H2G2

Much digital ink will be spilled about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie this weekend. I saw it this evening with more than a little trepidation. I’m a huge fan of the books. In fact, I make it a point to re-read them at least every two years.

With that in mind, the movie isn’t that bad. It’s not the book, but then, what movie is? It is, however, in the spirit of the book. The opening 45 minutes bear a striking resemblance to the book. After that, it’s hard to tell where the bits made up to fill in the bits written by Douglas Adams start and end. The movie works, despite Mos Def’s flat effort as Ford.

In short, I give it a 7/10. It’s nowhere near as bad as Adams’ biographer made it out to be. If you like the books, hang your critic out for the evening and go see the movie with an open mind. It really isn’t that bad.

And here I was going to donate that old computer…

MAKE, a occasionally interesting “hacking” blog, came out with a whopper of an article Monday detailing how to turn an old PC into a DIY TiVo/music server/gaming console. If you have an old PC and the console gaming stuff, it’s a pretty cheap solution. Aw heck, it looks like fun to build, too. It even using Cygwin, so it has a hint of Linux without all the command-line odor.

Link

Why did Abobe buy Macromedia?

Because Microsoft is coming for them, targeting one of Adobe’s flagship products.

Later in the day, Microsoft also unveiled “Metro,” which can be best described as an alternative to or replacement for Adobe’s PDF. Metro is an XML-based document specification that covers creation, viewing, and printing. Windows applications will be able to create Metro documents and Microsoft hopes to have printer manufacturers include support for it in much the same way as Adobe’s PostScript. Microsoft will offer developers APIs so they can incorporate its features into their applications, as well as royalty-free licenses in order to encourage its adoption.

Adobe broadened their portfolio, so to speak, just in case. I wonder what they know about that hasn’t been announced by Microsoft yet.

[Via Ars Technica]

Longhorn Help (or, The Way It Could Be)

Much has been made of the upcoming release of Windows, still called Longhorn. (Can we possibly get someone in Microsoft Marketing to stop that stupid Office campaign [warning: Flash site] and come up with a name for the next version of Windows?)

While I’m not convinced that Longhorn is simply a bunch of “fixes and cosmetic enhancements”, I’m also not convinced that Microsoft is going to deliver a compelling reason for lots of people to upgrade. They’ve already dropped WinFS and scaled back Avalon, both major incentives to use Longhorn.

That said, I do know of one thing that is coming that is actually kind of exciting. Terrifying in its own way, but potentially very cool. Longhorn Help. That’s right, I said Help. First, a little background.

Back in the WinHelp days, technical writers and developers rarely met, and when they did they exchanged barbs and went back to their own sides of the building. Then along came people who can write AND develop. They got a hold of the WinHelp engine and started writing DLLs that made up for the shortcomings of the Help implementation in Windows and made some usable, if not impressive, Help.

Then comes compiled HTML help, CHM files. Suddenly the world of HTML is open to the Help development world. Some people (not many, mind you) but some learn HTML inside and out. They learn Javascript and CSS. They learn that tool vendors can do really cool things with HTML technology. Better help is written. Disk space increases and video starts popping up. Suddenly Help and instruction collide and you have technical writers working with instructional designers and *gasp* working with developers. (Reality check: this scenario represents about the top 10% of writers/companies/developers. The usual adversarial attitudes abound in the technical writing/development world still.)

The Help got generally better, more robust and, well, helpful. One fundamental limitation still held many writers and developers back, however; Help was not a part of the application. It was a separate engine buried inside Windows, doomed to non-interaction and certainly not able to actually DO things for users (except within a very specific set of instructions).

And now, on the horizon, is Longhorn. Longhorn could change the face of Help development. Could. If Microsoft would have done one thing. Microsoft has pledged to maintain the Help engine not just for CHM files (one level of backward compatibility), but also for WinHelp (five levels of backward compatibility). Which means that all those people who cut their teeth on WinHelp, and know it inside and out, will not switch until they’re forced. They have provided no incentive (or demand) that anyone in the Help world change. Which is bad. Why?

Because of this. Longhorn Help is built on MAML, the Microsoft Assistance Markup Language. It’s a proprietary XML language specifically written for the User Assistance in Longhorn, and it’s also the first engine able to make actual end-to-end User Assistance. Why?

Help topics can use system data from Windows to determine the most appropriate content to display for the user.

For the first time in a Windows environment, writers have to work with developers because now writers have the ability to provide accurate, on-demand, personalized content. Oh sure, tool vendors will make much of this functionality available through their tools but, as with the previous incarnations of Help engines, the really useful stuff will come from that top 10% who can hack the system to make it do what they want, not what a tool dictates they can do.

Microsoft has demonstrated the ability for UA developers to have multi-tiered assistance. If the user doesn’t accomplish something by being told how to do it, you can do it for them (with some limitations). A user shouldn’t see some part of the UA because of rights restrictions? No problem; Longhorn Help is aware of the current users permission level and limits topics based on those rights. No solution was found anywhere in the UA? Within the same panel, the user can connect to a support forum or live support.

Is this pie-in-the-sky kind of assistance? Sure, because there’s nothing forcing people to learn how to develop User Assistance at this level. The adoption rate of writers/developers/companies will be driven by not just the adoption rate of the OS (which could potentially be glacial compared to XP), but also by the perceived “unnecessary” cost of training writers to be quasi-developers or the outright unwillingness of writers to learn the new technology.

This also requires a fundamental shift in the way User Assistance is written. First, it has to be developed as User Assistance, not Help. Help is informative, demonstrative, and expository. It is not well-suited to assisting users, because it can’t. Longhorn Help can, but only if you program it to do that.

Which brings up the second major shift. UA is programmed, not written. Yes, the instructional parts are written, as is much of actual assistance. But, like an interface, the words are minor parts of a larger solution. UA should be a solution, not a manual.

I’m looking forward to seeing what writers can do with Longhorn help (which I see has been dubbed TrésHelp). But, what I’ll be really interested in seeing is what the other 90% of writers can do. I said in another post directed to MadCap Software: “let writers write, designers design, and everyone publish”. That still holds true, but I think many people who self-identify as “writers” will soon be redefining that role. Should be a fun ride.

Ah del.icio.us

You know why I love del.icio.us? Because I dump stuff there I would never have bookmarked before. Maybe it’s the niche nature of the tool, or the buzz, but I do like using it.

Plus, it let’s me find stuff like The Always Amusing Euphemism Generator. Now, Lord only knows where I ran across that the first time, but I had foxylicious installed so it was right-click, add tags, hit save. Which means I could find it today. Which now means I have the phrase “smurfing the peach” stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

Thanks del.icio.us!

One Last Go 'Roung with the Theocracy Thing

From Instapundit:

MICHAEL BARONE LOOKS AT religion and politics in America:

But whether the United States is on its way to becoming a theocracy is actually a silly question. No religion is going to impose laws on an unwilling Congress or the people of this country. And we have long lived comfortably with a few trappings of religion in the public space, such as “In God We Trust” or “God save this honorable court.”

The real question is whether strong religious belief is on the rise in America and the world. Fifty years ago, secular liberals were confident that education, urbanization and science would lead people to renounce religion. That seems to have happened, if you confine your gaze to Europe, Canada and American university faculty clubs. . . .

America has not moved in the expected direction. In fact, just the opposite. Economist Robert Fogel’s “The Fourth Great Awakening” argues that we’ve been in the midst of a religious revival since the 1950s, in which, as in previous revivals, “the evangelical churches represented the leading edge of an ideological and political response to accumulated technological and social changes that undermined the received culture.”

My thoughts on the subject can be found here.

UPDATE: Jon Henke thinks we’re far from theocracy:

I’m simply not persuaded by the argument that there is a burgeoning “Theocracy” in the United States. You can tell the Social Conservatives are losing by the very battles they are fighting. Almost without exception, they are doing rear-guard duty. I mean, we’ve got partial nudity on prime-time television, and gay marriage on the radar.

That’s one hell of a long way from the 1940s-50s, where even married TV characters had separate beds, and the question was not whether homosexuals deserved marriage, but whether they deserved a lobotomy. We may feel strongly about arguments like the 10 Commandments statue, Intelligent Design in schools, and Janet Jackson’s nipple, but the fact that we’re arguing about these should indicate just how secular our government has become. 50 years ago, we were putting God into the Pledge of Allegiance.

Indeed.

It is a long way from the ’40s and ’50s. Maybe we just have to give up on the instant gratification. Change happens, just not very fast. Considering it took almost 50 years for this “revival” to start, we may be in for a few years of holier-than-thou rhetoric (from both sides). But, like most things religion, this too shall pass and secularlism will once again dominate, as it usually does, even with those who identify themselves as religious.

[Via Instapundit.com]

NASA's big wins

Much is made lately of the problems at NASA. While some of that criticism is well-deserved (the shuttle program in particular), NASA often gets the shaft when it comes to the projects they got very, very right.

Projects such as the Hubble telescope. Yesterday was the Hubble’s 15th anniversary, the projected end of its service life. Even with current budget problems, the project could feasibly continue operating for an additional 3 to 6 years. With the shuttle’s functional and budget problems, there certainly won’t be a de-orbit mission for quite some time.

Mars rovers, NASA has had two very long-running programs that have made front page news that then faded onto page G15. It should be news on the order of the Apollo programs. The constant bean-counting and administrative BS only undermines the true purpose of projects like this. Exploration is tough, and it costs money. While the idea human space flight is sexy and, in some respects, a necessary component of space exploration, it’s not very efficient. The benefits to all of us is tangible. The intangibles are even greater.

Pictures like these are more than just striking images: they are the hard science we need to have. This is the kind of thing that inspires a new generation to become engineers, scientists, and pioneers. It’s money well spent.

Linux vs Windows – my perspective

I’m a basic computer user who happened to have grown up in a technology-rich world. Computers were everywhere for me beginning about 2nd grade. The kids of the ’90s, those who are now starting college, are steeped in technology in a way that I can’t even imagine. To have never seen a record player (pre-clubbin’), to have had a computer from the moment your fingers were dexterous enough to use a keyboard, to eschew email as inefficient and old–these are concepts that an 18 year old lives in. I understand some, but can’t fathom others.

But is this the way it’s supposed to be? Everything I know from school and experience tells me that, deep down and generally, people do not want to think. Thinking requires sacrifice and effort, two things most of us are unwilling to give. Technology is the ultimate “needer”. It needs you to keep up, to be current, to understand ever more concepts in order to function at the top of the heap.

This is what Linux advocates miss time and again. I’ve played with Linux (I’m downloading the Suse Live DVD right now). I understand the benefits, I understand the philosophy, I understand the sense of community. But when I see a list like this of the literal hundreds of Linux Live distros, it cracks me up. The whole point of a Live DVD (or CD) is to give Windows users the experience of a Linux environment without having to actually install and learn Linux. Except, the average Windows user can’t. Hell, I’ve never heard of 3/4 of the distros on that list. Unless you’re a part of the aforementioned community, how could you?

The bigger problem is, how can that community reasonably expect anyone other than a community member or fringe lurker to ever choose one of these distos, much less use it or, blue-sky world, switch to Linux? They can’t, and defending that position is laughable. Read Slashdot for around three hours and you’ll get a sense of the cognitive dissonance that isn’t setting in with the Linux community. You can’t have Windows users who are so stupid as to not install updates (and decry the fact that updates exist in the first place), and then build so many distros that someone with a reasonable amount of knowledge is still unable to effectively compare what, to the non-initiated, is suddenly a virtually endless parade of options. You can’t “know” the user you’re trying to convert, and then not use that knowledge to make your product fit the user.

As much as I understand the need for a solid competitor on the desktop, Linux won’t be it. The community will always hold it back. The very essence of the open-source community is its own fatal flaw. People, as a group, cannot makes important decisions. Design by committee doesn’t work. The Linux community gets a taste of this every once in a while when someone cuts off a code branch or makes a unilateral decision. OSS people laugh and fork the code, but miss the point. That fork isn’t just doomed to obscurity itself, it dooms all connected projects to obscurity. Joe User doesn’t understand, or need to understand, the religious wars that cause a list 236 Live CDs/DVDs. Try explaining that concept to someone who didn’t use a computer until they were 40.

Legal objections and dirty business aside, the reason Windows always won was Microsoft understood their user. Windows does many things pretty well. Linux does a few things perfectly. To a user, the difference is obvious and the winner clear. People will adapt their behavior to the path of least resistance. If that means I have reboot once a day to have my camera just plug in and work, so be it. At least I didn’t have to go hunt down a driver on the 20th page of Google results.

I don’t see myself switching to Linux anytime soon. It’s a cute toy to play with occasionally, but it doesn’t give me the experience I want. I also can’t game on it (and no Wine-ing). My business apps don’t work on Linux, and likely won’t for a long time. I wish I had the fix, because I’d love to see my own cognitive dissonance set in.