Viral inversion

Welcome to the Third World War, where the enemy is not fascism, communism or any other “ism” but an object just over one 10,000th of a millimeter wide. In one of the greatest ironies of history, the world is being ravaged not by the very large (war, earthquakes, hurricanes, or nuclear weapons) but the unimaginably small.

Coronaviruses derive their name from the spikes that form a crown or “corona” atop their spherical body. These spikes are what makes the virus so lethal because they enable it to latch onto the cells of lungs, causing severe respiratory problems. In addition, many infected people don’t exhibit symptoms right away, if at all. These people continue to move about, unknowingly infecting others. The death rate is 1% to 10% – the ultimate “killer app”.

The war against Corona is unlike any other. In the last World War, half the world was fighting the other half. In this war, the entire world is united against one enemy. All the greatest minds (scientists, epidemiologists, medical specialists, software engineers, researchers and pharmaceutical developers) are working together to develop a treatment and vaccine. U.S scientists were able to decode the DNA of the coronavirus within weeks. Based on this DNA structure, they reversed engineered a potential vaccine by comparing the DNA of the coronavirus against a database of other vaccines and the viruses that these vaccines effectively treat. However, it could be up to 18 months before a viable vaccine is released. Why the delay? Any virus must first be tested on humans to verify its safety and efficacy. Software’s the easy part; the bottleneck is the “wetware” – that is, people.

Sadly, we knew this war was coming. Governments were warned repeatedly that an outbreak of this magnitude was likely, yet did little to prepare. Four years ago, Bill Gates prophesied this event in a Ted Talk entitled, appropriately enough: We’re Not Ready. In this talk, he describes in detail the plague that would occur just a few years later. He references the movie Contagion which also predicted current events. This film dramatizes a virus from Asia with a genetic component from a bat that rapidly spreads throughout the world. There are scenes of hoarding, panic and death, and references to social distancing. Just as a virus can mutate, this film has mutated from a fictional drama into a documentary.

Clearly, there was a delayed reaction from governments the world over. What’s disturbing is that this delay continues. There seems to be a two-week lag behind the actions that governments should be taking and the ones they are taking. That is, they are on a two-week time delay. It’s unfortunate that we cannot create a mini-time machine and force world leaders to travel just a little bit into the future. With our backs to the wall, we must go back to the future.

What the world is watching now with bated breath are the numbers. Specifically, everyone is closely following the number of new infections at the state or provincial and national level. As quickly has these numbers have grown, they will peak and then start to decrease. That is, the growth curve will begin to invert. It is the most important inversion in recent history, but it won’t be the first inversion to occur during this crises.

Many films (such as the previously mentioned Contagion) have dramatized an outbreak of this type, with startling scenes of deserted cities. Today, the entertainment world and the real world have inverted. Scenes previously filmed now occur in real life. Conversely, films and TV shows from the recent past have scenes of crowded streets, people in airplanes, taking cruises, and being close together, all things which used to be in the real world.

Social media has also been inverted. Previously, it had been criticized for being a poor substitute for personal contact; for leading to people being less social. Now, because people are unable to be physically together, social media, especially video chat, has finally begun to live up to its name. Like many others, I converse with friends, family and coworkers using video chat. While not as meaningful as in-person contact, it’s a powerful alternative; a generic drug substitute for human contact.

On the subject of social media: one expression I’ve always abhorred is “going viral”. Current events have taught us that “going viral” is not exactly a good thing. We’d never say that a tweet has “gone murder” or “gone genocide”, but felt comfortable saying it spread like a virus. May this expression die out as quickly as the virus itself.

But perhaps the two most important things that have been inverted are the significant and the trivial. Do you remember the news a few weeks ago? The U.S. presidential race? Global warming? The train blockades in Canada? Harry and Meghan relinquishing their royal titles? How utterly inconsequential these things appear now. It is a tragic law of nature that to refocus the world, calamity is required. The formula appears to be: humanity + calamity = humanity 2.0. The price for this upgrade is a heavy one.

In the end, we must have hope. We must recognize that although we’re powerless over this virus, we’re not powerless over how we act and respond to it. Social distancing is unpleasant, but better to be placed six feet apart horizontally on the ground than six feet vertically into the ground.

In the end, it is our thoughts that will keep us sane, and all thoughts spring from words. We can look again to the last Word War for inspiration. Winston Churchill concluded one of his famous speeches with these words:

We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.

Churchill spoke these words in 1941. Nearly 80 years later, we’re using new tools to fight a new enemy: the tools of medical science and technology.

These are the tools; let us finish the job.

Stay safe.

A Transcendent Man

Related imageIf I could meet any person alive today, it would undoubtedly be Raymond Kurzweil. One of the most brilliant thinkers on the planet, he is a distinguished scientist, inventor, author and futurist.

His inventions include:

  • optical character recognition (OCR)
  • text-to-speech synthesis
  • speech recognition technology
  • sampling musical keyboards

If that weren’t enough, Kurzweil accurately predicted:

  • the collapse of the Soviet Union
  • the defeat of the best human chess player by a computer
  • the rapid growth of the Internet, and its move to a wireless format
  • the increase in popularity of cell phones, and their shrinking size
  • the move of documentation from paper form to computers and the Internet
  • the ability to add sound, animations, and video to documentation

Because of his track record, Kurzweil’s other predictions are worth paying attention to. They are based on the Law of Accelerating Returns. This law stems from Moore’s Law stating that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles about every two years. As a result, computing power is increasing exponentially and will have an enormous impact on science, including nanotechnology and biotechnology. He predicts it will be only a few decades before some astounding achievements are made, including:

  • the “source code” of DNA will be hacked, enabling human life to be extended using nanobots: small programmable robots that repair the human body at the molecular level; whenever we need to heal ourselves, we simply download the latest update into our bodies
  • a computer that fully simulates the complexity of the human brain, allowing a person’s mind to be uploaded to a machine, thereby achieving immortality
  • artificial intelligence systems that make moral decisions and interact fully with humans
  • the ability to send and receive physical objects electronically

Looking further into the future, Kurzweil predicts:

  1. The line between people and machines will blur as machines become more human and humans add more technology to their bodies.
  2. Machines will grow to be billions of times more intelligent than they currently are.
  3. Machines will eventually become smarter than people in a history-shattering event called The Singularity.
  4. Human-machine hybrids will create giant supercomputers from asteroids, planets, stars and whatever other matter they can get their hands on (if they still have hands).
  5. Computers the size of planets will be built; Earth itself will be transformed into a giant computer.
  6. The entire universe will eventually evolve into a new life form: a massive super-computer, transforming matter and energy into a giant thinking machine.

Kurzweil explores this vision of the future in the documentary Transcendent Man. When asked if god exists, he sublimely says,”Not yet.” However, I would say that the Singularity has already arrived; well, at least a portion of it has.

Writers are instructed to write what they know. This applies especially to technical writers. If we don’t know what we’re writing about, the result is a document where the reader doesn’t know what we’re saying.

Beyond writing what we know, we write what we are. We create documentation based on how we perceive it would be best understood. Because everyone’s perceptions are different, no two writers use the exact same text to describe the same thing. All writing is a reflection of the writer.

If we write what we are, then we are what we write. Our writing needs to be clear, logical, organized and methodical; so do we. But if we are what we write, then what are we?

We are, or at least are connected to, the very documentation that we create. All the material that we have ever written, whether personal or professional, is a part of us, and we are a part of it. The merging of people and machines has already occurred: it is called documentation. It is the product of a human mind in electronic form. We live forever through our writings, as long as there is a computer to host them.

We have seen our documentation, and it is us. But will there ever be a time where technical communicators are no longer needed?

Not yet…

Information to die for

Think informational design decisions aren’t life and death? Think again.

As reported recently, bad design can kill. Two people died when they were accidentally administered potassium chloride (which is poisonous) instead of sodium chloride (which is not poisonous). This tragedy occurred because the vial labels for both these substances were very similar in design and appearance.

Neil MacKinnon, a pharmacy professor at Dalhousie University said it best: “If you ask any kind of front-line nurse or pharmacist, they would say ‘Gee, this isn’t rocket science, why can’t they make labelling clearer – put things in different size fonts, in different colours?’”

To which I would respond: Duh!

To avoid confusion, I would redesign this label to read:

HEY YOU!!!
THIS IS POTASSIUM CHLORIDE!
IT WILL KILL WHOEVER YOU GIVE IT TO!!
STOP NOW!
Yes, it’s crude, but so what?
If the bottle had had this label, there would be fewer dead people.

We’re here, we’re synesthesic, get used to it

Image result for synesthesiaSynesthesia is the ultimate mashup. It’s a neurological condition in which a person experiences the data of one sense with another – a sort of warped virtual reality.

Examples of synesthesia are:

  • seeing numbers and letters as colours: for example, where most people see the following text as black: ABC 123, a synesthesic might see it as: ABC 123
  • perceiving numbers, letters, days of the week and months as emotions or personalities: for example: 1 as “strong”, H as “envious”, Tuesday as “sad” and July as “jealous”
  • seeing sounds: a loud noise such as dog barking or fireworks exploding might cause the person to see certain shapes or patterns
  • perceiving time periods as locations in space: for example: Monday appears “further away” than Wednesday
  • “tasting” certain words or letters: for example, most tastes like toast, and leg tastes like egg

Scientists aren’t fully sure what causes synthesia, but agree it’s probably some sort of neurological malfunction in which the sensory wires in the brain get crossed. It may affect as many as one in 23 people.

Blessing or Curse?

At first glance, synthesia might seem like a curse. After all, who would want the distraction of “hearing” colours or “seeing” sounds? In fact, it may be a blessing. Some synthesics are very creative and have produced unique drawings and other artwork that illustrate the remarkable way they experience the world.

Synthesia, Tech Comm Style

An effective technical communicator is partially synesthetic. We simply would not be able to do our jobs well if we perceived information the same way normal people do.

Specifically, technical communicators are hyper-sensitive to vague, missing, misspelled, confusing, incomplete and poorly organized information. We perceive it as jarring, illogical, uncomfortable and painful. We can call this condition technical communication synthesia, or TCS.

TCS Examples

The following examples help illustrate TCS. In each one, you’ll see three statements:

  • Actual text – the actual text that might appear in a document or software application
  • Normal perceptionhow a normal (non-TCS) person perceives the text
  • TCS perceptionhow a person with TCS perceives the text
  • Actual text The record is updated.
  • Normal perceptionGreat! The record is updated. My work is done!
  • TCS perception The record is updated?! Who or what updated the record? The user or the computer? The objective voice is evil.
  • Actual text Welcom too the Synex Usser Giude .
  • Normal perceptionHmm, something doesn’t quite smell right…
  • TCS perception The horror; the horror…
  • Actual text The Sort command sorts your data.
  • Normal perceptionGee, who would have thought it did that?
  • TCS perceptionCircular references are evil! Change this to: Use the Sort command to arrange your data alphabetically or numerically.
  • Actual textThe program will remember your settings.
  • Normal perceptionAwesome! I can just set it and forget it!
  • TCS perceptionRemember? How can program remember?! Anthromorphization is evil!
  • Actual textError 43 – Incompatible file format.
  • Normal perceptionDamn! Where’s the tech support number?!
  • TCS perceptionWhere is the problem? What is the solution? And who cares what the error number is?
  • Actual textAbort the process.
  • Normal perceptionYikes! I’d better stop the process.
  • TCS perceptionAbort is a word more loaded than an H-bomb. Change to: Stop the process.
  • Actual textIt’s important to back up your files.
  • Normal perception – That’s nice to know….uh, what’s a “back-up”?
  • TCS perception – What is a back up? Why is it important? How do you perform one? Which files do you back up? How often should you perform one?
  • Actual textDo you want to enter more records? [OK] [Cancel]
  • Normal perception – Yes, I do, so I’d better click OK .
  • TCS perception – Ouch! Why can’t developers label buttons properly?! Change the buttons to a simple [Yes] and [No].
  • Actual textTurn off your computer. Be sure you have saved your work first.
  • Normal perceptionOK, I’ve turned off my computer Now what? Make sure I’ve saved my work first?! Doh!
  • TCS perceptionMight as well say: Cut the red wire to detonate the bomb. Change to: Save your work, then turn off your computer.
  • Actual textTo print a document, make sure you have opened the document you want to print, the printer is on, there is paper in the paper tray, and that the printer has enough ink, then press Print and select the correct printer, paper size, orientation, the pages you want to print and the number of copies, then click OK.
  • Normal perceptionYou had me at “To print“. Then you lost me. I am sad.
  • TCS perceptionCould that sentence be any longer? Rewrite to:
To print a document:
  1. Ensure the printer is on.
  2. Check that there is paper in the paper tray.
  3. Check the ink level of the printer.
  4. Open the document you want to print.
  5. Click the Print button.
  6. Select the paper size and orientation.
  7. Select the pages you want to print and the number of copies.
  8. Click OK to print.

Note: TCS is incurable, thankfully.

H1N1 A1 Confusion

Related imageThe media’s endless drive for ratings has us all convinced we’re about two minutes away from certain death. To be sure, the H1N1 virus (the artist-virus formerly known as “Swine Flu”) can be lethal. But let’s have some perspective: more people will die from the regular flu than this nasty variant. More will also die from car accidents, obesity, alcohol, smoking and many other plagues, but why let relevant comparisons get in the way of a juicy news story?

To Save Your Life, Please Take a Number

The latest news concerns the vaccine production problems. Contrary to earlier reports where the various levels of bureaucrats assured us there would be plenty of vaccines for all, there’s actually a severe shortage. Persons not in one of the “priority groups” need not apply for the antidote. Pregnant women, children and health care workers on the lifeboats first, please. As for the rest of us – not to worry – we’ll have that iceberg removed in no time.

Great Expectations Not So Great

Now, imagine if the government had stated at the beginning only a limited quantity of the vaccine would be available. They would still have been criticized, but not to the same degree. The problem was a high expectation was set, and very badly went unmet. The end users (the public) don’t care whose fault it was. All they know is they and their family are not getting their shot.

We can learn from this in the business world. Never set expectations too high, for if you miss them, you’ll be a failure no matter how great a document you deliver. Always under-promise and thereby over-deliver. If you think it’ll take N number of weeks to produce the guide, substitute 2N for N. That is, double the time you think it will take. The worst that can happen is you’ll get it in “early”.

To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate? That is the Query

The second major H1N1 controversy is whether one should even receive the vaccine. On the one hand are the government and medical authorities imploring everyone to receive the shot. On the other are various citizens concerned about the contents of the vaccine and its possible side effects. Unfortunately, this is a digital decision – 0 or 1. You either get the shot or you don’t. You can’t be a little bit pregnant, and if you are, congratulations: you’re at the head of the line.

Confusion is poison in a document. It is the drop of oil in an otherwise pristine bottle of Perrier. It is to be avoided like the H1N1 plague. One way to inoculate your docs against it is to banish uncertain words such as: might, may, could, and perhaps.

For example: don’t say:
Depending on your document type, some of the following tabs may not appear on the Properties dialog box.

Instead, explicitly state which tabs appear for each document type, for example:
For letter file types, the Main, Paper and Recipients tabs appear.

Certainly Uncertain

Even with this simple tip, you’ll still encounter confusion and uncertainty when developing your docs. Often it’s a case of one SME saying one thing, and another SME saying the exact opposite. If the issue is complex enough, the only solution is to lock both of them in a room together with you as the arbitrator, and not leave until the truth is found. (I’ve found faking flu symptoms and threatening to cough on both SMEs helps to quickly expedite the discussion.)

Sometimes the final answer you arrive at is different than what any of you envisioned. Those are the glorious moments in our profession. They validate our worth as information developers. They show we add real value to the company. And they give us a real shot in the arm.

Virus’d!

Related imageNo, this article is not about how my computer has been infected. Many younger people today may find this hard to believe, but before there were computer viruses, there were biological ones.

A virus is a machine more perfect and efficient than anything mankind could manufacture. It is a difficult beast to describe; scientists aren’t even sure whether it is “alive” in any sense of the word. That’s because viruses contain genes but no cell structure or metabolism, considered critical to life.

Whatever viruses are, they have a somewhat poor reputation, because they have probably killed more people than all wars and murders combined; not millions, or even tens of millions, but hundreds of millions have been slain by something the poor victims couldn’t even see.

Viruses come in essentially three different flavours: the good, the bad and the ugly, and the ugliest one of all is Ebola. This monster can kill within several days, and it does it in a most horrific way: it essentially liquefies your organs from the inside. Victims bleed to death from the inside out.

What’s interesting is that Ebola, like all deadly viruses, does not actually intend to kill its host. It’s simply making copies of itself, because that’s what it is programmed to do. Essentially, it is trying to turn its host (a person) into a giant copy of itself. In the process, it destroys the host. Hence, their nasty reputation.

But what if you could make a good virus? In fact, such viruses have been developed. Years ago it was discovered that milkmaids who had been infected with the relatively mild cowpox virus were immune to the much deadlier smallpox virus. This led to smallpox vaccination. In fact, most vaccines today contain weakened versions of viruses that protect you against the nastier ones. In genetic medicine experiments, harmless viruses carry useful genes into cells. For example, scientists have tried treating a genetic disease by letting a virus insert a crucial gene into liver cells that protects against harmful cholesterol.

Therefore, we should not always fear the virus. In fact, we can learn much from it. Earlier I said how viruses are simply trying to make their hosts into copies of themselves. That is precisely what an information developer is trying to do to the reader. A successful information developer infects the host agent (the reader) with the knowledge already contained in the information developer’s mind. In doing so, the developer is creating copying the information into the reader’s brain. The more efficiently and accurately the information developer can do this, the better the infection.

And the best part is, that, unlike the Ebola virus, the reader’s brain won’t be liquefied in the process. Unless you are a really, really poor writer. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for that.

Facing Off New Technology

Image result for face off movieA remarkable event occurred in Cleveland a few weeks ago. In a marathon surgical procedure, a team of eight doctors worked 22 hours to transplant a woman’s face, moving bone, teeth, muscle and nerves. It was the first facial transplant in the United States, and only the fourth in history.

One of the doctors vividly described the procedure: “We transferred the skin, all the facial muscles in the upper face and mid-face, the upper lip, all of the nose, most of the sinuses around the nose, the upper jaw including the teeth, the facial nerve.” These incredible technical craftsmen have truly “saved face”.

I remember the 1997 action science-fiction film Face/Off. In it, a policeman and a criminal mastermind switch identities through a facial transplant, with rather unexpected results. Science fiction has become science fact.

Now, if these doctors can transform a person’s face, it obliterates all excuses for not transforming the way we create documentation. Converting thousands of pages of legacy documentation to a structured format is very difficult. But impossible? Impossible occurs when you lack either the will or the means to accomplish something. Let this event in Cleveland inspire us all.

The Colour of Notes

Related imagePositively Autistic is a fascinating CBC Newsworld documentary about autism. Its premise is that people with autism do not really need to be cured, and that society should just accept them as they are, in the same way we accept differences in race, religion, sex and other innate characteristics.

One of the individuals profiled is Amanda Baggs, an eloquent autism-rights activist who runs her own blog. She does not speak, at least not directly. Instead, she types out what she wants to say, and then a voice synthesizer does the talking for her. Baggs also posts videos to YouTube that describe how she experiences autism. One of her videos, In My Language, has been viewed about 700,000 times.

Baggs describes how she perceives sounds, and in doing so shines a tremendous light on how all of us perceive things. Incredibly, she is able to identify various musical notes as easily as you or I can identify colours. In other words, she is able to see the exact “colour” of the note.

All this raises an interesting question: who exactly has the disability? On what basis do we say that the inability to recognize musical notes is acceptable, but the inability to socially connect with others (a characteristic of many autistic people) is unacceptable?

Clearly, the ability to identify musical notes is a gift. In fact, it is one of many gifts that autistic individuals have. Other gifts include the tremendous ability to focus on specific details, an incredible memory, and extraordinary technical capabilities. Many of the technological advances in society (from computers to cell phones) would not have occurred had there not been people at least partially on the autistic spectrum to develop them.

I’ve often said that technical writing requires a somewhat autistic personality. Technical writers are hyper-sensitive to specific words and text, just as some autistic people are hyper-sensitive to sound or colours. Whenever I see poorly written instructions, or, worse, discover that the instructions are missing altogether, it stresses me out. (Not to the point where I need to be severely medicated, but pretty close.)

As writers, we obsess not only over the words we write, but their appearance. Take the following instruction, for example:

It is important to back up your files.

That’s true, but this doesn’t really tell you what to do. How about:

Ensure you back up your files.

This is better, but it doesn’t tell you how often to do it. Let’s try:

Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

That’s specific enough for our purposes, but how can we make it stand out a bit more? Adding one word helps:

Note: Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

We’re getting there, but we need additional emphasis:
Important! Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

Finally a dash of colour to this note to make it really stand out:
Important! Ensure you back up your files at least once a week.

Now, dear reader, do you honestly believe that most people would pay so much attention to a single line of text? Of course not – they have other things to do with their lives. Technical writing is a mental condition like autism, and like autism, it can be a positive thing. Learn to embrace your insanity: it positively colours everything you do.