A useful Acrobat feature

September 23rd, 2014

The other day I created a PDF of one of our manuals so I could easily search through all of the files – something that I couldn’t do without otherwise creating a Word master document (and I don’t want to go there right now). The manual consists of 26 files plus a front matter file that contains the RD fields used to pull in the information for the table of contents and index.

Acrobat XI has a feature that lets you create a PDF from multiple files or a directory of files. It works fine, other than being a bit slow. However, because our manual’s file names don’t include a number for sequencing, I had to manually put them in the proper order. That task is tedious.

The first time I built the PDF, I checked to see if there was any way of saving the set of files so I wouldn’t have to do the sequencing over again the next time I wanted to update the book, and didn’t see one.  However,  I missed one option. In the menu for the Combine Files into a Single PDF window, there is a Reuse Files option. Select that and it brings up a list of PDFs you have previously created by combining files. You can then select the PDF and update the files.

I’m glad I noticed that. It saves a lot of time.

Chaos Manor Reviews is back

September 22nd, 2014

Jerry Pournelle has resumed publishing his computer review column, Chaos Manor Reviews, which was the successor to his influential Byte Magazine column. It’s been on hiatus for about three years, while he recovered from radiation therapy to treat a brain tumour. He’ll still be writing a monthly column, but it’ll be published in weekly installments.

Pournelle has been writing about computers for more than 30 years which brings a perspective to his column that many younger reviewers lack. While I don’t agree with his political views, he mostly keeps them out of Chaos Manor Reviews, reserving political discussions for his long running daybook at The View from Chaos Manor.

The great 1952 space program

September 21st, 2014

Here’s a largely forgotten piece of space exploration history. In 1952, the magazine Colliers assembled a panel of experts to develop a plan for the exploration of space, including trips to the moon and Mars. By modern standards, it was incredibly grandiose, and it probably wouldn’t have been practical, but it was certainly inspirational.

Colliers moon landingio9 has an overview of the series along with some of the wonderful illustrations. Horizons, the newsletter of the Houston chapter of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, recently republished the original Colliers articles.

U.S. to have two new manned spacecraft

September 16th, 2014

NASA has finally picked the companies that will build capsules to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. Both Boeing and SpaceX have been selected. Having two different vehicles (and launchers) is a good thing.

After a four-year competition, NASA has tapped the commerical spaceflight companies SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil by 2017, agency officials announced today (Sept. 16). If all goes according to plan, the two companies will reduce or end NASA’s dependence on Russia for its orbital taxi service. Russia’s Soyuz has been NASA’s only crew access to space since the space shuttle fleet retired in 2011.

“Today’s announcement sets the stage for what promises to be the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of NASA and human spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters today. [SpaceX's Manned Dragon Spaceship in Pictures]

The choice reflects a melding of old and new; Boeing has been an aerospace mainstay for decades, while billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk founded SpaceX just a dozen years ago, in 2002.

More worries about Ebola

September 14th, 2014

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa continues to spread with no signs it is slowing down – indeed, just the opposite. Epidemiologists are beginning to get worried – seriously worried.

Some may ask why the United States should play this role. Well, no one country is doing enough. We have the expertise and the personnel to tackle this challenge. From a humanitarian and medical perspective, we have a moral obligation to provide care to those who need it, wherever they may live. Nancy Writebol, an American missionary who survived Ebola, said she hoped a silver lining in her brush with death would be increased attention to the plight of her “brothers and sisters in Africa.” She recognizes a sad truth about her own story: Without American victims, Americans might not care.

But go beyond humanitarianism: Epidemics destabilize governments, and many governments in West Africa have a very short history of stability. U.S. aid would improve global security. And consider the issue of “health security.” Microbes don’t respect borders. Now that Ebola is spreading in Nigeria, a global travel hub, cases are sure to appear outside the continent. While one Ebola case in the United States is unlikely to spark an outbreak, things could change if the virus becomes more easily transmittable. We already know it’s mutating.

Some info on API technical writing

September 11th, 2014

Documenting APIs (application programming interfaces) is one of the most difficult tasks for technical writers. But if you have the talent and some programming knowledge, it can be rewarding, both intellectually and financially. Writers who can document code are in high demand and are paid at the high end of the scale.

Sarah Maddox recently gave a talk about documenting APIs to the STC Silicon Valley chapter. She’s posted a lot the material from that talk online along with links to resources on the subject.

Yesterday I was privileged and delighted to speak at a meeting of the STC Silicon Valley Chapter in Santa Clara. Thanks so much to Tom Johnson and David Hovey for organising the meeting, and thank you too to all the attendees. It was a lovely experience, with a warm, enthusiastic and inspiring audience. This post includes some links for people who’d like to continue playing with the APIs we saw last night and delving deeper into the world of API documentation.

The presentation is on SlideShare: API Technical Writing: What, Why and How. (Note that last night’s presentation didn’t include slide 51.) The slides include a number of links to further information.

The presentation is a technical writer’s introduction to APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) and to the world of API documentation. I hope it’s useful to writers who’ve had very little exposure to APIs, as