On Letting Go

2009-06-18

There was a point towards the end of the Writing Open Source conference where we were discussing what XML namespace to use for Mallard. And I was totally bikeshedding my own discussion. Emma looked at me and told me I need to let go.

It’s true. I have a hard time letting go. It’s just that, over the last seven or so years, I’ve seen lots of people come and go. Many of those people I thought would become core documentation team people. Some of them could have even replaced me. But inevitably, they all disappear or move on. Maybe it’s my fault. If I were to entrust them with more stuff, they might develop a stronger connection to the team. But I’ve learned to have a strong tendency to keep things close, where I know I can pick up the pieces if people disappear.

But I don’t want to be That Guy that’s blocking everybody. (Insert whatever name you want for That Guy. We all know That Guy in some project or another.) I’ve established the Steering Committee, and I’m trying very hard to empower these guys to be able to kick ass with or without me.

So if anybody catches me being That Guy, please tell me. Our team needs to rock, and it can’t block on me.

♫NP: Bellybone by Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise

Yelp 2.27.1

2009-06-17

I’ve just released Yelp 2.27.1, Now With More Ducks. This coincides with gnome-doc-utils 0.17.1, Also Now With More Ducks. This marks the first release with Mallard support built in. And this marks the end of the boring part of the release announcement.

This is a huge shift in how we approach, plan, write, and generally work with documentation. The entire community needs to be aware of what’s happening and how it affects them. Fellow hackers, please skip to the bottom for information on how this affects you.

Mallard is a new[1] documentation format that is geared towards topic-oriented help. While you could, in theory, just convert all of your DocBook documentation to Mallard, what you would end up with is a document that is the worst of both worlds. Writing topic-based help requires a new way of thinking about how we present information to our readers.

Mallard is uniquely designed from the ground up to support downstream modification and plugin-based help systems with little to no patching. The dynamic organization structure of Mallard was designed with our help in mind, addressing the challenges we face as an upstream provider.

If you’re interested in writing, editing, reviewing, or otherwise contributing to our documentation, please get in touch with our team. You can email use at gnome-doc-list@gnome.org or join us in the #docs channel on irc.gnome.org. Also, check out our brand new project blog: http://blogs.gnome.org/docs/

We will be holding regular community meetings. Stay tuned for more details.

If you are a maintainer or active developer, know that we are coming for your documentation. It might not be today, but it’s on our radar. If you or someone on your team handles your documentation independently of our team, we still want to be in contact to help them produce better help. Writing is not a one-person task.

We hope that developers will be cooperative with our team as we try to provide them with better help files to make their software better for their users.

We also hope that more people from the greater community, including our downstream communities, will get involved with our team. We are doing some truly exciting things right now, and we’d love to share the excitement.

[1] Yes, I realize I’ve been quacking since 2004. But it’s newly released, and that counts for something.

♫NP: When This Is Over by China Forbes from ’78

Writing Open Source

2009-06-17

Last weekend, I attended the first ever Writing Open Source conference. With me were Milo Casagrande, Phil Bull, and Paul Cutler. Those guys have already blogged about the event. You should read what they had to say. Besides the four of us, there were twelve other attendees from various open source documentation teams. It’s amazing how many experiences we have in common.

On the first day, the mayor of Owen Sound came to visit us. She’s going to be participating in the Dancing For Life charity event this weekend. People were trying to get me to give her a waltz lesson, but it’s hard to give a dance lesson without a dance floor. (Plus, waltz is really not my dance.) In retrospect, I probably could have given her a connection lesson.

We all learned a lot. For the last two months or so, I’ve been keeping a notebook about documentation. Basically, it’s a brain dump of things I would tell somebody if I were to sit them down and teach them everything I know about building documentation within a community. After three days, my notebook doubled in size.

I got to show off Pulse and Mallard. Pulse was really well-received. It seems a lot of teams are looking for better ways to track their documentation. I get really excited about Pulse, so it was nice to get others excited as well.

There were a lot of DITA enthusiasts at the conference. Mallard and DITA occupy similar niches: They’re both moving away from DocBook-style books and towards topic-based documentation. The first question (which I expected) after I presented Mallard was along the lines of “Why aren’t you using DITA?”

The obvious advantage of using DITA is that it has a fair amount of industry uptake already. In my defense, I first conceived of Mallard back in 2004. At that time, I hadn’t even heard of DITA, and I don’t think it had nearly the popularity that it now has.

I have been trying to play with DITA since coming back. So far, I’m finding it has a serious lack of hands-on introductory material. As much of a bear as DocBook is, I was able to write my first document after 15 minutes with The Definitive Guide. After two days, I’m still wading through conceptual overviews in DITA.

Mallard is designed to solve a concrete set of problems. DITA can do a lot of things that Mallard can’t, but I’m not at all convinced that I should care about those things. I mean, DocBook can do a lot of things Mallard can’t as well, but after eight years, I’ve learned that most of things just don’t matter to us.

What DITA doesn’t do is what I consider Mallard’s single biggest selling point: dynamic organizational structures. This is critical to our strategy for downstream documentation. It also can produce some nice results for plugin-heavy applications. In fact, one of my primary use cases when designing Mallard was to make something that would work for the GIMP help.

We could probably build dynamic organization on top of DITA, but I’m not convinced it’s worth the effort. Besides capitalizing on uptake elsewhere, I have yet to see any concrete benefits to using DITA. I’m just not sold, and I don’t buy into the notion that I should be automatically sold just because others think it’s cool.

That said, I think we could have reasonably decent two-way conversions between DITA and Mallard. DITA people don’t generally seem to view DITA as a delivery format. So if people want to use DITA as an authoring format and Mallard as a delivery format, I don’t see any reason to put stop energy on that.

So I’ve been trying to learn DITA well enough to make those conversions. Documentation tool chains is what I do, both in Gnome and for a living for the next three days. And I have to say, I haven’t had an easy time of it. And that concerns me particularly because if I have a hard time, I can’t begin to imagine how tortuous it will be to any potential new contributors that come our way.

To their credit, quite a few of the DITA enthusiasts have offered help. They are a friendly bunch. We’ll see how things play out.

♫NP: Bongo Fiesta by Machito & His Afro Cuban Orchestra

Wednesday was my 31st birthday.  Instead of hiding from a tornado like last year, we actually spent the entire day on a movie set for the upcoming independent movie Leading Ladies.  And on Tuesday, our new Nikon D5000 arrived.  (Thanks to all the people who gave advice on the camera.)  What follows is a random collection of thoughts about the movie, interspersed with a random collection of pictures I took.  I wasn’t allowed to take pictures on set, so all the pictures are from the break room and rehearsal room.

My fellow extras waiting

My fellow extras waiting

Being in a movie involves a lot of waiting.  Multiple people have described it to me as “hurry up and wait”.  They’ll tell you to take five and only call you back in half an hour.  Or they’ll put you on set, and you’ll think they’re ready to shoot, and it’ll be ten minutes before they say “Action”.  On the other hand, they’ll sometimes tell you you’ve got an hour, and then be ready for you in fifteen minutes.  It wasn’t annoying or anything.  We were all there for the movie.  Just an interesting observation.

Virginia and Andrew juggle while they wait

Virginia and Andrew juggle while they wait

Benji Schwimmer plays one of the lead roles in the movie.  If you’re into the WCS scene, you probably know who he is.  If not, you might know him from So You Think You Can Dance 2006.  If not, well, you should start dancing.  Benji has an amazing personality.  His enthusiasm is contagious.  Pretty much everybody involved with the movie was very nice.

Dancers practice during a break

Dancers practice during a break

Benji practices whenever and wherever he wants

Benji practices whenever and wherever he wants

Silke and I were dancing some west coast swing in one scene, while most of the crowd was watching Benji and Jordan Frisbee do a routine on stage.  And as glad as I was to get to do some west coast, to be perfectly honest, if I were at a club and Benji and Jordan were doing a routine on stage, I’d be watching.  All the other dancers are Lindy hoppers, so we were the only ones doing west coast.  For all I know, all our parts could end up on the cutting room floor.

Benji and Silke

Benji and Silke

Silke has more pictures up in her Picasa web album.

As an added bit of excitement, on Friday I put in my two weeks notice at Wolfram.  After I’m done at Wolfram, Silke and I are heading on a three-week road trip out West and back again.  And when we return, I’ll be starting something new and exciting.  Very exciting and memorable birthday week.  More details to follow.