Chance Connections

Quantum computing is the latest and strangest development in supercomputers – computers that perform incredibly complex tasks. Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke mused that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Quantum computing is not magic, but dangerously close. It is based on two bizarre principles: superposition and entanglement.

Superposition involves probabilities. Classical computing is based on the binary system of of 0s and 1s. All computer code and electronic devices run on this system; if you go deep enough into the code, all you will see are 0s and 1s (called bits), and nothing in between. A bit therefore is the smallest unit in a computer program.

Quantum computing uses a special type of bit: a qubit. A qubit, like a bit, can have a value of 0 or 1. But it can also have both these values at the same time. This is superposition – the ability of something to be in more than one state simultaneously. We can’t know what state it is in until we observe it; until then, all we can do is assign a probability of it being in a certain state.

Entanglement is an even more bizarre aspect of quantum computing. It refers to the phenomena that if you were to measure a qubit, it changes what you see in another, no matter how far apart the two are. For example, if you see that the value of one qubit is 0, then the value of another entangled qubit billions of kilometres away becomes 1. There appears to be a mystical force connecting the two particles. Einstein called entanglement “spooky action at a distance”.

Quantum computing sounds like science fiction, but it is not. Companies including IBM, Google, Microsoft and Intel have built (or are developing) quantum computers. As with early classical computers from the 1930s and 1940s, quantum computers are beastly machines, with many wires and cables protruding in all directions. Additionally, they must operate at near absolute zero, (the temperature in outer space), about -273°C.

The potential applications of quantum computing are limitless. Because of their quantum nature, they will be billions of times more powerful than the most powerful supercomputers today. They will be able to solve problems or create applications that traditional computers simply cannot, including:

  • artificial intelligence & machine learning – systems that can think, reason, and make rational judgments and recommendations, including medical diagnoses, farming and energy efficiency
  • molecular modeling in chemistry and physics
  • cryptography – creating unbreakable online security
  • financial applications including investments,stock market and economic analyses
  • weather forecasting

To recap, qubits (the building blocks of quantum computing):

  • exist in many states simultaneously (superposition)
  • are mysteriously connected together (entanglement)

Because quantum computing is attempting to discover the underlying principles of reality, it follows that these two principles should reflect reality, that is, existence should also be based on the fact that things:

  • exist in many states simultaneously
  • are mysteriously connected together (even when far apart)

At first glance, this seems absurd. Our everyday experience tells us that things exist in one state, and that if you change something, it’s not going to change something else, especially if it is far away.

But if we look closer, we can see that these are the same principles upon which the greatest and most pervasive technological innovation is based. It’s the technology that has changed the world more rapidly than almost anything else. It’s the technology that has toppled governments and powerful leaders, established friendships, solved mysteries while creating new ones and caused untold heartbreak, joy, sadness and everything in between. It’s the technology that you are using right now: the Internet. While the Internet does not represent all reality, it has come to represent and directly influence a large portion of it. It has become, quite literally, the “new reality”.

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On the Internet, the same website appears differently for each user, depending on the device they are using. On certain sites, different information appears. For example, travel sites will present different prices depending on a user’s location, computer, previous queries and so on. This is superposition: the ability of the same thing to exist in different states.

Online, we are all connected, regardless of distance. When you do anything online (make a purchase, send a message, check your banking transactions, and so on), it makes no difference where you perform this action. Cyberbullying is based on the premise that sending a hurtful email or text has the same effect whether the sender is 5 metres from the receiver or 5,000 km. An action in one area affects another area – there are are no distances online.

It’s therefore no surprise that IBM has developed an online quantum computer. That is, a computer that is based on the principles of superposition and entanglement now exists on a platform that is based on superposition and entanglement.

The answer to the age-old question what is reality appears close at hand: probabilities and connections. The question now is what will happen after we’ve built computers that are millions of times more intelligent than us?

Will it lead to a utopia where all of the world’s problems are solved by benevolent machines? Or will we end up in an Orwellian nightmare, where heartless machines enslave humanity, or, worst still, we use machines to enslave others?

Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. Place your bets…


Life, The Algorithm


In a most remarkable product demonstration, Google unveiled their improved artificial intelligence (AI) application, Google Assistant. In the demo, the application phones up a hairdresser and, using uncannily natural-sounding speech, peppered with “uhms”, is able to book an appointment by conversing with the hairdresser. In doing so, Google Assistant appears to pass the Turing Test, developed by the British mathematician Alan Turing in 1950. This test postulates that if a person can’t tell whether they are communicating with a human or a machine, then the machine has passed the test and therefore “thinks”.

In the demo, it is a machine that (or perhaps who?) is calling the business to book the appointment, and the individual answering the phone is human. However, this could easily be reversed, so that it is a person who is calling the business, and the machine answering for the business.

This raises an interesting question: what if it there was a machine at both ends of the conversation, that is, one Google Assistant calling another? If the AI engine running both assistants is advanced enough, they could, in theory, carry on a meaningful conversation. Although this might seem like the ultimate AI prize, there’s a much simpler solution: using a website to book an appointment. Granted, it doesn’t have all the nuances of a regular conversation, but if the goal is simply to book an appointment, then the user’s computer simply has to connect with the business’s.

Image result for industrial revolutionThis use of advanced AI is part of a larger phenomena: the degree to which our daily tasks have been automated or performed by others. Up to a mere 200 years ago, people made and repaired what they needed, including clothes, tools, furniture, and machinery, and often grew their own food. The industrial and agricultural revolutions changed all that. Goods could be mass-manufactured more efficiently and at a lower cost. Food could be grown on a mass scale. We’ve moved away from a society in which individuals made their possessions to one in which we let others do this for us.

As recently as the 1960s, many people maintained and fixed their cars; most people today leave this to a mechanic. We have outsourced nearly everything. Although we have gained much in quality, price and selection, in the process, we have lost many practical skills.

This trend continues as more and more processes are automated or simplified. Coffee makers that use pre-packaged pods are easier to use than regular coffee makers. However, it would be a sad thing if entire generation did not know how to brew coffee the regular way. Even brewing coffee “the regular way” still involves using a machine that others have made and that we cannot fix, powered by electricity that we do not generate, using beans that we can neither grow or process ourselves, and water that is automatically pumped into our home using an infrastructure that we cannot maintain. The parts that make up the parts that make up still larger parts are designed and built by others.

At its heart, Google Assistant uses algorithms, sets of sequential rules or instructions that solve a problem. A simple example is converting Celsius to Fahrenheit: multiply by 9, divide by 5, and then add 32. The algorithms used by software applications are, of course, millions of times more complex than this example, because they use millions of lines of code.

See the source imageAlgorithms are incredibly omnipresent. They are used extensively by online retailers (such as Amazon) to recommend purchases for us based on our previous purchases and browsing habits. Facebook uses them to track our activity and then sell that data to others, often with dire results. Algorithms are also used in two of the most important decisions a person can make: whom they love (in dating applications) and where they work (in résumé and interview screening applications).

Algorithms have even used to determine how likely a criminal defendant is to re-offend based on attributes such as race, gender, age, neigbourhood and past criminal record. But is it ethical for a judge to use an algorithm to determine the length of a sentence? This happened in the case of Eric Loomis, who received a six year prison sentence in part due to a report the judge received based on a software algorithm.

Society is facing the same trade-off that it faced 200 years ago as it moved from personal to mass manufacturing: convenience and comfort versus knowledge and independence. As we relinquish more and more power to machines and let algorithms make more of our decisions, we achieve more comfort but less freedom. We are, bit by (computer) bit, quietly choosing to live in a massive hotel. It’s pleasant, you don’t have to do much, but it does not prepare us for life.

For in life, there is often sadness, pain and hardship. There is no algorithm that tells us how to deal with these things, nor will there ever be.

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In our image

See the source imageIs a ship which has had all its parts replaced over many years still the same ship? This question is explored in Theseus’s paradox which asks whether something remains the same even if all of its components have changed. Other examples include an axe that’s had several handles and blades and a broom that’s had several heads and handles.

Moving from things to people:

  • The rock groups Yes, Heart and Blood, Sweat & Tears do not have any of their original band members – are they the same band?
  • Canada’s landscape and population have vastly changed its founding in 1867; is it the same country as it was back then?

It all depends on how you define “the same”. If you mean “something containing all of the original components”, then these things are not the same. However, if you mean “with the same general identity or name”, then these things are the same. The paradox is that both these things can be true. Canada as an idea never changes; Canada as a thing always changes.

With human beings, the question becomes even murkier. Most of the cells in the human body are replaced every 7 to 15 years. Is someone the same person they were 15 years ago? The answer may be found in our technology.

Image result for computer memoryLike human memory, computer memory is also ethereal. It is stored as a complex set of magnetic charges, which in turn represent the binary code that drives the system. The entire system is dynamic. Magnetic charges are continually moved around so that each time you use the device, the layout and order of the memory changes. However, from the user’s perspective, it is still the same device, and nothing has changed. That is, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, because the whole is constant regards of where and what those parts are. Therefore, even though from a material perspective the device has changed, from a perceptual perspective it has not. Perception overrides materialism.

The same is true in people. We don’t define ourselves solely as physical beings but also as spiritual ones, with a soul we are born with that never changes. Even though physically we’re not same as we were years ago, spiritually and emotionally, we know we are the same. It is this knowledge that keeps us sane. People who perceive their soul (or personality) as changing are often diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder. It is as though the hard drive in their brain is being regularly replaced with another.

It is no coincidence that the essence of our existence is also in our technology. Those of faith believe God created mankind in his own image. Mankind, in turn, inspired by this, has created machines in his. Perhaps this is why the the entire contents of a hard drive, DVD, or CD is called a disk image.

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A Portable Life

“Computer” did not always mean a thing that computes; as recently as the 1960s, it actually meant a person. The US military and NASA employed human computers to perform complex mathematical calculations. As electronic computers evolved, they replaced human computers, and replaced the definition of a computer.

Image result for ENIAC

The early electronic computers were enormous. ENIAC, (pictured right) one of the earliest all-purpose computers built in the 1940s, was 1,800 square feet and weighed nearly 30 tons. (Not exactly a laptop.) It took an army of people just to keep it running.

Later computers (such as mainframes) in the 1960s also required many individuals to operate. Starting in the 1980s, the personal computer took off. Today, most people own several computers in various forms. We have therefore evolved from:

  • many people for one computer
  • one person for one computer
  • many computers for one person

The primary computer types today are desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. All of these are “personal” computers, because the owner is highly connected on a personal level to each device, as though it was a physical extension of that person.

If you think I’m exaggerating, watch the look on a young person’s face if they have misplaced or lost their smartphone; it’s not quite an amputation, but pretty close. So much of a person’s life can be on a computer it quite literally becomes a part of them.

We can categorize computers as:

  • Non-portable: desktops
  • Highly portable: smartphones
  • Semi-portable: laptops & tablets

Given how personal “personal computers” are, it’s not a huge leap to correlate the type of computer to the type of person: non-portable, highly portable and semi-portable.

The Non-Portables

Non-portable people are the stable, steady stalwarts of society. They have established homes, travel little if at all, and are consistent, reliable, dependable and trustworthy. They may not always be creative, but are able to work with creative people to get the job done. They are conservative, resistant to change and comfortable in their routines. They may be perceived as cold and uncaring, but deep down can have big hearts. They just don’t wear their heart on their sleeve, but keep it safely tucked away, just in case. Their motto is: “If it ain’t broke, why even think about fixing it?”

The Highly Portable

Highly portable people are the dreamers and drifters. They move frequently, rent but never own, love to travel, and frequently change careers. At their worst, they may be unstable and flighty, but are also very friendly, outgoing and full of new and original ideas. They are always challenging the status quo, and in doing so, get the world of its comfort zone and move it forward. Their motto is: “Everything needs fixing.”

The Semi-Portables

Semi-portable people reside between these two extremes and are therefore more difficult to define. They can be very open and creative, and at other times closed and subdued. They excel as mediators and diplomats, bringing the other two types together and bridging the gap between them. They are the middle ground, the average, the in-between. Their motto is: “Let’s look together to see if it needs fixing.”

With AI (artificial intelligence) now developing at an astonishing rate, we are approaching the age where computers will be able to think and reason as people do. In what will be one of the greatest ironies of technological history, computers may again become persons. When that happens, your smartphone will indeed be “a portable life”.

Binary Worlds

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“There are 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who don’t.”

— Unknown

This joke is best appreciated by geeky math-lovers. 10 is actually the binary representation of the number 2. This cheeky statement is a good application of the principle that you must know your audience when developing content.

Related imageBinary code is comprised solely of zeros and ones. The performance artist Laurie Anderson muses that while no-one wants to be a zero, everyone wants to be number one, and that there’s not much range between these two for everyone else. We should therefore get rid of the value judgements associated with these numbers, especially considering that the world runs on binary code which is made up entirely of, you guessed it, zeros and ones. Almost all electronic devices, from computers, to smartphones, to TVs, ovens and cars are programmed using binary code.

Information is binary, and not just because it’s stored on a computer. It is because either the user understands the information, or they do not. If they don’t understand even one of the steps in a 7 step procedure, they don’t understand the procedure. Each step in the procedure is a link in a chain, and the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Just as a school course can be a pass/fail type (with no numeric or letter grade), every piece of information goes through a pass/fail test in the reader’s mind.

Related imageOne of the most dangerous activities on earth is leaving the earth: space travel. For this endeavour, NASA takes a binary approach. Before a launch can proceed, the flight director asks each department manager (guidance, surgeon, control, and so on) their status. Each manager replies by saying go or no-go; they never say “almost go”.

Now the opposite of binary is analogue, and it is analogue that is the source of much grief.  For while binary represents certainty, analogue represents uncertainty.

Anything that works intermittently is analogue. Cars that sometimes don’t start. Computers or phones that are buggy. Locks that sometimes stick. If something works all the time, we use it. If it never works, we discard it. But if it occasionally works, this is the analogue of never-ending frustration. It occupies a special place in hell where something works just well enough to keep it, but not badly enough to discard it.

But that’s not the half of it, for binary applies not only to devices and systems but to people. A person either marries their partner or they do not; a defendant is either guilty or not guilty; a politician either wins or loses an election.

The only thing worse than a negative outcome is an unsure one. Uncertainty, with all its angst, fear and misery, has no time limit. Breaking up is better than the endless unsurety of potential marriage; guilt better than the dreaded uncertainty of guilt; losing an election better than the turmoil and chaos of an inconclusive result. A painful resolution is less painful than no resolution. Closure ranks above all; there’s no room for ajar.

As Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” This is the ultimate binary expression.

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How do you like them Apples?

Image result for Steve Jobs logo

The world is mourning the death of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple. He has been hailed, quite rightly, as a creative genius, a brilliant and revolutionary designer, and a bold visionary who completely transformed the world of personal technology. (Full disclosure – my first computer was an Apple IIc, way back in 1985. It was also my last.)

As brilliant as Jobs was, he was also stubborn, arrogant, and an extremely demanding perfectionist who was openly abusive towards his employees. In fact, his arrogance and hubris probably killed him. He refused medical treatment for nine months, insisting on treating his cancer with diet, acupuncture, herbal remedies and a psychic. This delay most likely shortened his life.

Jobs was influenced by Buddhism, which explores the connection between mind, body, and soul. Given how cruel he could be to others, and his frequent violent rages, one could say he had a “cancer of the soul”. Buddhism suggests that a disease of the soul can morph into a disease of the body. It’s a medical fact that some diseases have a psychological basis. Whether this was the case for Jobs, we will never know, for he now resides in the iCloud.

(Speaking of life and death, we now know why Apple devices don’t have an on-off switch. Jobs felt that an off switch represented death. It symbolized for him the terrifying prospect that we’re all machines that simply “power off” at the end of our lives.)

These observations are not meant to criticize or judge, but to point out that no-one is perfect, and that there is more to a person than their technical abilities.

An Untechnical Communicator
A technical communicator may be a technical genius, like Jobs. They may have extensive experience managing a wide variety of complex documentation, thorough knowledge of all the major tools, and can speak twelve languages, human and computer. But if that person comes across as arrogant, obnoxious, highly critical of others and emotionally unintelligent, they will not succeed at job interviews. Even if they do land a job, they may have a tough time keeping it. Jobs himself was fired from Apple, and it was a long road back for him to regain control.

I’ve had the misfortune of knowing a few individuals like these. In the end, they either change or they go, or else every who works for them goes!

All of this means that you can win a job in an interview even if you are not the most technically qualified. The truth is that most software apps can be learned in about a week or two. The more difficult skills to acquire are non-technical:

  • interviewing and listening
  • working well with others
  • oral communication/public speaking
  • time and project management
  • negotiating
  • teaching
  • planning
  • objectivity, seeing the “big picture”
  • being open to criticism
  • handling change, conflict and stress
  • creativity, flexibility and adaptability

If you can show that you have these skills, and a genuine passion for the job, this will greatly increase your chances of getting it.

Research? We don’t need no stinkin’ research!
It’s interesting to note that Apple conducted no market research – no focus groups, no interviewing, no surveys – nothing. They simply designed products that they thought were cool and useful, then unleashed them on the public.

This seems to contradict to one of the tenets of our profession: to actively design with the end user in mind based on their needs and wants. Presumably, this involves working directly with our readers and having them test our documentation to see if it’s useful.

The problem is that we often don’t have the resources to do this. The good news is that we don’t have to, for reasons that are similar to those at Apple.

Users ‘R Us
The fact is – we are users. We should have a good idea of the kinds of information our users want, and the way it should be presented.

When you need information, you want it to be clear, understandable, and easy to find and use. That is precisely what our users want.

Jobs believed it was meaningless to ask customers what they wanted because they didn’t know what they wanted! This was true because the products Apple created were so different from anything that the users had previously experienced. How could users be asked about something for which they had no form of reference?

In many cases, our customers may not know exactly what information they are looking for. The example I always like to give involves the mail merge process.

That Mail Merge Thingamabob
If you were documenting the mail merge process for a novice user who had never even heard of it, you couldn’t simply create a topic called Mail Merging, with a corresponding mail merging index entry. Instead, you’d need to think about all the ways a user could refer to what they want to do, and then frame the topic accordingly.

For example, you might title the topic: Creating Multiple Personalized Copies of Letters and Other Documents or Personalizing a Document that is Sent to Several People. Your index entries could include:

  • addressing one document to several people
  • copies of one document, customizing
  • customizing a document to be sent to several people
  • different names, entering on a document for several people
  • documents, individually addressing to several people
  • mailings, sending customized documents to several people
  • mass mailings, performing
  • multiple copies of a document, personalizing for each person
  • names, changing each on several copies of one document
  • personalizing one document sent to several people
  • sending one document to several people
  • single documents, changing the name on several copies of
  • specifying different names on several copies of one document

You should be able to develop an extensive list of index entries like this without having to ask the user first.

But take great care with each entry – because one bad Apple can ruin the whole bunch.

An OS is not O/S

See the source imageBeing a person of many hats, it only made sense to buy one recently – one with a large brim to protect myself from UVA, UVB, and whatever other radioactive letters the sun wishes to hurl at me.

The hat I purchased included a tiny inline document (also known as a “tag”) which simply stated O/S, a cryptic acronym indicating One Size. In other words, the hat manufacturer was too lazy and cheap to offer assorted sizes, and decided to fool the customer into thinking that size doesn’t matter. The result is that for some the hat is too large, and for others, too small. The solution is to have an average-size head, however these can be difficult to obtain.

In software, the letters OS have a different meaning, of course, as the abbreviation for Operating System. Long gone are the days when there were two main platforms: Windows and Mac. There’s Unix and Linux and Android (oh my!), Ubuntu, Blackberry OS, Chrome OS and many others; there’s almost as many OS’s as there are, well, hats.

The tremendous variety of devices each with their own OS is proof that there’s no one-size-fits-all OS. That is, there is no O/S OS. Each user has their own needs and desires. Within each OS, you can customize the look, feel and functionality even further, creating a nearly infinite number of “sizes”.

The funny thing is that most users neither know nor care that their devices have a so-called “operating system” – they just want to do stuff, like make calls, find information, or play a game.  The fact is that most devices have some sort of operating system or they wouldn’t be able to – operate. Watches (digital and analog), TVs, basic corded phones, washing machines, DVD players, cars – all these things require an operating system. When was the last time you pined for an upgrade for your clothes dryer? We don’t care that a toaster has an OS – we just want toast.

So how would we define an operating system? It’s not just software. As its most basic level, it is a structured environment that receives input, processes it and creates output. It can also organize and manage the things in that environment. A software OS, for example, must have file management capabilities.

Any document is an OS for information. For example, a user can interact with an online help system by searching it, resizing it, bookmarking certain topics, and if possible, annotating it and submitting feedback on it. The end product is knowledge – the document is the OS allowing this knowledge to be transmitted.

This definition of an OS can be extended as far as your imagination will take you. The gears and pedals on a bicycle are the operating system for that bicycle. They receive input (force from the biker) and transform it into energy and movement (output). Every living thing has an OS – the infinitely complex arrangement of cells, nerves, muscles, bones into a living form, all coded with DNA. Although we recognize each other through our physical appearance, we know each other through our minds and souls. The body, then, is the OS for the soul. When the hard drive of a body crashes, the soul goes with it, at least in this world.

The world is the OS for humanity, our universe the OS for this world, time and space the OS for the universe, and existence itself is the OS for God or whatever force you believe runs the universe.

So to all those wizards who continue to create OS’s so magical and subtle that we don’t even see them – my hat’s off to you.

The IT Guy Says: Back it up!

Related imageDoctors constantly tell us to eat right, exercise regularly, and avoid smoking. Yet there are many doctors who are smoke, are fat, or are fat smokers. Hence the term, “doctors make the worst patients”.

We who work in information technology (IT) are no different. A doctor implores people to live healthily; IT professionals implore people to back up their data. Yet there are many IT degree professionals who fail to do this, thinking that hard drive failures and accidental file deletions don’t apply to them.

Technical communicators commit two sins in this area. Many of us don’t back up our files, or if we do, we don’t communicate to others how to do this. I am guilty of these crimes, and sentence myself to writing this article explaining my own multi-faceted approach to file storage and backup:

Back Up Your Files Already!

I have a three-stage approach to file back up and storage. At a minimum, you should do stage 1, but consider the other stages also.

Stage 1: Buy an external hard drive
Buy an external USB hard drive, attach it to your computer, and back up your files every day. Now, if you don’t have too many files, you could use a memory stick, but its performance can be quite slow compared to the hard drive. Besides, who amongst us really has only a few GB of data?

External hard drives come with their own backup software, or you can use a third-party program, many of which are free. I like Microsoft’s SyncToy, which you can set up to synchronize files on your computer to your backup drive.

I recommend setting up your backup software so that it only contributes files to your backup drive, and does not delete them. Although you’ll end up with extra files on your backup drive, it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.

Stage 2: Use an online back up service
While at a minimum you should back up your files to an external hard drive, this practice has one major limitation. If your computer and backup drive are stolen or destroyed, you are out of luck. One inexpensive way around this is to back up your files onto a CD or DVD and then store this in another location. The problem, of course, is that your file collection keeps changing.

An online backup system backs up all your current files to a secure location on the Internet. Even if your house burns down, your files are still available.

There’s many online services to choose from: I use iDrive which had the best pricing: 5GB for free, or 150 GB for $50/year, about $4 per month. You can configure it to automatically back up files as they change, thus ensuring that your backup always reflects your current file list. In addition, you can access your backed up files from any computer with Internet access.

Stage 3: Move to the cloud
All of my non-financial information lives on the cloud (the Web). This includes Google Docs for documents and spreadsheets, Gmail for email, Google Calendar, an iGoogle “to do” list, and this blog.

The beauty of having as much of your data on the cloud as possible is that you can log into any computer and access your data. When you combine cloud storage with an online backup service, you have full access to your digital world anywhere, anytime.

The downside is that security becomes an issue. That’s why it’s important you don’t store any sensitive information online, such as financial or banking information. The balance between security and convenience did not begin with the Internet, nor does it end with it. For example, credit cards offer convenience, but also the potential for fraud. As with all things, you need to use your best judgment.


This is my three-stage approach to backup. Feel free to describe your approach by commenting on this article.

A New Mantra

Related imageApple has given technical communicators a new mantra.

The Apple slogan is: There’s an app for that, to market the fact they have an app for everything and then some, for their ubiquitous iPod touch and iPhones.

Our new slogan should be: There’s a doc for that, to market the fact that we can create a document for anything.

Driving a car?
There’s a doc for that.

Assembling a table?
There’s a doc for that.

Launching the space shuttle?
There’s a whole bunch of docs for that.

Single-Sourcing My Life

Image result for mail overloadI was determined to avoid email bankruptcy, the fate of Internet commentator and legal expert Lawrence Lessing. Lesson was so overwhelmed with the volume of emails he received that he sent a mass email back saying he’d probably be unable to respond.

My problem was not the volume of email, but the fact my contact information was spread out over many different files, and over several different computers. I use up to four different computers a week, so I knew I had to get my email on the Net. After much informational detective work, I consolidated all my contacts’ email addresses, phone numbers and other data into a single online location. It’s a beautiful thing.

You’ve Got Mail (And A Bunch of Other Stuff Too)

Of course, being an “info junkie”, I couldn’t stop at email. I also moved my web favorites online, as well as certain documents that I wanted to view and edit anywhere, just like this Blog. (This comes in handy when your teen-aged daughter kicks you off the computer.)

The Battle for Storage: Please Take It Offline

Clearly, online storage has its advantages. However, so does storing files locally, as the following list indicates:

Access to Files:
* Local Files: Limited to specific computer only
* Online Files: Any computer with Internet access

Application Features:
* Local Files: Many
* Online Files: Fewer, but growing

Application Updates:
* Local Files: Less frequent
* Online Files: More frequent, and often free!
Ability for others to comment and add metadata:
* Local Files: Limited
* Online Files: Widespread

* Local Files: Fast
* Online Files: Slower, but getting faster

* Local Files: Better
* Online Files: Potential risk

Backing up:
* Local Files: Must do
* Online Files: Somewhat optional; data is stored “off-site”

Potential for duplicate data:
* Local Files: High
* Online Files: None

If Internet connection is down:
* Local Files: Can still access files
* Online Files: The horror, the horror

As Internet speed, technology, features and security improve, more people will shift their information away from a specific machine and onto the Web. In fact, in the not too distant future, we’ll just log on to any machine anywhere, and have immediate access not only to all our files, but our entire desktop and all our custom settings and applications. The customizable websites of today (such as iGoogle, Yahoo and Facebook) are but a taste of tomorrow.

Lining Up Online and Offline

The amount of information we already access online is extraordinary. Banking sites, social and professional networking sites, and blogs are all accessible anywhere. Yet there is still much data trapped within our specific machines.

For example, I haven’t really single-sourced all my contact information. It’s still duplicated in Microsoft Works where I can create custom lists and reports, and again in the speed-dial information on my various phones. True single-sourcing would allow us to enter the information once and use it on any device, reformatting as necessary.
Feed Me

An excellent example of this type of content reuse is found in the wide variety of RSS readers. (This blog automatically creates an RSS feed.) All RSS feeds are in a standard XML format, allowing you to follow them using the readers (or browser) of your choice. Most importantly, you can change the appearance of the information, sort it and categorize it.

The Para-Docs

Now, technical communicators, being the “techie” types we are, are heavy creators and users of customized Internet data. This leads to a rather odd paradox.

During our personal time, we create and store data on the Internet, with all its inherent advantages. Then, during our working time, we manage documents that we can edit only on one computer – our company desktop or laptop. Even those of use who are lucky enough to work at home occasionally still have to schlep our laptop back and forth to work. Finally, the documents we work on are printed or packaged with the software. The layout and formatting are fixed and the content is frozen.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words – what’s wrong with words in this picture?

Some companies are beginning to realize the absurdity of creating documents that can become outdated moments after they are produced. As a result, these businesses are providing more of their content within secure online locations. PDFs and Word files may be quick and easy to produce, but they represent an antiquated model of communication.

Don’t Bury Me – I’m Not Dead Yet!

Of course, traditional documentation won’t completely die. They’ll always be a need for hard copies, especially for hardware and other equipment, where printed quick start and setup guides are essential. However, we will see more content shifting online, as companies strive to cut costs and stay current.

Don’t WORA, Be Happy!

Java developers say: write once, run anywhere (WORA) to indicate that they only have to write a program once and it will run correctly, regardless of the platform.

Information developers need to say: write once, access anywhere. Create, edit and read what you want, where you want, when you want and how you want. Otherwise, we’ll all be declaring documentation bankruptcy.