Friday, November 30, 2007

Kith 'n Kindle

By now you’re probably heard or read about Amazon’s new e-book reader, Kindle. In its current incarnation, while it has many attractive features, it also has some unattractive ones, notably its price. Let’s assume, though, that given Amazon’s marketing clout and the tight integration with Amazon’s core business of books, the Kindle is an ugly duckling on its way to being a swan.

Does this finally augur the end of the printed book? I hardly think so.

Over on one of the tech writing lists, there’s a current thread about how end-user software documentation is delivered. Several participants in the thread note that it’s been quite a while since their employers sprung for a bound book. One person said the last time she had to get a manual printed was 1997. The last one I sent to a printer was in 1993.

What does this mean? First of all, understand the motivation. Software companies recognize revenue when they ship product, and they want to ship product about five minutes after QA certifies the release. That means they don’t want to wait for the doc team to catch up with the final changes in the product, proofread the pages, and send it out for printing. It also means they want to shift the cost of printing to the customer, even though the cost of printing it out on the customer’s office laser printer is about six times the unit cost (SWAG) of the manufacturer having it printed and bound commercially.

But from our point of view, the real question is whether customers accept the situation as it is. And the answer is that customers do accept soft delivery of documentation for the most part. They can look stuff up with a search field instead of thumbing through what is typically a very bad index if there’s an index at all. (Tech writers who index generally do it automatically rather than manually, resulting in something that resembles a concordance more than an index.)

In addition, a lot of software manufacturers have long since moved past a PDF of a manual they were too cheap to print and on to HTML help systems. Now the more progressive companies are going straight to XML-based systems, with content stored in a database and automatically transformed into appropriate output formats to meet customer needs. Customers seem to have accommodated to this paperless, artless, design-free, Kindle-friendly regime well enough.

The discussions about whether the book is doomed seem misplaced. It makes more sense to look at content, audience, payment model, and delivery medium as axes in an analytical space and then determine the optimal vehicle for any given work rather than assuming a one-fate-fits-all future for the printed book.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Designer breaks arm patting self on back. Film at eleven.

When I’ve put a lot of time and effort into a book for a client, I take a certain amount of parental pride in it. Even after the book is launched and my final invoice is paid, I check in now and then to find how the book is doing.

Fixing American Healthcare recently garnered its first reader review on Amazon, and the reviewer, Richard R. Blake included this unsolicited compliment for the design: “I found the graphics and the highlighted sidebars, consistent throughout the book, to be extremely helpful to my understanding of the quadrants of the decision-making process in healthcare today.”

Thanks, Richard!

Take a look inside the book yourself, to see what he’s referring to.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all Americans and everyone else, too. There is much to be thankful for and much more to be thoughtful about. After cooking and donating a turkey yesterday to a local group that feeds Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless, today we join friends across town for a joint effort with adult children. On other holidays the menu is often up for grabs. On Thanksgiving, we hew close to the traditional line. There is comfort in knowing that nearly everyone else in the country is doing the same thing. It’s nice to feel like a conformist one day a year.

Menu

Garlicky Fresh Kitchen-Windowsill Basil and Almost-Last-of-the-Garden
Tomatoes Mince on a Bed of Parsley, Served on a Bagel Crisp

Chestnut Soup with Cayenne and Cinnamon Roasted Pecans

Roast Turkey with Great-Grandmother Friedman’s Bread Stuffing
(fat chance I’ll link to that recipe) and Homemade Pan Gravy

French-cut Fresh Green Beans Amandine

Mashed Potatoes à la Cholesterol

Sweet-Potato-Apple-Pear Casserole Ad Lib

Cranberry-Orange Relish

Homemade Apple and Pumpkin Pies

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Who needs designers?

Thanks to John Hedtke for this mood enhancer (safe for office viewing, but finish swallowing that mouthful of coffee first).

Frankly, Adobe doesn't give a damn

I promised an update on my current woes with Adobe, and here it is: They told me to go jump in a lake. They don’t need my business. At this point, I’m inclined to give them what they wish for and advise everyone else to join me.

I feel like a jilted lover. For a couple of decades, I’ve talked up their applications, defending them in public venues from unwarranted prejudice against their products. I’ve spent many hours providing free assistance on the Internet to Pagemaker users and Acrobat users. At one point I diagnosed a long-standing critical bug in Pagemaker and gave Adobe the information they needed to finally fix it in the final release of Pagemaker.

And in return for my loyalty? Nothing. A thank you? No. A postcard? No. A freebie? Don’t make me laugh.

When I had my recent disastrous experience with an upgrade and requested some consideration, after many more phone calls, I finally discovered that Adobe had agreed to give me a font package. They offered me three choices, and I picked one, a font family worth $149. Seemed fair to me. But this would have to be escalated and I should call back in a few days. I called back yesterday, and Customer Service had no record of it. So I hung up and called headquarters in San Jose. I was finally connected to Erik S. in the Adobe Customer Care department (you can’t call him directly; don’t even try).

Erik reviewed the case notes and told me he’d email me the font within four hours.

Here is the email.
Thank you for contacting Adobe Customer Service.

In regard to the font that was offered, Below is the zip file of Stone® Serif.

Attached Fonts:
Stone® Serif

Customer ID number:  XXXXXXXXX

Customer Service Case: XXXXXXXXX

For more information on Adobe® products or services please visit us at:  http://www.adobe.com or contact Adobe customer services at 1 (800) 833-6687. Customer Service Representatives are available 6:00am-8:00pm PT, 7 days a week.

Best Regards,

Erik S.
Adobe Customer Care
Attached was a single font, a a single twenty-nine dollar font, the medium roman. Not the font package with all weights and both roman and italic, which might actually be a useful thing to own.

Well, perhaps there was a misunderstanding, right? Okay. Could be. So I wrote back:
Wait a minute. My understanding was that I was to receive the $149 Stone Serif package, not a single weight worth $29. Tell me this was a mistake.
This morning I got my response:
Hello Dick,

Thank you for contacting Adobe Customer Service.

For your records, your customer ID number is XXXXXXXXX. The customer ID number is the easiest way for us to access your account in our database. In the future, please provide this number when you contact Adobe.

Dick, I understand that you have received Stone Serif worth $29 while you were suppose to receive the software worth $149.

With regards to your query, I need to inform you that this issue cannot be resolved via e-mail. Our Customer Service department will be able to provide you with the best solution on this particular issue. Please contact an Adobe Customer Service representative at the number listed below.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

The Web Support Portal Representatives are available from Monday to Friday. For your convenience, on weekends we have a dedicated phone support for Customer Service related queries. Please feel free to contact our phone support at 1 (800) 833-6687 from 6:00am-8:00pm PST, 7 days a week.

Best Regards,

Micheal P.
Adobe Customer Service
I’m done.

I will not spend another hour working through the Adobe phone tree to get back to “Customer Care” for the simple reason that Adobe doesn’t care about customers.

They’ve turned a friend into an enemy. They’ve moved from my not-too-bad-to-do-business-with list to my top-three-worst-companies-to-deal-with list (along with Microsoft and Symantec).

Your mileage may vary.

Will I ever buy from them again? Too soon to tell.

Tomorrow is another day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sufferin’ succotash!

. Today is November 13. Having lived in the Northeast virtually my entire life and in Connecticut for the last few years, I do not expect to look out the window in the middle of November and see sugar maples at peak color, copper beech just beginning to go from green to copper here and there, cherries about a third yellow and having lost perhaps five percent of their leaves, the Bradford pear still solid green, and the grass still growing (my neighbor mowed on Sunday and I should have but didn’t have the time).

Fall is a full month—perhaps five or six weeks, actually, depending on the species—behind what we natives have learned to expect. In fact, the normal course of events is that weather drives most of the deciduous species to deciduate in unison—Whomp! The ground is covered in leaves. But the lack of cold weather has left every species to define its own schedule this year. My lawn would typically be inches deep in copper beech leaves from my neighbor’s tree by now, the magnolia leaves would have been raked into the compost pile weeks ago, and I’d be expecting to do my last lawn cleanup just before the first real snowfall. This year, I expect to be raking the lawn in January, if not February.

We’ve had only one sharp freeze sufficient to wilt tomatoes, a week or so ago. Having paid attention to the weather forecast the previous morning, I went out and picked the last of the mature green tomatoes, and we’ll be enjoying our own garden tomatoes at Thanksgiving dinner. A couple might even make it to Christmas. If you live in a warmer part of the world, that might not sound impressive, but it isn’t something I’ve experienced before.

I won’t try to connect this with the large issue of climate change, because this is liable to be a freak occurrence (time will tell). I’m just looking forward to using less fossil fuel for heating this winter. I’ll probably spend as much or more, given the rapid rise in energy prices, but consuming less is good, anyway.

What does this have to do with the subject of this blog? Not a damn thing.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I hope you're out of the theater a half hour Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

A friend called yesterday and asked if my wife and I wanted to go see a movie with her that she wanted to see because it had gotten good reviews—Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

We went to a funky, bedraggled, four-screen theater owned by a film buff and generally patronized by film buffs. When we saw the early show crowd streaming out while the credits were still rolling, we clucked that we always stay till the end of the film. Little did we know.

If you like on-screen sex, you’ll love the first five minutes: Marisa Tomei, very naked, very hot (requires willing suspension of disbelief that she’d be caught dead in bed with Mr. Marshmallow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, though).

Otherwise, save your money. The movie goes downhill fast and never gets better. The smartest people in the theater last night were the couple who gave up and left before the end. When the lights came on, the rest of us (total of six: three middle-aged adults and three Yale Law students) spontaneously struck up a conversation about how we all wished we had bailed, too.

We were unanimous that this is a truly awful movie, and I posted an online review to that effect.

Then I started to read other people’s reviews, both on Yahoo! and on nytimes.com.

Hmmm. Half the people hated the film as much as we did. Half loved it. Hardly anyone gave it a middling score. Reading the positive reviews, I’m mystified as to whether these people saw the same movie. Apparently they did not. In any case, I can’t make head nor tail out of their rationales for praising it.

It turns out the movie is another litmus test along the lines of the dispute over the 2000 presidential election results in Florida: How you react to the situation is based not on objective reality (as if there were such a thing) but on how your brain is wired or conditioned. This is always a valuable lesson to keep in mind when you’re shaping words for an audience: all you can do is try to avoid ambiguity and seek clarity; there’s nothing you can do to guarantee that outcome.

Writing is a dialogue with an unknown and unknowable reader. What you write matters. But the writing isn’t complete until it is read, and you have no control over how or where that happens or over how the reader will react.

Words matter. Story matters. Editing helps. Not taking criticism personally helps, too.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Handling the slow-pay client

Deep, cleansing breaths. Visualize a beach. You know the routine.

Freelance professionals, for the most part, like to have corporate clients. Even a small corporation, unlike an individual client, can generate a fair amount of repeat business if they like your work. The downside of being a tiny little vendor to a corporation is that you’re at the bottom of the pile when it’s time for them to pay their bills. Payroll comes first. Then the suppliers of their raw materials. The bank comes next. Then the landlord. Then the utilities, UPS, and FedEx. And finally all the little guys—including you. If the company runs into a cash flow crunch, no matter how loudly you squeak, you may not be greased. At least not right away.

So, your net 30 invoice has not been paid after 45 days. Time to panic? Time to call the lawyer?

Too soon by far for that. Herewith the hard-won advice I gave someone on the Freelance mailing list the other day:

Don’t make it personal. I’ve been in the position of ordering goods, in good faith, on behalf of my employer and then being the person in the middle when the invoice I submitted wasn’t paid. All I could do was confront the accounts payable person and push for payment. I couldn’t cut the check myself. When your client contact, the person who assigned you the job, says that she’s done all she can, chances are that’s true. She cannot personally cut you a check, so don’t make her feel worse than she already does about your slow payment.

Call the company switchboard (not your client contact but the company she works for or whatever company is ultimately responsible for payment). Ask to speak with accounts payable.

Pay attention to what happens next. If the operator or receptionist or whatever offers to take a message or asks you who you are and when your invoice was mailed, then that’s the person who has been given the dirty job of fending off vendors. If that happens, make a dated note of what she says and thank her for her time. Get what information you can, but remain calm and polite. It’s not her fault.

If she says, “let me put you through to their voice mail” without even checking to see if the person is at their desk, that means you’re not the only one standing in line for payment.

Whether you next are speaking to a person or a voice mailbox, calmly introduce yourself, provide the invoice date, invoice number, invoice amount, due date, and the terms included in your agreement or printed on the invoice (you do have those, don’t you?); and ask when you can expect a check to go out.

If you’re speaking to a person, the words you hear next are particularly critical. Write them down exactly as they come out of the person’s mouth.

If they say they already mailed a check, get the check number, check date, address they mailed it to, and date mailed. Write it all down.

If they say they have cut a check and it will go out on X, verify the check number, the check date, the address they plan to mail it to, and the date they plan to mail it.

If they say they will be cutting checks on X, say that you will call back on X to get the check number and mailing details.

If they say they usually pay on time but right now they’re running 60 days (or 90 days), tell them you would like a letter promising payment by date certain and acknowledging that they will be paying the finance charges in accordance with the terms in your agreement.

Throughout, remain calm and businesslike. Nobody likes to be a late payer, but sometimes cash flow sucks. The person handling accounts payable is stuck in an unenviable position, and you want to make it as easy as possible for that person to be truthful. That means no threats, no emotional outbursts, just calm inquiry and a cheerful thank you for the update at the end of the call.

That’s why you call AP and calmly, politely, collect information on when to expect payment. Then give the information you collected to your lawyer if the money doesn’t come through on the promised date.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Everything you ever wanted to know about writing a book review for the New York Times