Sunday, February 27, 2011

Laptop Battery Tech: HP and Lenovo Take Charge

One of my pet peeves about laptops is battery life. That's pretty much a high-priority statistic for any device that isn't constantly plugged into a power outlet. To squeeze an hour or two from my four-year-old Lenovo, I have to switch off WiFi and Bluetooth, turn down the screen brightness to something just above "completely dark", and try not to spin the computer's cogs and wheels too much.

Maybe I could just power the darn thing off a bunch of Energizers:

I was really hoping for this to come true: Laptop batteries that last 30 years without needing to be recharged. Based on beta-voltaic power cell technology, this baby will be able to power your laptop until you retire (if only the computer lasts that long). Alas, it is not yet an on-shelf item at Office Depot.

But, what's this I hear? Super-dooper laptop battery life for real and on sale right now? Let me put my beer down next to the other empties for a second and splash some cold water on my face. Lenovo and HP have just announced laptop batteries that can run without a charge for over 30 hours. It's not a battery-for-life (like this January 2008 blog about lithium-soaked nanowire batteries), but the claim of 30-hours on a single charge is true.

Now for the caveats.

HP says:
Battery life will vary depending on the product model, configuration, loaded applications, features, wireless functionality and power management settings. The maximum capacity of the battery will decrease with time and usage.
Sounds like if you run anything more than the handy little spotlight on the top edge of the laptop lid, you are back down to the standard 6 or 8 hours on a new battery - but that will also decrease over time, depending on how much you use it. Sounds like a rather broad qualification.

From Lenovo:
For extreme battery life needs, the ThinkPad T420, with its standard 9-cell battery and optional 9-cell slice battery, provides up to 30 hours of computing power.
Yeah, if I tack on a couple more 9-cell batteries to my aging clunker, I might be able to run my laptop for a week. But I'd need a set of motorized wheels to transport the thing, like this guy.

All joking aside, this has amazing potential. Right now anything more than 6 or 8 hours of battery life for a laptop (or tablet, or even my Nokia phone) is pretty good. 30 hours is a huge leap. Hopefully the technology will get cheaper and lighter so that eventually the day will come when a monthly or bi-monthly laptop recharge will be as commonplace as the laptops themselves.

Comments are most welcome!
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Monday, February 21, 2011

MEGAComm 2011: Take Aways

On Sunday I attended the MEGAComm conference for technical and marketing writers. It was great to meet up with old TW buddies, attendees and presenters from past conferences.

Lunch was delicious - a smorgasbord of salads, hot dishes and conversation. It was fascinating to share the lunch hour with David Sommer, Director of Strategic Operations at Net Translators. We had an engrossing conversation about the challenges of ensuring the quality of thousands of simultaneous translation projects while managing a globally dispersed network of translators.

The keynote speaker, Jeff Pulver, gave an entertaining and thought-provoking talk about social networks. It is he who is directly responsible for me joining Twitter (yes, you can now follow me on Twitter: @ykarp.) The crux of Jeff's talk was that it is highly beneficial to join a social network. If you get involved in a community by having something useful and meaningful to share, you may find that opportunities present themselves to communicate with like minded people - opportunities that you may otherwise never have.

The other lectures I attended included Simplified Technical English (STE), Information Experience Design, E-Mail Marketing Tips (just for the fun of it), and Implementing Single-Sourcing: How Not to Do It.

One of the things that struck me about the conference was that in every single session I attended, the following phrase was uttered at least once: Know your audience (or put otherwise: Know your user.)

STE: People in different professions, with varying levels of expertise and of diverse cultures can interpret a word or a sentence completely differently. You have to know who you are writing to so that when you develop your STE vocabulary the terminology is absolutely unambiguous for the end-user.

Information Experience Design: It is critical that you know who your user is so that the UI that you build is inductive (as opposed to deductive), so that the text on the UI is appropriate for the type of user, and so that the content is aimed at the appropriate level of expertise. One method of achieving this is to create personas.

E-Mail Marketing Tips: Use the A/B strategy for e-mail marketing campaigns: Divide the e-mail recipient list into two groups. The first group receives e-mail A and the second group receives e-mail B. Both e-mails are very similar, except for a crucial point. Track how many responses/website hits/sales/inquiries you receive from group A and how many from group B. This will help you define what your subscribers want to see in the e-mail and what drives them to react to it. Targeting marketing e-mails to subscriber needs helps to drive sales.

Implementing Single-Sourcing: It is impossible to choose a single-sourcing tool if you don't understand the requirements of the people who are going to use it.

"Know your audience" is the most basic and fundamental rule of technical writing and it remains the backbone of good documentation. It is a simple, but absolutely crucial concept emphasized time and again, even at professional conferences attended by veteran technical writers.

Comments are most welcome!
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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lessons from a Couch

I was looking around at the electronic devices we use everyday. None of them are single-function, for example:
  • My mobile phone is also my camera, diary, MP3 player, GPS device and multimedia device
  • My camera is also a YouTube uploader, GPS tracker and a photo-editing device
  • My desk phone at work is also an address book
  • My MP3 player is also a radio and a storage device
  • My e-book reader also surfs the web
Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that HTC has developed a number of smart phones with Facebook deeply embedded into the interface and that there are dozens more planned for release in the near future.

I recall the good old days when a phone was used to make phone calls. Now, every device we have needs to be able to do more than one thing. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a modern smart-phone is that it is "multitasking" - that it has the ability to run two or more applications simultaneously with the ability to switch between them. Older smart-phone operating systems didn't have this feature. But we wanted it, so we got it.

I once went with my wife to buy a couch. We also needed a spare bed. Why not buy a couch that folds out into a bed? Seems perfectly logical. The salesperson told us that we have two options. Either we buy a couch that is also a bed, or we buy a bed that is also a couch. The point being that, typically, furniture is designed to be good at one thing. The other thing is an add-on. So either we buy a comfortable couch or a comfortable bed, but we won't be able to get both in one. In fact, the salesman did a great job of talking us out of buying either.

I'm not sure that holds true for electronic devices today. Perhaps the calculator watch is good as a watch, but those tiny buttons make it difficult to use as a calculator. However, as a rule, I think that most devices made today are pretty good at everything (just look at the new LG Optimus 3D phone). Unfortunately, sometimes the smart-phones are great for all of the extras, but phone call quality is lousy (e.g., iPhone 4.0).

I remember when I was putting together my resume in preparation for my initial foray into the job market. I was strongly advised to write that I have the ability to multitask. In effect, I was saying that I was able to concentrate on many different tasks simultaneously. I was efficient. I was productive. I could handle switching between different types of jobs, constant interruptions and distractions.

A BBC article, dated 25 August 2010, discusses the issue of multitasking. According to this article, studies have shown that:
"...multi-tasking is a good way to do several things badly."
The article cites various studies that show that people are able to concentrate on more than one thing at a time only if what they are doing is a learned, mechanical activity (such as, while driving, switching gears, checking the mirrors and singing along to the radio.) However, when doing two things at once that require the same part of the brain, we fail badly, even if we do the combination of tasks often (such as talking on the phone and typing an email at the same time.)

A distinction also needs to be made between different types of multitasking. David Crenshaw, author of "The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done" says in this interview with Lifehacker that there are two types of multitasking: background tasking and switchtasking.

Background tasking is, for example, watching television while exercising (hopefully the "watching television" part is the background task.) Switchtasking is juggling two or more tasks by alternating your focus between them.

Background tasking may sound innocuous. What could possibly be bad about listening to the radio while driving? According to the BBC article, US studies have shown that students who watch television while doing homework consistently receive lower grades.

Far more concerning is the issue of switchtasking. According to Crenshaw, switchtasking is a culturally acceptable because the perception is that it's a productive method of working. Actually, it is not.

This very interesting 2006 article in the Gallup Management Journal shows that constant interruptions slow productivity. The article is an interview with Gloria Mark, Ph.D., associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and a leading expert on work interruptions. Dr. Mark's studies have shown that the average amount of time spent on a task before switching is three minutes and five seconds and that the average amount of time people spent using a device before switching tasks was two minutes and five seconds.
You think you sit at your PC for a long time, but it's not true. You usually sit at it briefly before you switch to something else. You're interrupted by a person, by a phone call, or you do something on paper.
Interestingly, people interrupt themselves just as often as they are interrupted by others. Why is that? Instant gratification, perhaps?

What is obvious is that because of the technology in our lives today, we think that we can get more done within a shorter time-frame. The truth is, we don't want to box ourselves into a single role, like a production-line worker whose job it is to do only one task all day. However, like the couch-bed/bed-couch issue or the smart-phone with bad call quality, we can get more done, just not as well as if we spent more time dedicated to the one task.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

For Better or for Worse

I was faithful for a long time. I still am, although I have to admit that I did sample others. That was back then, when I felt the need to experience it in a new way. I don't brag about such things, but neither am I ashamed. Society nowadays is quite permissive.

I try not to think about those times. I suppose they were a series of weak moments. I can't guarantee that I won't find myself vulnerable to those urges once again, it just depends how my mood takes me. A flight of fancy, a whim, the lure of exotic emprise. No, it's not their looks. To me, they are what they are, fancy adornments don't move me. Maybe I am attracted to the plain ones. Yes, I think that's it. The more they try to entice me, the less likely I am to stray to them. It's cruel to say, but I like them functional, rather than pretty.

She is probably watching me, silently somehow, but rarely showing that she is. I know that she knows that I know, but that hasn't stopped me. She hasn't stopped me. Perhaps if I spend too much time with the others she will say something. But for now, she tolerates my indiscretions. In all likelihood she gets a thrill that I invariably return to her, despite the abundant competition.

She is special, a born temptress. It started many years ago when I undertook a simple search. I found what I was looking for. Now I'm hooked and nothing else stacks up. Her simple facade belies her true skills and all that she has to offer. I can compare her to others, but they always fall short. And that's her clever trap. She's an all-in-one package and, like a sweet drug, I have become dependant and reliant on her. Others attempt to mimic her, but they have not yet managed to copy her spirit. Part of her excitement is that she, too, is wont to experiment. Her artful creativity draws me closer and imbues in me a sense of adventure.

I tried Bing, Yahoo! and even Ask Jeeves, but nothing compares to Google. For better or for worse, she has me.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

You Are Batman

I recently changed my computer's wallpaper. It used to be a picture of stars forming, photographed by the Hubble telescope. The desktop is now a deep black, with an imposing picture of Batman set off to the right. Not the camp Adam West Batman from the 1960s, but a serious Batman who is on a dangerous mission to protect Gotham city from deranged villains.

Aside: See my November 2007 blog post called "Not Everyone Can Be a Superhero".

I see this picture several times every day the thought crossed my mind that we, as Technical Writers, have what to learn from Batman. I'm not saying that the Caped Crusader is a perfect metaphor, but he does have what to teach us.

Batman is Focused
Whenever Batman is on a mission, he knows what his goal is and he goes after it. However, Batman does have an overview of the larger picture. Taking down a villain often has an effect on the rest of the city, the political landscape or for him, personally. So Batman is accutely aware of what he is supposed to do and what the repercussions of his actions are.

You are Focused
You are focused on whatever task you are working on. However, knowing how your output impacts the rest of the product, department or company makes you even more effective. Being aware of how you fit in to the grand scheme of things helps you to improve the quality of your work.

Batman Has Gadgets
Batman has a slew of gadgets at his disposal. Many of them were built by Alfred (the engineer), some were procured from the secret development labs of Wayne Enterprises, others he constructed himself. Batman knows his gadgets. He knows which ones he has, how to use them, what they can do and what they can't do.

You Have Gadgets
You are well trained in the tools you need to use in your job. You know what tools you have in your arsenal, which ones are good for which tasks, their advantages and limitations. Furthermore, you know what the products can and can't do, how to use them and how they can be improved. You may not have the same expertise as a developer or engineer, but you are technically minded and can easily learn whatever it is you need to know about the product or technology.

Batman Has a Batcave
Batman secrets himself in his Batcave, away from the attention of the rest of the world. His Batcave is his place to think, regroup, and plan his next move. However, he doesn't hide himself away in the Batcave forever. Batman is not afraid to take his tools, his skills, and his ideas into the world.

You Have a Batcave
Like everyone else in any other profession, you need time to think about the best way to solve the problem at hand. However, you know that thinking about the problem and weighing the options is only part of the task. There comes a time when you leave your comfort zone, plunge into the work, implement the solution or sell the idea. You are not afraid to fail - the people who never fail are the ones who never try.

Batman is Well Connected
For the most part (especially before Robin), Batman works autonomously. However, sometimes the information he needs is not readily available. He is a well connected superhero. He knows when he needs to consult and with whom. Whether it is Alfred, his engineer, or the Police Commissioner, he can get the information he needs, when he needs it.

You are Well Connected
You, as a Technical Writer, especially if you do not work in a team, are often expected to support a group, department or line. Perhaps you are the only writer in the company. Working independently is one of the realities. However, you know when you don't know something. Not only that, you know who does know and you know what to ask and how to ask it.

Batman is Confident
Batman exhudes confidence - his square jaw, manly gait and bulging muscles. He knows what he needs to do to get the job done, and nobody can stop him.

You are Confident
Others (especially non-English speakers) may try to correct your spelling or grammar, they may attempt to add periods to the end of bulleted points, they may tell you how to do your job. You are a confident, educated professional, so you are not afraid to assert yourself when appropriate.

Batman is Customer-Oriented
Batman doesn't confuse the good guys from the bad guys. He knows that the citizenry of Gotham City are prey for the evil villains and he does all he can to protect them.

You are Cusomer-Oriented
You understand your user-base. You know who they are, what they need in documentation or help, and you know what they want. This knowledge enables you create content that helps protect your users from failure and your company from lost profits.

Batman Has Skills
Batman's skills in hand-to-hand combat, aerial acrobatics and pain management are incredible. But he knows what he can do and he knows what he can't do. However, when a challenge presents itself that is seemingly out of his range of abilities, he is not afraid to try.

You Have Skills
The skills you need for your day-to-day activities as a technical writer may be top-notch. But when you are asked to go beyond that you are willing to push the boundaries. Because of this, you often find that the boundaries move with you. New skills helps to keep your job fresh, makes you a more valuable employee and even opens new doors for you at all stages of your career.

Batman Wears a Costume
In some ways, Batman is like all superheroes - he always saves the day, he is energetic, muscular and intelligent. However, he differentiates himself with his skills, his dress and his modus operandi. Also, when he isn't wearing a costume, Bruce Wayne still has his eyes open, looking for clues, hints and pieces of the puzzle to solve the mystery.

You Wear a Costume
You might share many similarities with your peers - you are well educated, experienced and knowledgeable - but you are also different. You bring something unique to the table that adds value to your position in the company. You learn skills that are outside the scope of your job description, but that are helpful in getting the job done. Also, when you are not at your job, you read blogs and articles either directly or indirectly associated with your industry. This broadens your knowledge and thus helps you think of solutions you might otherwise not have considered.

Batman is Reliable and Creative
Batman can always be depended upon to pull through. Although the countdown timer is ticking perilously close to zero, he never loses his cool under pressure. Batman is quick-thinking and creative when it comes to finding solutions to the impossible problem.

You are Reliable and Creative
Working towards a deadline can be nerve-racking, especially when the requirements keep changing, the developers keep updating the GUI and other projects get in the way. With a deadline looming, the situation may seem impossible. But nothing is impossible. You are reliable and dependable and you find creative solutions so that you can get the job done to satisfaction and by the deadline.

Oh, and Batman has a really cool car. No reason why you can't have one, too.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

The Career Oracle Speaks

When I was a kid in high-school, we had to make one of life's major decisions. In preparation for our final year of school, at the age of 16 or 17, we had to decide what subjects to study so we could choose a university course, so that we could embark on a career, so that we could plan the rest of our lives.

I am in two minds about that system. On the one hand, high-school aged kids are at the apex of their learning careers. Kids are like sponges, they soak up information and retain it. The older you get, the more difficult it is to learn and retain information. I am not going to link to some website that shows statistics and studies about this issue. If you are over 30, you already know this. If you are under 30, learn something now before it's too late. But despite their tender age, or because of it, a 16 or 17 year old needs to seize the opportunity to learn. Waiting for life experience to shed some light could delay the decision indefinitely.

On the other hand, a high-school kid has absolutely no life experience. It is almost impossible to really know yourself and understand the way your own mind works if you haven't been tested. In any case, we all know that a person is likely to change careers a number of times early on before he settles into his career for life. But at 16 or 17 you have to make a decision of some sort, to at least set yourself in the general direction of the rest of your career.

Schools offer a variety of services to aid the youngster make this decision. In my case, the whole process began in ninth grade. If I remember correctly, before ninth grade we had to take whatever subjects the school foisted upon us. From ninth grade and beyond we were able to choose between certain subjects. By the time we got to twelfth grade, we already had a pretty good idea of whether we were destined for a career in the sciences or the humanities. In other words, a doctor or a lawyer. Those poor souls who hedged their bets and studied both chemistry and economics finished high school none the wiser and went on to study double degrees in bio-chemistry and law.

Aside from our obvious orientation towards either the legal or medical professions, our school provided career guidance services. To us, the career guidance counselors were like oracles, with some supernatural power to predict and determine our futures. At the time we all knew that we were at a very important point in our lives. What we wrote on university course application forms would frame the next 40 years. These career guidance counselors held the key to those all-important words.

It was during lunchtime that I met with the guidance counselor, 12:30pm, if I recall correctly. I clearly remember thinking to myself that this meeting was where the counselor would seal my fate. I couldn't be late. Johnny had his appointment scheduled for 12:35. I sat down at the table, answered a few benign questions about my schooling and was handed a questionnaire. Apparently, the guidance counselor collective mind had developed an efficient method of properly evaluating a person's character in the form of a 50-question multiple choice test.

I paid careful attention to every question, coloring in the dots to indicate whether I strongly agreed, strongly disagreed or agreed somewhere in between. I decided then and there that I would only either strongly agree or strongly disagree. There could be no room for ambiguity.
  1. Do you enjoy the outdoors? Strongly agree (I love water sports and football, two activities my parents had forbidden inside the house.)
  2. Do you enjoy nature? Strongly agree (we just completed a two-month social studies unit on the environment.)
  3. Do you like sitting at a desk? Strongly disagree (the hard-plastic chairs they give us in school are uncomfortable. I live for the five-minute breaks between classes.)
  4. Do you enjoy bookwork? Strongly disagree (the minute high school is over, I'm partying, man!)
I reverently handed the completed form back to the Oracle. He sat down at his desk, rested his forehead in his hand and pored over the results. I tried not to let my nervous twitching interrupt his concentration as he scratched numbers in the margins of the form.

After a few minutes, the counselor looked up at me and slid a brochure across the desk. He told me that I should seriously consider a career as a Park Ranger. This answer mystified me, but who was I to argue with science, intuition, magic, or whatever it was. I took the brochure and left. I soon discovered that all of the kids who already answered the questionnaire were standing around, holding Park Ranger brochures.

The next 40 years were going to be very competitive.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Managerial/Technical Conundrum

[NOTE: This blog post replaces a previous one by the same name that was mistakenly uploaded before it was ready.]

Technical experts and engineers invariably reach a point in their careers where they have to decide whether to remain in a technical role or to move into a managerial position. For some, the decision is very easy. They may have absolutely no ambition to be the boss; they may recognize that their personalities are not suited to managing people or projects; or they might simply love the technical nature of their job, which they don't want to give up.

Alternatively, the thought of a management position may be an attractive one. Perhaps they will finally have the power to make decisions, affect change and manage projects the way they see fit. After years of slogging it out as a programmer, they can finally move into a role where they don't necessarily have to learn every new popular programming language; a cursory understanding will suffice. Also, sitting in the managerial chair, they will be able to see the impact of their project on the company's goals and objectives. And they will be able to call themselves "Manager".

Yet, for some, the decision isn't so clear cut. On one hand, engineers who have been in technical positions for a long time might have highly advanced programming or engineering skills, but their soft-skills may be lacking. Managers who are hired (or promoted) on the merit of their technical expertise may suddenly find themselves out of their depth.

George N. Andrew notes in his article (PDF):
Supporting and leading a team requires a different skill set than supporting a system.
In other words, management (and project management) is about communication, leadership and negotiation, rather than about understanding the product, innovating new ideas and solving technical problems.

On the other hand, the career opportunities for an engineer who takes the technical track are generally not as far reaching as for one who takes the management track. Technical experts who become successful managers can achieve positions such as senior executive, vice president or even CTO. The most engineers can hope for are positions such as Director or Fellow - they will not have the opportunity to advance much further than that, if at all. Their impact on the direction of the product or company is clearly limited.

Furthermore, veteran programmers have to fight against the perception that younger, ambitious programmers are more valuable than the older, more experienced engineers. When a 50 year old competes with a 25 year old for a job at a hi-tech start-up, he had better dye his hair and dress funky, because often the attitude is that the creative spark is the sole domain of exuberant, youthful and ambitious graduates.

So when you reach this fork in the road, how do you choose which direction to take?

Mrityunjay Kumar has a down-to-earth opinion on the matter:
Given the lack of clarity around these 2 tracks, people do what they do best in India when career choice is concerned: they take default career choices (what peers tend to do, what family and friends recommend, what the ‘in-thing’ is, etc) rather than being thoughtful about it. They forget that they need to choose what gives them better return on their talent investment over the entire career, which is a 40 year game.
A questioner on this message board asks the forum for advice: Should I remain technical, or should I take a managerial position offered to me by my company. The answers on the message board are overwhelmingly in favor of moving into a managerial role for the following reasons:
  • You can take the managerial role and hire technical staff who suit your style
  • It will open up new professional areas for you
  • It will make you more marketable
  • Management experience is good if you ultimately want to go out on your own
  • Take the managerial position and see how it goes - if it doesn't work out, go back to technical
One respondent raised the issue of whether the job is fully managerial or if it is also partly technical. Perhaps you can have your cake and eat it, too.

I found many articles on the internet that discuss moving from a technical role to a managerial role, but precious few that talk about the reverse situation. It would seem that once you are a manager, going back to technical is seen as a demotion (although read F. John Reh's article about Inverse Promotions where he discusses a method of maintaining a manger's self-esteem while moving him from a managerial role, where he is floundering, to a technical role where he excels.) Even though the product could never be developed without the engineers, there is a perception that management is more prestigious.

Can you have a successful career if you constantly switch between technical and managerial positions?
Do you know of cases where a manager decided to cross to the other side of the tracks?
Is it really possible to combine both managerial and technical tasks into the one role?

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