Monthly Archives: May 2007

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Emergent and Emerging Technologies

What are some of the emerging technologies in IT?

I was asked recently about blogs or websites that discuss emerging technologies especially as related to IT and business service management. Now, when I hear the term “emergent technology” (Is emergent even a word?), the ones that come to mind immediately are engadget.com and gizmodo.com, but those are more for consumer products I’d say. There’s of course, Wired, but again that’s not necessarily related to managing desktops across a company or managing servers for accomplishing business tasks.

For some interesting reading, MIT has a Technology Review website but again, it’s all technology for all applications, not just for IT. Fascinating website, though. The list for 2007 is as follows:

  • Peering into Video’s Future – The Internet is about to drown in digital video. Hui Zhang thinks peer-to-peer networks could come to the rescue.
  • Nanocharging Solar – Arthur Nozik believes quantum-dot solar power could boost output in cheap photovoltaics.
  • Neuron Control – Karl Deisseroth’s genetically engineered “light switch,” which lets scientists turn selected parts of the brain on and off, may help improve treatments for depression and other disorders.
  • Nanohealing – Tiny fibers will save lives by stopping bleeding and aiding recovery from brain injury, says Rutledge Ellis-Behnke.
  • Augmented Reality Markus Kähäri wants to superimpose digital information on the real world.
  • Invisible Revolution Artificially structured metamaterials could transform telecommunications, data storage, and even solar energy, says David R. Smith.
  • Digital Imaging, Reimagined Richard Baraniuk and Kevin Kelly believe compressive sensing could help devices such as cameras and medical scanners capture images more efficiently.
  • Personalized Medical Monitors – John Guttag says using computers to automate some diagnostics could make medicine more personal.
  • A New Focus for Light Kenneth Crozier and Federico Capasso have created light-focusing optical antennas that could lead to DVDs that hold hundreds of movies.
  • Single-Cell Analysis Norman Dovichi believes that detecting minute differences between individual cells could improve medical tests and treatments.

Stephen O’Grady, the RedMonk analyst, tags several posts with Emerging Technologies so peruse the archives to your heart’s content. I especially enjoyed the post about Wikipedia being proposed as an aid to help the public prevent, slow and survive a deadly viral outbreak. Yeesh.

It seems that most of the categories for new technology are things like medical applications, travel applications, security, and personal technology. I would say that the concept of BSM itself is an emergent technology but it has matured beyond nascent for certain.

Advancements in security are certainly tied into corporate IT which is why I enjoy reading Jeff Bohren’s blog, The Identity Management Expert very much.

Are there other emerging technologies that solely relate to IT that I’ve missed?

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Usability and inline links in user assistance systems

Examining DITA’s linking and usability

In this month’s Central Texas DITA User Group meeting, we had an excellent presentation about linking using DITA maps and relationship tables by Scott Stark from IBM. He’s located in Austin and supports about 150 writers in California. His presentation is available for download from the Files section (membership required) of the ctdug Yahoo Group. When the video of the presentation is posted, I’ll be sure to link to that as well. In the Files section he also includes examples of the files he demonstrated with sibling or family links, sequential links (automating previous and next topic links), required links, target only or source only, and showed the power of linking that can be done with DITA automatically.

For even more information about the power of linking with relationship tables, Scott highly recommends Linking DITA Topics Through Relationship Tables by Kylene Bruski of Comtech Services, Inc.

What caught my attention this particular meeting is the de-emphasis on inline links, or links within the paragraph context as the text is read. This blog entry has many examples of inline links in the first two paragraphs. It’s not really topic-like. Scott stated that there are basically just three types of links in DITA – inline, citation, and related links. That is a precise summary. I believe that he most powerful portion of DITA and DITA maps are the management of related links. But I also believe that inline links have value as well, even in a topic-based system like DITA.

Inline links are what we are commonly finding as we continue to analyze our existing content. We have relied on cross-references in our FrameMaker documentation and online help to shorten tasks by having the first step link to another task, by collecting lists of cross-references to suggest what to do next, and for glossary definitions as popups within the text. We’re still trying to determine the best course of action for migrating those links.

While deliverables that contain lots of cross-references are not topic-oriented, I am starting to wonder if inline links are going to be the stage for usability battles to be waged because of sites like Wikipedia that heavily rely on inline linking for context. Since the user can probably safely assume that inline links in a help system go only to places within the information deliverable, the inline link offers valuable context to the reader and doesn’t “remove” the reader from the user assistance system. Also, placing related links at the bottom of a page where the reader has to scroll to in order to view might be another usability problem.

So, does DITA have it wrong when it comes to usability of links?

On Don Day’s suggestion, I did some searching for studies that would back up the topic-oriented link collection method that DITA advocates. According to this usability study titled Where Should You Put the Links? Comparing Embedded and Framed/Non-Framed Links, related links embedded on the left hand side of a screen layout were “searched faster (though not significantly), was perceived as being easier to navigate and to find information than the other link conditions.” I also found some excellent blog posts by SEO experts when trying to find usability studies to back the DITA preference for collecting links in one location. While SEO is more about optimizing pages for search than the actual readability of the page, there are excellent arguments back and forth for when you should use inline links and when they are actually a distraction. I first read “Inline Linking Bad for Usability” and I enjoyed his examples – one written with all inline links, and one written with all related links at the bottom. I would wonder if blogs with inline links and Wikipedia will “train” readers that inline links are helpful to click but perhaps only after they read the entire entry, our readers will be more able to perform their tasks despite inline links.

Another blog post by an SEO is on “The Value of Embedded Links” and one of his arguments is “So, regardless of where links are, chances may be that some visitors will miss links. Ideally, the way around that is to make sure that links within content can be easily seen.” I see this as a “scattershot” method, however, rather than analyzing your content and audience to determine the best placement of links, you would just place them everywhere you could, if you follow this argument to a logical conclusion. So perhaps DITA is doing the right thing by forcing their opinion of usability of user assistance systems by encouraging us to collect links in one location. My concerns after reading some usability studies on the topic are that perhaps 1) the placement of the related links could be improved and 2) as readers are trained by other information deliverables such as wikis and blogs that inline links can be clicked after reading the entire entry, DITA will be considered old school for its lack of inline links.

Perhaps we should change the DITA Open Toolkit transforms so that related links are in a on the side of the page instead of clumped together at the bottom of the page. I think that overall, DITA and topic-based writing has been a little unforgiving with the use of inline links. Since I can’t find usability studies that back up the claim that grouping related links together is better for users, and especially with sites like Wikipedia succeeding with inline links, I think that both types need to be given equal importance and flexibility for applying in the right way for the right audience and deliverable. What do you think?

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The Tech Writer Blog directory

Tom Johnson offers a great wiki page to list blogs about technical writing

I found the Tech Writer Blog directory from a post by Katriel Reichman who recently wrote me an email message in response to my post about Wikis for technical documentation – one writer’s story. Katriel has a nice post about rules for when a wiki would work well for tech docs. I’m looking forward to more posts with his insight on wikis and tech pubs.

He also wrote a post about the Tech Writer blog directory and the only rule about the blog directory is that no one talks about the blog directory. Wait, no, that’s not it. The rule is, if you add your blog to the directory, you mention the blog directory in your blog. Since it’s a wiki page you can edit the page to add your blog’s URL and feed.

I’m pretty excited about it also because it was my first chance to use my newly registered domain name, www.justwriteclick.com, which redirects to my blog here at talk.bmc.com/blogs/anne-gentle.

And the greatest feature of the Tech Writer blog directory (in addition to the fact that it’s a wiki page) is that they’re making an OPML file of the list as well as a Yahoo pipes feed. Neat!

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Read it sideways

The origin of the emoticon revealed

I just read about this and I am loving the history behind it. Plus I’m impressed that someone has some amazing backup tapes. The emoticon entry on Wikipedia tells us that Scott Fahlman was the originator of the Emoticon. His post from 1982 was recovered in 2002 by a team of computer scientists trying to prove the claim of invention. Scott originally called it a joke marker.

19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman  :-)

From: Scott E  Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>

I propose that the following character sequence

for joke markers:

:-)

Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more

economical to mark things that are NOT jokes,

given current trends.  For this, use

:-(

The term emoticon comes from blending emotion and icon. Interestingly, reading it sideways is a Western approach to using ASCII-based graphics to represent another meaning. East Asian style ASCII “drawings” are called verticons because they are meant to be read vertically. For example, the Kirby <(^_^)>, so called because of its resemblance to the Nintendo game character Kirby.

So, cheers to the computer archeologists. Think about how well your backup and recovery system would stand up to 25 years passing. What would you do differently with that sort of time period in mind?

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Troubleshooting my Configuration Management installation

My new assignment had me searching for troubleshooting information and I hit the jackpot

Have you ever solved a particularly nasty bug or fixed a problem while writing an email to a co-worker about the problem? Merlin Mann of 43folders has a great post describing how to Solve problems by writing a note to yourself. Basically, as Merlin says, “concentrate on coolly describing exactly what you want to accomplish as well as what happens when you try the approach that hasn’t been working for you.”

As a writer, I can identify with this way to communicate a problem because it always helps me to record my thoughts in writing. Time and time again I have stored drafts of an email to my fellow information architect about a DITA catalog issue or other such minor problems where I figured out the solution while drafting the email. Usually by removing myself from the frustration and breaking down the problem into searchable bits, I remember something critical or I discover the missing piece of information that was blocking my progress.

Austin Powers I’ve also read that pair programmers will position a cardboard cutout in their workspace so that they can describe a problem to the cardboard cutout in such a way that the answer reveals itself. This paper calls it a Sidebrain: a sidekick for the programmer’s brain, hee hee. We used to have an Austin Powers cardboard cutout, but he didn’t seem insightful enough for me to try this approach.

I can laugh at this tonight, but today I learned the hard way that there is a big difference between troubleshooting installing the CCM (Change and Configuration Management) solution and installing the CM (Configuration Management) product. That one little C adds a layer of complexity that I just wasn’t ready to work with today. I am installing the Configuration Management as a baby step to understanding all the interdependencies with the CCM solution. Even still, the email I wrote out trying to describe my problem about CM (while the recipient thought I was talking about CCM) helped to clarify the mystery of the extraneous C. My Google searches at BMC led me to a wonderful Diagnostic and Troubleshooting Guide that had the exact troubleshooting information I needed for why my Configuration Management Tuner won’t start, and I wanted to share it here in case it helps someone else.

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No time for music? Apply some technology to that problem

iPod and iTunes tricks for busy people

Playlists are great, but who has the time? Outsource the creation of playlists I say

I don’t have nearly as much time to spend listening to and enjoying music and selecting it according to my own tastes and needs for the music, such as for relaxation or for upbeat workout music. However, I recently discovered that iTunes has pre-selected song lists full of workout music! There’s a great running mix that starts out with a few warmup songs and even has cooldown tunes at the end of an approximately 45 minute play list. Plus, the song lyrics are running- or racing-themed, such as “Counting Blue Cars,” “Run” by Snow Patrol, and “Drive.” I had already manually created a few running play lists, and even took the suggested songs from a Runner’s World magazine article and created my own iTunes list then published it for others to use as well. Runners World has a Long Run Mix and a Tempo Run Mix with different speeds of music to run to.

Here’s my version of their Tempo Run list:

  • Out of Control: U2
  • What Difference Does It Make?: The Smiths
  • Run: Snow Patrol
  • The way You Wear Your Head: Nada Surf
  • Breaking the Law: Judas Priest
  • Capital Radio One: The Clash
  • Third Uncle: Brian Eno
  • Disorder: Joy Division
  • Jenny: Stellastarr*
  • Thick as Thieves: The Jam
  • Evil: Interpol
  • Alright: Supergrass

My version of a Long Run list:

  • Diamond Dogs: Beck
  • Take California: Properllerheads
  • Olsen Olsen: Sigur Ros
  • Champagne Supernova: Oasis
  • Run: Snow Patrol
  • Politik: Coldplay
  • The Scientist: Coldplay
  • This Is the Last Time: Keane

Now, get out and actually run. With shoes if you prefer.

Now, along that same line of technology blended with iTunes and iPod, I have been looking into the Nike iPod Sport Kit. As it turns out, the Nike+iPod uses RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), and it transmits a unique ID in the 2.4 GHz band. So there is no accelerometer to measure your pace, instead, it just monitors how long your foot holds your weight (running faster means less time spent on each foot). The people at SparkFun discovered all this and wrote this fun article about the underlying technology. http://www.sparkfun.com/commerce/present.php?p=Nike_iPod-Internals

Now this Wired article, Nike + iPod = Surveillance, feel the device makes it a little too easy to track someone while they’re wearing it. On the flip side of that, I’d imagine one could feel safer on a run if a trusted friend knew your path and estimated return time.

iTunes concert calendar trick

I also found out about iConcertCal at http://www.iconcertcal.com/ which lets you see local concert dates and times in a calendar in iTunes. Now that is a wonderful iTunes trick, especially if you’re like me and need to plan babysitting far in advance. (One of our sitters here in Austin was booked for New Year’s night four months ahead, I’m not kidding.) You install the iConcertCal application, then open iTunes and click View->Visualizer->iConcertCal so that there’s a checkmark next to it. Next, click View->Show Vizualizer and a monthly view of all upcoming concerts fills your iTunes screen. Works on Mac and PC, whee.