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Conferences

XML 2006: Transitioning from SGML to XML at Cessna

A very interesting presentation from Michael Hahn, focused on the transition Cessna is making from SGML-based to XML-based authoring.

He broke down the conversion issues into three types:

  • Tools
  • Process
  • People

It should come as no surprise that the last one presents the biggest problem. Most of the conferences I attend are tech writer-heavy; this conference is clearly XML Geek Central. It’s interesting to see how this universe perceives authors; for example, in the Cessna session, I heard things like:

  • “The changes are basically transparent to the authors, but they’re going to have a fit anyway.”
  • “The authors complain whenever we change anything.”

Most of the people here seemed perplexed by the authors and their weird foibles.

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Conferences

LiveBlogging: XML 2006: If I had a hammer…

According to the keynote speaker (who works at Oracle), the purpose of XQuery and a bunch of technology I’ve never heard of (FLWOR, XAP) is to convert the web from a collection of documents to a collection of database-driven applications.

You’ll have to pardon me if this doesn’t make my little heart go pitter-patter. Certainly, there is room for applications on the web, but I fail to see why all content needs to become application-ized.

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Conferences

LiveBlogging: XML 2006 Keynote

The keynote is packed to the gills — hotel staff were stuffing extra chairs into the back of the room at 8:58 a.m. After the usual administrativia, there was a brief interlude to look back at SGML 96, the conference at which XML was first introduced. At the time that XML was developed, it was quite radical, and nobody really knew what would happen with it. Today, of course, XML is a given.

Before discussing the keynote content, let me just give you some free presentation advice: Speak clearly and pay attention to your microphone.

The keynote presenter was Roger Bamford, Principal Architect, Oracle Server Technologies, speaking on the XML/XQuery Ecosystem.

He started with a review of the Olden Days — applications 30 years ago. Highlights:

  • The interface was like chess: The user thinks, does something, and then waits for the server response.
  • Complexity means that do-it-yourself is not an options. Changes to the system must go through the IT/development group and take months or years.

I suppose it’s not surprising that an Oracle guy is all about databases. It’s interesting because we do our work with minimal interaction with databases, so it’s definitely a new perspective. I am getting that “when you have a hammer, everything feels like a nail” feeling, though.

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Conferences

Fun in Long Beach (?)

Registration has opened for WritersUA. Now in its fifteenth year, the 2007 conference will be in Long Beach, California from March 25-28.

The schedule and session descriptions are available, and they look great.

I will be doing two sessions:

  • Coping with the XML Paradigm Shift (my original title was Paradigm Shifts are Never Pretty, so you can see where that one is going)
  • Introduction to DITA (a double-length, hands-on session). A few years ago, XML was the buzzword. Now it’s DITA. This session will provide the information you need to make an informed decision about DITA.

In addition, I see presentations from a lot of the Usual Suspects — Char James-Tanny, Neil Perlin, Alan Houser, Jared Spool, Dave Gash, and many, many others.

Don’t miss it.

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Opinion

Play nicely, and share your code

[updated to fix broken link]

Quadralay’s new ePublisher Pro was released with, shall we say, minimal documentation. The user guide describes how to manipulate the basic interface, but details on how to go under the covers and customize the XSL transformations that make up the core of the product are absent.

It appears that the company is trying to address this shortcoming with a wiki. There are some concerns about this approach, though. Char James-Tanny points out that “no one seems to have the rights to any of the material that’s posted.” And Bill Swallow writes this in waxing techcomm: “If the intent is to supply users with a means of online support/reference, I think it would be best to triage the contributed content, have it validated by a company representative, and then published.”

I think the wiki approach raises a larger question–how much documentation should a product creator be responsible for? A product like ePublisher Pro provides a configuration platform–the customization possibilities are endless. For advanced customization, ePublisher Pro is more comparable to a software development environment than a menu-driven application. Documenting a “development platform” is very, very tricky.

Nonetheless, there are some things that Quadralay should have provided and hasn’t. These include:

  • An inventory of the XSL transformation files provided with the product and an overview of what each file does.
  • Examples of how to perform common customizations that cannot be accomplished inside the user interface.
  • Documentation of the Quadralay-provided XSLT extension functions.

Posting these inside the wiki would be a nice start.

Quadralay has tried before to put the expert user community to work (anyone remember the WebWorks Publisher forums on their web site?). But speaking as a consultant, I’m not likely to post into the wiki when the ownership of that code is so unclear. Furthermore, we already have the wwp-users mailing list, which has over 3,000 members. Why bother with the wiki?

Finally, there is a massive disclaimer as part of the wiki:

All projects, code snippets, suggestions presented in this medium are colloborative [sic] materials expressed by both Quadralay personnel and WebWorks power users. Material taken from this medium and implemented into your existing production workflow or testing environments should be carefully considered and is done at your own risk. Although our product support consultants can and will place material on this medium to faciliate collaboration between Quadralay and its customers, Support Incidents submitted through webworks.com regarding issues with implementation of this material will not be accepted. Support for the implementations expressed here will only be supported through this medium.

In other words, if you use information posted on the wiki by Quadralay to customize your project, and it doesn’t work, Quadralay support will not help you.

Boo.

I understand the concerns surrounding wikis and the ability of anyone to edit a page, but it seems this could actually be resolved quite easily. The wiki can be set up with Official and Unofficial pages. Official pages are built by Quadralay employees, are editable only by Quadralay employees, and Quadralay support will provide support for those pages. Unofficial pages are those created by ePublisher Pro users; they are the “use at your own risk” section of the wiki.

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News

A fresh coat of paint for the front door, er, page

Finally, FINALLY we have found some time to update our web site’s front page. We simplified the layout (no more nested nested nested tables), added a live feed from our blog, and did some general housekeeping. Please let us know what you think of the new look.

For the most part, it’s standard HTML/CSS, but we did use XSL to process our blog’s RSS feed.

We are particular interested in getting feedback from those of you running non-Windows, non-Firefox, non-Internet Explorer systems.

A new calendar is also on the way. More on that later this week or next.

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Opinion

A student reviews a web-based class

In the November 2006 newsletter of the STC UK chapter, Mark Buffery of Salford Translations writes about his experience with the web-based version of our XML and Structured Authoring class.

The course consists of 4 half-day sessions (approximately 2 hours in length each), and is presented as a web-based meeting with all participants in direct communication with one another through a telephone conference call. This enables the tutor to field any questions raised during their presentations, as and when they are raised. Once logged on, each participant can view the tutor’s screen in real-time as they demonstrate and talk them through the various functionalities being discussed. This was the first time I had ever attended a webinar, and I was not sure just how effective this would be.

I firmly believe that, in theory, classroom training is better than web-based training. The trouble is that classroom training is also much more expensive than web-based training. Typically, the cost of travel (at least) doubles the basic tuition expense, and when you take into account the time spent traveling to and from the training site, costs are even higher. Web-based training allows you to fit the training into your regular workday. You do miss out on the many delights of the airport security line, but I think you can probably manage to contain your disappointment.

Being in direct vocal contact over the telephone was useful, and a better compromise than I had imagined (being used to the more traditionally reciprocal teaching environment of the classroom or lecture theatre). However, once we had been online for a few minutes, it did not seem so strange.

If you’re considering this or other courses with Scriptorium, please read his article for an overview of how things work from the student’s point of view.

One common question that Mark does not touch on is class times. Our commitment to our students is that we will make every attempt to schedule the class so that class meetings are during regular business hours for each student. Most often, that results in an 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. meeting at our local time (U.S. East Coast). If we have only East Coast and European students, we move the time earlier; if participants are west of us, we move the time later. So far, we have not had any participants dial in from east Asia or Australia, but please feel free to sign up and we’ll make sure we meet at a time that’s reasonable for you.

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Opinion

Baby Breeze

Adobe announced the availability of Acrobat 8, which now includes Acrobat Connect, the Product Formerly Known as Breeze.

The Product That Formerly Had a Non-Dorky Name is (or was) an online meeting/collaboration/elearning tool. But ex-Breeze (now Connect Professional. Boo) is quite expensive.

With Acrobat 8, though, Adobe is offering a low-end version of Connect, which Claudia McCue promptly dubbed Baby Breeze. For $400 per year, you get an “always-on,” unmetered meeting room for up to 15 people. And a static URL. And a free conference bridge line.

We tried it out last week, and it is very very nice.

I’d like to see the ability to record meetings added to Baby Breeze. Other than that, I’m very impressed.

Right now, Adobe is offering a free trial (and if you convert to a paid account, you keep the URL you establish). If you have any need for web conferencing, take a look.

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Opinion

Source, please?

The DITA hype continues.

The announcement for Arbortext 5.3 is almost completely focused on DITA, and in places reads more like a description of DITA than a press release about a new product. And in the middle, we find this item:

“PTC believes that by the end of 2008, up to 80% of all new XML publishing installations will be based on DITA.” (press release at ptc.com)

Is there research to back this up?

I find it very hard to believe that DITA is appropriate for 80 percent of all XML publishing implementations. Just consider the textbook and magazine publishing industries. Aerospace and pharmaceuticals both have non-DITA standard requirements.

(h/t Gilbane Report News)

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Opinion

Online learning isn’t just for colleges

A recent study found that the number of students in online college classes is still rising:

Roughly one in six students enrolled in higher education – about 3.2 million people – took at least one online course last fall, a sharp increase defying predictions that online learning growth is leveling off.

Cost savings play a big part in the continuing upswing for online learning at the college level, and that is true of our online classes, too. Neither the students nor the instructor need to book flights, rental cars, and hotel rooms, and those costs can be considerable. The financial incentives go a bit deeper than that, though. Each day of our online classes is about 4 hours (2 hours of interactive instruction and 2 hours of “homework” for the students), so students still have time to handle other job responsibilities. It also means our instructors have time to do other work here at our office. (And let’s not forget the wear-and-tear associated with travel today: spending a lot of time on airplanes packed like sardine cans is no one’s idea of fun.)

Overall, we’ve been pleased with our first year of online teaching. Even though having an instructor with you in the same room is probably the best way to learn software and technology, the cost of classroom training eliminates it as an option for many folks. We recognize that, and that’s why we decided to offer online classes. Based on our experience so far, we feel they are an excellent compromise between do-it-yourself learning through books and the classroom experience.

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