Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Review: The Professor and the Madman

When attempting to describe the plot of The Professor and the Madman, I find myself undecided as to where to begin. The cover of the book describes it as a novel about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. That is true, in a way. Simon Winchester, the author, spends much time on detailing the history of dictionaries and the difficulties in collating them - a far more interesting topic than one would imagine. However, the making of the OED, while an intrinsic aspect of the book, is not its focus.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English DictionaryMost prominent in the novel is the story of the the Madman, an American Civil-War doctor who went mad, supposedly as a result of the horrors he witnessed during the war. Despite his incarceration in an assylum, the Madman becomes one of the most important contributors to the creation of the OED. The Professor, a less featured character, but by no means a lesser character, is the editor of the OED who initially doesn't realize that his most important contributor is a long-standing resident of a mental institution.

If I was to draw the timeline of the story in the order it is told, my pen would find itself going back and forth across the page. But this constant switching between past and present is cleverly done and barely perceptible. It makes for an interesting read.

The style of the book is very British and correct, which perfectly suits the storyline and adds an air of authenticity to it. I found myself having to look up a word or two, which gave me an even greater appreciation for the dictionary. But the truth is that I started to read the book three times before I actually read the whole thing. I'm not sure if that was due to the style of the book or the subject matter, but once I got past the first chapter, I began to really enjoy it (although it wasn't so compelling that I couldn't put it down.) I was even somewhat disappointed that the story ended at the epilogue. Uncharacteristically, I found myself reading the acknowledgements at the end - which turned out to contain some enlightening information on the extent the author went to in his research for the book.

The Professor and the Madman is not just a book for logophiles, lexicomanes or philologists. Its appeal lies in the fact that it is heavily based on a true story, that it is well researched, and that it is written in a style true to its subject.

I give it 8/10.

Comments are most welcome!
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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Should I Use Shall? May I Use Should? Shall I Use May?

I learned in my Technical Writing course that the words “may”, “should”, “can” and “will” are to be avoided at all costs in a requirements document, unless they are in a note or a special section called “Recommendations” or something similar.

However, I had a customer who insisted that this is wrong because he has been using these [forbidden] words in documentation for eternity “and it is all over the Internet”. I asked him how the reader is supposed to know whether it is a requirement, a recommendation, or an option. His answer: At the beginning of the doc he has a table defining “shall”, “should”, and “may” (he doesn’t use “will” or “can”.)

So I did a bit of Internet research and found this quote from the IEEE style manual (quoted here:
The word shall is used to indicate mandatory requirements strictly to be followed in order to conform to the standard and from which no deviation is permitted (shall equals is required to). The use of the word must is deprecated and shall not be used when stating mandatory requirements; must is used only to describe unavoidable situations. The use of the word will is deprecated and shall not be used when stating mandatory requirements; will is only used in statements of fact.
The word should is used to indicate that among several possibilities one is recommended as particularly suitable, without mentioning or excluding others; or that a certain course of action is preferred but not necessarily required; or that (in the negative form) a certain course of action is deprecated but not prohibited (should equals is recommended that

The word may is used to indicate a course of action permissible within the limits of the standard (may equals is permitted).

The word can is used for statements of possibility and capability, whether material, physical, or causal (can equals is able to)."
Furthermore, RFC 2119 “Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels” Harvard University, 1997 states the proper use of these imperatives. RFC 2119 also states that these words should also be defined at the beginning of the document, just like my customer did.

In his 2009 blog entitled, “You Must Not Write the System  Shall…”, Scott Sehlhorst (a product manager, business architect and business analyst) states:
In English, shall and must mean the same thing – something is mandatory. Should means, roughly “it would be a good idea.” In fact, should is such an ambiguous term, you should never use it in requirements.
NASA’s “Writing Effective Requirements Specifications has a similar list (“may” and “can” are noticeably absent):

This list presents imperatives in descending order of their strength as a forceful statement of a requirement. The NASA SRS documents that were judged to be the most explicit had the majority of their imperative counts associated with items near the top of this list.
  • Shall is usually used to dictate the provision of a functional capability.
  • Must or must not is most often used to establish performance requirements or constraints.
  • Is required to is often used as an imperative in specifications statements written in the passive voice.
  • Are applicable" is normally used to include, by reference, standards or other documentation as an addition to the requirements being specified.
  • Responsible for is frequently used as an imperative in requirements documents that are written for systems whose architectures are already defined. As an example, "The XYS function of the ABC subsystem is responsible for responding to PDQ inputs."
  • Will is generally used to cite things that the operational or development environment are to provide to the capability being specified. For example, "The building's electrical system will power the XYZ system."
  • Should is not frequently used as an imperative in requirement specification statements. However, when it is used, the specifications statement is always found to be very weak. For example, "Within reason, data files should have the same time span to facilitate ease of use and data comparison."
An article printed in TechWR-L in January 2009 (PDF) by Donn Le Vie, Jr. states the following:
Options: A category of words that provide latitude in satisfying the SRS [Software Requirements Specification] statements that contain them. This category of words loosens the SRS, reduces the client's control over the final product, and allows for possible cost and schedule risks. You should avoid using them in your SRS. The options below are listed in the order they are found most often in NASA SRSs

1. Can
2. May
3. Optionally
The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications 3rd Edition says to use the word “should” to describe a recommendation, but to avoid the phrase “it is recommended”.

So it seems that there might be some debate regarding “can” and “may”, but “should” and “will” seem to be acceptable in requirements documents. What is certain is that the standards (I think) I learned in my Technical Writing course are not universally accepted.

What is your take on this?

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Embrace Electronic Bling

According to this eHow article entitled "How to Wear Gaudy Jewelry":
Bright green baubles, earrings that look like rocket ships and a bracelet bigger and louder than Texas all qualify as gaudy jewelry. Gaudy jewelry is flamboyant, obnoxious and a heck of a lot of fun. Just because the jewelry is gaudy doesn’t mean you can’t wear it with flair. Some stylish tips will help you wear gaudy jewelry better than those chicks on the fashion pages.
Are you kidding me? There is nothing you can do to wear rocket ship earrings stylishly. Nothing. Well, the article disagrees with me and goes on to mention five ways to wear gaudy jewelry and look good:
  1. Be selective: That's right. The first rule of wearing over-the-top fashion accessories (like big green baubles) is to be "selective".
  2. Stay minimal: much flamboyant and obnoxious jewelry is too much?
  3. Keep the rest of the outfit simple: Like anyone is going to notice that, in addition to yellow banana earrings, you are also wearing a hat made of fruit.
  4. Keep the rest of the outfit matching: Good thing that the bananas on your hat match those dangling from your ears.
  5. Stay in the same era and style: In what era was it fashionable to wear necklaces made of semi-transparent giant marbles?
    If over-made-up ladies wearing fake, tacky rubies the size of Canada isn't enough, the menfolk have gotten in on the act. They don't call it "gaudy jewelry", they call it "bling", so it's cool. According to the Urban Dictionary, bling is:
    1. Any shiny thing which distracts morons such as rappers.

    2. Often takes the form of jewelry, may be expensive but is commonly cheap, used to give the impression of wealth.

    3. Gaudy over the top hideous and wholly unnecessary. says that "Rappers Look Like Idiots with Bling" I suggest that you to check out the site, just for the colorful pictures.

    But badly dressed women and rappers with bling are not the end of it. In the information age, bling has merged with tech.

    In February 2007 Wired reported that the Rubiks Cube, the intelligent person's game, now comes with flashing lights and sound effects. Glitzy, but not too bad. However, this November 2006 Businessweek article highlights some of that year's super-expensive electronic bling: diamond-encrusted laptops, gold-plated TVs, and earphones that cost more than the sound equipment they connect to.

    However, my idea of "electronic bling" is a little different. Using the first and third definitions of "bling", above, I define electronic bling as being electronic gadgets worn or displayed for the sole purpose of showing off.

    You indulge in electronic bling if:
    • You have two or more mobile devices hanging from your belt
    • You use your smart phone in public places to surf the web
    • You use any type of video chat on a mobile device
    • You sit in cafes with your laptop open, sipping lates and typing loudly
    • You use your GPS to guide you to places you know perfectly well how to get to
    • You wear a cyborg-like Bluetooth ear-piece, even if you have left your phone at home
    • You own a tablet computer of any description
    Electronic bling equals gadgets for gadgets' sake. If you are a tech nerd, if wearable technology is an improvement on your current fashion "look", if you aspire to be singled out among your peers as an uber-geek, come towards the bright, shining LED array and embrace electronic bling.

    Comments are most welcome!
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    Thursday, April 7, 2011

    Going Where No Mogul Has Gone Before

    Let me just say this: I don't know much about this man as a person. I haven't done research into either his private or public lives. I don't know what his politics are and I don't know if he really is a nice guy, or if he just presents well, but I am in awe of Sir Richard Branson who seems to look at the current state of technology and ask, "How can I take this to the next level?" He thinks big.

    Virgin Galactic is a perfect example. It is true that SpaceshipOne was not Branson's idea, and the original technology was not developed by Virgin (it was Burt Rutan's design). However, it took a person as flamboyant and visionary as Richard Branson to recognize the potential. He became one of the driving forces behind making regular, safe space flight into a reality with Virgin Galactic. True, it costs $200,000 for a space ticket and the spacecraft are still being tested, but the price will come down (although possibly not in my lifetime!) and Virgin Galactic will make regular space travel commonplace.

    What's next for Sir Richard? Well, he's doing "up", now he's going to tackle "down". Enter VirginOceanic - your ticket to the bottom of the ocean. Sir Richard Branson's next venture will take tourists to the last unexplored frontier of Planet Earth - deeper than any submarine has ever gone before.

    If Sir Richard can pull this one off, not only will he own the first commercial space venture, but he will also be the first to offer deeper-than-deep-sea tourism (yes, even deeper than the Titanic!)

    You've got to hand it to the guy. He isn't content to sit back, relax on his Caribbean Island and count his £2.6b. It's true that he makes a few bucks on the way, but he is willing to take the risks and go where no transportation/music/media/tourism mogul has gone before.

    Comments are most welcome!
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