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O’Reilly has been churning out technical literature of unbeatable quality for as long as there has been a real IT industry. In recent years, they have branched into hobbyist and educational material, particularly including the Make series of periodicals and books that has not only reignited numerous hobbyist markets but also spawned its own set of conferences, the Maker Faires. DIY is enjoying a renaissance, and Make is at the forefront. I love pretty much everything about Make, but one of the most recent books under the Make brand exceeds even the high bar they have already set for themselves. I am referring to Charles Platt‘s Make:Electronics, which I have finally managed to pry from my 12-year-old’s eyeballs long enough to review.

I was sort of obsessed with electronics when I was a kid (insert collective “duh” from anyone who knows me). I read anything I could get my hands on, which unfortunately ended up being the Radio Shack catalog and a set of musty library books that seemed as though they were written in a foreign language. I pored over schematics and took things apart, much to my parents’ dismay, in a vain effort to figure out just what made all those wires and components tick. I would have to say that, overall, I failed. I did manage to occasionally fix broken radios and such, but it was always by luck in finding a loose connection or a physically broken component. I simply didn’t understand what all the little pieces did individually, so it was impossible to fathom what they did in concert.

Eventually I turned 16 and migrated to cars, which had actual moving parts, but a little part of me always pined to know how the solid state stuff worked. I took enough basic electrical engineering classes in college to gain a basic, dry understanding what resistors and capacitors and transistors were, but the magic of them was gone and I ended up in computer science instead, learning software algorithms instead of electrical traces. (And then music and writing…. nothing can quench the fire in the belly like a dry, boring college class.) I still kept an eye out, but every electronics book I found frustrated me by its complexity, vagueness, and punishing attention to mathematics—I actually like math and I couldn’t get through these books. I know from talking to others that I am not the only propellerhead with this experience.

When I encountered Make:Electronics in January, I figured it was yet another in the long series of confusing, math-heavy electronics books that had so thoroughly quenched my fiery interest in the subject.

I could not have been more wrong.

Make:Electronics is the book every single propellerhead wishes that they had had when they were 12 years old. Or any age. I’m not kidding. This book is the most approachable primer to electronic components and circuits that I have ever read, and I have read a LOT of them. It is friendly, well paced, full of good illustrations, and full of well-grounded metaphors that bring each component to life. I can honestly say that I never quite understood how capacitors worked until I read that section in this book, and now I will never forget.

This information is all packaged in the wonderful Make philosophy that breaking things (ok, small, easily replaced things) is a good way to learn about them, and indeed the book contains vivid instructions for burning up one battery and licking another, for “broiling” an LED, and for performing several other “dangerous” or destructive tasks in a controlled way that enables you to actually see what is happening. These are all things that I had to discover for myself, but with no one watching over my shoulder to explain what was going on I ended up discovering them repeatedly and wastefully. The book’s subtitle is “Learning by Discovery”, although what I found most satisfying was that the discovery was accompanied by friendly instruction.

Perhaps the most important feature of this book is the obvious love and almost childlike fascination that Charles Platt brings to the text. Platt is a science fiction author as well as a contributing editor to Wired and an important interviewer of other authors. Platt’s writing skill is obvious, but more obvious to me at least is his desire to teach, and his joy in doing so. That joy leaks out of every page and it is utterly infectious.

In short, Make:Electronics is a wonderful book that should be required reading for anyone with even the slightest interest in the subject. In fact, it should be the first and possibly the only reading you do, at least until Charles Platt writes another one. I have never written a book review this positive, but I honestly can’t say enough good things about it.

Note: The Maker Shed also provides a related tool kit and (soon) components packs, although there is a distinct happiness in going down to your local electronics shop and sourcing the parts yourself. If you buy the tool kit, note that the book is included.

I have been reading Scott Berkun‘s Confessions of a Public Speaker (O’Reilly, 2009) for literally two months now. It isn’t that it is hard to read, or boring, as it is neither of these. In fact, the reason is that I keep finding things I want to follow up, or to try out myself, and in doing so I frequently set the book down and actually go out and do things. That is the highest form of praise I can give for Confessions. Let me explain.

Scott Berkun was a Microsoft flunky for many years, and worked on the Internet Explorer team in its earlier days. However, he eventually found his calling as a business analyst, and has since combined this knowledge with a natural flair for the written word and become a top business author, writing most often on project management and innovation. He is also well-known for being an engaging public speaker, and has given advice to many sectors, from Fortune 500 companies to Ignite! crowds.

Somewhere along the way, it occurred to him to write a book on public speaking, a subject on which everyone I know in my industry (computer software) could use some pointers. Everyone. When I saw on O’Reilly’s site that this book was coming out in November, I actually pre-ordered it, knowing conference season was approaching and hopefully I could gain some tips that would help my somewhat-feeble presentations. I actually got a lot more than I had planned.

To be fair, as Scott says in the book, the bar for public speaking is rather low, and he explains in great detail why this is. Writing from memory, what I have taken from the book is that speakers often fail to inspire their crowds because:

  • they concentrate more on their slides than on knowledge of the subject material
  • they read from their slides
  • they don’t practice
  • they don’t take steps (like exercising first) to relax onstage

This list is not exhaustive, but they are the ones that stuck in my mind. Not only am I guilty of all of these, but nearly every college professor and conference speaker I have encountered does them all the time. There is positive advice, as well (this list is also not exhaustive):

  • study good public speakers, both in your sphere (Dirk Hohndel and Jono Bacon are good ones in the Linux world) and outside it (comedians rank much higher than politicians!)
  • know your material by practicing. seriously.
  • make 5 points, memorize what they are, and separate them from the arguments that support them, so that even if your laptop explodes you can still make your points and walk away
  • remember, the audience is far more forgiving of your talk than you are
  • make your points and finish early, don’t fill time

Obviously I took away much more of the positive than the negative.

One thing I found fascinating was that very little of the discussion is new. Most of it can be found in Dale Carnegie’s books, and the rest can be learned from a handful of visits to your local Toastmasters group. The magic in Scott’s book is not that the material is new, but that his naturally approachable tone and his credentials as a geek spoke to me in a way that Carnegie never could.

So what things did I go out and do? The first thing I did was to look at the last talk I gave, and reduced the material by half. I realized that I only had one point to make with it, but I thought that I had to fill up time in order to justify my existence. In doing so, I’m sure I must have bored the crowd to tears. I also took a look at the slide deck from a talk I gave a few years ago, and found that I really liked it—but then I took a look at the video of it and was horrified that I looked like a robot! No wonder so many people went to sleep. Now I have a flip camera and a willingness to use it.

The only thing I found missing from the book was a “how to create fantastic slides” section, though this omission was not an oversight on his part. His point in the book is that being engaging as a speaker is far more important than having eloquent slides, and I take his point readily. However, I do want to create engaging slides as well, as many people will download my slides to read after the conference and will never have the chance to hear me talk about them. For that, I am also reading Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology (O’Reilly, 2009), which will be the subject of my next review.

And yes, I do have a vested interest in promoting these books, though it isn’t quite what you might think. My motivation for reviewing them is even more selfish than that—with the advent of conference season, I want to see more engaging presentations! So many of them have fascinating material that is given in an unapproachable way, through no fault of the speaker. I am hopeful that getting the word out about these books will help change that.

So what about that highest praise? I think Scott would agree that the most important part of improving oneself as a public speaker is to go out and do something, not to sit around and read. I heard Scott speak at a Creative Techs event last night, and he made the point that actors go onstage prepared—they rehearse, they get into character. If someone gave me a good book on how to play the guitar, I could read it forward and backward and never actually learn how to play. Confessions has actually inspired me to DO, not just to read, and that is a very beneficial thing.

If you have also read Confessions and/or slide:ology, let me know in the comments what you think.

I just finished reading Anne Gentle‘s Conversation and Community, freshly available from new publisher XMLPress. Anne is an ex-BMC technical writer who has done a considerable amount of work with FLOSS Manuals in documenting the OLPC laptop, and is obviously well-versed in both open-source documentation and social media. The book is designed to give technical writers and other information developers an overview of the tools and techniques available now for documenting products and communicating with end-users through social media and other non-traditional methods.

As a technical writer and community manager, I am exactly the target market for this book, so it is no wonder that I think it is an excellent resource that is long overdue. What surprised me was the depth with which she covered her subjects, the extensive yet highly selective quality of references in the book, and the sheer number of strategies that I hadn’t yet encountered even as a professional in this area.

The most important point Anne makes in the book is that documentation as we know it is changing dramatically. Practically all of the basic tenets of technical documentation are in question. Users depend far more often on advice from random strangers via mailing lists, community forums, and search engines than they do on the technical documentation that comes with the product. I have seen this to be true even for highly technical concepts and tools. This is not news to anyone who has ever used Google to find the answer to a technical question rather than looking in the docs, but it was fascinating to see that phenomenon addressed in such a way that my opinions of it were actually changed. Like many technical writers, I have a lingering fear that I will someday be obsolete and that my job of communicating technical issues to users of technology will be taken over by amateurs in ad-hoc communities. Anne gently reminds us that it is the quantity of information that is skyrocketing, not the quality, and that our jobs as technical communicators are more important than ever in making that information “findable”, even if that means abandoning what we traditionally think of as documentation. What I took away from this aspect of the book was the overwhelming necessity to make human connections, even in technical documentation, an idea that resonates strongly with my own role as a community builder. Chapter 3 spells it out best as “Defining a Writer’s Role with the Social Web”.

The book catalogs the available tools and strategies from several different viewpoints based on documentation strategy—in other words, use cases—rather than simply providing an annotated list. Anne specifically points to references and in-the-trenches stories that underscore her points in a very effective way. The subject that brought me the most “aha!” moments was that of wikis. I use wikis on a daily basis, but there were certain aspects of them that I had overlooked. There were so many interesting references in all sections that I felt compelled to stop reading the book and follow them, which is not a criticism of the writing but rather of the sheer amount of information out there. The consistent, confident, professional tone kept me riveted to the book, but I am now going back over every page and following links.

I was very glad to see the discussion of community metrics kept to a minimum. So much is made in community literature of the bean-counting logins, unique views, and value recognition systems inside communities that the valuable human connection is lost in the process. Anne avoided that by bringing up the subject, explaining the important parts, and then getting back to the business of describing the value of the human connection in conveying information. Also very welcome was the extended discussion of open documentation and “crowdsourcing“, and its value both to the product/project being documented and to the community who uses it. Even five years ago, encouraging amateur involvement in the process of educating users (and, more pointedly, customers) would have been an outrageous thought. In particular, the value of freely-donated documentation such as that in FLOSS Manuals extends to both the reader and the writer in non-obvious ways. I have seen the value for myself since my involvement in writing GNU documentation many years ago, but I have never seen it described this succinctly before.

The only quibbles I have with the book are not quibbles at all, but differences of opinion. The book failed to convince me that Twitter or any other “microblogging” tool is a technology for technical communication, or even a viable channel for technical support, regardless of the companies who are now experimenting with just that. In fact, my editor noted very dryly that Twitter is a sort of “write-only” medium in which everyone is talking but very few are listening, like a family reunion. Perhaps it will evolve into something more, but I think it is more likely that it will disappear like the hampsterdance, and we will get something different in its place. (I am saying this as a regular “tweeter” myself.) I feel the same way about Second Life.

Chapter by chapter, this is what the book presents:

1. Towards the Future of Documentation
2. Concepts and Tools of the Social Web
3. Defining a Writer’s Role with the Social Web
4. Community and Documentation
5. Commenting and Connecting with Users
6. Wikis and Open Documentation Systems
7. Finding your Voice

There are also 25 pages of glossary, index, recommended reading, and appendices.

I highly recommend this book to both technical communicators and those involved in social media and community. My copy is going straight to my boss’ desk.

PS. The universe sought to underscore the pervasiveness of social media in modern communications while I was writing this review. A message came through on a mailing list to which I subscribe with the subject “INCORPORATING SOCIAL MEDIA INTO DISASTER COMMUNICATIONS”. This mailing list is populated mostly by firefighters and ham radio operators who form communications nets in the event of large-scale emergencies (like earthquakes), not the usual social media crowd. More evidence of the power of communities, and the modern fuels that feed them.