How do I look, now?

Hopefully, the same. Over the weekend, I migrated my web site from a brand-x hosting service to a DIY server hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS). After the disappearance of my site last spring, I’ve been looking for an excuse to find it a new home, but didn’t want to spend a lot of time fussing with the details of site management and migration. Turns out (as so many things do), it was much easier than I anticipated. The migration was straightforward and accomplished in just a short time, once I knew what I wanted to do.

AWS offers a dizzying array of configuration options, which can be very intimidating to the weekend webmaster. So, the first problem was to figure out which server options I wanted to use (i.e. pay for). I opted for tiny, which seems to work well enough. Being virtual servers, I can always level-up (or down) if performance becomes an issue. In all fairness, the hardest part was trying to figure out what I really wanted.

Once I got the server running to my satisfaction, Step-by-Step Guide to Migrate Your WordPress Site to a New Host provided the details to migrate the site contents (files and database tables). The hardest part of that process was realizing that I needed to create an .htaccess file on the new server.

Going through a Cloudflare load balancer made switching to the new server as easy as typing in the IP address of the new server. A couple of summers ago, I moved the public IP of my site to Cloudflare to take advantage of their SSL support. That gave my site its padlock (finally) and a bunch of other features–like the presto-chango IP address. No DNS records involved at all. Best of all, if I messed something up, I just type in the old server’s IP until I get things sorted out.

So, this is my first post of the new year (2020…and I still upset that don’t have a flying car that I was promised in the 1960s views of the 21st century). And, my first post on the site’s new server.

Happy and prosperous new year!

First time scuba diving

Dolphin swimming by near surface for a photo
Dolphin swimming by for photo near surface

On the island of Roatán, this summer, I finished a research project that I’d started five years ago. Having some well-earned down-time, I visited Coconut Tree Divers in the town of West End to earn my PADI Open Water Scuba Diver certification. Having snorkeled in Roatán, I found the colorful aquatic life found in the coral reef to be quite enchanting and only yards from the beach; however my excessive buoyancy prevented me from exploring more than several feet below the surface. I thought that Scuba Diving would enable, at the very least, descending more than a few feet beneath the surface.

I was surprised by how comfortable I felt under water. I’d always been rather anxious snorkeling because, mostly due to ill-fitting rental gear and poor technique—both of which contributed to swallowing a lot of sea water. With scuba diving, I still had floppy rental gear, but having your air always available, drinking sea water was no longer a problem, and that anxiety disappeared.

The instruction for this course covers the basic techniques to stay alive while underwater, practiced to the point that we could take care of ourselves within limits that minimize risk. Being next to the beach and boat dock, and having many deep diving sites less than 10 minutes away, certification took only a couple of days leaving time for “fun dives.”

After the certification, however, there is still more to learn and much more to practice. The next week I went back for the PADI Advanced Open Water certification.  With the Open Water Scuba Diver certificate, you can dive without an instructor to a depth of 60’ (18m). In Roatán, staying above 60’ deep will barely cramp your enjoyment as you can see most of the coral and many reef animals in this area. Also, as you descend, the color spectrum becomes only shades of blue and green, your air consumption increases, and the time you can spend underwater due to Nitrogen absorption decreases. Bottom line: there is much to see in the 30-60’ depths around Roatán, so the Open Water Scuba Diver certificate is the ticket to a lot of interesting sites and sights!

Looking at the bow of a sunken ship from above and behind.
An example of what you can see while in Roatan at 100′ underwater

The Advanced Open Water certificate does open up greater depths (up to 120’); however, it also includes additional skills—buoyancy and navigation, for example. After my advanced certification, I felt much more comfortable finding my way around underwater. While I wasn’t particularly stressed out under water after my initial certification, after my Advanced course, I could now relax. I’ve described it as doing yoga with fish and sea turtles.

At neutral buoyancy, you’re weightless, for all practical purposes. At neutral buoyancy you can ascend and descend simply through breathing. As an added bonus, the more you relax, the less air you use, letting you stay underwater longer. Watching the pro divers (dive masters and instructors) on our dives, you could see how they moved as little as possible while still getting to where they wanted to be. Us newbies, however, were another story.

I’m now hooked on it and strongly recommend Coconut Tree Divers in West End, Roatán, if you’re looking for your ticket to another world!

What’s with the radio silence?

Tropical beach with sunny sky and plapapas
Summer in paradise

I’m finally catching up with myself after an action-packed summer. I’d intended to share much of my summer activities through my blog because, well, it was action packed. However, one of this summer’s actions was the disappearance of my website (more on that later). So, as my site updates its version of WordPress, I thought I’d start catching things  up.

TL;DR

In a nutshell, my wife and I went to Honduras for the summer to finish the research on the piClinic Console I’d started a few years ago. Thanks to a Fulbright Scholars Grant, we were able to travel to Honduras for the past two summers to see if I could disrupt healthcare information systems technology in rural clinics.

Short answer, yes.

Of course, many other things happened as well. I’m not sure how many of those adventures will fit in here, but these are some of the things I’ve done since my last (currently published) blog post.

  • Spoke at the API the Docs conference in Chicago in April.
  • Read a few good books:
    • Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World and What We Can Do to Fix It by Mike Monteiro
    • Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More by Mark Graban & Donald J. Wheeler
    • Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
  • Wrote some thoughts about them in my blog.
  • Woke up to find this site had disappeared.
    • Got chewed out by my hosting company for not reading the various email they claimed to have sent (but that never arrived).
    • Spent the next two weeks on Skype and my slow Internet connection dealing with the aforementioned hosting company trying to find my site.
    • Learned they migrated my site using a backup from two months earlier (sending my last two months of posts into the bitbucket).
  • Hosted 10 undergraduates on a Mercer On Mission trip to Honduras, in which they conducted research on the piClinic Console and got a taste of Caribbean culture on the Honduran island of Roatan.
  • Spent three weeks on the Honduran mainland during some political demonstrations.
  • Learned how to SCUBA dive.
  • Attended SIGNAL 2019.

So here I am; doing my best to get caught up.

The documentation cliff

For the past couple of months, I’ve been refactoring the piClinic Console software to get it ready for this summer’s field tests. Along the way, I encountered something I’d seen before, but never really named, until recently.

The documentation cliff.

A documentation cliff is where you get used to a certain level of documentation quality and support as you embark on your customer journey to use a new API and then, somewhere along the way, you realize that level of support has disappeared. And, there you are, like Wile-E-Coyote, floating in air, looking back at the cliff and looking down at where you are about to fall in the next instant.

Just kidding. What really happens is that you realize that your earlier plans and schedule have just flown out the window and you need to refactor the remainder of your development plan. At the very least, it means you’re going to have some uncomfortable conversations with stakeholders. In the worst-case scenario, you might need to re-evaluate the product design (and then have some uncomfortable conversations).

Most recently, this happened to me while I was using Postman to build unit tests for the piClinic Console software. I don’t want this to sound like I don’t like Postman–quite, the contrary. I love it. But that just makes the fall from the cliff hurt that much more.

How I got to the cliff

In my case, the tool was easy to get started with, the examples and tutorials were great, the online information was helpful–all the things that made a very productive on-boarding experience. So, I on-boarded myself and integrated the product into my testing. In fact, I made it the centerpiece of my testing.

Continue reading “The documentation cliff”

Cue-Are-Pee?

Recently, my ham-radio hobby took a turn into the world of QRP (pronounced, cue-are-pee) as the hobbyists call it. QRP is a world where portability and low-profile are preferred over the big and large. The name is from the set of three-letter abbreviations adopted by amateur radio enthusiasts that codify a variety of ham-radio situations and each code start with the letter Q.

QRP means low power.

While General and Extra-class amateur radio operators are licensed to operate on the short waves (below a frequency of 30 MHz) using a transmitter power of 1,500 watts, power levels of 5 watts or less are used in the world of QRP. For comparison, AM broadcast stations transmit with up to 50,000 watts and FM broadcast stations transmit with up to 100,000 watts.

QRP stations are essentially whispering.

What’s the attraction? Mostly that it’s more difficult. QRP stations can’t rely on output power alone to help push their signals into the world so amateur radio operators like to credit their skill as being the differentiating factor. While there’s some truth to that, there are also many other factors the help the signals along the way.

One benefit of QRP stations is that they are very small, and comparatively lightweight making them easy to carry. The radios are generally battery-powered, easy to pack, and easy to carry. More traditional, home-based ham radio stations use a 100-watt radio, such as the one I use from my house. Unlike my lightweight, battery-powered, QRP radio, my ham radio at home requires an AC power supply or a very large (i.e. heavy) battery. A so-called legal-limit, 1,500-watt station requires an electric power that is comparable to what you would use for an electric clothes dryer–making it something less than portable. For the “ham on the go,” QRP is an easy way to take your hobby on the road.

Because QRP operations are the ham-radio equivalent to whispering, not everyone can hear you. However, with the right combination of weather conditions, frequency, antenna, skill, and luck, 5 watts of radio-frequency energy can go quite a long ways–even further if the receiving station has a powerful antenna to help hear your whisper among the other stations.

My QRP station

My portable station, in the photo below, consists of:

Continue reading “Cue-Are-Pee?”

If we could only test docs like we can test code

Postman logo
Postman logo

As I continue to catch up on delinquent and neglected tasks during the inter-semester break, I’ve started porting the software from last year’s piClinic Console to make it ready for prime time. I don’t want to have any prototype code in the software that I’ll be leaving in the clinics this coming summer!

So, module by module, I’m reviewing the code and tightening all the loose screws. To help me along the way, I’m developing automated tests, which is something I haven’t done for quite a while.

The good news about automated tests is they find bugs. The bad news is they find bugs (a lot of bugs, especially as I get things off the ground). The code, however, is noticeably more solid as a result of all this automated testing and I no longer have to wonder if the code can handle this case or that, because I’ll have a test for that!

With testing, I’m getting to know the joy that comes with making a change to the code and not breaking any of the previous tests and the excitement of having the new features work the first time!

 I’m also learning to live with the pain of troubleshooting a failed test. Anywhere during the test and development cycle a test could fail because:

  1.  The test is broken, which happens when I didn’t update a test to accommodate a change in the code.
  2. The code is broken, which happens (occasionally).
  3. The environment is broken. Some tests work only in a specific context like with a certain user account or after a previous test has passes.
  4. Cosmic rays. Sometimes they just fail.

The challenge in troubleshooting these test failures is picking the right option from the start to make sure you don’t break something that actually was working (but whatever was really broken is hiding that fact).

But, this is nothing new for developers (or testers). It is, however, completely foreign to a writer.

Here are some of the differences.

Continue reading “If we could only test docs like we can test code”

Recent good, could-be-better, and ugly documentation experiences

During the “break” between semesters, I try to catch up on the tasks I’ve deferred during the past semester and get ahead of the tasks I know will come up during the coming semester. In the process, I’ve had these encounters with documentation that I’ve characterized into these categories:

  • GOOD: documentation doing what it should—making me(the customer) successful.
  • COULD-BE-BETTER: documentation that is well-intentioned, but needs a tweak or two.
  • UGLY: documentation that gives me nightmares.

Here goes.

Good documentation

These are the stories of documentation that made me successful. Being successful makes me happy. Good documentation should help make the reader successful.

Ford Motor Company. F-150 owner’s manual

The windshield wipers on my almost 3 year-old truck are the ones that it came with from the factory— almost 3 years ago. Well past their expiration (and effectiveness) date. But, while I’ve changed car engines and gear boxes before, I hate changing wipers. They always have some clever (and obscure) trick to getting the old ones off and the new ones off. I especially hate it when they go flying off the car in a rain storm. So, for all these reasons,I’ve procrastinated on changing them for far too long (as driving in recent wet weather has reminded me)—the replacements have actually been in my garage since…I actually can’t remember.

Continue reading “Recent good, could-be-better, and ugly documentation experiences”

I just can’t see myself as a customer

How often have you been shopping and, while looking at something that might be suitable, you just had the feeling that it wasn’t right? When shopping for houses last year, we had that feeling many times (too many times). They were, for the most part, all nice homes, but they just didn’t do “it” for us. Sometimes we could articulate the reasons, other times, it was something less tangible. In every case, except for the last one, of course, we walked away without becoming a customer.

We finished house hunting about two years ago and I hadn’t given that feeling a second thought until I came across a blog post about making the Build vs. Buy Decision. Point 4 of that post, whether it is cheaper to build than to buy, got me thinking about one of the value propositions that technical communication frequently asserts–to increase product adoption. To tie it back to house hunting, let’s call it making it easy for potential customers to see themselves using your product and becoming a customer instead of just a prospect.

Try it, you’ll like it!

In API marketing, one of the methods recommended to promote your API to potential customers is to provide some easy way for potential customers to take a test drive. Options such as providing a sandbox, having an accessible Hello World application or example, and providing tutorials that provide solutions to common customer pain points. The idea is to get them into the driver’s seat and let your potential customers take it for a spin. The lower the barrier to entry, the easier it is for your potential customers to see if this is a product for them and to see themselves as satisfied customers.

Continue reading “I just can’t see myself as a customer”

piClinic Console presented at IEEE GHTC

Image of piClinic Console prototype which consists of a monitor, keyboard, and mouse
piClinic Console prototype

I presented another paper about the progress made developing the piClinic Console at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, or IEEE GHTC for short. The paper, titled Bridging the Gap between Paper Patient Records and EHR Systems with the piClinic Console will soon hit the Web in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library (subscription required). This latest paper describes more about the technical aspects of the system and its development and compliments the papers published earlier this year that describe how the project has been used to support educational goals (Using Independent Studies to Enhance Usability Assessment Skills in a Generalist Program) and foster international design collaboration (Enriching Technical Communication Education: Collaborating Across Disciplines and Cultures to Develop the piClinic Console).

The conference was the first real opportunity for me to discuss the project with others in the humanitarian technology field, which was both encouraging and discouraging at the same time. I was encouraged to hear that the idea still seems sound and the need was recognized by everyone with whom I talked. There’s really no question that the gap it is designed to fill is a real one. At the same time, I’ve been calibrating my expectations on how long things take, not only in the healthcare field, but with foreign government agencies as well. Those who travel regularly in these sectors will likely not see this as news, but, coming from high tech, my time scale needs some serious recalibration.

Wake-up call

At the conference, one research described a similar project  (a very similar project) that he’s been working on for the past 17 years to get past the field-test stage (the stage my project is just starting to enter). He described how he’s had to navigate various health ministries across the African sub-continent as well as EU funding agencies. While I’m [finally] realizing that such time frames are quite reasonable in this context, my high-tech industry can’t help but think of what was going on 17 years ago and how much has changed. For example, in 2001:

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What’s your story?

For a few years, I tried my hand at filmmaking. I was OK at it; however, it was during a time when the competition was amazing. OK, wasn’t good enough. Fortunately, I had a backup job and, after a couple of years of being OK at filmmaking, I returned to technical writing. I was surprised to find that after being a filmmaker for a while, my technical writing had, somehow, improved, even though I did absolutely zero technical writing as a filmmaker.

Here are some of the lessons I learned as a filmmaker that apparently had more value when applied to technical writing.

All that matters is what people see on the screen

As an independent filmmaker I watched many independent films. Those scars will be with me for the rest of my life (If you’ve watched indie films, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you’ve been warned). Some of my films must have scarred others (sorry). I believe filmmaker Robert Rodriquez said in Rebel Without a Crew, that you needed to make several hundred films before you become a filmmaker. I would agree. I still had a few hundred more to go before I ran out of money.

Before watching others’ films, the Directors (or, more often, director/producer/writer/photographer/star) would give a brief commentary and, invariably, these commentaries included all the things that didn’t go as hoped or as planned—preparing us for what were about to experience (i.e. lowering our expectations). While of some interest to the filmmakers in the audience, this information was irrelevant to anyone else.

What matters to the audience (i.e. those who might actually pay to see/rent/download the film) is what is on the screen. Period.

Tech writing takeaway: the reader will judge the content for what they see and not what you would like them to see.

Continue reading “What’s your story?”