I’m looking into how my team will cope with:

  • An impending Salesforce integration, and whether we’ll use it or just deliver to it.
  • If we just deliver to Salesforce, what changes in technology are required.
  • Changes in the Engineering Department that affects how my team works.

Another priority for me is developing the Technical Communicator team. They are fairly young. They’re keen to learn, and have done a great job to date, but I want them to see what else the industry is doing. They would almost certainly have got more out of the TCUK Conference than me, but most of it would have been fairly useless to them going forward.

The long and the short of it is, if we’re going to invest £1000 for a delegate to attend, it has to deliver more than just nice to know information.

My Adobe FrameMaker journey

As a former Adobe Community Professional (ACP), I used  to post tips and tricks on various Adobe technical communication products. Mostly Adobe RoboHelp and Adobe RoboHelp Server, as I’d used them for over ten years. I’d also participated in beta releases, ensuring problems were discovered (and hopefully fixed) before release.

These days I don’t use any Adobe technical communication product, and had to forfeit  my ACP status. Three years ago I moved jobs to take on a management role, where the team use a community platform to author and host our online documentation. It’s not a perfect solution for my team or our users, but that is about to change. I’ll have more news on this early in 2019.

When I was an ACP, my job didn’t have a great need for Adobe FrameMaker, although we had a licence as part of the Adobe Technical Communication Suite. So when an opportunity came along to learn, I grabbed it with both hands. It involved a project compiling a large process and procedures document.

The initial brief was to author in Microsoft Word until I got involved, but only because they wanted PDF output and the powers that be didn’t know any better. I suggested that Adobe FrameMaker was a better fit, and once I’d explained the benefits this was accepted. I’d dabbled with Adobe FrameMaker in the past, but this gave me the opportunity to learn and use it properly.

Adobe FrameMaker was once described to me as the “Rolls Royce of authoring tools.” I’ve also heard it being called lots of other things, some of which is not repeatable here! I won’t say it’s perfect, well what application is, but a lot of the problems faced by those disgruntled users were caused by poor training or unrealistic expectations.

Part of the reason for this is their previous experience of applications like Microsoft Word. Microsoft were clever to design a product that was easy to use right out of the box. Perhaps too easy. It established a user base among folk who’d never even thought that something would replace the typewriter, let alone used a computer. All of a sudden everyone was creating documents…… badly!

That was OK so long as all they were doing was writing a letter or making notes. Even to this day, PhD students will scream and shout about how poor Microsoft Word is when writing their 300 page thesis. Whilst there are those who swear that Word templates can cope with files that size, it’s not straightforward to your average user.

Adobe FrameMaker does have a steep learning curve. I recommend new users to attend a course, or (like me) buy a good book. It’s well worth it to prevent having to reinvent your templates, and provides many a time saving tip. The Adobe FrameMaker Forums are also well worth visiting, with excellent support from real users.

Whilst I haven’t used Adobe FrameMaker in anger for awhile, I’ve kept a watching eye on its iterations. There’s another release imminent, Adobe FrameMaker 2019, and there’s a webinar planned to showcase what’ included in it. See the link below to register:

https://framemaker-2019-release.meetus.adobeevents.com/

Full details of what will be shown in the webinar is included in the Adobe TechComm blog post at:

https://blogs.adobe.com/techcomm/2018/08/framemaker-2019-release.html

In summary, the release includes:

  • A major platform update, including 64 bit architecture.
  • A new PDF generation engine that negates the need for PostScript or Adobe Distiller processing.
  • UI changes including:
    • A new better organised welcome screen.
    • The return of colour icons, with a choice to revert to monochrome.
    • Changes to make finding a colour or style easier.
  • Additional language support for German (Duden).
  • Improved image handing, including transparency.
  • Improved DITA and XML workflows.
  • Support for Microsoft SharePoint 2016 or SharePoint Online.
  • Support for Adobe Experience Manager 6.4

Todoist task formatting tips

I’m a seasoned Todoist user, an online to do list application that works across all devices and browsers. I’d hesitate to call myself a power user, but I do use it extensively both in my professional and personal life.

One of the reasons I love working in the IT sphere, is how applications you’ve used for awhile occasionally surprise you with what they can do. Todoist did that to me today when I watched one of Carl Pullein’s excellent productively YouTube videos. I’ve embedded it below for completeness.

In it Carl formats tasks so that they:

  • Don’t need a date / time scheduled.
  • Are formatted in bold. (Note: I’ve also discovered how to format in italics or both bold & italics).

It’s All About Those Asterisks

Task formatting is as easy as adding one or more asterisk. Check it out in the short video below.

The costs of poor communication, and how to tackle it.

There’s a old joke about doctor’s handwriting being illegible. These days that’s less of an issue, as patient notes and prescriptions are typed, but this has highlighted a different issue.

The BBC reported today on an initiative to get doctors to communicate with their patients in plain English (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-45394620). The problem is manifesting itself in patients making appointments with their GPs, just to ask them to explain what a form of treatment they’re expecting means. The problem seems to be that patients referred to hospitals are receiving appointment letters full of medical jargon they don’t understand.

Take the following excerpt from a hospital discharge report I recently saw for someone I know:

"CTPA showed bilateral segmental and subsegmental PEs. Initial Troponin 
raised (46) repeat 11."

This was supposed to inform the patient and their GP what had happened to the patient whilst in hospital, and the delivered prognosis.

The problem here is the two audience addressed by the same deliverable. The patient’s GP will understand, but the patient likely won’t.

In instances like this, it is often easier to resort to resort to jargon. It’s the doctor’s own language after all. In just the same as two Network Engineers talking about DHCP or MAC Addresses, That’s fine so long as the audience is the same as them. Try involving an outsider though, and you’re asking for trouble.

You need two separate deliverables, based on the same content. That’s something most Technical Communicators understand and deal with on a daily basis, particularly in a software environment. Whether it is end users or administrators, English or Spanish speakers, you need to have the content for each audience generated from the same source.

Mark Baker asked the question on twitter recently why Technical Communicators find it so hard to explain our profession’s importance. It solicited a fair few responses, yet none really answered the question.

It’s an interesting question. We’re good at explaining things within our own specific spheres. We can even turn our hands at different spheres, but try to explain why we’re so important to others and we seem to struggle.

Case studies like the UK doctors help us, in that a direct effect of poor communication has resulting is wasted GP appointments and frustrated patients and doctors. By correlating the time and money spent having these appointments, we can monatise the problem. Armed with that information, we can argue how us working to resolve the issue can save the organisation money.

Maybe there’s a lesson for us there.

Just a “normal” day in my life as a Technical Writer

The only usual thing about my days as a Technical Writer, is that it’s rarely usual. Today was no exception.

I manage the technical writing function, including another member of staff. Unfortunately for me, they started a week’s holiday today and I’ve just returned from two weeks away. The timing of our holidays isn’t ideal, but I’d monitored what was going on during my absence. I didn’t actually do much, but it ensured there weren’t any unpleasant surprises on my return.

My journey to work involves a 15 minute walk to the station, a train into central London, and a further 20-25 minute walk. I could get a bus or tube, but I figure that by the time I walked to the bus / tube, waited for said bus / tube to arrive, decide not to force myself onto an already crammed bus / tube, get on the next bus / tube, and walk to the office, I may as well just walk. Besides I enjoy walking.

Today I set off wearing a fleece, and soon regretted doing so. After the walk to the local station, it came off and never came close to being worn again. It was announced today that the UK had just experienced its joint hottest summer on record. The last week or two had seen a slight drop in temperatures and plenty of rain, but today demonstrated that whilst we are now in the meteorological autumn, it’s still warm enough for a short sleeved shirt commute.

Taking of surprises, whilst I was away, a desk move was announced. I knew this was happening, but unsure when. Whilst I was away it was announced it would be taking place on the Friday before my return. I’d asked my team member to ensure everything necessary was moved. This happened, but of course on arriving this morning I spent an hour ensuring everything was setup to my desired configuration.

A colleague last week had sent me a meeting request for 11am to discuss a forthcoming release. We’d completed all the updates some months ago, but the release was delayed. With the release imminent, she wanted to discuss some finer detail of what we’d provided. I went in search of her, not easy as she’d moved desks also, and managed to get the meeting moved to the afternoon. Enough time to organise myself and start trawling through my emails.

Within 30 minutes, I’d been approached by three separate Product Managers to inform me of projects in the pipeline. Only one of them is in any way urgent, likely to be released later this month. It doesn’t contain too much additional functionality, but annoyingly does contain new icons. I made a note to inform our Education Team who produce our certified video training programmes. They just love having to update all their videos every time an icon changes! We’ve got another large project completing about the same time that we’d both been working on. I may have to look at reallocating resources to ensure both project deadlines are met, once I’ve evaluated the effort involved. That’s not for today, so an item is added to my to do list.

Up to lunch was spent on admin. As a manager, admin is an essential part of what I do. It may sound boring, but having processes and ensuring they’re followed is pivotal to ensure a smooth running team. Running reports, trawling through my Inbox to prioritise any work items, or updating our project spreadsheets with details of changes / timescales, these tasks have to be done.

Around 12:30 I down tools for a trip to the gym in the basement of our office. I’m a keen runner, but have been recovering from a serious injury since late March. Today was my first day back on the treadmill, so I planned a gentle 30 minute jog. I want to get back to doing my local Parkrun ASAP. Being a Parkrun volunteer is fun, but just doesn’t give you to same buzz. I’m not looking to get back to anything like my PB just yet, but I’ve a goal in mind.

Back in the office, and I’ve time to eat a sandwich and apple before my Rescheduled meeting. The Product Manager and I discussed some minor changes to our best practice guides. A perfect chance to do some actual technical writing. As we discussed each setting, I changed the pages on the fly.

Afterwards I finished going through my Inbox. That only left the automated emails, comments generated by users, and those sent to our team’s distribution list, each of which is sent to a separate folder. The comments were easy, as not all are related to our Knowledge Base.

By mid afternoon, my earlier plea to my colleagues to come and eat a biscuit or two I’d brought back from my holiday, seemed to having some affect. The biscuit mountain was reducing, but not enough to avoid me taking the easy route to solving the issue of having the afternoon munchies.

Late in the day and another work request came my way. Four new projects in a day. That’s a record! Once again I update our project spreadsheet with the details. It’s a useful shared resource that the team and my boss can use to see what is coming up.

As folk began to leave for home, I pondered whether to stay late and finish off those unread automated emails. I consider logging on from home this evening rather than staying in the office. As a global company, and with my manager not being based in the Uk, I’m used to occasionally working irregular hours. However as today was a US holiday, I decided I’d have some time tomorrow morning to sort those email folders out before the USA woke up.

So it was a walk to the station, sans fleece. An unusually busy train meant a less comfortable journey than normal. My wife texted me to say she’d bought some milk and bananas, so I didn’t need to visit the supermarket on my way home. Bless her, as I hate that supermarket with a passion. It’s very handy for commuters as it’s only a minute from the station, but it’s layout and poor customer service makes a visit a soul destroying experience.

Home by 7:30, I change into shorts and sandals, take the bins out for the bin men who arrive early tomorrow, and sit down to eat. Nothing fancy tonight, but that’s OK. Plain food can still be tasty.

After catching up with my wife on her day at work, I spend time catching up on what’s been going on online. I normally try to do this during my train journeys, but today I didn’t. I predominately use Twitter for professional information, and Facebook for personal stuff. After a few minutes trawling, I had the idea for this post, but before I started, I prepared my lunch for tomorrow.

As my bed beckoned, my mind turned to what I can expect tomorrow. I know what I’ve left from today, but you can bet there’ll be the odd curve ball thrown in to make life interesting. Working for a software company in a dynamic environment is never boring.