Wednesday, April 27, 2011

lefty loosey, righty tightie

Visual Thesaurus
Visualization for "counterclockwise"

I grew up hearing the expression "left loosey, righty tightie" referring to threads on a screw, nut, bolt, etc. To tighten, you turn to the right (clockwise). To loosen, you turn toward the left (counterclockwise).  So, if I'm writing instructions for, say, removing a field replaceable unit from a chassis, do I tell the reader to turn the screw to the left or counterclockwise? But which way is left? Which way is counterclockwise?

Ever since I read stories about the Beloit Mindset List for the class of 2014 showing that students don't use watches to tell the time, I've wondered about how to communicate the direction "counterclockwise" to young people if they have never seen an analog clock. Maybe the Beloit freshmen have seen clocks, even if they don't wear watches, but sooner or later, clockwise and counterclockwise are going to become meaningless terms.

Then recently, I heard an episode of Radio Lab that dealt with knowing where you are. One of the speakers referred to some indigenous tribes that say north, south, east and west, rather than left and right. They supposedly have a great sense of spatial orientation. The Wall Street Journal mentioned one of those tribes in an article on how language affects the way we think. So would I tell a member of the class of 2014 to turn the screw to the west? Probably only if they belonged to one of those tribes. I'm betting the students are even less likely to know which way is west, than they are to know which way is counterclockwise.
Maybe the best way to tell a reader which direction to turn something to unscrew it is to draw a picture with an arrow pointing the correct direction.

Friday, April 22, 2011

North Shore Web Geeks Meetup

The Port Tavern in Newburyport was jumpin' last night with the monthly North Shore Web Geeks meetup and some hockey game :-) on the big TV.  Thanks to the Port Tavern for handling the geekage in addition to the Bruins v. Canadiens playoff game and a power outage in part of the building.  Because the power outage affected the function room, we crowded into the space at the top of the stairs outside the function room  to hear Adam Darowski and Joe Oliviera talk about Sass.

Syntactically Awesome Style Sheets

Some folks did sit in the darkened area, with many jokes about running the Zippo Lighter app on everybody's iPhones and yelling "Freebird".  Real candles worked a bit better :-)

Speaking of geekage, I think this is the first time I've heard the phrase "Turing complete" since I was a compiler developer in the late Jurassic age of computing.  That warmed the cockles of my heart. I see a post about the difference between a markup language and a programming language in the future of this blog. :-) For that matter, why is my heart full of mollusks anyway? :-) Another blog post topic.

The crowd begins to gather.
The turnout was pretty good, around 25 people.  I saw many of the people I met last time, and met a few new ones. Also found out there's a Drupal meetup coming up in two weeks at the Port Tavern. I don't use Drupal, but it keeps coming up in so many opportunities, that I keep thinking I should add it to my repertoire. Remember the days when you could call yourself a webmaster when you knew HTML?
Pre-presentation Strategizing
Presenters Adam Darowski and Joe Oliviera
Adam and Joe did a great job of tag-teaming the presentation and covering all the important advantages of Sass for those of us still using plain old CSS.  The slides are up on, so I'm not going to summarize them here. Suffice it to say that Sass looks like a big improvement to this old CSS hack.

Mingling and networking and Bruins overtime victory over Montreal completed the night. (Yeah, techie geeks can care about hockey. I have a signed photo of Bobby Orr over my desk -- which may reveal a little about my age as well as working class origins :-)).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

writer's block or something like it

I've attempted three different posts for this blog today. Each time, I froze.  The topics were,
  • infographics that are hard to read, never mind understand
  • correlation vs. causation
  • millennials reading Milton's Paradise Lost
The thing holding me back is the same for all of them. How is this relevant to 21st century technical communication right now and in the future? You're all wondering how Milton even got into the mix, but let's start with infographics.

Why write about infographics? In the past few weeks I've come across several infographics were hard to read, either because they used a blurry white font on a pastel background or the graphic was so dense and cluttered it was hard to understand. Some of them would have made their point much more easily as text in a table. In fact, I noticed comments to that effect on some of them.  So what's blocking me from writing about infographics? I'm not a graphic designer. I have nothing to add to the experts' conversation about what makes a good infographic. I'm not the demographic for infographics anyway, so it doesn't matter what I think about how well they communicate information to me.

Why write about correlation vs. causation? As I click around the Innertoobz/Interwebz I encounter more and more stories, blog posts, and so on, citing all kinds of weird statistical correlations. They make for good headlines, like the one from OKCupid that found that people who use Twitter every day have shorter relationships than people who don’t.  OK, I majored in math. I know how to lie with statistics. I also know that correlation is not causation. Some of the articles about the OKCupid study made that point. Many did not. So what's blocking me from writing about that? Hasn't it all already been said? And to little or no effect?

Why write about kids reading Milton? I overheard a conversation among a group of teenagers at a coffee shop the other day that got me thinking about how different real kids are from the way media portrays them. The media would have us see these digital natives as one big tech savvy monolith who would rather text each other than talk to each other. I sat next to those kids for 2 hours and not once did I see any of them look at a cellphone, smart phone, or any other device.  I, on the other hand, had my laptop on the table and was attempting to work on a book project.  Anyway, the kids were talking about required reading in their  schools and how boring and unchallenging it was, except for one girl who attended a different school from the others. She talked about how much she got out of reading Paradise Lost and how challenging it was. The other kids were fascinated. So what's blocking me from writing about this? Well, maybe I just said all I needed to say. Then, there is the fact that I'm not a kid. And getting back to statistics, this was only 4 kids, not a statistically valid sample, just an anecdote. Maybe they're the only 4 kids in town who want challenging reading and don't need to text each other when they're at the same table. Who knows?

Well, there, now I've written all I needed to about those three topics and not one word about session border controllers, managing multiple site trees, or hazardous materials data sheets.  Now it is time to go to the North Shore Web Geeks event to shake myself out of this writer's block thing that's preventing me from getting the book done, finishing my help project, and designing the darn database.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mass Innovation Night #MIN25

It was a dark and stormy night ... :-)

April showers were out in full force, but the innovation community packed the house at Continuum and Videolink's facilities in Newton for Mass Innovation Night number 25. The space was amazing. The place was mobbed! Shout out to Continuum and Videolink for sharing it with all these great innovators. Tours were wildly popular and fascinating.
The crowd starts to gather.
Innovators as far as the eye can see.
The focus this month was on  things rather than apps.  There seemed to be a sub theme of bicycles and bicycle technology going on too, which struck me as very appropriate for West Newton, the home of Harris Cyclery (almost as important to my childhood as the West Newton branch library). 

Once again, I didn't get to check out every single exhibitor, but I caught most of them. Products ranged from carpets and shoes to bags for your pooch's poop and everything in between. Some of the ones that made an impression on me:

Carpet Workroom makes custom area rugs out of  remnants. I love their focus on customer involvement as well as reuse of materials and good old-fashioned workmanship. 
Carpet Workroom
Heyday Footwear makes  "bling for your feet", shiny cool shoes. High-tops are already cool, but these are even cooler. I look forward to when they offer women's sizes.  
Heyday Footwear

Parachute Dog  makes a biodegradable dog waste bag kit.  Cleaning up after your pooch without perpetuating the immortal plastic bags is a definite benefit to society.

Parachute Dog
Our old friends from Memory on Hand were selling their USB flash drive bracelets. See my review of their useful and trendy product here.

The four presenters had folks looking up to them in the unique presentation space on the stairwell. Loved the improvised screen. Mass Innovators are a creative bunch!

Looking up at the presentations.
The product that knocked my socks off (what does that mean anyway? I've never seen anybody's socks literally knocked off. :-)) was the Leveraged Freedom Chair designed by Continuum in partnership with MIT to bring a wheelchair to people with disabilities globally. Conventional wheelchairs are not well suited for the rough roads and long distances encountered by the disabled in developing countries. The Leveraged Freedom chair combines the technology of a bicycle drive train with levers to create a nifty leveraged drive train that makes it possible for users to travel faster than they can on conventional wheelchairs, whether they're on pavement or off-road. And they've done all this while keeping the manufacturing cost to $100! Very impressive.

Leveraged Freedom Chair
The surprise hit of the night was Mouthwatchers with their antibacterial nano-silver toothbrush with patented flossing bristles. Who knew you could build a better toothbrush? Traffic at their table was brisk throughout the evening.

Videolink's ReadyCam 2.0 remotely-controlled broadcast quality video solution meets its goals: bring down the cost, do broadcast quality, and do it on demand. This ain't your laptop webcast.
Videolink's ReadyCam 2.0
New England Bike Expo  is an event designed to bring together people who love bicycles and alternative transportation, and folks looking to learn about the vibrant bicycle industry here in New England. They'll have tons of bikes and bike related stuff at Arts at the Armory Somerville,  May 7-8. Nice to see the bicycling culture that was so vibrant here so many decades ago surging to the forefront again.

Turner Business Services
Note paper content delivery devices on the shelves in the background.
Memories in an Instant

The Experts Corner was a happening place too, with Memories in an Instant taking "social media ready" photos, office furniture from new MIN sponsor, Turnstone, and lots of people consulting Turner Business Services.  I got Leaf Legal  to pose for my traditional experts looking expert shot. They tried to look very expert.
Leaf Legal

Those readers who've seen lots of my photography know that I love red brick, and there was plenty of that. It was even labled.

Brick Walls