Copyright

All blog posts, unless otherwise noted, are copyrighted to the Author (that's me) and may not be used without written permission.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Extra Lines?

I started noting recently that friends and family who used Blogger were posting items that had extra line feeds. I then found my own posts starting to include extra line feeds.

Somewhere along the way, the people from Google behind Blogger have modified their auto-generated HTML coding to include the "div" and "/div" codes in each paragraph. However, they did not program the auto-generator to create the code correctly or insert it correctly, thus leading to extra line feeds.

What is extra fun is that the Preview button doesn't express the extra line feeds, so it looks the way you want it until you click Publish Post. At this time, the incorrectly placed div codes come into play and your published entry has the extra line feeds.

I have taken to clicking the "Edit Html" tab and scanning through my posts and editing out all of these codes, and then making the page look the way I want it (whether by manually adding standard spacing or deleting extra spacing), prior to clicking the Publish Post button.

While I appreciate the free nature of the blogging tool provided by Blogger, I am disappointed that they would modify the coding in such a way to add irrelevant and incorrectly used HTML code that causes me to have to do extra effort to present a clean post. It makes for extra work that I do not want and makes me consider moving to a different service or hosting my own.

Thanxgiving

M and I prepared a 13 pound turkey, stuffing, a couple of different kinds of veggies, mashed and sweet potatoes, home-baked bread, crescent rolls, and apple pie for Thanksgiving.

We had a good time cooking together. Sandra came over and gave M a pie lesson (and it turned out beautifully), and she again helped us with gravy mixing when the time came.

The turkey was an odd cooking experience. We went with the 20 minutes per pound theory, but also put it in a cooking bag. After barely over 2 hours of cooking, both the pop-up thermometer and our good electronic thermometer said the bird was done... which was about an hour and a half minimum before we were expecting it to be. Figuing that something was not kosher with the thermometer, we started eyeballing it from there. We wound up taking it out about a half hour before we thought it should be done, which was a good thing, because the turkey was definitely done and was starting to get a bit dry (not bad, just starting).


I carved that up while I put in the crescent rolls, and microwaved the two green veggies in microwave steamer bags (these things work great!), and M worked on finishing the two potato dishes and got the stuffing ready. We then put everything on the table for out two guests (Sandra and our friend Jenn), and I popped the pie in to bake while we ate.

Everything was scrum-dilly-icious! Everyone ate way too much, which is the way it should be.

The one detraction to the day was the poor performance by the Lions on their annual Thanxgiving NFL game. Usually, even if they are having a bad year, they perform well-enough to make the game exciting, even if they lose. Not so, this game. It took them all of two plays to start sucking. And then it was all downhill from there, culminating in a 47-10 blow out loss. *sigh

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tidbits

It was fun to wake up Saturday morning to the first snowfall of the season. Seeing everything covered in a gentle blanket of white was pleasing. Since then, we have had temperatures hit -10c (-20c with wind chill), which I do not find anywhere near as nice. These temperatures sneak up on me because I look outside and I see a sunny, cloudless sky and my brain automatically thinks "Nice day." While that may be true, it has not built up a knowledge base that, while pretty or nice, the day may be cold as hell. Needless to say, my hands got pretty cold before I remembered to put on my gloves. I need to get better about that, but I think only experience and time will teach me that lesson.

Saturday morning we decided to try for Calais for mail and some Thanxgiving shopping. However, even after getting an all-wheel drive vehicle from Alex, we only made it about five miles out of town before we decided to turn around. The better part of valor said that, with the slow speeds we would have to average on the trip, the later start we got due to weather considerations, and the time limit we had on reaching an open Calais post office to pick up our packages, it just wasn't in the dice.

Saturday night we went to watch Chicago at the SJ Theater. Even though I helped my mother with nearly every one of her productions, and had friends in many of them, I find it strange to see many of my new friends up on a very professional stage singing, dancing, acting. Our friend T-L absolutely belted her songs as Mama Morton. She didn't really need the microphone at all and I could tell she had to reign it in a bit when she had the duet with the woman playing Velma; Velma had a good voice, but nowhere near the power or clarity of our friend! Another surprise (to me, as I don't know everyone well yet and do not know where their strengths lie) was our friend Matt. While the role of Amos doesn't require a lot of singing or dancing, I was pleasantly surprised by the job Matt did in covering both aspects. And our friend Jenn did the choreography for the entire show. I asked and she confirmed that it is exceptionally difficult to come up with choreography that is engaging to the audience, showcases each individual's talents, and accommodates those in the cast who have no training and little skill at dancing. That's one headache I leave in her capable hands. Neither of us liked the minimilist stage presentation, but my guess is that the crew wanted to cut down on the size of the stage and keep the focus on the singing and dancing. In those regardless, the minimilist approach worked.

Today I drove down on my own to Calais and got everything. The trip today was easy, I averaged great mileage for the tank down and back (1/4 tank for the whole trip), and had my first experience paying duty on items brought over the border ($18.50). There was virtually no wait on either side (to America there were about 8 cars ahead of me turning onto the bridge (plus a full bridge), but moved fast. Coming back, I was behind two cars when they opened the second window and all of us cruised through. If I hadn't needed to pay duty, I almost could have blinked and missed it!

The trip would not have been as good had I not used the portal XM we own. I put it on the 90s channel and cruised the entire way. For someone who hates talking (talk radio, DJs talking, phone requests, even commercials that talk) as much as I do, you would think I would have succumbed to the XM/Sirius use long before moving in with my wife. I do love it now, though.

Back to the trip: during one stretch of almost 30 minutes I quite literally did not see a car on the same side of the road I was driving. During that same stretch, I only saw 11 cars on the other side. It was fun to see the big-rigs filled with Christmas trees leaving Canada one after another; I'm sure at least some of those trees are bound for Southern California.

I think we're set for Thanxgiving now. We have a turkey, we have some home-baked bread to bake that day, and the rest of the ingredients we'll get here. I'm looking forward, with some horror and trepidation, to seeing the Lions play on TV. This is the only scheduled game of the season on TV, but they are an aweful 0-11 and have little chance of winning a game this year. Which is too bad, as Marinelli is a good coach and had turned things around so much last season. Just goes to show you that pre-season doesn't count for much (the Lions were 4-0).

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quantum of Solace

While there is not anything fundamentally wrong with this movie, I cannot grade it above a B for one reason-- shaky-cam. When will directors learn that, if you are directing an action sequence that is inherently filled with danger and suspense, you don't need to make your audience sick by adding a shaky-cam. Unless the use of shaky-cam is integral to the plot (for example, Blair Witch or Cloverfield), buy a fucking steady-cam harness and film it right!

Now that that is out of my system I feel better.

The acting by Craig and Dench is superb again. They both hit home runs with their portrayals of Bond and M. Wright, as Felix Leiter, seemed to think looking constipated equaled angst. Amalric was okay as the main villain, but really wasn't given much to work with. While Arterton was beautiful and did what she could with her role, the role really should have been written out of the movie and all her scenes should have been given to the other Bond girl, Kurylenko.

The plot was a bit confused and this was mainly because of the main girl, Camille. Bond was partly motivated by revenge and partly his duty to go after those who killed Vesper in Casino Royale. Camille's interference and need for revenge watered down his plot. And then there was the somewhat underdeveloped main plot of Greene buying worthless desert under which there was a ton of water that he was somehow holding ransom and using to topple governments. This was not presented in a way that allowed the audience to get on board and seemed to almost get in the way of Bond's need for revenge, as the focus of the movie shifted to him helping Camille get her's instead.

Most of the action and fight scenes were superb, except for the use of shaky-cam. Would have been considered great, actually, except for this fact. By themselves, Craig and Dench almost make me grade up against the grade down for the use of the shaky-cam, but they can't quite push it that far (tells you how irritated I am that people continue to use the device).

I have little idea how it ends because our sound kept cutting in and out and the final resolution of the story was the worst section. About 15 people complained and wanted passes or their money back. I normally would be leading the charge, but this is the fourth or fifth time, so I'm instead going to complain to corporate about this cinema, since I know the local manager could give a rat's ass.

All-in-all a good outing, exciting, and I was entertained. Not as good as Casino Royale, but as good or better than many of the Bond movies.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Little Ego Boost

M asked me to review some documents one of her coworkers put together for her company. Not knowing the audience, intent, or how much latitude I would have in editing them, I jumped in intending to do the basics; make sure the document was parallel, check for consistency, review grammar and punctuation, etc. Nothing major. When I was done, I was pleased with the result but had a lot of questions. However, as this was not my project nor did I know the audience, I simply passed the document back to M and let her review my changes.

During the review, the changes I made caused her to ask me a ton of questions -- all questions I had thought of but chose not to ask as this was someone else's project -- and started her on the path of editing my edits as she realized that the document did not go into the depths she was hoping for.

In the end, after her umpteenth question to me and my umpteenth 'item to consider,' she said to me, "Tech writing is hard."

Most companies think having writers on staff is a luxury. Writers are often the first to be let go during layoffs and the last to be rehired. Many companies actually insist that technical writers have experience in programming before hiring them. For example, Microsoft used to insist that all their technical writers have five years of programming experience. Yet, most people point to Microsoft as a primary example of poor manuals and even worse help files.

Technical writers are bridges between the application (be it a program, or some other item, action, or process that needs to be explained) and the lay-people who will use the application. While having knowledge of programming (and any other technical aspect involved in the application, whatever it is) is a good trait to have, too much knowledge can lead to bad technical writing. This is because the technical knowledge gets in the way of the writer's ability to "speak" to the audience. In most cases, the audience is a person with little technical savvy and who just wants to use the application and have it work.

In grade school or junior high, many teachers use the exercise of having their students write out all the steps involved in telling someone who is not from this planet (but, inextricably, knows the language) how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Most children write something like "Step 1, open the peanut butter jar, Step 2, spread on bread, Step 3, open jelly jar, Step 4, spread on bread, Step 5, eat." However, this skips many, many steps that someone who has never experienced this activity would have to take. For example, what are you spreading it with? How do you open the jar(s)? What does "spread" mean? Where did you get the bread? What kind of bread is it and does it have multiple sides onto which the spreading may occur? Maybe one child out of 100 writes more than about 10-15 steps for this assignment, and that one kid is the one who may have what it takes to be a technical writer.

Assumptions are the killers of good manuals and help files. Each time a technical writer makes an assumption for the audience, it increases the likelihood that someone will not "get it," will become lost or confused, and will not be helped by the information provided. Each time a person reaches this point, one of two things happens: either the person contacts customer support or their opinion of the help provided decreases until they stop using it altogether and they figure out some way of moving on without the knowledge they need (and often resulting in bad data, poor use of the application, and/or errors of various magnitude).

In my last job, I often said the help files and manuals were the user's first interaction with the company at a time when that user was confused and possibly angry. If what we wrote helped them answer their question or solve their problem, the entire company looks good as a result. If it doesn't, then the company looks bad and, if the user chooses to get assistance from support, they are already on their way toward being upset. The best technical writer can, and should, put support out of a job.

A great way to tell the quality of the technical writing involved in a project or application is to check the Index. If the index is one page or less for a standard book-sized manual, you probably will find the manual less than helpful. An index is a microcosm of the technical writer's ability to think about every way in which a user may try to look up or find the information they need within the manual. If the index only tells you the term as that application uses it, the user may not be comfortable or knowledgeable enough to know that term or to know to look up the activity they want to do by that term. So you should always have a more common term or phrase to describe the activity that is a likely way in which a user may name what they want to do. For example, one application I use terms all bullets of any sort as a List. And "List" is the only term by which the index refers to this process. Since I wanted a simple bullet, it took me quite a while before I found this action in the help file I was reviewing. The technical writer who put the help file together should have included terms like "bullets," "numbered lists," and maybe even "special characters" in the index, so people used to terms from other applications could find the same action in this application.

In the end, I got a big kick and a bit of an ego boost out of my wife's assertion that technical writing is hard. Yes, it is! Not everyone can divorce themselves from the technical aspects of what the application does to tell a person the actions they need to take to use it. And, while having technical knowledge is beneficial, it is important not to let that get in the way of making sure that someone without that same knowledge can get the job done.