Occupation: Moonshot

1Fifty years ago, man walked on the moon. This project was the most complex technological feat at the time. Over 400,000 people worked with 20,000 companies and universities at a cost of $153 billion US in today’s dollars. Sadly, it also cost the lives of 8 astronauts: 3 killed during the Apollo 1 flight test; 5 others perishing in training crashes.

Although the term astronaut has existed since the 1930s, it wasn’t until 1950 with the creation of the International Astronautical Congress that it began to represent an actual occupation. That is, it was not until 1950 that anyone could envision a technology that would allow people to fly into outer space. Space travel didn’t exist, but the idea of it did. The creation of the astronaut occupation preceded the technology required to make it possible.

The fact that occupations can be defined before they exist is important when trying to determine jobs of the future. One obvious method is to do what was done in the past: recognize emerging technologies then create occupations for these technologies.

Some of today’s emerging technologies are:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) – machines that can think, reason and converse at the same level as a human
  • Genetic Medicine – creating tailor-made treatments for each patient’s DNA
  • Fusion Energy – harnessing energy by merging atoms together
  • Nanotechnology – manipulating matter on the atomic scale
  • Quantum Computing – computing technology with the potential to be billions of times more powerful than today’s supercomputers

Because these areas are still highly experimental, extensive job opportunities won’t be available for some time. It was over 10 years between the creation of astronaut as an occupation and the year that a person (Yuri Gagarin) first went into space. As the saying goes: some things are difficult to predict, especially the future. There’s no way of knowing exactly what kinds of skills will be required in these complex areas, because these fields are still extreme works in progress.

What’s needed today is a way to determine new occupations based on current ones. There are three techniques for accomplishing this:

  1. Randomization
  2. Meta-occupations
  3. Extreme specialization

Randomization involves combining the two parts that comprise any occupation title: the Profession and the Field.

The Profession is exactly that: a specific job. Common examples include:

  1. 2Accountant
  2. Administrator
  3. Analyst
  4. Architect
  5. Communicator
  6. Designer
  7. Engineer
  8. Entrepreneur
  9. Healthcare Provider (including doctors, dentists & nurses)
  10. Instructor
  11. Lawyer
  12. Manager
  13. Programmer
  14. Scientist

The Field is the general area or industry that the Profession applies to. Major fields are:

  1. Educational
  2. Environmental
  3. Financial
  4. Industrial
  5. Legal
  6. Medical
  7. Scientific
  8. Social
  9. Software
  10. Technical

We can combine these 14 professions and 10 fields and generate the following 140 different titles: (Warning: This is a long list, but would be even longer if we were to add additional professions and fields.)

  1. Educational Accountant
  2. Educational Administrator
  3. Educational Analyst
  4. Educational Architect
  5. Educational Communicator
  6. Educational Designer
  7. Educational Engineer
  8. Educational Entrepreneur
  9. Educational Healthcare Provider
  10. Educational Instructor
  11. Educational Lawyer
  12. Educational Manager
  13. Educational Programmer
  14. Educational Scientist
  15. Environmental Accountant
  16. Environmental Administrator
  17. Environmental Analyst
  18. Environmental Architect
  19. Environmental Communicator
  20. Environmental Designer
  21. Environmental Engineer
  22. Environmental Entrepreneur
  23. Environmental Healthcare Provider
  24. Environmental Instructor
  25. Environmental Lawyer
  26. Environmental Manager
  27. Environmental Programmer
  28. Environmental Scientist
  29. Financial Accountant
  30. Financial Administrator
  31. Financial Analyst
  32. Financial Architect
  33. Financial Communicator
  34. Financial Designer
  35. Financial Engineer
  36. Financial Entrepreneur
  37. Financial Healthcare Provider
  38. Financial Instructor
  39. Financial Lawyer
  40. Financial Manager
  41. Financial Programmer
  42. Financial Scientist
  43. Industrial Accountant
  44. Industrial Administrator
  45. Industrial Analyst
  46. Industrial Architect
  47. Industrial Communicator
  48. Industrial Designer
  49. Industrial Engineer
  50. Industrial Entrepreneur
  51. Industrial Healthcare Provider
  52. Industrial Instructor
  53. Industrial Lawyer
  54. Industrial Manager
  55. Industrial Programmer
  56. Industrial Scientist
  57. Legal Accountant
  58. Legal Administrator
  59. Legal Analyst
  60. Legal Architect
  61. Legal Communicator
  62. Legal Designer
  63. Legal Engineer
  64. Legal Entrepreneur
  65. Legal Healthcare Provider
  66. Legal Instructor
  67. Legal Lawyer
  68. Legal Manager
  69. Legal Programmer
  70. Legal Scientist
  71. Medical Accountant
  72. Medical Administrator
  73. Medical Analyst
  74. Medical Architect
  75. Medical Communicator
  76. Medical Designer
  77. Medical Engineer
  78. Medical Entrepreneur
  79. Medical Healthcare Provider
  80. Medical Instructor
  81. Medical Lawyer
  82. Medical Manager
  83. Medical Programmer
  84. Medical Scientist
  85. Scientific Accountant
  86. Scientific Administrator
  87. Scientific Analyst
  88. Scientific Architect
  89. Scientific Communicator
  90. Scientific Designer
  91. Scientific Engineer
  92. Scientific Entrepreneur
  93. Scientific Healthcare Provider
  94. Scientific Instructor
  95. Scientific Lawyer
  96. Scientific Manager
  97. Scientific Programmer
  98. Scientific Scientist
  99. Social Accountant
  100. Social Administrator
  101. Social Analyst
  102. Social Architect
  103. Social Communicator
  104. Social Designer
  105. Social Engineer
  106. Social Entrepreneur
  107. Social Healthcare Provider
  108. Social Instructor
  109. Social Lawyer
  110. Social Manager
  111. Social Programmer
  112. Social Scientist
  113. Software Accountant
  114. Software Administrator
  115. Software Analyst
  116. Software Architect
  117. Software Communicator
  118. Software Designer
  119. Software Engineer
  120. Software Entrepreneur
  121. Software Healthcare Provider
  122. Software Instructor
  123. Software Lawyer
  124. Software Manager
  125. Software Programmer
  126. Software Scientist
  127. Technical Accountant
  128. Technical Administrator
  129. Technical Analyst
  130. Technical Architect
  131. Technical Communicator
  132. Technical Designer
  133. Technical Engineer
  134. Technical Entrepreneur
  135. Technical Healthcare Provider
  136. Technical Instructor
  137. Technical Lawyer
  138. Technical Manager
  139. Technical Programmer
  140. Technical Scientist

Many of these occupations exist today, including Industrial Designer and Software Engineer. Some need imagination to envision: an Industrial Communicator could be someone who specializes in communicating complex industrial concepts to a specific industry.

At first glance, some of these occupations seem to contain fields that are redundant to their profession, specifically:

  • Educational Instructor
  • Financial Accountant
  • Legal Lawyer
  • Medical Healthcare Provider
  • Scientific Scientist

Aren’t all instructors Educational Instructors? Aren’t all accountants Financial Accountants? All lawyers work in the legal profession, all Healthcare Providers work in the medical field, and all scientists are scientific. There seems to be no need to include the field for these job titles, unless you consider these meta occupations.

A meta occupation is one where the skills and knowledge of the profession are applied to the profession itself, including servicing others in that profession using those skills.

Returning to the examples above:

  • 1An Educational Instructor is an instructor who teaches others how to teach.
  • A Financial Accountant is an accountant who provides accounting services to other accountants.
  • A Legal Lawyer is a lawyer who represents other lawyers, including lawyers that sue other lawyers.
  • A Medical Healthcare Provider could be a psychiatrist that specializes in treating other psychiatrists.
  • A Scientific Scientist could be a scientist who uses the scientific method to study science itself or other scientists.

A meta occupation is an example of extreme specialization, that is, a career or job title that is a specialty within a specialty. By adding additional layers to the job titles created, we can create evermore specialized fields, such as:

  • Medical Software Designer
  • Financial Communication Manager
  • Industrial Design Lawyer

There’s practically no limit to the number of occupations that can be created, all of which fall under existing technologies.

As the world’s population increases and technology advances, more highly specialized occupations will be required. The journey in discovering which one fits you will be your own personal moonshot.

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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…

a

No time for facts

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Physics strives to get it together, from the incomprehensibly tiny to the unimaginably enormous. Physicists are seeking to unify two major models of the universe: general relativity and quantum theory, in a grand quest for a Theory of Everything.

General relativity is the study of the very large: planets, solar systems and galaxies. Quantum theory is the study of the very small: subatomic particles, and particles within those particles called quarks.

The problem is that the laws for one of these areas don’t work in the other. The main conflict is that general relativity says that you can predict the behaviour of an object, whereas quantum theory says you cannot, that the best you can do is predict the probability of its behaviour. It’s as though there are two completely different civilizations within the same country, each with their own laws, yet somehow living together in harmony.

Related imageThe closest physics has come to a grand unified theory is string theory, which states that everything is made up of tiny vibrating strings of energy that exist in ten dimensions. The way that a string vibrates determines the type of particle it is, from an electron to a gravity particle. It’s a terrific theory; there’s just one little problem – there’s no way to prove it. This is because strings, if they even exist, are far too small to be detected. If an atom were enlarged to the size of our solar system, a string would be the size of a tree.

Image result for destroyed clockThere is, however, another Theory of Everything proposed by British astrophysicist Julian Barbour. He believes, incredibly, that there is no such thing as time, that instead we live in an eternal series of moments he calls “nows”. As Barbour states: “If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers. People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.” There is no past and future, just the present;  time is an illusion. Removing time from the equations allows you to unify the two theories. Like string theory, this theory of timeless physics is fascinating and impossible to prove.

The world of information faces a similar unification challenge. As with physics, there are two types of information: small and large.

Small information includes all facts such as:

  • a person’s name
  • how to fix a computer
  • where New York City is located
  • your phone number
  • when you have to go to the dentist

Large information is comprised of all philosophy and wisdom including explanations of:

  • why we exist
  • our purpose in life
  • good and evil
  • right and wrong
  • whether God exists
  • what is love
  • whether there is a soul
  • what is reality
  • what happens after we die
  • the best way to lead a happy, meaningful life

As with physics, these two worlds of information appear completely incompatible. How could knowing how to tie one’s shoes have anything to do with knowing our purpose in life?

Related image

The solution is to apply Barbour’s view and remove the time component from information. If you could know all the facts in your life at the same time, you would gain wisdom. What converts a fact into wisdom is the point in time that you gained knowledge of the fact.

To understand this further, we know that in life, often things don’t go the way we want, for example:

  • you’re stuck in traffic and late for a job interview
  • the person you want to date is not interested in you
  • someone is keeping you waiting

These are all facts, all small pieces of information.

Other facts are:

  • you didn’t get the job, but later got a much better one
  • you weren’t able to go out with the person you wanted to, but ended up with someone else who was a better fit
  • because someone kept you waiting, you avoided a car crash

1The only difference between these two sets of facts is time. Now imagine if there was no time, and that you knew all these facts simultaneously. You would gain a much larger piece of information, which is that a negative event can actually be positive.

You may also gain the wisdom that:

  • More important than what happens to us in life is how we react to it.
  • Worrying about something does not help.
  • Everything happens for a reason, even though it may not be obvious at the time what the reason is.

People often lament: If only I had known then what I know now. A fact becomes important when we become aware of it in relation to something else. A person gains wisdom by making mistakes and learning from them, or by seeing others make mistakes and avoiding them.

Wisdom, therefore, is the knowledge and interpretation of facts outside of time. This is why certain ideas, such as love, goodness, charity, mercy, justice and fairness are considered timeless.

World on fire

 

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”.

Rounding up

Related imageRounding is a mathematical process in which a complex number is replaced with a simpler one, such as 1.343 rounded to 1.3. It makes numbers easier to communicate and work with. However, rounding applies not only to math but to all aspects of our existence.

Starting with the essentials (matter, space and time ): all matter is composed of atoms, which in turn are almost 100% space. If you could remove all the space between all the atoms of all the skyscrapers in New York city, they would fit within a matchbox. Why then do we perceive matter as solid? It is because our senses are simply not acute enough to detect the spaces. If we were much smaller (or more sensitive), we would see the spaces. Instead, we “round” the spaces up, filling in the gaps and thereby perceive matter as solid or liquid.

Related imageSimilarly, we round space. Again, because we cannot perceive vastly small spaces, we round up to the nearest perceptible unit, usually about 1 mm, depending on the situation.

Finally, we round time. When we say it takes 20 minutes to do a task, we generally don’t mean exactly 20 minutes but rather 20 minutes, plus or minus a few minutes. Even for events that we measure precisely, again, because of our perceptual limitations, we cannot perceive tiny amounts of time, such as one ten-thousandth of a second. We round to the nearest second, minute, hour or even day.

Image result for sensesWe also round our senses. No two people perceive colour, sound, smell, taste and texture the same way. As with matter, space and time, we perceive these things within a certain perceptible range. It would be impossible, for example, to differentiate two nearly identical colours, one .000001% brighter than the other; we round up the colours and see them as identical. You are rounding the text displayed here. Your eyes and mind fill in the pixels this text is composed of to see the letters and words.

Now, if such fundamental and seemingly objective aspects of our existence as matter, space, time and our basic senses are rounded, how much more so the less objective and more ethereal aspects.

Concepts, thoughts, ideas and feelings are constantly “rounded”. In fact, because these things are non-physical, it would be tempting to say that math does not apply and that they cannot be “rounded”. One could argue that it would be ridiculous to say that you could like someone 12% more than someone else, or that a political party is 14% better than another. That may be true, but you can measure aspects of these things. For example, like-ability by itself is not measurable, but surveys where each person rates or ranks their feelings to the other is. The moment you introduce math or statistics, you can have rounding.

Rounding therefore, is the process of taking something and replacing with something less precise but easier to understand and perceive. In that sense, it is one of the purest forms of technical communication. For it is the job of a technical communicator to take something complex and simplify it so that it can be practically understood by the reader.

It is a constant struggle to determine the degree to which content should be simplified. Simplify it too much, and you lose valuable information; simplify it too little, and the content becomes inaccessible. Because of rounding, no two technical communicators will ever document something the same way.

May all your content be well-rounded.

 

 

The 22 senses of technical communicators

The Five Known Senses

Humans have five senses, right? Well, not exactly. It’s a common belief that the only senses are sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. But scientists now know that we have so many more senses including:

  • equilibrioception – the sense of balance, which keeps you from falling down
  • thermoception – the sense of hot and cold
  • proprioception – the sense of where your body parts relative to other body parts; this sense enables to touch your toes with your eyes closed
  • nociception – the sense of pain
  • chronoception – the sense of the time

Note that these are just senses that have names. There’s practically an infinite number of unnamed senses, including a sense of:

  • hunger
  • thirst
  • exhaustion
  • suffocation
  • pressure
  • danger
  • morality
  • intuition

Technical communicators have even more senses, 22 to be exact:

Senses related to basic informational elements:

  1. fontioception – the sense of the correct font to use
  2. titulioception – the sense of the correct heading to use
  3. blancioception – the sense of the correct use of white space
  4. graficioception – the sense of when to include an image in a document, and the formatting of that image
  5. referencioception – the sense of when and how to use a cross-reference

Senses related to major informational elements and sections:

  1. definitiocepetion – the sense of how to describe a concept, term, or idea
  2. laboriocepetion – the sense of how to document a task
  3. diagramioception – the sense of how to create a meaningful diagram
  4. glossariocepetion – the sense of the terms to include in a glossary

Senses related to the structure of a document:

  1. indicioception – the sense of what terms to index and how to correctly structure an index
  2. partitioception – the sense of how to break up a large block of text into separate sections, or a large document into sub-sections
  3. lexioception – the sense of what text to conditionalize
  4. recylioception – the sense of what text to reuse or single-source
  5. darwinioception – the sense of how to structure information using DITA, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture XML language
Senses related to the reader:
  1. humanioception – the sense of the typical reader of the document
  2. intellengencioception – the sense of the reader’s intelligence
  3. curiosoception – the sense of how the reader will search for information

Senses related to general communication:

  1. practicaliocepetion – the sense of what is practical and meaningful information, and what is not
  2. presentioception – the sense of what information is current and up to date
  3. imperfectioception – the sense of information that is incomplete or inaccurate
  4. obfusicatiocepetion – the sense of a lack of clarity or meaning
  5. simplicitocepetion – the sense of simplicity in communication
The most important sense of all: clairitariocepetion – the sense of clear, effective communication

Sugar, Salt, Fat

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is remarkable exposé on the food industry written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Moss. The processed food industry is a monster, with over a trillion dollars a year in sales. Sugar, salt and fat are together more addictive than any one of these ingredients alone. Moss describes in great detail how the food industry systematically manipulates these three ingredients to get consumers hooked on their products. As a result, many North Americans are obese and have multiple health problems, including an increase in the occurrence of diabetes in children.

Food scientists use cutting-edge technology to calculate the “bliss point” of their products. This is the precise ratio of sugar, salt and fat that the body is programmed to seek out and is combined in such a way as to make the food very tasty.

Documentation does not contain any food ingredients, but can be sweet, salty, or fat. Sweet documents are ones with much style, but little substance. They are dripping with exotic and unreadable fonts. They have dreadful colour schemes, such as a bright red font on a deep purple background. They may have endless animations or even sound, further distracting the reader from obtaining the pure information they require. They are a sugary and sticky mess, dripping with confusion and disorder.

We all know that salty food makes us thirsty. Salty documents are ones that make the reader thirst for more information. They do not answer the questions that the reader was asking, or only partially answer them. They may answer the question but in an unclear way. They may have the information the reader seeks but are structured in such a way that the reader cannot find it. Salty documents leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.

Fat documents are bloated. They contain too much information and too many words. They are over-documented, over-engineered and over-worked. They are a 200 page user guide when a 6 page quick-start guide would have sufficed. They are often written by engineers and marketers who have no concept of minimalism. Instead, they practice “maximalism”, the deranged belief that more words are better than fewer. The only cure for this disease is systematic and ruthless editing, along with a healthy dose of self-control.

Sugar. Salt. Fat. What type are your documents?

The Doc Particle

Never has something so small attracted so much attention. In July of this year, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, claimed to have discovered the oddly named Higgs-boson particle. (And it only cost them $10 billion to find it.)
This tiny particle is also known as the God Particle because it could explain why things exist.  Discovery of the Higgs-boson particle helps prove the existence of something even more bizarre: the Higgs field. This is an invisible force field which covers the entire universe, allowing subatomic particles to have mass. Without mass, electrons, protons and neutrons wouldn’t be able to form atoms, and therefore nothing would exist.
This discovery could lead to some amazing things. If scientists could actually control the Higgs-boson particle, we could travel at the speed of light and change matter. Science fiction would become science fact.
The idea that there’s a force holding everything together is fascinating. We think that things just are – that they exist in a simple, natural state. The fact that things may not be so simple, that it actually requires a force to hold everything together and give a structure to all matter, is mind-blowing.
But the question for technical communicators is this: what is the force that holds all content together? By content, I mean any organized collection of information that forms a document, help system, website,  or any other form of visual communication.
Whatever this force is, it must be as powerful as the Higgs field, for without this force, content would descend into a universe of chaos, with thousands, if not millions, of elemental pieces of information flying off in every direction.
Specifically:
  • Topics would have no context or structure.
  • Concepts would have no meaning.
  • Indices would include non-existent entries.
  • Tables of content would cease to exist.
  • Tasks, the backbone of many user guides, would describe inaccurate or irrelevant steps, and would omit key steps.
One shudders to think how it would all look, but having an engineer write a user guide gives a fair approximation.
So just what is the force that holds all this content altogether? The answer is so obvious that you would not even suspect it – it is technical communicators. We are the force that holds content together. We create it, shape it, fine-tune it, and then re-shape it again until it forms a living system of information that is practical and meaningful to the end user.
We have seen the God Particle of content, and it is us.

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…

A Relatively Unique Document

It’s quite amazing when a theory that’s over than a century old continues to make the news.

European scientists claimed to have discovered subatomic particles (neutrinos) that can travel faster than light. If it’s true, it would contradict a major portion of Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity, which states that nothing can travel faster than light. Other scientists are therefore claiming that this new discovery must be wrong.

Now I’m no scientist, but saying that something is wrong because it contradicts the current model is not science. All science is built on updating the science before it. Rules are meant to be broken in order to form new rules, because science is a draft that is never completed.

For now, though, Einstein’s theory of relativity remains an excellent model of the universe. It’s a complex and often very technical theory. Fortunately, I belong to a field which strives to make the technical easy to understand.

Because relativity is so vast, this article will examine it in two parts. Part one will explore motion, gravity, and light. Part two will examine mass, energy, space, and time.

Ride the relative rocket

Have you ever been on a subway train, looked out the window to see the train across from you moving, only to realize later that it was your train that was moving and that the other train was still, or possibly vice versa?

This illusion provides a glimpse into one of the first laws of relativity which states that all motion is relative; that there is no such thing as absolute motion.

We perceive that the Earth is motionless, but in fact it rotates at about 1,700 km per hour. In addition, the earth is part of the solar system, which in turn is part of a galaxy, which is a part of the grand universe.

All of these vast areas of space move in different directions. We can’t sense the movement because we’re moving right along with it. It is therefore impossible to tell if something is not moving, that is, if it is in an absolute state of rest. It is only when we are separated from the thing in motion that we can actually see the motion. From our perspective, we are still and everything moves around us, or we’re moving and everything else is still. Motion is relative to the perspective of the observer.

Users move through information at different rates and in different ways. Some users quickly skim through a guide, rapidly jumping from topic to topic. Others move more deliberately, carefully studying each new concept or task.

Each user believes they are moving at a “normal” speed. A slower user observing a faster one would judge the faster to be moving too fast. Conversely, the faster user would observe the slower as moving too slowly.

Both users would be wrong because there is no absolute standard for the rate of informational motion (“infomotion”) through a document. Infomotion (the rate at which a user moves through and consumes information) is relative to the perspective of the user.

Gravity: You move me

Another principle of relativity states that gravity is the same as acceleration. You can begin to understand this if you take a ride up in an elevator. As the elevator accelerates towards the top floor, you feel heavier.

Astronauts experience this effect much more dramatically when they blast off into space. The force of the rocket accelerating upwards creates a g-force effect, pushing the astronauts down into their seats. Their weight temporarily increases, as acceleration mimics the force of gravity.

There’s actually a formula for equating acceleration to gravity: it is 32ft2.This represents an increase of 32 feet per second, each second.

For example, if you were floating out in space, and stepped into a special elevator that accelerated upwards 32 feet the first second, then 64 feet the next second, then 96 feet the next second and so on, this would mimic the effect of gravity. Gravity, therefore, is a naturally occurring (and much more convenient way) of ensuring that we don’t all fall off the Earth.

There are different ways users can learn how to use or understand something. They can learn it naturally by using the product. Alternatively, they can employ “accelerating learning” through formal training or documentation.

Learning through documentation may not seem as natural as learning by using the product itself. However, a good technical communicator will it make appear as natural, and as effortless, as gravity itself.

But officer, I was only going 299,000 km a second…

According to relativity, nothing can go faster than light, which travels at about 300,000 km per second (km/s). This is the natural speed limit for all matter in the universe, and is represented in physics by the letter c.

Much information today is stored, submitted and consumed in an online format. Because information is stored electronically, it does, quite literally, travel near the speed of light. Therefore, the speed limit for light is also the speed limit for the transmission and updating of information.

However, from the user’s perspective, it doesn’t really matter how quickly  information is transmitted because users perceive it as instantaneous. The much more relevant speed is that which the user can find and understand the information they need. We can call this the Communication Velocity, and can also represent it with the letter c. To distinguish this from the other c, we’ll label it Cv.

We can calculate Communication Velocity as:
the number of relevant concepts (Nrc) understood by the reader divided by a specific time period

or:
Cv = Nrc / T

The objective of the technical communicator is to make Cv as large a number as possible. To do this, you must ensure the end user can easily to locate and understand the topics they require in as short a time period as possible. Recognize however, that just like the speed of light, there is a limit. What that limit is is a product of your skills and the level of your end user.

Got a light? Absolutely.
Imagine that you can throw a ball at a speed of 10 km/h. You get into a car moving at 50 km/h and throw the ball forward. How fast would the ball travel relative to an stationary observer on the ground? We’d simply add the two velocities together (10 + 50) to calculate that the ball would be traveling 60 km/h.

Now imagine that you’re on a rocket traveling 100,000 km per second (km/s). You shine a beam of light forward. Knowing that light travels 300,00 km/s, you would think that an observer measuring the light beam would again simply add the velocities together and calculate that the speed of your light beam was 100,000 + 300,000 = 400,000 km/s.

But you would be wrong.

The observer would measure that your light beam was travelling 300,000 km/s. In fact, they would get the same result no matter how quickly or in which direction you or the observer were traveling. The result would always be the same: 300,000 km/s. The speed of light is absolute, regardless of the speed of the observer and the light source.

1There are two absolute “speed limits” in information development:

  • the speed at which an effective document can be created
  • the speed at which a document can be fully comprehended

Now, it’s always possible to increase the speed (that is, reduce the time) to develop a document. But the document will suffer, and will no longer be effective. The absolute minimum time required to develop a document varies, but that minimum time does exist.

The same is true for our end users. A user can rush through a document, but then they will not understand it well enough to use the product effectively. For each user, and each document, there is absolute minimum amount of time required for a user to understand that document.

Read part two.