Monday, November 28, 2011

Technical Writing and the Corporate Voice

A good portion of a company's image can be defined without a single word, or with very few words. Think of ads (Apple's for example), trademarks (Nike's "just do it"), a website's design, a product's packaging, etc. These visuals showcase not only the company's products, but many aspects of the company's identity (or at least the public side of its identity) in a strong and very identifiable way. However, if much can be conveyed without words, every word a company publishes, whether in print or on the web, also has an impact on its image. Matthew Stibbe wrote a great article on the subject in his blog Bad Language, in which he writes that
"Finding a corporate voice and using it consistently adds weight and distinctiveness to a brand. Good writing enhances a brand in different ways. It can reinforce the reader's idea of what the brand stands for."
The examples Stibbe uses, from Google's "I'm feeling lucky" to Amazon's cues that reassure buyers and incite them to click that final "place order" button, are all direct (and short) messages sent to the end user. But can the unique voice of a company also transpire in its most technical documents? How does a 100+ page user's manual differ from one company to the next? And is it identifiable to the company past the logo on the front page? In other words, does the document use the corporate voice? Technical writers follow so many rules, dictated by widely-distributed style guides and other manuals, and are so constrained by the technical nature of their documents' content, that they don't seem to have much legroom for branding. Needless to say, however, that a few minutes of research will prove just the opposite. 

Take a look at these (randomly chosen) smartphone user guides, for example.
The visual design (layout, colors, fonts, etc.) of these publications sets the tone. But look at the choice of information architecture. What information comes first? Is it an overview of the phone, a series of obscure commands, or several pages of legal material? What other topics are covered in the document? How are they organized? Is the emphasis on the phone's hardware or its applications? Compare the choices of words (in particular those that have an impact on the reader's emotions, such as "important," "troubleshooting," "warning," "not," "cannot," etc., or, on the opposite, "you can"). Compare the use of graphics and tables. These guides are very different from one another, aren't they?

Defining a corporate voice and maintaining a uniform voice across a myriad of technical publications takes a lot of effort and coordination at all levels of a company. A few tools that help: corporate style guides, document templates, unified outlines, clear objectives... and good communication between Marcom, Tech Pubs, and other departments.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What Do We Mean By Voice?

What do we mean when we refer to a writer's voice? Do we mean word choice, the length of sentences, the use of pronouns, the rhythm of the sentences, the literalness of the language? What do we actually mean?

When singers talk about using voice, they--above all--are referring to the timbre of a voice: that quality of a person's voice that makes it instantaneously recognizable. Think of Frank Sinatra.... Think of Orson Welles, especially in his later years, marketing wine. Think of George W. Bush's drawl.

How do you develop a voice? When I studied voice, my teacher told me to sing softly and quietly, so that my natural voice would come out clearly, free of any impulses to imitate the other voices that I heard. I was to focus on developing my voice, not making it Joan Baez's or anyone else's....

Writing teachers often encourage their students to keep journals, composed of writing that they do regularly for themselves. In a sense, keeping a journal is like singing quietly. As a singers progress and their unique voices become stronger, they begin to sing with bolder, louder voices. For writers, the process is often the same. Through journal writing and taking other opportunities to write, a writer's voice can evolve from a more generic sound to one that is much more unique to the particular writer.

A few blogs ago, I wrote about having iPad lust. I gave into my passions last week. I'm using Dragon Dictation now to write this blog entry about voice by actually using my voice to dictate. When you write, can you hear your own voice speaking the words in your head? Listen to yourself, and ask yourself what you sound like.

The first step in developing your own voice is to recognize that you have one and then go looking for it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How I became a technical writer

One of my favorite bedtime stories1, when I was little, was about a dog who could read the newspaper, talk, walk on two legs, prepare his own dinner... This smart dog lived by one and only principle: "marche au hasard, tu arriveras bien quelque part," which translates to: "walk at random, you'll end up somewhere." This seems like the worst advice a kid can get in a world where the most successful people are those who have clear (and written) goals. Yet it stayed with me. The way I interpreted it was: if you trust your instincts, if you let the path open in front of you, you can't go wrong. Life will take you where you fit best, because you will naturally follow your most favorable path.

Years later, as I entered college, the senior students "welcomed" all of us freshmen on campus with a hazing in the form of a series of tests and challenges (similar to what students do to enter fraternities here, albeit in a subdued fashion. Still, I spent a day covered in paint and shaving cream, collecting coins at a light stop in the middle of Lyon... But I digress). One of the assignments (which I took very seriously), was to find the best adjective to describe oneself. I came up with "optimistic". I think this explains why I understood Mister Dog's advice the way I did.

So the optimistic and waiting-to-see-what-life-will-offer little girl grew up without knowing what her professional life would be like. I was very good at maths and science, which were the most revered disciplines in my family, so I studied to become an engineer. I didn't think much of it, but it turned out to be a pretty good choice. It was intellectually challenging, rewarding in many ways. I was missing the other disciplines I'd been exposed to in high school (philosophy being my favorite; arts, music, history and literature not far behind), but there wasn't time for everything.

Life became interesting when I first moved to California. The words "Silicon Valley" sounded really magical in the late 1990's, so I came to San Jose for a six-month internship before my final year in grad school2. Discovering a new culture (many cultures, actually, as everyone I met came from a different corner of the world) was extraordinary. My horizon expanded in ways I had never anticipated. Speaking and writing in English every day also reinforced my interest in languages. I came back to Lyon to finish my master's degree, spent six months in Munich to immerse myself in one more culture and capitalize on a dozen years of learning German, then decided I had to see more of California.

For the following eight years, I worked as a digital design engineer and as an engineering manager in the Bay Area. However, as years past, I realized that the most enjoyable part of my work was to communicate with others and explain what I had designed or was about to design. Creating new algorithms gave me nightmares—working through the details of the implementation was just as stressful. But writing about the whole creation was pure joy. I started thinking that if one day I could devote my entire time to writing, it would be ideal. I didn't know yet about a profession called technical writing.

Meanwhile, I traveled all around the United States in my spare time. I started blogging about my adventures (in French, here) to share my enthusiasm with family members and friends. Being away also helped me see France in a new light and I wanted to share at least one aspect of my "frenchness" with my new friends on this side of the pond. So I started blogging about my favorite recipes (in English, here). This was another unconscious attempt at "technical" (or at least procedural) writing.

Slowly but surely, all these experiences and aspirations started converging. As Mister Dog had predicted, my seemingly disconnected adventures in engineering and writing, and my interest in languages and novelties, all pointed me in the direction of technical communication. I ended up somewhere unexpected, unplanned, yet perfectly fitting.

1 After a little research, I'm finding out that the book is Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself, by Margaret Wise Brown (Golden Press, 1952). I had the French translation, Monsieur Chien. Now I need to buy the book and see what Crispin's Crispian (that's the dog's name) was saying in the original version.

2 If you're wondering, there isn't really a concept of college and graduate school in France. All the curriculum is done in a so-called "Grande Ecole", or engineering school, which takes students from high school to master's level in five very full years.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Read-Book-See-Movie or See-Movie-Read-Book?

I love to read and I love to go to the movies; two of my favorite means of personal entertainment. Some of my favorites to read are fictional stories where the characters interact with actual historical events and characters, like John Jakes’ series of novels the Kent Family Chronicles, Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series of novels, or Jack Whyte’s Camulod Chronicles. Several of John Jakes’ Kent family stories were filmed as miniseries for television: “The Bastard,” “The Rebels,” “The Seekers,” and the North and South trilogy (made into 3 miniseries). I loved that Patrick Swayze played my favorite character in the North and South trilogy: Jared Kent. (I think I fell in love with Jared Kent before Patrick Swayze portrayed his character – I named my son after him, Jared that is.) I have not yet seen Ms. Gabaldon’s or Mr. Whyte’s stories brought to film – might be fun though.

Through the years I have heard several arguments over whether to read the book, or not, before seeing the movie. My daughter read all of the Twilight books by Stephanie Meyer, before the movies were made. She loved the books; those and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series sparked her interest in reading. But when the movies came out, she was very disappointed – they cut a lot of stuff out, they messed it up, the book was better, … You’ve heard all the arguments before. And with the Twilight movies, she felt the characters were better defined in the book, well except maybe for Jacob – she was definitely on Team Jacob! I personally, do not mind what the order, read-book-see-movie or see-movie-read-book. Sometimes I enjoy a movie so much I just have to read the book, if there is one, to get more information – I know they did not get it all in the 2-hour movie. Then I can start with a vision of the characters and go from there on a treasure hunt: which characters did they combine into one in the movie, what did the screenwriters or the director’s cut leave out (yes, I watch all the cut scenes on the dvd too).

A couple months ago, I saw the trailer for “The Help,” and just knew that it was going to be one of those love-hate stories for me. You know a good story on the human condition, reflecting how cruel we can treat one another. Like I said, I like fictional stories woven into actual historical events. I knew I was going to love the movie, the story, but hate the cruelty or potential inhumanity toward the people. Then I saw the book by Kathryn Stockett, and picked it up for a read before the movie came out. Okay ... I could not get through the book. Mind you, I am the type of person who reads a book with a red pen close by to mark the typos. I sometimes wonder if I should send my redlined books to the publisher – yeah right.

Let me explain. “The Help” is the story about black housekeepers who work in upper class white homes in Jackson, Mississippi, pre-civil rights movement (1961-1963). A story where I was going to love the strong characters excelling beyond the humiliation in their lives, but hate that as a God-fearing people we have the capacity to be so cruel and loathsome toward one another. I knew from the trailers that a young white female journalist would write a book describing how the help was treated in this southern neighborhood. What I did not know – the story is told from the housekeeper’s perspective. I tried for a couple of weeks to get through the story. But: “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do.” “And Law, do that room get quiet.” “I do like she tell me to, even though they cups is full to the rim.” “I know they ain’t discussing no politic. They talking about what Miss Jackie [Kennedy] done wore on the tee vee.” Sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, page after page – the editor in me is not enjoying this reading! Where is my red pen?

I have since learned that Ms. Stockett’s life was similar in some ways to her character Skeeter’s:

  • She was raised in the south by a black caretaker (but in the 70’s, not the 60’s).
  • She moved to New York in her early 20’s (and is now living back in the south).
  • “The Help” was her first manuscript.

Unlike Skeeter, Ms. Stockett took 5 years to write her novel and had a hard time getting it published – she had somewhere in the neighborhood of 45-50 rejections. It took her quite a while to be taken seriously: a young well off southern white woman writing in a black voice, a southern-black vernacular. But she did get published in February 2009, and now less than a year and a half later the movie is out. I saw the movie on opening night, August 10, 2011. The main characters were very likable, and I felt for them. They were very proud, strong women doing a remarkable job in a contemptuous environment. Yes the uppity socialites were a little hard to take, but I wondered as I usually do – being raised in the same environment would I be just as capable of such haughtiness. I would like to think not, but you never know.

So, I tried to read the book first, but could not get through it. I saw the movie, love the story-line and the characters. I read that “The Help,” the book, is told by the three main characters: Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. I have had trouble getting into other books before, but have been able to pick them up again later. Maybe “The Help” will be one of those books for me, now that I know I like the characters, the storyline, and part of the book might actually be told by Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan. Happy reading!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Telling My Stories: Leaving Frederick for Frankfurt

In an earlier blog entry, I wrote about telling stories and ended by saying that I would tell you my stories in future entries.

Easier said than done.

Where to begin? What story—or stories—should I tell? I originally thought that making a list of possible stories and analytically choosing the “best” one would enable me to start writing. Who else has noticed that being engaged in analytic, critical reasoning does NOT produce the state of mind that supports good storytelling?

In any case, creating a list and picking the best alternative didn’t work for me as I thought about but didn’t succeed at getting any writing done.

Yesterday, when I was walking with a friend, I began telling her about my storytelling quandary and then began to remember how I would get college freshmen to tell their stories when I taught composition at San Jose State University.

Their assignment was to write a personal narrative with a thesis statement that pointed out the significance of the story. To do that, I needed to model for them how to create a personal narrative.

As a teacher, I was on the spot. I hadn’t thought through what story I would tell, but I needed to come up with a story fast.

I was also teaching students to cluster--a technique developed by Gabriele Rico in her book, Writing the Natural Way.

The way to cluster is to begin by putting your subject in the middle of a piece of unlined paper—or a chalkboard if you’re the teacher in a classroom.

I thought about a nightmare about piano-playing that I’d had when I was about nine years old.

Then, when you cluster, ideas will come to you, and you jot them down wherever you want. The point is to be free as you write and not to constrict yourself to any linearity of thought.

I woke up in the middle of the night. I’d been hearing my father play the piano in my dream.

He was playing the music from The Bell Trio in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. I couldn’t get rid of the lyrics in my head—something about “Rend the air with warbling wild….”

I loved the piano. And we’d sold it.

I was in the middle of the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean. Our family was on the U.S.S. Butner, a military ship that reeked of garlic.

We were moving from Frederick, Maryland, to Frankfurt, Germany.

I didn’t really know why I didn’t like living in Frederick—even as a small child. I wasn’t that athletic and sometimes it seemed like my older sister Ruth had more fun than I did. She liked running in the cow fields across the street whereas I was happier sitting around reading mythology books. One time my mother and I went to Baltimore, which was about an hour’s drive away, for a 24-hour getaway, and I decided that I loved cities.

Moving to Frankfurt seemed exciting—not because it was in Europe—but because it was a city.

But, would we get another piano?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In clustering, after you’ve written down your ideas, you connect them with lines to see their interrelationships and to help you deduce that often elusive thesis statement.

What was this cluster really about? Had I just described a childhood experience to the college freshman in my classroom? Or did this experience have greater meaning?

What the cluster said to me was that change—even when good—could be threatening or frightening. I was happy that I was moving to Frankfurt. My life—even as a nine year old—did get better. I didn’t have to deal with the cow fields anymore. But I was afraid, afraid that we’d never have a piano and that I wouldn’t hear my father play again. My fears, however, were unfounded. My father also had to have a piano, and he purchased one within a month of our arrival in Frankfurt.

Telling the piano story to the students also had a good outcome. I was teaching college freshman for the first time. After telling this story, I had felt pretty vulnerable, almost like I’d revealed too much about myself to my students. I didn’t know what to expect or what they’d think of me.

A week later, the students turned their “Personal Narrative,” 1000-word essays.

Some of their stories amazed me. Rather than having revealed too much in the piano story, I showed them how they could reveal more about themselves, and I made them feel like it was safe to do so.

Authenticity breeds authenticity.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Time to Tell My Story

In Honor of Our German Jewish Roots

For years, I have wanted to share our family’s German heritage in a story.

I was the only daughter of Dorothea, an only child of Meta Kaufmann, my grandmother, known as Omi. When I was a child, there was a circle of kind, caring and witty old and middle aged German aunts, great-aunts, grandmothers and great grandmothers we visited. I listened in on the conversations with Omi,Tante Anna, Eva, Meta (Cordy) and Dorothea, and identified with all of them. I wanted to learn the secrets they seemed to be telling, so I studied German for 9 years, starting at age 12.

Soon, it became my mission to return to Germany at 19, the same age my mother was forced to leave, due to the Nazis. I arrived at 19 and spent a year at Freiburg University, collecting more stories from Dorothea's friends, tracking down Omi's friend in her nursing home, and listening to the idyllic stories of Omi' and Dorothea's lives in Constantinople and Europe.

Dorothea had always told the story of her honeymoon with Gabriel, traveling by boat to Cologne to convince her parents they must leave Nazi Germany now. Otto could not believe the Nazis would put his family at risk. after decades of service to the government. They stayed well past Krystalnacht (when all Jewish businesses were vandalized and destroyed). Other members of the family were unable to get travel papers and were forced to hide out for years during the war. My mother's uncle's entire family perished in concentration camps..

But I digress. The fact is German Jews were quite different from other European Jews. Eastern European Jews continued to practice their religion and culture within strong Jewish communities. For survival, most German Jews chose to assimilate within the greater German culture, following centuries of anti-semitism. After centuries, my relatives felt more German than Jewish and participated in Christian holidays, many attending Christian schools or churches. Although everyone knew who the Jewish families were, people like Opa (my grandfather, Otto Kaufman) were able to rise within the aristocracy and gain leadership positions. Otto established the Deutsche Bank in Barcelona and Constantinople. Under his leadership, Otto oversaw the financing of the first railroad connecting Europe to the Middle East, known as the Orient Express.

So, as I asked questions of the German icons in our family, I discovered a generation gap. The elder generation refused to speak of the Nazi era, choosing to assimilate into America, while maintaining a very German lifestyle with family and friends. When I asked Meta if she ever felt Jewish, she bluntly said, "No", and that was a very emphatic no. Her son,Johnny, and others appeared to share her feelings. Late in life, a few grave stories emerged from the war years, family hiding out, unable to get travel papers and the terror of the Nazis.

Dorothea answered my questions with patience. She emerged from a strict victorian home, joining progressive youth groups before the Nazi era. She was warned by a cousin there was no future for Jewish youth in Germany. Dorothea had to leave her homeland if she wanted to survive, to have any future. She left everything she ever knew, the man who loved her, and at 19, arrived in New York.

Dorothea idolized her new aunt, Meta Lilienthal, her uncle Ernest's wife, where she and Meta first lived. Dorothea was taken in by the progressive, civil rights vigor of their Unitarian Church. Remember, she was joining the Unitarian civil rights movement in the mid 1930's, 20-30 years before the Martin Luther King era. The Unitarian Church took in many Jewish refugees, accepting people of all beliefs, developing leaders in civil rights, women’s' rights, anti-war movements and gay rights. I never faulted my mother for aligning herself with the Unitarians, instead of the Jews, a religion and customs foreign to her. In fact, I admired her constant community activism, inducting me early, too. I started stuffing envelopes by age 12, a political activism that I continue to pass on to my children.

To Journal or to Tweet

I love to write. I have loved to write since my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Koch, insisted we keep a weekly journal (corny, yes). I remember writing about California landscapes and foggy ocean days, nothing too complex. But the thrill of conceptualizing the landscapes and the brilliant days, inspired me. I have continued to keep journals for decades: during junior year abroad at Freiburg University, describing many beer fests and wine fests and the international students and our travels. Throughout the years I emoted on paper, trying to problem solve. Stories of boyfriends, women friends and husband and family. I especially took time to write about the angst with my parents, and brothers. Writing about relationships can be rich and deep. There are endless entanglements and writing, hopefully, helps unentangle them.

My work has always included writing: reports, grants, analyses, evaluations and training development. It means lots of rewrites and edits/. Writing means endless emails, to groups and individuals – creating communication. It can be the most fulfilling part of my work.

But writing is so much more. Remember Oprah’s grateful Journals, turning us on to valuing the positive in our lives. Writing can also mean learning to write collaboratively. Collaborative writing can make you soar when you draft and edit the right words together. Sometimes, you may find you are writing by committee, which means having the patience to slog through and write by committee. But by developing a cooperative committee, it is possible to develop creative cooperative work.

Writing is not just 140 characters on twitter, though there can be an art to refining those 140 characters into a well-crafted tweet. Writing is not commenting on your nieces’s 100th picture of her new baby. However, social media has a place in our current communications and will continue to do so in many formats for years to come.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

American Copyright Law
with Respect to Music & the Digital Dilemma


Today, a principle of American law states that the author of a work may reap rewar
ds from their intellectual creativity for their lifetime and beyond. Copyright law is the protection provided by the government for an individual’s creativity or intellectual property including literary, dramatic, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, musical, and audiovisual creations. Recent advances in technology and trends in the music industry are forcing the government to rethink copyright law, especially protective law in the boom of the digital age.

With the rapid advance of technology and means of delivering digital content, the measures taken to protect the artist need change – there is a great need for a paradigm shift. Through the centuries artists have been concerned over new developments wiping out established markets. In 17th century England, writers thought the lending library would kill the need for book stores. In the 20th century, photocopying machines were going to be the end of the publishing business, and videotape the end of the movie industry. In each of these cases, the new technology actually developed more new markets than it affected the existing markets. Today, the music industry has been thrown into the ring first when it comes to dealing with the legalities and protections offered (or not) by current federal copyright law with respect to the newest wave - digital intellectual property.

Development of American Copyright

American copyright law originated in fifteenth century England with the invention of the printing press. In the beginning, copyright law only pertained to printed books and was a privilege given to printers alone. Original European copyright laws were imposed to regulate and control output from printers. Governments across Europe enforced copyright laws to establish control over printing businesses, requiring them to have official licenses in order to trade or publish books. A license gave a printer the exclusive right to print particular works for a fixed period of years, in order to prevent others from printing the same work during that period of time. The licenses could only grant rights to print in the territory that had granted them, and prohibited the import of foreign printing. The license was in effect for 14 years with a renewal for another 14 years if the author was still alive.

In 1709, Queen Anne’s parliament drafted and put into effect changes to copyright law in order to transfer its rights and privileges to the author as opposed to the printer. The 1710 Statute of Anne asserted to encourage learning by protecting the rights of the published author and the purchasers of his works. Seventy years later, J.S. Bach sued a publisher for selling unauthorized copies of his compositions and the Statute of Anne was revised to include the publication of sheet music.

By 1790, the United States’ first congress passed the first federal copyright law as part of the U.S. Constitution. The Act of 1790 covered books, maps, and charts. Like European copyright law before it, protecting music rights was not included. The expanded Copyright Act of 1831 did include protection laws for musical composition, but only the reproduction rights for printed sheet music. The term for protection for this federal copyright was 28 years plus a 14 year renewal period.

In Europe during this same period, France was leading the way to internationalize and protect the rights of the author (composer); a concept in contrast to the American copyright which dealt more with economic concerns. By 1887, the Berne Convention instated copyright to protect all creative works upon creation with no need to be asserted, declared, or registered. For countries adhering to this convention, the copyright was in effect across borders. There were eight original participating countries: France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia, and the UK. Today 76 countries comply with Berne Convention for the creative copyright, including the US.

By the end of the 19th century, copyright laws were in place to protect the rights of the composer and established music publishing as a viable business. It covered the right to create and print music, as well as, the right to collect revenue from all performance and recording rights. While each country’s government set their own copyright laws, lawmakers were starting to have an international perspective on protecting the world of music.

The Revision of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1909 addressed the difficulty of balancing the public interest with the rights of the composer. It specifically addressed securing adequate return to the composer for all public use of his works.

The next major revision to U.S. copyright law occurred in 1976. The 1976 Revision Act addressed two primary arenas: 1) technological advances and the increased ability to copy works, and 2) amending the statute in accordance with international copyright law, practices, and policies in anticipation of U.S. adherence to the Berne Convention (U.S. became the 25th signatory in 1988). The 1976 Revision also addressed for the first time “fair use.” It defined the four factors to consider in copying and using copyrighted works in teaching, learning, reporting, or researching situations: purpose and character of use, nature of the copyrighted work, amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the whole, and the effect of its use on the market.

Issues and Controversy Effecting Copyright Revision

Today it is understood that copyrighted music is the intellectual property of the composer, artist, publishing company, and recording company. Over the years, the record industry has had a monopoly on the way society listens to music. The advent of new technology has caused great controversy in the music industry and congress has had to act to update federal law to stay current with the changing times.

Technology Trends

In 1972, as a result of widespread copyright infringement due to copying vinyl records to magnetic tape, sound recordings became copyrightable for the first time. Soon controversy exploded again in the music industry, during the 1980’s, with the advent recordable audio cassettes. Consumers could now duplicate sound recordings from the radio, vinyl records, other cassette tapes, and compact disks. By 1992, Congress enacted the Audio Home Recording Act allowing consumers the freedom to transfer and record their music without being criminally or civilly liable of copyright infringement. The law also allowed the recording of television broadcasts to VCR for personal use only, not to be sold or distributed.

The distribution of music over the internet has caused significant controversy and debate over the digital copyright. It started in 1999 when a peer-to-peer file sharing program allowed computer users to swap and share digital music files, MP3. Consumers received Napster and the MP3 format with great enthusiasm. They started pulling MP3 files from their own CD’s (this is known as ripping). MP3 files were small enough in size that they could be copied, downloaded, and uploaded to be enjoyed in a variety of ways. Napster even became a popular venue for independent artists seeking fame and fortune.

As millions of consumers logged onto Napster, trading millions of sound recordings, thoughts of copyright infringement starting raising its ugly head. The recording industry as a whole file suit against Napster filing the company violated copyright law by facilitating other people’s infringement. Napster argued that the MP3 files were never in the company’s possession, therefore they were not guilty of copyright infringement. In the interim of all the court cases, some college students were charged and fined for copyright infringement, but in the end, Napster was found the most liable and ordered to shutdown.

Today operates as a subscription based site where subscribers can “Listen to unlimited music wherever you go and save your favorites to play even when you are not connected.” They profess to be the world’s largest provider of digital music collection with over 12 million full-length songs, no downloading or sharing involved. Subscribers can simply connect to on their internet-ready computers, phones, televisions, iPods, iPads, and etc.

As Napster fell, Apple Computer launched their online music store, iTunes. This Apple service allows users to pay for and legally download songs and albums. These downloaded songs are become the user’s permanent property to be burned to CDs, saved to up to three computers, or transferred to iPod digital music players. Unlike subscription services, users will not lose their rights to their purchased music.

Musical Trends

The 1994 U.S. Supreme Court copyright case established commercial parody qualifies as fair use. This case centered around the 2 Live Crew composition and recording of “Pretty Woman,” a parody of Roy Orbison’s ballad “Oh, Pretty Woman.” The group’s management had been denied their license request to produce and release the parody, but they did anyway. The Supreme Court overturned previous rulings reasoning that the fair use clause for “amount and substantiality” of what 2 Live Crew copied from the original lines and characteristic was aimed at setting up the parody and that the composition as a whole departed markedly from the original.

Over the last couple of decades there has been a new trend in popular music, known as sampling, that has been causing copyright battles. Sampling is the use of fragments of existing produced music, spoken words from movies or TV, in the composition of a new recording. It has actually been going on since the 1960’s when James Tenney created Collage #1 (“Blue Suede”) with samples from “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley. Many other artists at that time were experimenting with new tape-recording technology rearranging patterns and using snippets of speeches or news broadcasts.

The U.S. is the cradle of sampling and has also seen the first sampling litigation cases. In 1991, the copy infringement case against Grand Upright Music Ltd. and artist Biz Markie set a precedent in the Hip Hop Industry and the way the courts would deal with sampling. Henceforth, an artist must ensure all music sampling is preapproved by copyright owners.

Copyright cases involving sampling abound. A recent case, being criticized by many, is holding that sampling of even three notes could warrant copyright infringement. Today most artists are in the habit of obtaining prior authorization to using samples.


Through the centuries, music has played a key role in changing copyright law to protect the rights of the artist. As technology has changed, American society has changed the way we are entertained by music. Prior to 1940, society was entertained by playing and performing published music and copyright laws were in effect to protect publishers and composers of sheet music. Today, American’s have ready access to radio, television, internet, and sound recordings – we are now primarily entertained by professional entertainers, and copyright law now covers audio and visual recordings. Through it all, copyright law has changed to protect publishers, composers, and manufacturers of sound recordings.

In today’s U.S. economy, the role of information products and services is growing at a rapid and phenomenal rate. The federal government is having to change copyright law by adding an Information Sector that addresses economic importance, as well as, the kinship of publishing (print and software), motion picture and sound recording, radio and television broadcasting, libraries, and information and data processing services. The vast use of technology and the global reach of the World Wide Web have added substantially to the production and abundance of information in digital form.

Lawmakers have their work cut out for them staying on top of those who would intentionally take advantage of the world’s largest library; the world’s largest copying machine.


Figure 1:, Article: “United States Copyright Law.”

Figure 2:, Article: “Napster.”

Source of Information, Article: “Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic works.”, Article: “Statute of Anne.”, The National Academies Press, “The Digital Dilemma,” 2000.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Is There an iCloud in My Future or Yours?

Steve Jobs keeps making iPads, iPhones, and Macs more seductive.

Take the time to watch the keynote address that Jobs and his lieutenants delivered early in June at Apple's World Wide Developers' Conference.
I've been working on my Apple resistance lately. Do I really need that iPad? Can't I make do with the computers I have already? At a certain point, I know I'm going to succumb. Recently I've tried to swear my allegiance to Google. When my hard disk crashed recently, I was very grateful to Google for having all of my email and my contacts in its cloud. I love being able to look at my Gmail while I'm online at any computer or while I'm using Google Voice. When I look at the traffic patterns on Google Maps, I'm thrilled finally to have good information about whether to take Highway 101 or 280 into San Francisco. But the iPad is so seductive…and It somehow seems easier, friendlier….
My resistance isn't going to last much longer.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Divine proportion

Here is a project I did in my Visual Design for Technical Communication class at UCBX a month ago. We were given the procedure to draw a golden section the way the Ancient Greeks did it (without a ruler) as written in the image below. We practiced drawing in class with a straight edge and a piece of string. Then we went home with the assignment of illustrating the procedure with the software tool of our choice. 

(click on the image to enlarge)

I worked with Microsoft Visio, which I know well, and started by dividing my page into nested golden rectangles. The whole image, title excluded, has the proportions of a golden rectangle. The nine drawings on the right form a square and the rest of the image on the left forms another golden rectangle. In this second golden rectangle, the procedure forms a square and the top of the image forms an even smaller golden rectangle. Then in this third golden rectangle, the summary drawing forms a square and the equations form one last golden rectangle. 

I then divided the procedure into nine steps and illustrated them in gray and red. The red represents the new segments and circles that need to be drawn. The existing lines that are necessary for each step are shown in light gray. The lines that are not needed are not shown, for clarity. I combined all the lines in a colorful summary drawing to give an overall picture of the procedure.

I also did the math–for fun, but also to make sure I had everything right–and included the equations on the page as a reference.

My final touch was to choose contrasting fonts* and to box the numbered steps into mini golden rectangles for repetition–one of Robin Williams' four design principles. And voilĂ .

* Bauhaus 93 (titles)
Bookman Old Style (text)
Vladimir Script (signature)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Can You Tell Me Your Stories?

Do you like telling stories? What are your stories? Everywhere I go, people are talking about telling stories.

If you tell stories, you will present yourself more authentically.
  • And if you present yourself more authentically, your message will have greater resonance.
  • And, with greater resonance, more people will respond to what you have to say.
This emphasis on stories marks a major change in how people are encouraged to communicate.

Up until recently, both in corporations and in classrooms, the usual response to stories was "Get to the point. Why are you telling me a story?" Stories were thought of as something that people told for entertainment or to amuse children...or for legal testimony. They weren't appropriate for business....

What's changed?

We live in a fishbowl. In between Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter--and all the rest--people now are compelled to present their more human sides. I can't just describe myself as an MBA and a former university writing instructor. That description has no color. When I go to Facebook, I'm asked questions about which books I like and what music, my life philosophy, and so forth and so on.... My picture on Facebook looks a little different, a little less business-like than the one that I have on LinkedIn.

The line between our professional lives and our personal lives is blurring rapidly and soon may not exist at all. Is this good or bad? Making any value judgment about this change is irrelevant: it's just the way it is.

Can you tell me your stories? I'll tell you some of mine in my next blog entry.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A day with Edward Tufte

I first encountered Edward Tufte in my technical editing class at UCBX. Two chapters of his books were used as a starting point to discussing the importance of presenting accurate, complete, and readable information in a way that makes the evidence surface by itself. Good analytical design saved London from the cholera in the nineteenth century. It would have saved the passengers of the Columbia and Challenger space shuttles if only PowerPoint and chart junk hadn't been in the way. Our instructor described Tufte as the guru of visual and statistical design—a man you wouldn't want to miss if he came your way. So when the time came of his yearly visit to California, I immediately enrolled in his one-day course.

I arrived at the hotel's conference room in San Jose well in advance, as instructed, and was handed a beautiful case containing Tufte's four self-published books. The room was immense. There were at least five hundreds of us, quietly seated, discovering these four pieces of art while classical music was floating around us. The books were so beautifully made that, at first, I didn't dare flipping the pages by fear of damaging them. My heart nearly stopped when my neighbor spilled coffee on the table inches away from my copy of Beautiful Evidence. I got up to have two of my books autographed by the master of ceremony. He was greeting everyone with the same few words, which sounded like a rhyme: "What do you do? Where do you work?" And people would tell him a few things about them. All I shyly came up with was: "I studied two chapters of your books," to which he answered: "Well, you have a lot more to read!"

Back in my seat, the course began. We listened to a piano piece by Chopin while little colored segments were displayed on a screen in rhythm, one next to the other, at a height proportional to the pitch of the notes. (There is an example here.) I could see the music even better than I could hear it: its rhythm, its melody, its intertwined patterns, and its overall "shape"... I could anticipate what I would hear next. It was breathtaking. And it introduced all the key ideas of the course: how the abundance of detail (data, not decoration), presented all at once, clarifies the design and gives the audience a multitude of points of view, enabling them to compare data at various levels, and draw conclusions.

We spent the rest of the day reading excerpts of Tufte's books and analyzing their myriad of wonderful graphics, some as old as Galileo's sunspot drawings. Each example reinforced the principles introduced with the piano piece, and added depth to them. Here are a few sentences I wrote down during the course:

  • Graphics should provide two things: information (the reader must understand the story) and reasons to believe the information (the reader will assess the story's credibility).
  • High-resolution designs are genuinely interactive.
  • "Whatever it takes" principle. Show as many data as it takes to let the evidence speak for itself.
  • Comparison is at the heart of the intellectual task of processing information.
  • In a design, try to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. Avoid boxes around titles, dark lines, and clutter (noise) in general.
  • Never sort tables alphabetically. Order by performance.
  • Maximize content.
  • The principles of analytical design are based on the principles of analytical thinking: causality, comparison of multiple variants, credibility, etc.
  • Help comparisons by presenting data adjacent in space rather than stacked in time. (For example, present all on one page rather than on two pages, front and back. Use high-resolution print-outs rather than PowerPoint slide shows.)
  • All presentations should provide a super-graphic.
  • Don't attract attention to the method used to present the data.
  • Use good models to avoid amateur design.
Tufte's love for rare books, art, and science was really contagious. The day went by quickly despite the overwhelming amount of images and information that was presented. I went home with my four precious books, the head full of new perspectives on statistical design, knowing that, indeed, I had far more to read.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Keep it Simple – A Technical Communicator’s Golden Rule

Recently, in my technical writing class, I was given the assignment of finding a bad writing sample to present to the class. For some time the phrase “dangling participle” had been bouncing around in my head. If someone came up to me on the street and asked for a sample of one, did I even remember whether it was good or bad writing? Much less, come up with a sample of one? So this is where I decided to start my Google search. Good old Wikipedia cleared up the good or bad writing question:
A dangling participle is an error in sentence structure whereby a grammatical modifier is associated with a word other than the one intended, or with no particular word at all. For example, a writer may have meant to modify the subject, but word order makes the modifier seem to modify an object instead. Such ambiguities can lead to unintentional humor or difficulty in understanding a sentence.”
Well, clear that a dangling participle would be a sample of bad writing, but I couldn’t really make sense of the definition until I looked through a few samples:
  • Turning the corner, a handsome school building appeared.
  • At the age of eight, my family finally bought a dog.
  • Walking down Main Street, the trees were beautiful.
  • Reaching the station, the sun came out.
Okay, handsome school buildings don’t turn corners, or heads for that matter. A family’s age is not usually a topic of conversation. Beautiful trees don’t walk down the street and the sun doesn’t usually come out when it reaches the station. I remember now what a dangling participle is, but I’m not sold on turning this in for my assignment. So my web searching continued.

Next I happened upon the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest sponsored annually, since 1982, by San Jose State University’s English department. The contest was started by a SJSU professor who discovered the originator of comic-strip-hero Snoopy’s favorite phrase to start a novel, “It was a dark and stormy night; …” The originator was Edward George Bulwer-Lytton who opened his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, with the infamous line:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
Contestants in the Bulwer-Lytton contest are asked to compose and enter the opening sentence of a bad novel. I read through several entries from over the years and found a favorite that I thought to present in class, but questioned using a contest winning piece of bad writing. Then I saw a link to Sticks and Stones, a page where contest followers had submitted published authors who might have won the Bulwer-Lytton.

Since I do have a tendency to ramble in my own writing, and want to put into practice what I’m learning - technical writing is all about communication, clarity, and conciseness – I decided to use one of these actually published samples. The final choice for my “Bad Writing Sample” assignment is a subtle reminder of a couple of things:
  • why I didn’t always complete literary reading assignments in high school,
  • how as a technical communicator, I need to always serve the reader – keep it simple.
I hope you enjoy the following work, and you too will take home a good lesson in how to be a better communicator. Keep in mind that Mr. Melville’s excerpt is one page of a seven page chapter, a one sentence paragraph, with a 469 wordcount.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale

“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title 'Lord Of The White Elephants' above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides all this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal sympathies and symbolisings, this same hue is made the emblem of many touching, noble things -- the innocence of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was the deepest pledge of honour; though in many climes, whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”