Coming soon to a digital library near you
Coming soon to a digital library near you

It’s hard to believe I’m almost to the finish line…or the starting line, depending on how you look at it.

The defense of my dissertation is just two weeks away. I can’t quite talk about it in the past tense; at the same time, I can’t help but pause for a short reflection before diving into one last sprint to the finish line–preparing the presentation (and myself) for the actual defense.

I didn’t realize this until recently, but it’s amazing the thoughts that have been waiting for a chance to be thought, given the chance. One of the first in line was reflecting on how I got to where I find myself at this moment.

It’s been a long (and occasionally turbulent) chain of events–one that reminds me of Connections, my favorite documentary series of the 80s and 90s. In that series (and book), James Burke, the host, describes a series of unrelated events spread across centuries that come together as something we, now, take for granted–something that would not be possible, if any one of these events had not occurred.

After accounting for some hindsight bias and confirmation bias, that’s basically how I got here–a series of unrelated events, each the result of or the solution to some immediate problem. It would be so much easier to say that this was just another step in my master plan, but, I’ve given up on master plans (not planning, just the notion of running my life according to some master plan). I’ve taken a more Agile approach to life–it’s a model that just seems to fit better.

Humans don’t like to view history in such a random way, so we create, and expect, stories to connect these points in some way that, ideally, makes sense–even if only after the fact. We, as a species, are very story oriented–it’s how we organize the myriad of random, unrelated, and frequently, unintentional events that make up our daily existence.

So, no self-promoting story of how this is yet another example of my brilliance and one more step on my path to greatness. Just a humble acknowledgement that as I finish this step, it’s time to see where to take the next one.

After reflecting a bit, one thing that has been consistent, is that I’ve always been attracted to interesting, if unrelated, problems to explore. Studying for my PhD has provided a steady supply of those, provided a sizable backlog to keep me occupied for some time to come, and left me with quite an appetite for new ones.

But, back to the task at hand. Time to get to work on the presentation for my defense.

Infrequently used but extremely critical information

Seattle at sunset from over Bainbridge Island
Seattle at sunset from over Bainbridge Island

I just finished the refresher training for my Flight Instructor (CFI) certificate. This is the eighth time I’ve renewed it since my last check-ride. Yet, for some reason, this time seemed unusually focused on mishaps. Granted, the lessons focused mostly on avoiding them, and surviving them (when they couldn’t be avoided), but mishaps nonetheless.

This year, I had lessons on avoiding and surviving:

  • mishaps in the mountains
  • mishaps in helicopters
  • mishaps in seaplanes
  • mishaps while teaching student pilots
  • mishaps in bad weather

Then, as a break in training, I watched the Weather Channel’s “Why Planes Crash.”

Yeah, that was relaxing.

Yet, after all this, I can’t wait to get to the airport and go flying, again. I really enjoy flying so why focus on all this negativity?

So it won’t happen to me. I hope that I never need to apply any of this information, directly. At the same time, I hope to apply what I learned about these mishaps all the time–not just while flying.

Most of the mishap scenarios could be summed up as:

Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Alan Lakein

Which applies to just about any aspect of life.

I’ve had a lot of flight training in the 40+ years I’ve spent hanging around airports. The bulk of it–70-80%, I’d guess–involved dealing with emergencies (the rest delt with how to avoid them in the first place). So far, fortunately, these emergency scenarios have only happened to me in training scenarios. While I have a story or two to tell about when things didn’t go exactly as planned, the vast majority of my flights were quite safe.

So, if the probability of an inflight emergency is very low, why spend a disproportionate time in training for them? Because, while they are very low-probability events (0%, ideally), they are very high-cost events.

Is it worth it to spend all that time training for something that is not likely to ever happen? You betcha!!  I’m sure the people who fly with me would agree!

What does any of this have to do with technical writing? It’s like I posted in this post on in-flight reading material,  some topics provide a little value many times, while other topics provide a great deal of value, but infrequently. The value of content that results, somehow, in a financial transaction is relatively easy to compute: subtract the cost of producing and promoting the content from the gain it provides. Computing the value of content that provides great value but only infrequently, much harder.

Like the flight training that’s kept me from having an accident, how do you measure the value of events  (accidents, misunderstandings, errors, etc.) that have been averted or costs that have been avoided?

Facebook, Twitter, Ham radio?

Social media?
Social media?

It turns out I’ve been a social media user (perhaps even somewhat of an expert) for almost 30 years, now. Time to update my resume.

According to this article, amateur radio (a.k.a. ham radio) is the original social media. Um, OK. Let’s compare and contrast…

The article cites these examples:

  • Talking to people in England and Australia
  • Using abbreviated words (e.g. BCNU = be seeing you in ham radio and when texting)
  • Providing communications during emergency situations
  • Using technology
  • Thousands (millions?) of people can hear/read what you send in an instant

OK. There’s no arguing that they have some things in common. In fact, ham radio (Morse code, to be specific) had a speed advantage over texting in a demonstration on the Jay Leno show some 10 years ago. This report from Indiana University had somewhat different results, however, so your mileage may vary–mine would be embarrassing, so I won’t even bring that into the discussion. But, to be fair, let’s look at some of the differences that the report from Indiana University illustrated, if not highlighted.

  • Ham radio requires a desk-mounted piece of equipment (and a long antenna that wasn’t shown), while texting requires a device that fits in your pocket
  • Ham radio is somewhat more inconvenient (see previous point)
  • Not shown, but you can send a text to many more people than you can send a ham-radio message
  • A text can be sent in English (or any other language that you can type on the keypad), while ham radio messages are coded in Morse code. (Granted, you can also speak over ham radio…like a phone, for example)

While they have some things in common, they are also different in many ways.

I have fun with ham radio and I’ve talked to far-away places. For the past two years, I’ve used it to support humanitarian work in eastern Honduras. That I can string up a wire and talk to someone in Brazil without any additional equipment beyond the radio that’s connected to the wire, never ceases to amaze me, but is it social media?

I’ll settle for calling it technical communications.

A day late and a click short

An ad from my Facebook feed
An ad from my Facebook feed

The other day, this little plastic piece broke causing my 9-year-old car to spray hot engine coolant all over the road and emit plumes of steam from under the hood. AAA rescued the car and a tow truck  brought it home. Fortunately, the broken part was easily visible in the engine compartment and a quick search identified several options for purchasing a replacement.

As auto parts go, it looked like one of the easier to replace, but it broke on Monday and I wouldn’t be able to get to it until the weekend, which would inconvenience my wife and daughter who drive the car. So, I called my favorite auto mechanic, Accurate Auto Service, in Snohomish, who could (and did) fix it right away.

Problem solved. Which brings me to…

Yesterday. Facebook tried to add value to my browsing experience (and their bottom line) by showing me the ad in the photo.

Thanks, but no thanks.

They do this a lot, and while I understand how Facebook lives to sell ads, I’m not sure why they think that showing me something I looked for (and found) two-days earlier is something I might still be interested in. I’m sure they have the numbers to show this works enough to keep doing it, but it brings to mind some troubling implications:

  1. What were they  (i.e. their algorithm) thinking when they picked this ad? Is that how I really shop? (maybe) but more troubling still, what else do they know about me better than I do? Which leads to…
  2. How were they watching (I know, tracking cookies and what not, but how far does that go? Are they watching me type this?)
  3. What would I have thought if this had happened 10 years ago? 20 years ago? (There’s another blog post)
  4. Why does this not bother me anymore? Are baby pictures and cute dog videos really that valuable to me?

How did I ever survive without Facebook there to show me baby pictures for the low, low price of being able to look over my shoulder when I do other things on the Internet? Truth be told, it’s really easier to just stop thinking and look at the cute baby pictures–and therein lies the real problem.


Bridging the decades

DB-9 connector used by RS-232 connections to PC

After installing the solid-state drive and experiencing what 2015-technology has to offer, I finally installed the serial (as in RS-232) and Firewire-400 ports to connect my turn-of-the-century technology to the new computer. So far, so good. Windows 7 drivers all installed without complaint, and they seem to work well–quite well, as a matter of fact.

As Hannibal of the A-Team would say, “I love it when a plan comes together!”

It seems like only yesterday

Copying files on the new computer
Copying files on the new computer

Only 13 years ago, I bought my last desktop computer. Rest assured, I’ve bought newer computers in the intervening years, but they’ve all been laptops of various makes and sizes. My most recent laptop was more like a portable desktop in terms of CPU (Intel I7) and memory (8GB…it seemed like a lot for a laptop, 2-1/2 years ago) and a fancy graphics chip. I thought that would make a reasonable replacement for my aging desktop, but after editing some video recently, I reevaluated that conclusion. I think it was when the keyboard reached 150+ degrees Fahrenheit (according to the IR thermometer).

In 2002, when I bought the last desktop for video editing, this it what $2,000-some would get you: 1 GHz 32-bit processor, 1 GB of RAMDAC memory, 100Mb/Sec Ethernet, Firewire 400 and USB 2.0 (stop giggling). It’s gone through a few hard drives, video cards, monitors, and other peripherals, but it’s still chugging away running Windows XP (SP3). For several years, it did a decent job editing DV videos with reasonable aplomb. However, since almost melting the keyboard of my laptop, I’ve been shopping for a new desktop–until last weekend.

I saw the computer I wanted on sale at Costco and, as often happens when visiting Costco, it somehow ended up in the cart. Since then, as I should be revising my dissertation, I’ve been going through the process of migrating the features and functions the old desktop performed to the new computer. Eventually, the old desktop will join the collection of obsolete computers that have taken residence out in my garage. It’s in the process of migrating from the old to the new that I provides the contrast between then and now.

Starting with Firewire 400. Who uses that? (I do.) I need this to connect to my DV and HDV camera and tape deck collection at least long enough to copy their content to a hard drive.

And the RS-232 serial ports. When did they stopped including those on computers? I still have some devices that connect over serial cables, so I’ll add a couple of ports for those.

While addding these cards helps bridge the technological generation gap(s), I’m hardly sad about how technology has improved over the years. Gigabit-ethernet makes connecting to the NAS much faster. SATA drives are a big step up from the older ATA drives in speed and capacity, increasing file transfer speed considerably.

But the biggest treat came from the solid-state drive (SSD) I added, which made possible sustained file transfer rates from the internal SATA drive of more than 150 megabytes/second (as in the photo). That’s  8-10x faster than the desktop it replaced and 3x faster than the laptop that was supposed to be my next desktop–this is now limited by the SATA drive.

So back to copying files and installing apps.

Meeting the customer

Photo of people watching the dentist and waiting their turn
Waiting to see the dentist. (From 2014 trip)

My wife and I were part of team who staffed the medical and dental clinic in Rus Rus, a small village 70 miles inland from the Caribbean coast and five miles north of Nicaragua. In our most recent trip to Honduras, I had  time to mingle with the people who came from miles around to visit us in-between my radio-operator duties.

I speak enough Spanish to carry a conversation, but that’s of only minimal benefit it Rus Rus. The majority of people who came to visit us spoke only Miskito. Nevertheless, I managed to chat with a few of the people who spoke Spanish. I didn’t plan to interview them, but my curiosity can be hard to suppress.

I’m fascinated by the insights that simply chatting with the customer can reveal (to the point I’m getting a degree in it). By listening to the locals, I found that our visits are quite welcome by the local population, but they can also be quite an exercise in patience for them. And, that’s after they walk for hours, or days in some cases, to visit us. In keeping with my theme for this year, I consider…

The Story of Luis

When I met Luis, he had been waiting outside the clinic for over a day to have a painful tooth extracted (after suffering with it for several months before our visit). Luis lived about two hours away by truck or five or six hours away on foot. At this point, Luis was getting pretty hungry because the last time he’d eaten was before leaving to come visit us.

The dental clinic is very popular on these trips, and there is always quite a queue for the services they provide–often, there are many more patients in need of dental services than we can accommodate. Not knowing that he might have a long wait to see the dentist, Luis didn’t bring any food with him and returning home for the night wasn’t a viable option. Luis was debating whether to return home (in order to eat) or continue waiting to have his tooth pulled–a difficult decision given the lack of information he had available. I hope he was seen, but I wasn’t able to follow up with him–I had to return to my duties as the team’s radio operator shortly after our conversation.

Fortunately, IHS of MN, the group that organizes the trip, cares about their service. Hopefully, we’ll come up with a way to help people like Luis come prepared for a longer wait, or maybe provide more information about where they are in the queue so they can make an informed decision about what to do. Because they actively seek feedback from the volunteers, I’m sure we’ll do better to make time.

On this trip, I’m glad I was  able to have a chance to see how our visits looked through the customers’ eyes and be able to provide that feedback.

How many topics in a page?

API reference topic type distribution observed in study of open-source API documentation
API reference topic type distribution observed in study of open-source API documentation

This question has come up a few times recently and the answer, like the answer to so many technical writing questions is, “it depends,” of course. Which begs the next question, “depends on what?”

Well, at the root, what the reader wants to accomplish, perhaps most critically, how do they want to accomplish it.

I researched this a couple of years ago and found the multi-topic/page format was used in the API reference documentation we studied to be twice as common as the the single-topic/page format.

Graph of API reference topic type by API size
The distribution of API reference topic type by API size

Now, because a format is more popular doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better. Looking at this chart from the study shows that the format preference shifts towards the single-element per page format with larger APIs. It’s possible that the difference observed is nothing more than an artifact of authoring systems or organizational style guides.

Research on how people construct knowledge, however, tends to prefer the multi-topic/page format (to a point). If you are constructing knowledge about an API, you might look for an overview, some sample code, some explanations of some key methods, go back to the overview, look at some more sample code… Lather, rinse, repeat. Such a learning method is best facilitated by a big topic in which the reader can skip around to see quickly all the related information in whatever order his or her learning style desires. Doing that with each topic in a separate page requires multiple web-server accesses, each interrupting the flow for more time than in-page navigation. While the 2-3 seconds it might take for the page to load doesn’t sound like much, if it breaks the reader’s flow, it degrades the learning experience.

A key part of this learning method is the intra-page navigation–to facilitate meaningful skipping around, or random access to an otherwise sequentially oriented topic. This topic came up in a discussion about the scrollspy feature of Twitter Bootstrap, which provides some very helpful in-page navigation elements. The advantage of scrollspy is that it builds the in-page navigation when the page loads, which makes it much easier for the author (and maintainer) of the topic.

Back from Honduras

The field hospital in Rus Rus, Gracias a DIos, Honduras
The field hospital in Rus Rus, Gracias a DIos, Honduras

I’m finally getting back online after being in Honduras for two weeks and then spending the next two weeks catching up to the life I left behind.

For the last two weeks of February, my wife and I were in Honduras working as members of a brigada medica (medical brigade) with the International Health Organization of Minnesota (IHS of MN). We worked as a part of a medical & dental team—my wife was an interpreter and I was a radio operator. The organization deployed eight teams to various parts of Honduras. Our team went to a field hospital in Rus Rus, a small village in the jungle, 60-some miles inland from the Caribbean coast of Honduras and just five miles north of Nicaragua in La Mosquitia.

IHS of MN has brought medical brigades to Honduras for 33 years. This was our second trip with them and our second time at the field hospital in Rus Rus. Last year, I filled in as an interpreter for the medical staff when I wasn’t on the radio. This year, we had a surplus of interpreters, so when I wasn’t working the radio, I mingled with the local people who came to visit the clinic and got to know more about them and their lives.

As with our trip, last year, it was an amazing experience. We had the pleasure to work on a dedicated team of volunteers who provided health and dental care to people who would otherwise not have access to these services.

More stories, photos, and videos to come!

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Chart of science-public split on science-related issues (from fivethirtyeight.com)
Science-public split on science-related issues (from fivethirtyeight.com)

The headline from stats web site, http://fivethirtyeight.com/, says Americans And Scientists Agree More On Vaccines Than On Other Hot Button Issues while the headline from Mother Jones, reporting on the same data, says, This Chart Shows That Americans Are Way Out of Step With Scientists on Pretty Much Everything. You wouldn’t know from the headlines that they were reporting from the same data.

If you ignore the text and just look at the data in each chart, while the chart from http://fivethirtyeight.com/ breaks the data out by political-party affiliation, the numbers do appear to be the same (or the same enough). The rhetoric and visualizations, however, are quite different.

Things that make you go, “hmmmm…..”

Or, another way to look at it is that it always pays to go to the source data.

Chart showing opinion differences between public and scientists from Mother Jones
Opinion differences between public and scientists from Mother Jones