TECHNOLOGICALLY UNTETHERED

Writing Space - Where do you produce your best writing — at your desk, on your phone, at a noisy café? Tell us how the environment affects your creativity.


If you’d asked this question a year ago, I would have said “my office,” because that was where I did everything. These days, I do everything on the laptop in the living room, often with the television in the background and dogs jumping on and off the sofa.

75-OfficeHDR-CR-2This probably doesn’t sound like an ideal arrangement for a writer but it suits me — at this point in my life. As recently as a year ago, I would not have been able to write like this. Even now, I can write much faster in a less distracting environment … but it seems I can write anywhere if I have a:

  • Computer
  • WiFi
  • Comfortable chair.

Note: If it’s morning, I also need coffee.

You’ll notice the list is bulleted, not numbered. This is because I don’t want to imply an order to these requirements. I need all of them, but not necessarily in sequence. (Once a tech writer, always a tech writer.)

The rest of the stuff I need is in my brain, which is convenient because I don’t have to remember where I left it.

WiFi and laptops changed everything. As long as I had to be wired to the network and the only powerful computer I had was on the big oak desk, that was where work had to be done. I worked at home much of the last 15 years of my professional life and built a structure at home to accommodate it. I also needed a door to close when I had to work without interruption.

The world, my life, technology … everything, really … has changed. I’m not on anyone’s clock, not even my own. I don’t have deadlines except for those I create for myself. My granddaughter grew up. My husband settled into retirement and developed his own rhythm, avocations and interests. The phone stopped ringing.

It’s a quieter life, even with televisions and nutty dogs. WiFi and a laptop let me do whatever I want anywhere it’s comfortable.

We used to dream about “a portable office.” I was working at Intel while they were refining wireless technology. It wasn’t entirely reliable yet, but I was assured it would be very soon and then, everything would be wireless. I was dubious, but here we are. Aside from needing to plug into an electrical socket, we are free to roam.

Roam was not built in a day, but it’s here. Now, if we can develop a way to get electricity without a cord or build batteries that work like the battery Jeff Goldblum had in “Independence Day,” we will be totally untethered.

I would also like to grow wings and fly. Is Intel working on that?

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.

Daily Prompt: Rolling Stone – Where’s my moss?

I used to think about tossing it all in and getting an RV — just rolling from place to place, sleeping wherever we landed. Waking up to watch the sun rise atop the Rockies, or something like that. The problem is, I have this annoying brain. It doesn’t let me just fantasize. It wants the details. It wants a workable plan. So I don’t fantasize. I obsess. About the logistics of the thing. I start making charts, budgets, schedules.

Rolling into Gettysburg. Goal, a comfy motel wioth WiFim cable TV and lots of hot water. A good restaurant too.

Rolling into Gettysburg. Goal, a comfy motel with WiFi, cable TV and lots of hot water.  A good restaurant too.

The price of gasoline. I mean, do you know how much it costs to run an RV? Holy smoke! It’s not a question of how many miles to the gallon. More like how many gallons to the mile. I have friends who own a yacht, but they almost never go anywhere. They hang out in the marina because it cost too much to actually go anywhere in the boat. I’m not arguing with the joy of yachting, or RV-ing, but seriously — that’s mucho dinero.

How much can I fit into the trunk? And about those dogs?

How much can I fit into the trunk? And about those dogs?

Then, there are the dogs. There we are, on the open highway, tooling along, watching the gas gauge drop and the dogs are restless. Do they really need to do something? Or are they just messing with us? Who knows? Do we want to take the chance? Our dogs are smart enough to know if they exhibit certain behaviors, they are going to get what they want and I can see us never making much progress because the dogs think it’s a real hoot to get us to stop everything and let them run around. Even at 3 in the morning when we’ve just fallen asleep.

With no doggy door, no fenced yard, it’s us, the dogs and leashes, standing there, whining “Please, go already, it’s cold, I’m tired, I want to go to bed,” while Bonnie laughs at us as only a Scottie can.

Now a train, that might be okay. Except how long can youstay aboard? Really? And what about those dogs?

Now a train, that might be okay. Except how long can you stay aboard? Really? And what about those dogs?

And then … well … there are the bathrooms. My husband has a thing about the bathroom. He would be okay for a few days, but then … he wants a nice, comfortable room with a spacious shower and unlimited hot water. A place to sit, ponder and all the rest. Not squinched into a little tiny airline-size nook (or cranny? does anyone know the difference?), but room to spread out, leisurely. And me? While he’s doing his leisurely morning ablutions, what the hell am I doing? Beating the bushes for a bit of privacy where it isn’t full of poison ivy?

But wait. You gotta pump out the head. You gotta fill the water tanks. You need to hook up to some electricity. Buy groceries. Dog food. Cook meals in that tiny little galley. I stopped loving meal preparation about a decade ago. Am I going to rediscover the joy of cooking in the galley of an RV? Why do I doubt that?

And WiFi? Without getting complicated, Garry has bathroom issues. I have WiFi issues. Take away my Internet connection and I will probably have a psychotic break.

Who is going to water the plants?

Who is going to water the plants?

My head is reeling. I WANT TO GO HOME TO MY COMFORTABLE BED. I’m not a stone and I don’t roll. I limp. And hey, I have a doctor’s appointment. I’m tired of rolling. I want my recliner. I want my computers, my big screen television, my huge oak desk.

I want my desk. My computer. My big monitor. My chair.

I want my desk. My computer. My big monitor. My chair.

Roll, roll ye stones. But I don’t think I’ll be rolling with you. Nice but not for me. Nope. Sorry, the gypsy life passed me by. Send postcards!

Oh, thank you Lord. My bed! I need my bed!

Oh, thank you Lord. My bed! I need my bed!

Staring at the radio

Last night when Garry came into the bedroom, I was staring at the radio. Garry takes his hearing aids off at night, so we have our bedtime conversations at high volume. Shouting, really. So please imagine the following dialogue with both participants talking very loudly.

75-bedroom-HP-1

“Why are you staring at the radio?”

“I’m trying to figure out if it’s on. Oh, it just started to make noise. It’s on.”

“It’s all the same to me. But why are you staring at it?”

“I figured if I stared at it for a while, it would start to play. Or not. One way or the other, I would find out what the red light means.”

“But … why are you STARING at it. How will staring at it help?”

“That’s how I figure things out. It didn’t come with instructions.”

Pause. “Have you taken any drugs?”

Philco Clock Radio CD

“No. See, there’s a red light. I didn’t if know the red light meant the CD player was on or off. I had to wait and see if it started playing. I was pretty sure a blinking red light meant pause, but I wasn’t sure what a steady red light meant. So I was waiting. I tried waiting when there was no light. Nothing happened, so I tried it the other way. Since it’s making noise, the red light must mean on. It’s kind of slow getting started.”

I wasn’t trying to be funny, but Garry started to laugh and couldn’t stop. “That’s the sort of thing I would do,” he said,

“Well, how else would I know what the red light means?”

He laughed some more.

Garry thinks I know a lot of stuff I don’t really know, especially about technical stuff. I have a simple methodology. Push a button. If it doesn’t do anything or solve whatever problem I’m trying to solve, I push another button. Or push the same button again or hold the button down for a couple of seconds. While I’m waiting, I watch. Intently. Maybe I’ll get a message. Isn’t this how everyone fixes stuff?

My husband finds this hilarious.

I spend a lot of time staring at computers. I’m waiting for something. An idea. For the system to reboot. To see if a blue screen is going to recur. To figure out if the diagnostic will tell me there’s no problem even though I’m sure there is. For a message to appear.

I must be doing something right. Beethoven is playing on the CD player/radio. And most of the time, the computers work.

- – -

Beep, ding, whirr, ping, buzz …

It’s the little things that trigger epiphanies. Those tiny moments of recognition that make me say “Oh! I see!”

A few days ago, I took my Canon S100 out of my shoulder bag where it lives. I’m very careful with my cameras. When I’m shooting, I’m so focused that unless I adhere to a strict routine, I lose stuff. As I’ve gotten older, I lose stuff anyway and I don’t want to lose any cameras, so I follow my checklist to make sure that no camera or accessory gets left behind. I pull the camera out of my bag, stuff its sleeve in my pocket, take my pictures, and put it all back. When I get home, I pop the SD card out, plug it into the computer, download the pictures, clear the card and return it to the camera. Back into my bag it goes. I know if I keep to the program, I will always have a camera near at hand. For some reason, the last time I used it, I didn’t put the S100 away and left it next to the monitor. I’m sure I had a reason, though I can’t recall what it was.

I forgot it until last night when I picked my bag and noticed how light it felt. What was missing? Ah, the camera.

“Hmm,” I said. “I didn’t realize that little camera adds so much heft to my bag.”

It was late. I was on my way to bed, but stopped in my office to collect the cordless phone to return it to its cradle in the bedroom. I noticed the camera lying on the desk. I picked up the camera and thought “Gee, I should swap the battery and charge this one. I’ve been using it a lot.” I have quite a few spare batteries. There is nothing that will ruin a shoot more completely than having a battery die in the middle and not having a replacement with you.

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I popped the battery out and went to put it in the charger. I looked at my power strip. Six chargers. Impressive for a strip that only has 6 plugs.

This being a Canon battery, I tried putting it in the first Canon charger on the strip. It didn’t fit. I tried the next but it didn’t fit there either, which shouldn’t have surprised me because it was Panasonic and this was a Canon battery, but who can read black lettering on a black charger in dim light anyhow?

There was one charger in the strip I hadn’t tried. Unsurprisingly, the battery popped right into place. I looked around and realized I have two more Olympus chargers nearby and an off brand charger whose purpose I do not recall. The chargers in this group each attach to one arm of an octopus splitter. With a wrinkle of concern, I realized I had another little camera on the way and no room for a charger. I was going to have to add another strip. I wondered where I could possibly put it. Things are getting crowded in the electrical part of the office.

Epiphany.  Bong. Whack.

I have a lot of cameras, computers, tablets, readers, telephones, printers, transmitters, routers, modems, Roku, DVD players and music making thingies. I don’t even know how many there are. I don’t even know where I’ve put them all. Or if they work. They have accumulated while my back was turned. There are all the old ones I used until I got newer ones. Then there are the back ups I never use, but have in case a piece of equipment fails. Spare telephones, extra cameras. Even a couple of miscellaneous computers.

Everything uses batteries including items that plug into a socket somewhere and most things seem to need a WiFi feed. No room is exempt, from kitchen to bedroom. We have electronic toothbrushes in our bathrooms. After even the briefest power outage, my entire house starts blinking.

Night is lit up by the soft glow of red, blue and green LEDs. It’s never fully dark or entirely silent. Everything flickers, whirrs and buzzes, beeps and dings. The telephones variously whoop, bong or play obnoxiously loud music. Even my wallpaper (the stuff on the computer, not the walls in the kitchen) makes splashing sounds as my virtual dolphins leap in an electronic sea.

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My universe collapses in the face of a power outage. Nothing works if the power’s down. I am slavishly devoted to technology and the thought of having no electricity for even a brief period makes me shiver with dread.

Everyone these days seems to have a vast quantity of electronic gadgetry, no matter what they say because nothing is simple anymore. The microwave, the refrigerator, the range and the oven are computerized. Those are merely the basics.

I had to reboot my bed the other day.

I may not in theory need so much stuff, but I can’t imagine giving anything up.  I love it all. I even love the things I don’t use, cell phones that served me well and obsolete computers or cameras which have been replaced by newer models. They are my Hall of Fame collection.

Accumulation will never stop. Garry’s new computer is on the way and who knows how many peripheral items it will spawn.

I swear this has all crept up on me, slipped into my life a gadget at a time — a computer, a modem, a router, a laptop, another computer another and another. New cameras replaced old ones and they were themselves replaced by even newer gear. New gadgets were invented and became indispensable. As technology continues to evolve, each piece of equipment will be replaced eventually by newer versions. Like virtual seasons in an endless cycle of beeping, flashing and whirring change.

Excuse me. My oven is beeping. Dinner must be ready.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Silhouette – The Tree

I took this shot about two weeks ago and as soon as I saw the topic for today’s challenge , I heard the little bell my brain rings when it it’s telling me “I got that!”

I almost missed the tree, but my granddaughter’s friend pointed at it and said “cool tree.” She was right. It’s a very cool tree. Photo – Marilyn Armstrong

There is a story that goes with this and it has nothing to do with the tree. It’s a “duh” story. My own “duh” story, but to be fair, if it hadn’t been for that strange message, I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken me nearly as long to figure out what was going on.

I’ve been working with computers as since the early 1980s, which is a pretty long time. I have lots of funny stories, including how many times I’ve thought the computer on which I am working had died only to realize that the plug was loose.

All I wanted to do was create a slightly higher resolution picture that would look crisper on your monitor. And mine.

I opened the photo in Photoshop. When I tried to change the dpi, I got a message telling me I couldn’t change the size because the size was linked to the printing preferences. Huh?

I do not print photographs at home. One picture can use up a lot of ink. I get better prints for less money using a professional online printing company. I had never seen this message. I didn’t know that Photoshop has print preferences … and as far as I can tell, it doesn’t because I never found anything but the regular printer settings that every Windows application has.

I checked through all my preferences, then looked for a preferences file amongst the Adobe files, and for any settings on my printer that might be affecting Photoshop. I searched the Photoshop forum and help files. The application was working fine a few hours earlier. I hadn’t changed any settings since then. Moreover, I’ve never printed anything directly from Photoshop. So why would it send that message? Everything else on the computer seemed normal.

So I thought maybe it was some weird incompatibility with the new anti-virus software I installed the other day.  I restored the system to before I installed the program and installed different anti-virus software. I didn’t like the new one anyhow.

Finally, as I was getting ready to uninstall Photoshop and reinstall it  – assuming I could remember where I saved the license and serial number information …

I took a deep breath. I pressed Num Lock. And everything was back to normal.

I would have figured it out if I hadn’t gotten that weird message about printing preferences. If the numbers failed to work with no other message, I would have checked to make sure I hadn’t pressed Num Lock by accident.

Windows could make this problem disappear. They have a little picture that comes up to tell you if your Caps Lock is on. Can’t they make the same kind of thing for Num Lock too? Would that be so hard? I’ll never ask, though. I’m far too embarrassed.