IN WITH THE NEW

The handwriting has been on my wall for a while.

Since April, my primary computer has been my Dell XPS 15 laptop. It has a fast motherboard, 8 GB RAM, 750 GB at 7500 HD, a backlit keyboard, high def monitor, a DVD that plays Blu-Ray, and a 9-cell battery. It weighs like a cannonball.

I use a lap desk with two fans to cool it. I treat it well, keep it clean. It’s never been dropped.

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?

Glad you asked. The graphics card is inadequate. It’s a card with both sound and graphics on it, so I can’t listen to anything while I work in Photoshop. And even so, it locks. It used to recover and knowing the source of the problem, (insufficient video RAM), I rebooted frequently. Mostly, it was okay. Lately, it has stopped recovering. It goes down, stays down. Hard crashes and blue screens of death.

Alienware14-laptops

Last week, it gave me a black screen — fatal error — which told me it did not recognize its power source. It was plugged into an AC outlet, so I suspect the battery is starting to go.

For months now, it has refused to install Microsoft updates, except antivirus. I figured I didn’t really need the updates, but I’d have to be stupid to not see the warnings. My faithful laptop is getting tired. Some day soon, it’s going to quit.

I bought this computer in March 2012. It was refurbished, a year old when I got it. Buying refurbished let me buy more computer. I had gotten serious about blogging. Also, recently out of the hospital. I had (have) a desktop, but I needed a laptop. This was top of the line then, and if you look at the specs, it is still better than 90% of the new computers on the market … except it has grown old. For two and a half years, this laptop has taken whatever I threw at it without (much) complaint. What it did in the year before I got it, I have no way of knowing except that it had some mileage on it.

I could wait until it dies. Probably in the middle of writing a post. Not a smart move, especially considering the issues swirling around Microsoft. Namely, Windows 8. I hate Windows 8.

BUT WHY DON’T YOU BUY A MAC?

Alienware14-keyboard

With all of its quirks, Microsoft never screwed me over the way Apple did. Every expensive Apple computer I bought was obsolete mere weeks after buying it. Apple always assured me the new machine would be upgradeable. They lied. In 1999, they did it again. I had barely had time to set up the new system before Apple made it obsolete.

“This is,” I said aloud, “the last time Apple is going to screw me.”

I donated the Apple to my alma mater. I bought the most powerful Windows 98 PC I could afford, which — with upgrades — ran flawlessly for 6 years. I never bought another Macintosh product until an iPhone snuck into my world a year ago.

I want nothing to do with Macs. I don’t like the inaccessibility of the operating system or the hardware. I don’t find it intuitive. I find it confusing and annoying. I want a PC, thank you. But not Windows 8. From what I’m hearing, I don’t want the upcoming Windows 10, either.

BUY NOW OR DIE LATER

Which put me into a bind. Windows 7 machines are disappearing. Even a few weeks ago, there were more choices. Despite the other issues we have, I need a new laptop. This is what credit is for … and that’s why I buy from Dell. Because when no one else would give me credit, they did.

alienware-back

SO WHAT DID YOU ORDER? TELL ALL, PLEASE!

Possibly for the first time, I got enough computer to do what I need to do. It’s a gaming laptop, Alienware 14. It has 16 gigs of RAM, a dedicated 2 gig video card. DVD reader/writer. High definition graphics. Heavier than I’d like at 6 pounds, but nothing lighter had all the features I want.

Here are the specs for my fellow geeks:

  • 4th Gen Intel Core i7-4710MQ processor (6MB Cache, up to 3.5GHz w/ Turbo Boost)
  • 14.0 inch WLED FHD (1920 x 1080) IPS Anti-Glare Display
  • 16GB Dual Channel DDR3L 1600MHz (2x8GB)
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 765M with 2GB GDDR5
  • Intel 802.11n/ac Wireless and Bluetooth 4.0 driver
  • 1TB 5400RPM SATA 6Gb/s
  • Windows 7 Professional 64 bit Service Pack 1, English, w/Media
  • Optical Drive : Slot-Loading 8x SuperMulti Drive (DVD/R/RW)
  • Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260 @ 5GHz + Bluetooth 4.0
  • Backlit English Keyboard
  • US 110V Power Cord
  • Battery : Primary 6-cell 69W/HR
  • Power Supply : Alienware 150W AC Adapter
  • Alienware 14 Silver Anodized Aluminum

It won’t be here till the beginning of November, but I think I’m good until then. I sure hope so!

Oh, they threw in a free 7″ Android tablet. I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but I guess I’ll figure it out. And a $150 gift card. For accessories.

JUST A FEW MINUTES

Flash Talk - You’re about to enter a room full of strangers, where you will have exactly four minutes to tell a story that would convey who you really are. What’s your story?


computer and keyboard

“Good morning. You are,” glancing at my résumé on his desk, “Marilyn Armstrong. And you’re here about the … ” pausing to look at another piece of paper, “Technical writing position.”

“Technical writer,” I nod. “That’s me.”

“Tell me about yourself.”

The dreaded moment. What do they want to really know? Theoretically, all they need is whether I can do the work, which obviously I can. My credentials speak for themselves. They want to know if I’ll ‘fit in’ to their ‘corporate culture.’ Whether they or the other people in the department will like me.

Competency? They could give a rat’s ass. It’s all about being likable and I don’t feel convivial. I hate interviews. Even when I’m doing the interviewing.

Speaking of which, I have a heartbeat to turn this around. “I’d appreciate your telling me something about your company and the position before I proceed,” I respond. I’m smiling broadly. Very phony too. Because I already know this job is not for me. It’s too corporate, too stitched up and formal. I can tell by the clothing everyone is wearing. By the cubicles I passed that are so antiseptic, it doesn’t look like anyone works in them. No pictures on the walls. No toys on the desk. No happy murmur of people hanging out near the coffee machine. And as far as I can tell … no coffee machine to hang out by. High tech is fueled by coffee and take-out pizza. If there’s no coffee machine, that’s a very bad sign.

“Blah blah yada yada blah blah blah,” he says.

“Yada yada blah blah,” I respond.

“I can do this job,” I finally say, tired of the crap and getting a headache. “I know database design, object-linked and relational. I can write a manual from preface to index as long as I have periodic access to the design engineers and a playpen for testing.”

“You want to get hands on?” he says. Alarmed.

“I won’t write about a product I have never tested,” I say. “I write manuals, not fiction.”

“The engineers can tell you how it works.”

“The engineers will tell me how they think it is going to work. Between that and reality can lie a vast wasteland into which customers — your customers — can wander and never be seen again. Think of me as a double threat — writer and beta tester in one adorable package,” and I give him another smile.

He is perturbed. It turns out they don’t have a working prototype. No one is exactly sure what the user interface will look like because … they haven’t created it yet. And all the engineers are Russian, which is fine, except they are creating the GUI and they don’t write English so good, you know? Did you ever wonder about those inscrutable menu selections? This is how they got there.

And the completely irrational placement of critical functions? No user (not an engineer or developer) tested the product before release. Seemed okay to them, you know?

And so it goes, and so it went. And that’s why the manual that (maybe) came with your expensive device or software seems to bear no resemblance to how it really works. Because I didn’t write it.

The ‘Internet Slowdown’ Is Coming: Tech Giants to Protest FCC’s Net Neutrality Proposal

 THE FIGHT FOR NET NEUTRALITY IS EVERYONE’S FIGHT

Etsy, Kickstarter are holding a day of action on September 10 as the deadline approaches for public comments on the proposed ‘fast lane’ rules.

Source: www.entrepreneur.com

This is a fight we cannot afford to lose. No matter how little of the technology you understand, we all use it. Cell phones, Netflix and other WiFi television connectors, computers, Kindles. Much of our lives are based on the availability of fast, dependable Internet connections.

If we lose this fight, we will be looking back on these days as those glorious days when we were all equal on the net … because we won’t be any longer.

See on Scoop.itIn and About the News

NEED TO KNOW (NCIS, 2012) AND MY PACEMAKER

EPISODE: Need to Know (2012) – SHORT SYNOPSIS:

Alan Katzenbach, a lawyer, waits for Gibbs with his client, a chief petty officer named Leland Wiley. Wiley was busted for drugs and wants to trade his info — which he says is about national security. It concerns Agah Bayar, the arms dealer. Gibbs is interested. Wiley comes over to talk, but grabs his heart and drops to the ground.

ncis-need-to-know

Gibbs comes for the update from Ducky. Turns out, Wiley had top security clearance and his workstation is locked down. They haven’t been able to connect him to Bayar yet.

Abby calls Gibbs to the lab. She tells him Wiley’s pacemaker was linked into a computer to monitor it. Someone hacked in and jacked his heart rate up to 400 beats per minute.

“Somebody murdered Wiley by remote control,” she says.


What does this have to do with me?

Well, glad you asked. This episode so intrigued the heart surgery team at Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston (where I had all that heart surgery last March), that they decided to find out if it really could be done. One of the people that performed the experiment was my surgeon.

They did it. My surgeon did point out as far as they could tell, to actually hack a pacemaker you had to be no more than a couple of feet from it. Nonetheless, they made the manufacturer change the programming.

In theory, nobody can hack my pacemaker.

I find this comforting. Garry finds it disturbing and I suppose I can see where he’s coming from. He doesn’t like thinking about the mechanical and electronic stuff that keeps me alive. It would creep me out too, but I’m a bit of a geek.

RBB-pacemaker

I find the technology sufficiently interesting to overcome its inherent creepiness. It is creepy. However, it doesn’t matter. No matter how I feel about it, I’ve got this thing in my chest. It keeps my heart beating. If my heart beat on its own, I wouldn’t need the pacemaker.

Every time I go for a pacemaker checkup, they use a little machine and briefly stop the pacemaker to see if my heart will beat without it. My heart stops beating. Talk about creepy. It is a very unpleasant — and indescribable — sensation. Anyone with a pacemaker knows what I mean.

The blue tooth remote functions still work. They are (in theory) more secure than they were a couple of years ago, before the NCIS episode aired and the guys got curious about it. Remote functionality is important. After all, I might need a tune-up. Blue tooth lets my doctor access my pacemaker from … how far? I don’t actually know. A considerable distance, whatever that is.

Garry — again — doesn’t want to know about it. I pointed out if someone murders me, this is potentially important evidence. He would still rather not think about it.

So there we are. Too creepy?

I can feel my pacemaker. It sits on my left shoulder. The outline is visible. I can feel the wires, the connections through my skin. I find it impossible to ignore. I might as well find it interesting. It’s part of me, after all.

OBSOLETE? I THINK YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT ME!

Going Obsolete

Of the technologies that have become extinct in your lifetime, which do you miss most?


I was declared obsolete about 6 years ago. I had been getting progressively less relevant for quite a while, but after the dot coms went down in flames, the high-tech world changed dramatically. Venture capital disappeared and with it, the exciting start-up companies which had been my bread and butter.

Technical writers were replaced by automated systems. No one cared whether or not documentation produced by the software was in any way useful. Tech support had been exported. Now the same thinking applied to documentation.

I — and it — was declared unnecessary. You could just call tech support. Let your customers wait on hold, get disconnected and finally, let them talk to someone who knows nothing and will give them wrong or worse information. Don’t provide a call back number to make them go through the whole thing again. What could go wrong with this? Who needs writers?

75-BW-CompOff-3

A lot has gone wrong. Too late for me, companies are discovering that customers who buy expensive gear want manuals too. They get cranky when a $5000 camera arrives without a book to explain how it works.

I never intended to be a technical writer. I was going to be a “real” writer … novels … literature. I wrote books, but only one novel. Everything else was information or instructions. For a gal who barely scraped through basic algebra, I picked up a lot along the way.

I was an editor at Doubleday in the mid 1970s, the halcyon days of publishing. We read manuscripts. Everyone read books and books were important. No one had 1000 channels on TV. Depending on your antenna was, you might not get much of anything except snow.

When I moved to Israel in 1979, I discovered the only kind of writing done in English (not Hebrew), was technical writing. I moved from typewriters to computers and found my milieu. I became part of the development team for DB-1, the first relational database. It revolutionized the information world … and with the creation of data object linking, the guts of the Internet we all take for granted today, was born.

I rode the high-tech wave until I became officially obsolete having been informed that “no one reads manuals.” Which is why I can’t figure out how to change the ISO setting on my camera. I can’t locate the menu. The manual, no doubt produced by a piece of software, doesn’t explain anything. I hope someday I’ll find the setting. But I digress …

I designed my downfall as I worked on “artificial intelligence” systems. The technology evolved fast and came of age in the 2000s. It replaced many people — including me.

This is the world I helped build so how can I complain? But honestly? I miss me.

BACK IT ALL UP!

I was just reminded of something. I go long periods and don’t think about it, but I shouldn’t, and neither should you. By “you” I mean absolutely everyone. Whatever you do — write, take pictures, or whatever — if you do it on a computer, back it up. I learned the hard way.

ILOVEYOU (aka Love Letter), was a computer worm that attacked tens of millions of PCs on and shortly after May 5, 2000. It showed up as an email message with the subject “ILOVEYOU” and an attachment: “LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.txt.vbs”. The  ‘VBS’ file extension was typically hidden by default on PCs back then. It wasn’t on my computer, but I worked on a development team on my computer at home — an early telecommuter — so it wasn’t unusual for me to get files full of code as part of my job.

external HD

It took a mere few seconds to destroy every single jpeg on my computer. That represented all of the photographs I had ever taken that I was storing on my hard drive, more than a decade of family and artistic pictures. It only took a few hours for a fix to be created and distributed, but it was too late for me.

I had been backing up to CDs, but I hadn’t backed up my photos, only financial records and my writing because that was work-related.

I lost hundreds, maybe thousands, of photographs.

External hard drives existed, but they were uncommon and expensive — very expensive. Now, there’s no excuse. You can get a huge external hard drive for short money. I back up intermittently to my two external drives, but a make sure to move files between my laptop and my big desktop everyday, and I save things online too

Eventually, I have 3 or 4 copies of everything, not counting whatever I store online. I don’t feel it’s too much. You can’t have too many backups of things that are important.

Even if it doesn’t seem very important. it can suddenly become very important if you have lost it forever and can never replace it. Back everything up. If it’s important enough to save it on your hard drive, it’s important enough to back up.

You can, for example, get a 3 TB external Seagate drive from Amazon for $139 including shipping. One and two terabyte drives are less expensive. If you don’t like that, there are ample choices for every budget. Don’t make excuses. One day, something bad will happen. A hard drive dies on you. It happens. It has happened to me twice. The first time, it was a secondary hard drive and I got enough warning to get my stuff off the drive. The second time, a message in a black  message box — I’ve never seen one like that before or since — appeared on my screen saying that there was a problem with my hard drive, back up now. By the time I finished reading the message, everything was gone.

But that time, everything was backed up. It was an inconvenience, not a catastrophe. I had learned my lesson.

You don’t have to learn the hard way. Back it up. All of it.

It’s Not Your Equipment … It’s a Lack of Documentation! – Marilyn Armstrong

Maybe I should just give up, but I spent my career writing material to help folks use complicated equipment and sometimes very obscure software.

I should probably start by mentioning that I’ve fought this battle for long years … and was utterly defeated. About 7 or 8 years ago, high-tech companies, in a money crunch and driven by that bottom line that seems to be the only thing that matters anymore, began to eliminate technical writers. Entire departments were dismantled and eliminated. Jobs disappeared and what remained paid so badly it was insulting.

A decision had been made at the corporate level: YOU don’t need documentation. No matter how complicated or expensive the equipment or software you purchase may be, don’t need documentation. Companies provide the minimum the law requires or they can get away with. Quality is no object nor usability. Information is limited to basic stuff like how to install a battery and if you are lucky, where the compartment is.

I was a technical writer for about 75% of my career, the rest being divided between journalism, editing, promotions and advertising. But mostly, I wrote documentation and I though my work mattered. Probably naive, but I believe that if I documented a system, it should be well written, clear, organized, and useful., When a user needed to find something, it would be in the book and in the online help. It would be easy to find. I carefully avoided using mysterious search parameters that could be deduced via a psychic link to my brain. If you knew what you wanted, I made it easy for you to find it.

I was proud of my work. I still believe the fundamental goal of documentation is to make complicated things simple. Not necessarily easy because sometimes, the product was not easy to use, but that didn’t mean that it had to be hard to understand. My documentation was good for another reason: I used the product and tested what I wrote to make sure it was true. This testing makes the difference between a pile useless gibberish and a manual.

Thus, when you get something that appears to be documentation, stop and read it. Appearances are deceiving. Most “manuals”  are generated, not written, and never checked for accuracy or usability. Such “manuals” are as likely to increase your confusion as provide illumination.

I bought a PEN EP3 camera from Olympus. Seven months and hundreds of photographs later, it remains one of the mysteries of my world. It takes wonderful pictures, and it has hundreds of functions. I haven’t the slightest idea how to find most functions and have no idea what to do with them if I could find them.

I grew up in a pre-digital world. I know F-stop, depth-of-field, shutter speed, aperture and focus, film speed and composition. I have a good eye. I’m no genius, but my pictures are pretty and I enjoy taking them.

He solves the problem the way most do: Automatic everything, then shoot.

New digital cameras have a vast and overwhelming array of functions, most of which you or I will never use or need. I believe they are there entirely to impress us with the super high tech-ness of the equipment. I doubt that even the designers — especially the designers — expects us to actually use them. Which is good, because I don’t know what they are supposed to do anyhow or why I would need them. Ansel Adams didn’t need them. Neither did Edward Weston. Neither do I. But, the more you pay for a camera, the more of these obscure functions you get and I figure that the least they owe me is an explanation of what these setting do and how to find them.

I’m not sure whether to curse or say thank you. Maybe if Olympus provided a manual that explained these options, I’d be grateful, but that is not happening.

I spent half our shooting time trying to find the menu to change the ISO.

This is true of cameras, but the lack of documentation on your computer is actually worse … much worse because most of us depend on our computers. We need them to work and we need to have some control over the environment in which we work. Configuration of our computers to suit our needs is not a minor detail: it’s the difference between having a tool that does what you need and one which is a burden … an enemy with which you do daily battle.

I spent all last night — until dawn — trying to figure out how to turn off the touchscreen functions of my monitor. Before Mac users jump in and point out that it’s because Windows doesn’t work, that’s irrelevant and untrue. Windows works fine. It’s just that the company doesn’t provide any written documentation. There is embedded information in the operating system, but much of it isn’t logically arranged. It’s rather like looking for your car keys after you’ve dropped them someplace you don’t normally put them. You know they’re in the house, but where? It could be years before you find them..

On a new computer, you typically get an “introductory” video and that’s pretty much it. I watched it. It showed me in exquisite detail how to do what I already knew how to do.

Operating systems are designed to be used the way the system’s developers expect you to use it. If you prefer a different setup, trouble starts. The only way to figure out how to do something differently is to keep querying the system and hope you’ll stumble on the right  key word — the word that will bring up the information you need. What is most frustrating is that you are sure it IS there, but whether or not you will ever find it is a different issue.

If you are sufficiently persistent and a bit lucky, you will eventually find a mystery menu after which you fix your problem in a few seconds.

Last night, I searched, searched again and again. It didn’t call Dell because I knew the support person wouldn’t know the answer either. They pretty much never do.

So I tried one word combination after another, recombining them in the hope that it would lead to a menu buried in the system. There had to be a way to deactivate touch input.

Around 5 in the morning, I found it. It took me less than 30 seconds to eliminate the problem that had been driving me nuts since I got the computer. Now, it’s a monitor. A great, high-definition, 23-inch monitor that’s a joy to work on and makes photo editing a pleasure. No more configuration by crawling insect. I am mistress of my virtual world at last!

A technical writers earns less than an entry-level developer. I understand the guys in India who provide telephone tech support work cheap, but I bet a tech writer would cost less than a network of telephone support no matter how cheaply they work.

Assuming you are under warranty and you can get through the voice mail  maze … and further assuming you get someone who understands the problem and don’t get blown off because software is not part of your warranty (Note: If someone can tell me how, without using software, you can determine if you have a hardware problem, I’d like to hear it) … Round and around you go.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Would it blow the budget to hire a competent technical writer to embed online help that will live on even after the warranty period is over? Wouldn’t it be nice to help users avoid needless aggravation and not wind up with angry, frustrated, exhausted, and homicidal customers whose problems remain unsolved?

Granting that many home users have a limited understanding of how their computers work and for them, it wouldn’t much matter what documentation you supply. Most problems result from insufficient understanding of a product or process. If you are talking about a novice user, perhaps more information wouldn’t help. But …

I’m not inexperienced and I still can’t find essential information I need to configure my monitor. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect a menu on the control panel that I could use to configure the monitor’s capabilities, not merely its resolution but any other functions it may have. Functions not available on a particular model could be grayed out. How about that?

There is nothing wrong with my computer that better organized and easier to find information would not solve..

Every issue I’ve had over the last 5 or 6 years was ultimately fixed with a few clicks of the mouse. The problem was never something broken. It was always lack of documentation.

That pisses me off. Because tech writers — even highly experienced ones — work pretty cheap. Users do need documentation, and not just for software and computers. We need documents that let us use our cameras and telephones and DVD players and all those other pricey little devices that we own and often, don’t know how to use. Online FAQs are insufficient.

This is an old battle I’ve already lost. I know it’s hopeless. I find it infuriating that I can barely figure out my telephone without customer support, so rather than spend time on the phone with customer service, I don’t use anything I can’t easily configure.

I had to buy a separate book on how to use Photoshop and another for my first camera. I was able to get some help from a fellow user of my new camera, but that only goes so far. For my PEN P3 camera, there IS no customer support nor any after market book. I depend, as Blanche DuBois said, “… on the kindness of strangers.”.

My camera will remain a mystery until someone writes a “Dummies” book for it. Hopefully I’ll still own the it when the book finally gets published.

It’s not fair. The reason they get away with it is because we let them. Think about it.

So how did I finally figure it out? The “monitor” menu should have been a gateway, but was useless. The only thing you can the “Monitor” menu lets you do is lower your screen’s resolution. That’s useless.

Finally, I typed: Touchscreen.

Up came something that I hadn’t considered. Flicks. Now, for me? That means the movies. Having never used it, I had no idea it had anything to do with the monitor or its touchscreen technology. Once I got to “Flicks,”, I started opening menus and voilà, there were two check boxes allowing me to toggle an option:

  • Enable finger as pointing device.
  • Do not allow finger as pointing device.

I un-checked the first one by checking the second. I clicked “Apply.” As the sun rose in the east, my problem was solved and I went to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream  … of murder, destruction and vengeance.