Archive for July, 2009

Planning and flow

July 22, 2009

After a considerable amount of struggle, I have managed to beat SELinux/rsync/Fedora 11 into submission and my chapter in managing-confined-services about running rsync on a non-standard port is just about done.

Start with properly labeled files to share (public_content_rw_t). Create a custom init script from scratch to launch rsync as a daemon as there is none shipped in the F11 distro. The script itself needs to be properly labeled as initrc_exec_t so that the rsync daemon will launch as rsync_t. If the rsync daemon doesn’t transition to this, the related Booleans (or SELinux itself) can’t be expected to have much of an effect over rsync.

So, we have a daemon in the rsync_t domain. Modify rsyncd.conf so it has a non-default port directive, which looks something like port = 10000 (in the global section of the file). Now, after starting rsync from the new init script again, SELinux will not at all be impressed that rsync has started on a port that it doesn’t expect (ie. a port that is not defined in rsync_port_t). Give up now? Never! Run:

# semanage port -a -t rsync_port_t -p tcp 10000

Still with me?

That command will appease SELinux (fussy little thing, huh?) and rsync will happily start on 10000.

This has been a pretty long battle to distill all this information from disparate sources online, IRC support channels, mailing lists and of course good old-fashioned google-fu. The world of SELinux can be quite arcane and this book is unique in that it covers real-world examples of how to enable services an administrator might configure and how to work around the problems that are commonly encountered. Let’s just say I kept finding my own book in google when searching for solutions!

Once I had all the details gathered it was a pretty quick task to get it all in XML, ready for proof-reading and minor editing. It’s become apparent to me that depending on your subject, perhaps you won’t spend so much time actually writing. This rsync adventure required a working lab setup, fully tested and confirmed and repeated before I even opened a para tag. Have everything ready, research your subject, make sure you have at least a decent outline and some sort of progression of how it will look, and the actual flow of information tends to go pretty quickly from then on.

Crafting beautiful technical documentation

July 9, 2009

Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.

– David Sedaris

Technical writing is a strange breed. When you write fiction or poetry or a screenplay, it’s a release, it’s a way of expressing what is inside yourself, and allowing your imagination to creep into the those little crevices in your brain, and poke about to see what squirms. Writing technical documentation is almost entirely the opposite. It’s about getting into the heads of your readers, finding out what makes them tick, how they work, and then presenting them with the information in a way that will make them go “Aha!”. It’s about taking source documentation that would make your eyelashes curl, and crafting it – shaping it, massaging it, chewing it up and spitting it out – into something that not only makes sense, but is useful, intuitive, and – dare I say it – beautiful.

Beautiful technical documentation? Why yes. I think so. Bad technical writing is hard to use, hard to understand, and hard to find what you want. Good technical documentation is intuitive, easy to navigate, and aesthetically pleasing. Good technical documentation is beautiful.

The question, then, is how to create beautiful technical documentation, and how to know when that’s what you’ve got. While it would seem easy to tell when you haven’t got it, it is not always as simple as it might sound. The problem is the same as a lot of artists and craftsmen complain of – getting too close to the subject matter. One of the reasons that engineers can not generally create effective documentation is because they get too close to the nuts and bolts of the thing. They spend too much time looking at the engine of the beast, that they become unable to describe what colour the paintjob is. That is where the documentation team step in – we bring fresh eyes to the project, and are able to look at it from the top down. We can describe what it looks like, what it does, and how to do it, without having to explain how that happens. But once you’ve been working on that single document for months, you’ve been through revisions, and revisions of revisions, you’ve been bombarded with information from the technical team, you’ve had requests for more detail, more depth, and more minutiae … then how do you tell if it is any good? Your advantage – your fresh pair of eyes, your ability to see the big picture, and your talent for information organisation – is no longer whole. Now you are the one who is too close to the project.

A writer of fiction would tell you this: put the book down, step away from the desk. Leave it for a week or two, a month or two. And then tackle it with fresh eyes. A technical writer would scoff – who has time for all that? This book needs to be released next Wednesday!

Often, the solution is to hand it to someone else – a fellow writer – for review and comment. But what about when that option isn’t available either? Every writer has their own method of handling this. What I do is this: I put it down, not for long, but for an afternoon, or overnight. And I write something else. Something completely different. A blog post, for example, or a chapter of a novel, or a short story. Anything that has absolutely nothing in common with the piece you’re working on. Ensure the voice that you are writing in changes, the topic changes, the emotion changes. Then, make yourself a cup of tea, and pick the book back up again. But don’t start at the beginning. Read it backwards. Read each page, on its own, in reverse order. I even read the paragraphs in reverse order. Start at the last one, and work your way back to the beginning of the book. You’re checking for typos, for sentence structure, for punctuation, grammar, and all that good stuff. By reading it out of order, you’re less likely to drift off and start thinking about something else. You’re more likely to read what’s there, rather than what you think is there.

Then find a blank piece of paper. Put yourself in the mind of your customer: What do they need to know? What are they trying to achieve? Why do they have your book? The answers will be myriad – but list the obvious ones out. You need to think about what your customer knows, and what your customer doesn’t know – that gap is where your book fits.

Once you’re thinking like a customer, pin that list up somewhere you can see it, go back again, and read the book in order. If you’re able, read it aloud, it helps to catch odd phrasing. This time, you need to be looking for flow. Make sure each paragraph flows into the next, that each section flows into the next, that each chapter flows into the next. Check that you’re introducing concepts in order from the top down – start with the big things, and then explain the detail as you go on. Cut out anything that doesn’t fit. Don’t be afraid to cut and paste paragraphs, to taste-test them in a new arrangement.

And the whole time – there’s only one thing you should be thinking about – your customer. If the customer perceives value in your documentation, if your book bridges that gap between what the customer knows, and what they need to know – then they will see the beauty in it.

Cross-posted to On Writing, Tech, and other Loquacities

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players

July 7, 2009


In what has become a somewhat impromptu series on the evolution of the English language, I just had to mention something I read whilst on holidays last weekend. I picked up Bill Bryson’s take on the life of Shakespeare whilst away. I’ve been interested in the great mystery of Shakespeare’s life for some time now. I own a copy of Nolan’s “Shakespeare’s Face” and have read numerous other accounts (or, more accurately, guesses) of his life and works. Add to this the fact that I have been wanting to start reading Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, and it was a fairly predictable attraction. Not incidentally, I’m intending to read his “The Mother Tongue” shortly too.

The book is quite short, and I finished it mere days after purchase – helped along by a few days in a warm climate with no pressing demands, I might add. It is written in true Bryson style, very conversational and light hearted, and he gives a lovely (or not so lovely, depending on your take on plague and wanton violence) picture of 16th century England, and Shakespeare’s somewhat unassuming – so far as we can tell – place in it.

However, my favourite part is this discussion of some of the many words that Shakespeare (allegedly) introduced into the English language:

And there was never a better time to delve for pleasure in language than the sixteenth century, when novelty blew through English like a spring breeze. Some twelve thousand words, a phenomenal number, entered the language between 1500 and 1650, about half of them still in use today, and old words were employed in ways that had not been tried before. Nouns became verbs and adverbs; adverbs became adjectives. Expressions that could not grammatically have existed before – such as “breathing one’s last” and “backing a horse”, both coined by Shakespeare – were suddenly popping up everywhere. Double superlatives and double negatives – “the most unkindest cut of all” – troubled no one and allowed an additional degree of emphasis that has since been lost.

Bryson goes on to mention the notorious variability of spelling known in early English society, noting this little gem –

Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the variability of spelling in the age than the fact that a dictionary published in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words, spelled “words” two ways on the title page.

Of course, it just goes to show that the language has been evolving apace for many hundreds of years. Indeed, despite the naysayers it is happening much slower now than it was back in Shakespeare’s day. I can imagine that back then there were people (perhaps among the upper, educated, classes) who complained that artists such as he were mangling the language, and doing things the wrong way, although the attitude towards English was reasonably fluid then, thanks to Latin and French being considered ‘proper’. Surely, as time went on, and English took hold first in business and legal matters, and later in the sciences, that there have been people unwilling to accept change, even as it occurs around them. Nothing has changed in that respect, I imagine, it’s just that now they have access to the internet – and a world full of people reading their opinions. Hopefully, it won’t impede the progress overly. Much as I still cringe a little at “truthiness”, “coopetition” and “incentivise”, I am completely capable of embracing the words that I like – “blogosphere” is one of my favourites, along with “jumping the shark” and “backronym”. It’s only a matter of time before the language evolves to the point that our grandchildren will be almost incomprehensible, and Shakespeare’s scribblings will have taken another step towards total obscurity.

Originally posted at On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

Dejargonize your documentation

July 1, 2009

I recently attended a product demo given by an Apple representative. It was held in the local music store and covered the latest versions of Garage Band and Logic Pro.

During the demonstration the rep showed how Garage Band can adjust the timing of recorded audio tracks, such as a live drum take recorded using a microphone. Adjusting the timing of instrument tracks recorded using MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is old hat. It’s known as “quantization”. However, the ability to adjust the timing of an audio track is a novel development. He stressed that it could only be done to audio tracks that are recorded with Garageband, and not to audio tracks that are recorded elsewhere and imported into Garageband.

I asked him: “Does Garageband store some kind of metadata for audio files that it records?” He replied: “No, it stores additional information along with the sound file.” Then he paused, and said: “…which is pretty much the definition of metadata“.

It was interesting to me to see the contrast in communication style. Garageband is designed, as he explained: “for people who know nothing about making music“. As such it avoids using the jargon regularly employed by those familiar with music-making technology. Quantization becomes adjust timing. Metadata becomes additional information.

Sometimes a concept benefits from a precise technical term, sometimes it just serves to make the material harder to understand for someone unfamiliar with it.

As someone who knows what quantization and metadata are, I had no problem understanding what he was talking about when he talked about adjusting timing and storing additional information. The reverse is not true: someone who can grok* adjusting timing and storing additional information may be left completely in the dark when the terms quantization and metadata are used. It’s not that the subject matter has changed and is any harder to understand, but the use of unfamiliar terms reduces comprehensibility by raising the bar for the audience.

Glossaries can help, and so can really thinking about the choice of words: “Can I say this in a more direct, simple way, without using “jargon”?”

Something to keep in mind.

* to grok = to understand