Tuesday, December 17, 2013

It’s The End of the World As Tech Writers Know It

Written a while back, but I have nowhere to put it right now...

I don’t mean to be alarmist, and I have no interest in being branded a Chicken Little (unless it increases my standing with my children, who have seen the eponymous movie).  However, I need to call it as I see it.  I’ve was involved in Technical Writing for over 10 years and I have had times where I was a member of the professional society for technical writers and attended seminars and conferences devoted to the profession.  I haven’t been around forever, but I’m certainly not new to the game.  After a great deal of study and though where I have watched the trends and analyzed what is really going on out there, I have concluded that Technical Writing as a profession in and of itself is now dead.  I won’t even say that it is soon to be dead because that’s not true either. It’s dead now, Game Over.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people today making an excellent living and good reputations that have the title of Technical Writer.  Even more importantly, I wouldn’t say that the skill set isn’t needed more than ever.  I’d liken it to something like the advent of the word processor.  When the first electronic word processors came along, it wasn’t that people no longer needed to know how to type, it’s just that no one needed typists any more.  To say “I am a technical writer” today screams out to others that you are a one-trick pony.  You are lumped in with typists, coopers and blacksmiths.

At one time, it was common for an English major to pick up a bit of lingo and some geek credentials and to embark upon a successful career as a technical writer.  I’m sure there’s still a place for people like this, but today you are much more likely to find yourself a successful career if you’ve got extremely strong, specific domain knowledge in a particular area.  For example, if you are a Java developer who also happens to be one of the very few developers who can also communicate well in writing, you might be the ideal candidate for developer documentation.  Or maybe a networking professional that has some history of writing well and has honed their skill blogging might move into writing about a networking product full time.

A common model for technical writing as a profession pictures a really good writer sitting down with a really anti-social engineer and interviewing them as a Subject Matter Expert (SME).  This model assumes that the engineer knows more about the technology than the writer, and assumes that the engineer can’t write.  This is an expensive and inefficient way to do things because both the engineer and the writer must sit down together and consume 2x resources to get something done.  We all know that our companies aren’t looking for us to spend more resources than we need!

Another problem with the common model for technical documentation is the assumption that our products will be very complex, very costly to purchase and use, and will therefore be used in their current state for a long time.  For this reason, we create thorough, exhaustive documentation and put it through editing and production phases that make sure we don’t put out mistakes in documentation in print that will be used by a technician for 15 years to come.  For the vast majority of technical documentation, this is no longer necessary.  We’re working on products that will be completely out of date, or completely revised within the next couple of years.  We aren’t going to print our documentation (and our customers don’t want us to!) and nobody particularly cares about our typographical conventions or our proper use of serial commas.  They want accurate information on how to solve their daily problems, and they want it NOW.  Two years from now, no one will ever read today’s information again.  So why should we spend huge resources making this stuff perfect?  We shouldn’t!  Of course our company still needs branding and needs a good image of quality, but strictly perfect delineation between the usage of ‘may’ and ‘might’ is mostly lost on our customers as an aspect of quality even though it might affect how easy it is to understand what we say.

Friday, November 8, 2013

A list of the Make Magazine issues as of 2013-11

I love Make Magazine. I've only been a subscriber for the last couple of years, so I have been trying to get my hands on all of the back issues.  In most places online, Make sells for more than its original cover price.  I'm too frugal for that, so I keep my eyes out for deals.  One aspect of that is watching eBay.  To make my life easier, I try to keep a saved search up-to-date that limits itself to issues that I don't have.  This involves keeping track of what I have, as well as know what issues are out there.  I looked around for a simple bibliography of all of the issues, but couldn't find one.  The best I found was a blog-style list on the main site, which wasn't very helpful for tracking purposes. 

So here goes, up-to-date as of 2013-11, the list of Make Magazine issues is as follows:

  • MAKE 38: Cameras and A/V
  • MAKE 37: Drones
  • MAKE 36: Boards
  • MAKE 35: Danger!
  • MAKE 34: Robotics
  • MAKE 33: Software for Makers
  • MAKE 32: Design for Makers
  • MAKE 31: Punk Science
  • MAKE 30: Smarter Homes
  • MAKE 29: DIY Superhuman
  • MAKE 28: Toys & Games
  • MAKE 27: Robots
  • MAKE 26: Karts & Wheels
  • MAKE 25: Arduino Revolution
  • MAKE 24: Space
  • MAKE 23: Gadgets
  • MAKE 22: Remote Control
  • MAKE 21: Desktop Manufacturing
  • MAKE 20: For Kids of All Ages
  • MAKE 19: Autonomous Robots
  • MAKE 18: ReMake America
  • MAKE 17: Lost Knowledge
  • MAKE 16: Spy Tech
  • MAKE 15: Music
  • MAKE 14: Optics
  • MAKE 13: Magic
  • MAKE 12: Upload
  • MAKE 11: Alt Vehicles
  • MAKE 10: Home Electronics
  • MAKE 09: Fringe
  • MAKE 08: Toys and Games
  • MAKE 07: Backyard Biology
  • MAKE 05: Science, Weather, and Outdoors
  • MAKE 04: Music and Kits for the Holidays
  • MAKE 03: Cars and Halloween
  • MAKE 02: Home Entertainment
  • MAKE 01: Premiere

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Cutting the cord

A few weekends back, I finished my wire cutting project. For those of you that don't know, that's not a thing where I go around the house and cut the cords off all my lamps, it's a term applied to people who choose to get their media via streaming and a la carte methods that are not hardwired into their home by the major utility companies. It's pretty much just getting all your services over the internet (internet protocol) rather than cable, phone or satellite.

A little bit at a time over several years, I have been eliminating all non-IP based services at home. We've been cable and satellite free for a couple of years. We have Comcast teleworker service at home and we have enough bandwidth to run pretty much whatever we want.
The final stage of the project was dumping the landline telephone in preference for Voice over IP (VoIP). The trick here being that we didn't want to eliminate the phone number or the convenience of having readily available handsets at home. I found a blog post on how to do this that provided the heart of the process.
My basic process was:

  1. Buy the necessary VOIP gear. I bought an OBi 100 because that was the cheapest option and met my needs for Google Voice and 911 access at the same time.
  2. Move my wife from feature phone to smartphone 
  3. Convert feature phone to a pay as you go phone ($10 minimum account required) 
  4. Call pay-as-you-go vendor to get account number 
  5. Port home number to pay as you go account 
  6. Create a *new* Google Voice account (you have to give the VOIP service your password, not something I want to do with my main account) 
  7. Pay $20 to port mobile number to Google Voice Configure VOIP device to accept Google Voice Configure VOIP device for e911 service ($12/year) 
  8. Plug in Handsets 
  9. Wait for port to complete 
  10. Configure settings 
  11. Dial away happily! 

I had to deal with a couple of complications to the process as outlined in the blog post. One piece of that was that when you have a pay-as-you go phone, they do not make your account number easily accessible to you.  You need the account number in order to port from the pay-as-you-go over to Google Voice.  I had to call the AT&T Go Phone service line to get the number.  I found that dialing the service number from the mobile phone itself caused my call to go through faster.  They were pretty good about giving me the number without hassle, but it still took about 20 minutes if you include wait time.

I also had a bit of a twist when I purchased a SIM card for the pay-as-you-go service online and tried to activate service myself.  This didn't work out, and since I was taking my wife's phone to the AT&T store to transfer contacts, I took the old feature phone with me.  Within a couple of minutes, they gave me a *free* SIM card that actually worked and had the service set up, activated, closed my landline and ported the number.  If you do this project and are on AT&T for both cellular and home phone, just go into an AT&T store, it's way easier. Trust me.Another aspect that the blog article mentions is the lack of 911 service as an integrated part of most regular VOIP services. You may or may not find this to be an issue for you.  If your VOIP system, router and modem are not on an uninterruptible power supply then whether or not you add 911 service to your VOIP setup, it might not be there when you need it.  In that case, you'll be leaning on your cell phones anyway. I added the Anveo 911 service to my setup, but I became concerned with something rather simple... how do I know it is working and set up properly? I can't dial 911 to test it can I? If I never test it and then I cut my hand off on the table saw, but find that it isn't working when I do finally dial 911, what good was it?

I'm still working out all the various settings available in Google voice to optimize my experience, but it seems pretty slick and will pay for itself in two months! At the moment, I have it set up to do a complete pass through and I use only features from the handsets that I have at home (answering service, caller ID, etc) but Google Voice has quite a few things that might make me hand some of that control over to that. For example, you can have Google screen your calls and then forward to a list of different numbers based upon the response during screening.  That is, it could ask you if you want to talk to George or Fred and then automatically forward to Fred's cell phone if he is traveling. There are other things I might do as well, such as setting up my modem/router/VOIP/phone system on uninterruptible power supply.

Since I completed the process, we've been happy with the VOIP service.  No major hiccups so far and we are almost a month in.  That means that I have almost paid for the switchover already!

One of the things that I like best the whole IP setup is that I can pick and choose services a la carte and can drop services for short terms whenever I wish. Last summer, I didn't have anything that I particularly needed to watch on Hulu, so I shut it off until the Fall TV season started again.  This is true with most of the services in that while they are not a la carte in the sense that I only pay for what they get, but I have the freedom to turn them on and off as I please. That is, except for the ISP itself... but it's not like I'm gonna shut off Internet am I?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sew what?

So we're all 21st century people here right? Well, maybe not, but anyway... We can get over the idea that a guy can be a man and still be crafty right?  He might even be able to cook.  Yeah, I think most of us can get at least that far.  But it starts to get a little rough when we talk about sewing.  Can a real man sew?  I think so.  At least I was a man the last time I checked.

I went back to TechShop again and this time I took their introduction to the sewing machine.  I have struggled with my sewing machine a bunch of times, and even managed to cobble together a few things.  I even made a fleece lined cap once.  It was a perfect fit... for a conehead.  The class at TechShop was able to take me further sewing in a two hour class than I had done on my own in months. That's even taking into account that the class is meant to be more of an introduction to the machine than a sewing class.

We were able to switch the machine around to different stitches, adjust the stitches, wind a bobbin, thread the needle and manipulate some of the other settings on the machine.  It was great, and I felt comfortable right away.  The instructor was awesome even though her hand was swollen to mutant proportions by multiple yellowjacket stings earlier in the day.  I was even able to complete the project in the last ten minutes or so of class.  It was just a simple self-lined pouch, but it got us through seam allowances, the machine, ironing and changing the needle.  They even sent us home with our own needles and bobbins since you have to have ones that match the machine when working on the machine there at TechShop.

All in all, a great success and a good time with the exception that my stomach was churning the entire time. Not because I was nervous or worried about sewing my hands to the fabric, but because I had just wolfed down a "Dead Elvis" at Psycho Doughnuts across the street. That bacon, banana, peanut butter and cream monstrosity was not the best thing to wolf down, let alone to eat under any circumstances.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bored No Longer

A friend of mine was recently making fun of me because he had recently met me and another friend at a coffee shop near my house to play games and I happened to have brought a small selection of my collection from which to choose.  He was telling the people around us how obsessed he thought I had become with boardgames.  I definitely have a strong tendency to dive into the deep end of any pursuit, and I won't say games are different, but I will say that I think my collection of games is born of genuine enthusiasm for the new games that are out there.  And I'd like to tell you a bit about why and maybe convince you to take a look yourself.

I come from a generation that experienced a number of major transitions, but few of them are as dramatic as the move from analog to digital forms of entertainment.  When I was quite young, we gathered around board games like Monopoly and Sorry. A lucky few experienced some of the more involved games that were available like Risk.  But in my pre-teen years, most of us dumped the old cardboard and grabbed game controllers. Now it's been close to 30 years of digital gaming for most.  We've all but lost the ability to sit around a table with others and produce the kind of camaraderie and face-to-face smack talk required for a great game of Monopoly. It seems that some of us noticed and we decided to step back to the table on occasion. Although one could argue about the chicken and the egg in this circumstance, it is still apparent that part of the move back to board games is because we are experiencing a renaissance of fantastic new board games that draw us back. 

Get a bunch of board game geeks together and you can have an entertaining time watching them argue about what started the modern revolution in board games, but there is one game that is always part of the discussion. In 1995, Die Siedler von Catan was released in Germany.  A few years later, the game was released in the United States as Settlers of Catan.  In the years following "Settlers," more and more games out of Europe and Germany in particular were brought stateside. Many of these games included rules that keep all players in the game until the end, keep score in such a way that the winner of the game is not apparent until the end, and which eschew most types of direct aggression or competition during the game.  These are now commonly referred to as 'Euro' games. As the groundswell of new games grew, more types of games became a part of the trend and even non-Euro games became more popular and the rate at which all types of board and card games increased exponentially. There aren't a lot of great ways to describe all of these games in one category, but you will hear the collective set of games referred to as 'tabletop games,' a term which encompasses new and classic games, card games and roll playing games alike.

Since many people have the same memories of boardgames I do, there are a lot of people who shy away from the idea of sitting around a table to play because they remember getting destroyed by older siblings and neighbors and really not having all that much fun.  Sure, it was still a great way to pass the time, but there were plenty of times where I'd run away if you asked me to play yet another game of Sorry or Othello.  Not to mention a whole period of gimmicky games that never did work all that well anyway (Mousetrap anyone?). For that crowd of people like me, modern tabletop gamers all seem to have a set of games that they use to introduce the reticent ones to how much fun and how rich the new games are.  These are often called 'gateway games.'  A gateway game needs to be easy to teach, easy to play, and rewarding and rich enough to highlight the distinction of the new games to a jaded player of mid to late 20th century American games. Ticket to Ride tends to be one of my favorites for introducing young and old players to tabletop games of the 21st century. It is an easy way to get someone excited about games and willing to come to the table without exposing them to the nerd-phobia inducing presence of fantasy and science fiction themes.  However uninterested someone might seem at first, I think that they'll be excited by the end of their first game of Ticket to Ride.

Now let's step back to my story a bit. Last year some time, I was thinking about the problem that my wife and I are stuck at home most nights after the kids go to bed and we do what most people do, hunker down in front of the TV or read, mostly ignoring each other. I was trying to think of a way to be more interactive and have fun, but without needing to be a party planner or a camp counselor inventing new things to do every night. I read some blog posts and explored some of the top-ten lists for things like this and wasn't all that satisfied.  I did run across board games on those lists every once in a while and then I'd think "Wow, that's the way to an exciting marriage, Monopoly for two at home" and I'd dismiss the suggestion.  That is, until one particular blog listed some of the games that the author and his wife played.  I was shocked that I didn't recognize any of the games at all!  With a little investigation, I discovered that some of the games he mentioned were extremely popular.  True, many of them kind of ran within the geek circles, but some had busted out and had become pretty popular with some mainstream crowds.  I investigated and talked to some people that had some of the games and started running across a few guys whose wives actually enjoyed these games.  Further investigation narrowed down the list of possibilities because many games require 3 or more players and wouldn't help me with my dilemma at home if we needed to go out to get a third player.  Once I had a decent list of two player games, I put them on my Christmas list, in the hopes that I'd be able to convince my wife that they weren't just for geeks.  And that's how Ticket to Ride made it's way to my house. For the same Christmas, my brother-in-law asked for a copy of Dominion, which I had heard a bit about from my investigations.  A few weeks later, I got a report back that his wife liked it! With a seal of approval from her sister, I was all set to get my wife to the table for that game too.

Both of those games met with relative success at my house.  My birthday is just a few weeks after Christmas, and I still had that list of games I had investigated.  Add to that the fact that I had discovered that Wil Wheaton was making high quality videos with famous special guests where they all played through one of the new modern games (a series on YouTube called TableTop) and my discovery of the preeminent social site for board games (BoardGameGeek) and I was hooked.  I also found a group at my workplace that would discuss games freely and then we setup up regular game nights where I could preview games I had never tried and have experts teach me how to play them.

Now six months or so later, I have a pretty good collection of games, although it remains rather small in comparison to a lot of the board game fans that I play with. I am running several different casual gaming groups on occasion. My wife and I do play games on some of the nights we are trapped at home, and even occasionally take games with us when we go on dates.  She's not inclined to obsession like myself, so she approaches it much more coolly, but can still enjoy some of them with me. I often entertain her with my amazement at the value that I get out of these games. It's true though, even though many of the games are $35-50 each, it does amaze me that I can get 2 to 6 people to come to a table, have fun together for 2 or 3 hours and it only costs $50!  Even if you didn't ever play that game again, that would be fantastic value.  If six people all went to a 2 hour movie together, it would cost more than that and we wouldn't talk or get to know each other any better than we had before.

You too might find that if you get a chance to play a few gateway games with a friend who knows how to play them, you'll want to pick up a copy and take them home to play with your loved ones.  If you get your friends and family around a table and you see how much more rewarding it can be to create a story together, talk as the game progresses, and learn more about them by observing their play, you might just want to do that more than you want to go sit in a dark theater or turn on the television on a weeknight.  You might even find yourself doing it regularly. And maybe picking up another game.  Or two. Watch out though, if you've got the same tendencies that I have, you might find yourself being made fun of for your new obsession like I was!  Don't worry though.  Just get them to the table too and they'll understand.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Introduction to Screen Printing

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take the Introduction to Silkscreening class at TechShop. Silk screening and screen printing are almost equivalent terms for the art of using silk or synthetic screens stretched on frames to print designs on paper or fabric. Most of your t-shirts with designs on them were printed using a similar screen printing technique.  Silkscreening is a fantastic introduction to textile arts, even if you aren't much of an artist or a crafter.  The basic process is that you create a an inverse copy of your design on a screen through which ink can permeate with some sort of material that masks off parts of the screen and then you force ink through the vacant areas of the screen onto your material.  This leaves a copy of your design on the material.  Only one color of ink can be printed onto your material at a time

There are a few different ways to do screen printing that you'll encounter as an amateur. If you want one particular design that can be reproduced many times of the course of multiple production sessions, then you'll probably want to lay down your design on the screen using a photo-emulsion process.  This process uses a special material that is spread over the entirety of the screen and then the areas which you want to remain on the screen are exposed to light while the part that you want removed is protected from the light by one of several different masking procedures.  The extra emulsion is then removed from the screen, leaving a crisp, inverse copy of your design that will allow you to screen your design onto whatever material you want.  The key here is that the emulsion that is laid onto the screen can be washed and cleaned when you clean your screens of ink after printing without suffering any ill effects.  This process can be rather involved, since the process of laying down the emulsion, protecting it from light and creating a clean design can be challenging and requires more equipment.

A much simpler way to create just a few copies of a design, in one production session, is to cut your design out of a sheet of adhesive backed vinyl and to adhere that vinyl directly to the screen.  At TechShop, this can be done extremely easily because you have access to a CNC vinyl cutter. You have to take another class to use the cutter yourself, but during my silkscreening class, the instructor kindly cut out our designs for us. From there, it was a simple thing to remove the unnecessary pieces of vinyl from the design (a process called weeding) and to apply the vinyl to the silkscreen. In this way, you can make complex designs in a very precise way even if you have two thumbs like I do.  However, there's still the issue of transferring the vinyl without tearing it, not an entirely simply matter.

Once you've used one of these methods to mask out an inverse version of your design on the screen, you set up your frame in a special press that helps to hold your frames in place and you begin the process of actually applying ink to your material.  Although there is definitely some technique involved in applying the ink, and I didn't get it right until the third try, it is definitely doable for beginners.  You first flood your screen with ink with a squeegee before pressing the screen to your material, then apply the screen and run ink across your design two more times. Then you remove your screen and put your material under a drying lamp to fix the ink.

The process of screen printing your own designs onto a t-shirt or other material is not trivial even though it is rather simple and the results are very satisfying. Even though I had never done screen printing before, I was able to create and apply a design then take home a custom t-shirt after just a couple of hours! Although I can't say that I had ever had much of a desire to do screen printing before learning to do it, I'm now fascinated and want to cover all of my t-shirts in custom designs.  Of course I'll either need a TechShop membership or will have to make do at home with much more simple equipment.