Testimonial – Good jump start

I just wanted to say thanks for being a good teacher. These classes have been great primers for the rest of my education. So thanks for your positive attitude and good jump start.

—Alex, Technical Writing Student, BCIT

Singing The Single-Sourcing Blues

Photo credit: Creative Commons
The following somewhat (but not entirely) fictionalised story commemorates a failed attempt to impart upon a decision-maker the benefits of single-sourcing technical content. 


Installation High

A 30-day free software trial of Madcap’s Flare software seemed like the way to go to get us out of the tired rut of our end-user technical documentation. This product’s offerings of single-sourcing capabilities included content tagging for advanced cross-referencing, sophisticated importing and exporting, team collaboration (with multiple levels of access for reviewers), and most of all, topic-based structuring.

Photo credit: MadCap Software, Inc.

When I met with the decision-making manager, his first question was why I needed 30 days. “Well”, I said as diplomatically as I could, “I don’t expect to be assessing the software 40 hours per week for 30 days. That’s just Madcap’s trial period.”

But that was just his warm-up because he seemed to have other plans in mind. “Before we start looking at new software”, he said, “perhaps we need to step back and assess what our users need.” Normally this would seem like a reasonable suggestion, but to date no interest had yet been shown about user needs, so why now? I suspected a delaying tactic.

Big Data for Small Minds

The manager offered to run some analytics on traffic for our Webhelp and maybe even send out a survey to all users so as to solicit their feedback on the documentation. The manager seemed confident that something would come of engaging our users, although I already knew that we had very little data on usage and that it would be very easy to draw whatever conclusions we wished from analytics. If this is the requirement needed to install a 30-day free trial of software, I thought, why bother?

“Have you thought of using WordPress”, the manager queried. I made a point of not letting my emotions show, but some part of the cheery recommendations I was planning died in that moment. “No”, I said but added quickly, “How would you implement a single-sourcing solution with WordPress?” The manager waned in his enthusiasm a little, so I took the opportunity to explain the problem/solution further.

“We have a large array of documents (user guides, training handouts, change management documents, release notes, and on and on) all of which are maintained in a way that creates great inaccuracies and much wasted time keeping track of revisions and duplicates.”

Magic Bullet Point

By mentioning single-sourcing, I thought I’d laid down a trump card of sorts, but the manager took it to mean that I was prey to some form of technical writer magical thinking.

“There is no software that’s going to prevent duplicates”, he said, “People, no matter how great the software, can still create duplicates.”

I had to pause at this. I wasn’t proposing a magic bullet. I knew full well that software has limitations. I needed an example to put him squarely in the seat of what the present system is like and why it isn’t working.

“When you drive down the road, there’s nothing preventing you from swerving your car into oncoming traffic”, I went on, “You can do it, but what’s preventing you is your agreement (coupled with myriad laws and cultural taboos) to play within the rules.”

“Of course, people can still create duplicates, but what we need is a set of tools that point us toward good practices rather than the current system (Word documents stored on people’s C drives) that get copied, and copied, and pasted, and then re-copied across the system in a way that’s prone to error. Then, if there’s a change to be made, who can find all the documents affected and change them?”

Enter Steve Jobs

The manager conceded my point, but then he went off in another direction to question the need for documentation—AT ALL!

“Do you have an iPhone”, he asked.

“Yes”, I replied.

“Did it come with a manual?”

“Well, yes it did”, I confirmed suspecting now where his questions were leading.

“Have you read it?” This was his turn to sound triumphal.

“No, I haven’t”, I said.

“You see!”, he erupted, “You have an iPhone and it has a user manual, but you’ve never read it!” He seemed almost delirious at this portrayal of software so intuitive it didn’t even need a user manual. Clearly, Apple in its magnanimity was providing user guides only as a form of self-effacing humility.

I thought it wise to choose my words carefully, so I paused. And then I said, “It’s true. Since I came to your software company, I have worked on the assumption that we all agree that there is a need for software documentation.”

Then I launched my final salvo.

“When your software is designed to Steve Jobs’s and Apple’s standards—that is, it’s so intuitive no user guide is needed­—I’d welcome the idea of dropping documentation. But I’m working with the system as it is now.”

The Moon and the Leaf Blower

Moon&LeafBlower

Apart from the noise and the self-evident futility of the common leaf blower, what most disturbs me about the whole practice of charging money to fling nature’s bounty into the neighbour’s yard is its name. It lacks a certain…poetry.

In English, we’ve employed clever tricks to give everyday joe-jobs a sense of honour and wonder. These include translation into dessert-sounding Romance languages and obfuscation with marketing bumf (aka, bull).

Take our penchant for French titles. Translating some plain old English thing into French instantly transports it from the mundane suburb where it resides to the court of Louis XIV. Thus, “Kitchen Help” is elevated to “Sous-chef”, “Hairdresser” is blown away by “Coiffeur”, and “Civil Servant” escapes all its grey servitude in the guise of “Attaché”.

We also like to upmarket ordinary jobs by inventing bullshit English job titles. This technique effectively euphamizes their true nature, transforming the lowly “Dishwasher” into a “Ceramic Technician” and the “Garbage Man” (in addition to solving the need for gender neutrality) into the commanding “Waste Aquisition Officer”. This practice circulates so widely it scarcely raises eyebrows anymore, as in the “Marketing Assistant” who now can claim status as “Social Media Guru”.

But “Leaf Blower”…hm. That one stands awkwardly in its field (both the job and the machine)—unadorned and entirely lacking any pretension of upward mobility.

What if we borrowed a little from French—would the title gain some of that gallic allure if we opted for “Coureur de Feuilles”? Has a certain je ne sais quoi, non?

Or taking a more technical tack, we could simply render “Leaf Blower” as “Astro-arborist”, as in “Dammit Jim, I’m just a doctor, not an Astro-arborist!”

Testimonial – Your class has taken my writing up a few notches

Thanks for the class. It has taken my writing up a few notches and has given me confidence that I can move from creative to technical writing.

—Verna, BCIT Technical Writing Student

Testimonial – We have raised the bar

I have very much appreciated working with you and having you on the team. The work you have contributed to does make a significant difference for the product and our business going forward! I believe we have raised the bar at BCLC and hopefully this will encourage others to take their products / businesses to this level.

I have personally learned a lot working with you and have very much appreciated having you around for the past year on our team—your final gift—you have articulated exactly the environment I strive for creating as a professional: “Relaxed Productivity”. I love it! That’s going to be my new mantra.

—Nathan Kulczycki, Product Manager, BCLC

Celebrate National Upspeak Day?

BC Ferries’s busy route plying the waters between Victoria and Vancouver sees lots of tourists, many of whom have no idea about (or care for) the local marine life they’re sailing over.

Perhaps that’s why the crown corporation has seen fit to add a biologist to its retinue of stewards, cashiers, and deckhands—to provide a little eco®–friendly PR about local marine life up top as their powerful propellers churned it up down below.

On a recent trip, the particular onboard biologist on duty delivered her short talk on marine ecology—entirely in up-speak…

She:

“Eelgrass is a flowering plant?”
We:

(Silence)
She:

“It’s found along the coast of BC in sub-tidal areas?
We:

(Silence with a few looking about for the exits)
She:

(Before anyone could decide whether to accept or refute her previous semi assertions),
“Marine animals depend on it for their survival?”

By this point, her up-speak had an urgency that was making everyone uncomfortable. Those who hadn’t already left were now fidgeting with their phones (perhaps hoping the answers could be found there—you never know, debarking might be preceded by an exam). I tried to listen and learn something, but finally got up for coffee and some other less arduous distraction.

On Being in Tune

OnBeinginTune

Last night on YouTube, I interspersed viewings of hurricane Irma raging across the Caribbean with research into what other clarinettists consider to be playing in tune. My conclusions: This is a poor time to book a Caribbean holiday and, two, most people have not the slightest notion why they are proponents of long-tone exercises.

Playing long tones is like a religion that’s degenerated into empty gestures of devotion. Lacking any concept as to the intent of long tones, one tuning guru said, “The purpose of long tones is to, well, here’s how to do them…”, and he proceeded to play. Later, he added “Long tones are necessary so you can check your pitch”, but as he played, my tuner registered huge pitch swings (I don’t know what criteria he was using to check his pitch—he had no tuner in sight). For him, playing long tones is an act of faith.

Another proponent of long tones kicked off her presentation with the statement, “The reason for playing in tune is so you can play with a piano or other instruments.” While this isn’t entirely incorrect, it entirely misses the point of playing long tones. The primary purpose of playing long tones is to play in tune—with yourself. Each pitch is in tune relative to pitches around it, so once you’ve played a note, the note to follow must correspond in tuning with the first. Also, there are laws of overtones to consider, which is where Mr. Pythagoras enters with his observations about sound waves. A pitch an octave above its predecessor will vibrate at double the rate—if it vibrates at any other rate, you’re out of tune (or you’re not even playing an octave).

Out in the weird world of YouTube, there’s a tuning troll who wants to take issue about tuners and how people use them. He’s learned about Natural tuning and Tempered tuning and wants to use his knowledge to bludgeon the long-tone gurus for their well-intentioned but inaccurate videos. Tuning Troll has a good point, but I think it’s an erudite sideshow designed to distract from the simpler task of playing relative pitches in tune. And here’s why.

Tuning systems don’t even come into play when considering unisons and octaves, which is why they’re a good place to start. Parenthetically, they come in later when looking more deeply at relative pitches and harmonic structures. For example, the note B is tuned differently within a G major triad (it’s the third, which means in Natural tuning it needs to be lower than Tempered tuning would assign it) compared with an E major triad (it’s the fifth, which is relatively higher). For now, stick to unisons and octaves and the good old Pythagorian way.

I’ve left the identities of the above-misguided tuning gurus anonymous, but I’d like to call out this one excellent video on tuning. It’s by master clarinettist Jose Franch-Ballester. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with him and learn first hand what his approach is, and in my sessions (and most importantly for you, in the following video), he explains the purpose of long tones. It’s almost all you need (well, that, and a couple of iPads) to get started playing in tune.

Testimonial – All good things must come to an end

When COMM 1008 culminated on August 10, I was reminded of the adage, ‘All good things must come to an end.’ It was a wonderful experience listening to your classes from my last bench. I could proudly say that we have had precious evening hours during COMM1007 and 1008 getting to know the techniques of technical writing and editing. I look forward to working with you in the technical writing world in the near future.

—Shanthini, BCIT technical writing participant

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part I

The pursuit of perfection

I have just finished reading Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing—A Musician’s Return to Music, a book I think should be added to the list of required reading for anyone seriously considering a career in music, or any vocation in which you give your ultimate all in the pursuit of perfection.

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure. I warm up my hands and awaken my ears and imagination, developing skill to equal my experience. I listen and concentrate in an effort to make myself better.

Kurtz describes a process parallel to my own (it even includes the classical musician’s obligatory pilgrimage to Viennawere we there within a year of each other?). He recounts the familiar stories of early promise, that music school optimism, the successes, the failures, and then the final and seemingly inevitable descent into musical oblivion. For Kurtz, a classical guitarist, graduation from music school meant a quick nosedive from the Elysian Fields of pure music into the sordid streets of making a living.

For me, I was one of those orchestral players he mentions in his book (the ones who could look forward to a steady paycheque playing with an orchestra). And his take on it is partially true—I certaily held it that the only viable way to be a successful musician was to land an orchestral job. And I seemed off to a good start as after graduation, I landed a job as Principal Clarinet with the Prince George Symphony (a community orchestra with aspirations enough to hire several principal players). Two years later, I quit to follow five years of free-lancing with the Vancouver Symphony (the real deal except of course that I was but an extra).

I lasted only a little longer than Mr. Kurtz before I too lost heart. In my last truly professional year, I auditioned for the Edmonton Symphony, the Hamilton Philharmonic, the Toronto Symphony, the Victoria Symphony, the Portland (Oregon) Symphony, and the Vancouver Symphony managing to come in as semi-finalist with the Toronto Symphony and runner-up finalist with both the Edmonton Symphony and the Hamilton Philharmonic (in back-to-back auditions no less).

The following years were exceedingly dry for clarinet vacancies across Canada with nothing but a Windsor Symphony audition (it actually paid less than the Prince George Symphony) to keep hope alive. After crashing and burning on that one (spectacularly), I was done.

In fact, I would go on being done for several decades to come.


Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part II

…Continued from Part I

When music breaks your heart

But now, I’ve read this book and realise that perhaps I’m not done. Or rather, I realise what it was that I was done with—and what it was was not music.

Concealed in all the careful tutelage of the conservatory system is an almost heartless contempt for the many who can never sustain such standards once they’ve graduated. This system is all about super stars and even more toxically, it’s about perfectionism and conformity. What isn’t destroyed by the conservatory system is put to the torch by the marketplace, which in my case was what I like to call the “Orchestral-Industrial Complex”.

In Kurtz’s Practicing, he once again reflects my journey back to music from the well-intentioned but highly destructive schooling that most musicians undergo. Like mine, his return isn’t a return to the audiences and certainly not the “music industry”, but to the soul of music itself. Practicing is about the musician’s journey back to his first love of music—the quasi-erotic sense of connection that is the essence of music.

As I play the theme of ‘Weeping Willow’ one last time, all my fantasies of success and all the flaws in my character rise again to the surface, my ambition and despair, concentrated in my fingertips. Each impulse, each need and doubt, clamours for expression, a little tyrant demanding its own way. And with each note these urgent demands collide with the limitations of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. It is the same thing every day, the same as it always was. Yet everything has changed.


Continued…