BREAKING NEWS!!! (i think)

Earlier today, a certain UA development company sent out an email to all the members in its registered database with the phrase: DITA 10-29-08.

Of course, you know who it is, and what they are selling, so there’s no need to tell you. Not being a DITA developer (I know, I’m the last to jump on that wagon), I won’t be able to offer much in either the “zOMG we should be excited !!11eleventy!” or “puh-leeze, try again” camps until we actually get to see and play with a product.

So, in short, I’m not sure what this post is actually about. Is a corporation hoping that I market for them? Is it viral marketing if I don’t publish who it is? Is a post a post if it doesn’t contain any useful information or insight at all?

Therefore, here’s a cookie recipe:

White chocolate macadamia nut cookies
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
8 ounces (1 1/2 cups) white chocolate baking squares, cut into small chunks, or white baking chips
3/4 cup roughly chopped, unsalted, toasted macadamia nuts

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a mixing bowl.

Beat the butter in a large mixing bowl until fluffy. Add the brown sugar and mix together until smooth.

Add the egg and vanilla. Blend in the flour mixture in 3 stages and stir in the white chocolate and the nuts.

Scoop out walnut-sized mounds of the cookie dough and place on a cookie sheet, leaving 2-inches between the mounds. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until the cookies are golden.

Remove the cookie sheet from the oven and transfer the cookies to cooling racks. Eat while thinking of DITA-related press releases and odd websites.

Mars (dis)information

Another August is here, and that means it’s time for the Mars/Moon emails to start going around again.

If you haven’t received one, they go something like this:

Planet Mars will be the brightest in the night sky starting August!

It will look as large as the full moon to the naked eye. This will cultivate on Aug. 27 when Mars comes within 34.65M miles of earth. Be sure to watch the sky on Aug. 2712:30 am. It will look like the earth has 2 moons. The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287.

Sorry to disappoint, but the information is inaccurate. Like so much else on the Internet, it (once) had a kernel of truth to it, but has since gone awry.

In 2003, Mars had an exceptionally close opposition to Earth. (Opposition is when the Sun, Earth, and another far-away object lie in a straight line to one another. The object is therefore opposite the Sun in our sky.) Mars lies in opposition every 20 months or so, but in 2003, it occurred when Mars was near its closest point to the Sun, which put it unusually close to the Earth.

“Unusually close,” in this case, meant 34,649,589 miles. The Red Planet did appear six times larger and much brighter in our sky than usual, but it was nowhere near “as big as the full Moon.” The original email’s author did, in fact, use that phrase, but went on to mention that one would have to use a telescope and an eyepiece giving 75x power to see it. Naturally, those boring, technical details were dropped somewhere during the countless subsequent iterations of email forwards, changing the meaning of his simile.

Since then, like clockwork, each August the emails make their rounds through the Internet again. Mars isn’t even near opposition this August. That occurred last December.

You may be disappointed to find out the truth, but there’s a silver lining: if you stepped out on your back patio and saw Mars was as big as the full Moon, chances are that it would probably be the last thing you ever saw. Earth and Mars would not make good neighbors.

The first thing you would notice, aside from the pretty view, would be a wobble in the Earth’s rotation, as the two planets’ gravitational fields wreaked havoc with one another. This would be quickly followed by the Earth’s crust fracturing apart, as parts of it try to keep spinning and others don’t. Geophysical activity — earthquakes, volcanoes, freaking-mountain-high-fire-fountains-of-molten-death — would dispatch most of the Earth’s inhabitants rather quickly, and oceanic flooding would take care of the rest (until the oceans boiled away, that is). Any survivors would enjoy the pleasure of having the air pulled from their lungs as they rode large chunks of Earth’s crust into the void as the planet broke apart. Where the view would be spectacular, I imagine.

Sorry, I get carried away sometimes. But seriously, the email is fake.

“Whaaa?!? You’re doing astronomy posts again?” Looks that way. Stay tuned for more.

Awed and bummed

In the years BK (before kids), the wife and I used to chase eclipses. Nothing — and I mean NOTHING – is more mind-blowing than standing in the shadow of the Moon.

So I’ve been pretty bummed the past few years, as family responsibilities have kept me from seeing the past few eclipses. Especially when I see videos like this:

However, I am very glad for my friends, who apparently had great skies for this morning’s eclipse.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to speak to the wife about giving it a shot in 2009. It’s been too long.

Touchscreen interfaces

Tom at IRBW has posted some guidelines on creating online help for touchscreen applications.

It’s interesting timing, as that’s a task that I’ve been currently tackling. If human factors standards are being used, it’s an exceptionally difficult challenge to meet.

I’ll be sharing some lessons learned soon, but I’d thought I’d open it up for discussion first. How about you? Any ideas or thoughts to share?

In related news, here’s an interesting piece of research that was done by NASA – touchscreen usability research in space. Groovy.

monkeyPi’s Law

Recently, I’ve come across several blog posts that have brought up the issue of Technical Writing versus Writing.

At its core, writing is just recorded communication that’s transferred without the use of verbal speech. If you communicate to someone else (or yourself) using a pencil and paper, or a laptop running Office 12, or even a sabretooth tiger horn and a cave wall, you’re writing.

Using this definition of recorded communication, we get a better big-picture view of the world of writing, and it’s a broad vista that includes written words, glyphs, graphics, charts, and so on. Alan Porter eloquently makes this argument:

“Examples of effective communication using more graphics than words are all around us. I spent several years in the aerospace industry, and what’s the most effective and widely viewed piece of documentation in that industry? The safety card placed in every seat back pocket.”

But does that broad vista include communicating something other than safety or technical information?

The problem with current viewpoints
There seems to be a pervasive view that there are two types of writing: “Noble” (or “pure”) and “Non-Noble” (or “technical”). The main problem with that myopic view is that status is immediately connoted. Nobody wants to classify themselves as residing on the non-noble side of the writing world.

What’s worse to me is when excellent, talented people who choose that “Non-Noble” path seem to feel they have to caveat what they do, have to rationalize it somehow. Even Alan Porter, in the same article linked above, did this later in his post:

“I’m proud to be a writer. But I leave being a pure writer to the evenings and weekends. When I’m in the office I try to be a Communicator…”

Am I to conclude that the author leaves “pure” writing at home, and then goes to work? No wonder Tom Johnson works so hard to convince students that technical writing is a worthy career.

Is one form of writing more pure than another? Is one type more noble than another?

I propose a new way to consider The World Of Writing, and because I’m a egomaniacal loser, I’m calling it monkeyPi’s Law of WritingTM:

Writing is recorded communication. If we must classify writing into two categories, then they will be titled: Writing that is Meant to be Used, and Writing that is Meant to be Enjoyed — and they will overlap significantly.

As of now, the notion of “Pure” writing is out.

Writing that is Meant to be Enjoyed
Writing that is meant to be enjoyed might include fictional works, poetry, essays, and so forth.

As we remember that all writing is a form of recorded communication, it’s important to note that even the most creative fictional writers are just as dependent on effective communication as technical writers are. Even the most artistic example of fictional writing still has that requirement hanging over its head. That’s why writers developed rhetorical techniques to communicate abstract concepts like feeling and emotion.

For example, where would fictional writing be without imagery? Consider the sweltering temperature outside in 12 Angry Men, as tempers rose inside the jury room; or the thunderstorm raging outside the cave as Aeneas and Dido gave in to their carnal urges to Juno’s lightning flashes in The Aeneid. If you’re using a method or technique to communicate essential information, you’re doing the same thing someone who writes a technical manual does, just in a different fashion.

Writing that is Meant to be Used
Writing that is meant to be used might include manuals, help systems, reports, proposals, and safety labels.

But good forms of useful writing can be made enjoyable, as well. Technical charts that pay attention to aesthetics. Blogs that, *ahem*, inform and entertain. Help and assistance that helps establish a pleasurable experience for the interface user. There are always ways to enrich the human experience using even the most dry material.

Some will argue that this isn’t true. They may say, “How many lives have been enriched because of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Hemingway’s tomes?” Countless. And how many lives have been saved and protected because of “Right Lane Must Turn Right,” or “Warning! High Voltage!”? Also countless. I’ll leave the argument of which is more noble as an academic exercise to the reader.

If you write reports, try injecting some tasteful levity into it. Sure, the rules say you can’t do this, but shove the rules. Technical writers always complain that “nobody ever reads reports.” Well, why not make them more enjoyable? In a recent final report I helped write, where we were reporting on the results of a mock-theft experiment that involved human participants — about as dry of a subject as you can imagine — I included a section called Experimenter Anecdotes. In it we detailed some observed oddities among our participants. Some were frankly hilarious, such as when we listed all of the places (normal and gross) we observed our participants hide things, which went from the obscene (orifices) to the puzzling (bologna sandwiches). The section contained very useful information, but was presented in such a way that it served as an island of comic relief in an ocean of dry scientific prose. The client went out of their way to specifically mention that part of the report as being their favorite.

The beauty is in the overlap
The greatest thing about my new law is the ‘significantly overlap’ clause. Here is where all those things go that didn’t have a home under the previous system.

How about a nonfiction tome? Covered. The best examples of such may communicate technical information and be enjoyable at the same time. Ever read Bill Bryson, perhaps his Short History of Nearly Everything, for example? Tell me you weren’t informed and entertained at the same time.

How about a Hollywood screenplay? Covered. Clearly, the goal of the screenwriter is to produce something that would entertain, be enjoyed. However, the screenplay itself must be designed to be used, or the writer’s goal cannot be met. Included with the entertaining content (the story), the writer must convey all the information and instructions that the actors, directors, producers, etc. need to accomplish the goal of performing the scene as he or she intended. The writer takes on a dual role, both symbiotic with each other — the story useless without the instructions, the instructions homeless without the story.

The same goes for countless other examples. Under my system, no form of writing is more or less noble than another.

So all writers of the world, stop either feeling insecure or conceited and adopt monkeyPi’s Law. The world depends on writing that is meant to be used and enjoyed.

How well do you know your fonts?

Have you a typographer’s eye? Head on over to ILT to test your skills.

I wish I could impress you with a high score, but my first attempt was an embarrassing 22 (average is 23).

Yay parenthood – summertime edition (Repost)

Sleepovers; cool aloe on sunburns; the gentle breeze of a long bike ride; sweet, tart lemonade from a lemonade stand; leaning as far back on the swings as possible, staring at the clouds; violent thunderstorms with gusty winds that make the trees look angry; bathing suits, water sprinklers & wet grass between the toes; the deafening sound of a nearby cicada; skinned knees; scratching mosquito bites; running from the sultry, sweaty outside into the cool of the basement; the sharp smell of fresh-cracked peppercorns sprinkled on the hot charcoal; how good it feels to step into the soft grass after walking barefoot on the blazing heat of the patio brick; the smell of the lilac bush in May, and the lavender in July; the wonderful hot juice from a ripe tomato; corn so sweet your hands get sticky from shucking it; still playing tag at 9 o’clock; fireflies in jars; taking long afternoon naps in front of an oscillating fan; and the Milky Way stretching overhead like the backbone of the night.