Update: CiviCRM Manual Launched!

The CiviCRM manual is now complete, and available at FLOSS Manuals.

Here’s the news release, emphasizing the … shall we say “unusual”? … reality that the documentation is released BEFORE the software itself. With user docs often an afterthought in open source development communities, it’s great that the CiviCRM team really put a great deal of energy into the documentation, as well as the code.

Most of the book was written over a long weekend, described here (by me) and here (by the CiviCRM team). It was great fun, and I hope to contribute again soon.

Six Days Till WriteCamp2 in Milwaukee!

Hey folks, there’s still time to make plans to attend WriteCamp2 in Milwaukee next weekend! This camp is for you if your interests lie toward the written (or typed) word. Bloggers, poets, journalists, business and technical writers, fiction and nonfiction writers – we want to see you! Any other writers, and would-be writers I left out – yes, you too!

You can read about what I’m doing at WriteCamp at my other site. In brief, I’ll be leading a discussion about the future of American journalism, and doing something related to WordPress. I’ll have copies of WordPress in Depth on hand, and a pen to sign them with. I’ll also be at the pre-party Friday night, having some fun.

But WriteCamp is not entirely about the published and famous laying out the One True Path to publishing fame, because there isn’t any such thing. WriteCamp is about every participant sharing their passion and knowledge about whatever writing-related topic strikes them.

Hope to see you in my hometown!

Rockin’ FLOSS Manuals: The CiviCRM book sprint

If you use open source software, and aren’t a programmer, you may wonder how you can give back to the community that provides you with such marvelous tools at no-to-little cost.  At the same time, maybe you’ve run into a problem running some piece of open source software, clicked F1 or otherwise looked for some help in doing something—and found little or no help on offer. There’s a way to solve both these problems: Check out, and get involved with, the FLOSS Manuals project.

Recently I’ve made the time to participate in one of the more fun institutions of the FLOSS Manuals project: the Book Sprint. Programmers of all stripes know about sprints, the Agile technique of defining a set period of time when some new software gets finished. In the open source world, sprints are times where usually far-flung volunteer development teams gather in some specific place for a long weekend for a coding intensive session. New versions don’t necessarily come out of the sprint, but usually it moves a lot closer to “done.” FLOSS Manual book sprints bring writers (and often, programmers) together aiming to finish a manual, new or updated. Occasionally new manuals are even created from nothing in a weekend. The best part is that you don’t always have to get on an airplane to participate. Remote folks are welcome!

Our task for the last weekend in April was to complete a major updating of the CiviCRM user guide. This web application designed as a Drupal module, and now also a  Joomla! extension, is built like a customer relationship manager (hence the CRM) for nonprofits and political organizations. This makes it more like a community organizer’s best friend.

Counting FLOSS Manuals founder Adam Hyde, and O’Reilly editor Andy Oram, there were about a half-dozen participants gathered somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area and two remote copy editors: Me in Milwaukee, and Helen in New Zealand. The writers were busy all day Saturday, and delivered the first chapters to the copy editors late Sunday. Throughout the sprint, a chat stream kept everyone together to get questions answered and occasionally engage in the usual banter. You could access the chat both from a standard IRC client and directly from the Sprint page at FLOSS Manuals. Other communication took place on the FLOSS Manuals standard discussion list, which you can sign up for here.

The editing took place directly on the FLOSS Manuals site, with the standard visual editor (TinyMCE?) Checking out chapters for editing, and checking in edited material was quite simple. If you’ve ever used a tool like Google Docs (or the WordPress visual editor), you can handle this. It may not be overly complicated, but it works very well.

On Tuesday, the sprint ended, and the revision was formally released. But the copy editing continues, and I should be getting back to it!

Seriously, this project is for you if you fit any or all of these characteristics:

  • You are passionate about open source software
  • You like describing how software works to others
  • You want to see if technical writing/communication might be an appropriate career move, but don’t know how to get experience
  • You like hanging out with geeks and/or writers, either in Real Life or virtually

Hope to see some of you over at FLOSS Manuals soon! Look over the projects, and if you see something you’d like to help with, register and have at it. If you want to write about a particular open source project that isn’t listed here, mention it on the mailing list and you can organize your own sprint!

For another perspective on the sprint, visit the CiviCRM Blog posts on the sprint.

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Celebrating Ursula K. LeGuin

Today (March 24) is Ada Lovelace Day, the second annual celebration of women in science and technology. Bloggers from all over (if perhaps a little weighted towards the UK and the Northern Hemisphere) have pledged to write about women that inspire them. I’m proud to be involved.

As a professional writer, I’m naturally drawn to others with an affinity for words and sentences. I’m especially fond of those who use their facility with words to change the world and make it a more just and humane place. Last year, I told you about Ronda Hauben, the auto worker who knew the future was in building electronic communities. This year, I want to highlight someone with a little higher profile, but who has also used her writing to help us along the path.

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (please explore the topography of the home page before clicking Enter)  is a writer of superlative speculative fiction, but maybe you know that already. Wikipedia, as usual, offers an excellent introduction to Le Guin’s life and career. Fantastic Fiction also has a nice bibliography (though the site looks like it hasn’t been redesigned since 1997). But what does a fiction writer who seems more interested in social issues rather than hard science have to do with Ada Lovelace?

Well, science is a broad category, and Le Guin (UKL, for short) clearly shares her father’s interest in what makes humans (and humanoids) tick. UKL shines a light on contemporary society through the descriptions of alien cultures. As she put it in a recent interview with a science blogger: “‘The future’ in most science fiction is just a metaphor for ‘us, here, now.'” But it isn’t entirely because of her writing that I’m paying tribute today.

If you care about writing, creativity, and the ability to make a living from same, you’ll be wise to follow the court battle over Google’s plan to digitize and effectively own every book ever created. It’s one thing to want to create a free digital library available to all. It’s quite another to create that library in the interest of profit.

UKL resigned from the Author’s Guild when that organization (along with a batch of publishers) agreed to a settlement of the copyright infringement case against Google. She helped mobilize the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the National Writers Union to oppose the settlement. And with the help of the US Justice Department, we just might win.

Thanks, Ms. Le Guin, for being inspirational in both your writing, and in helping us to understand that the struggle for our rights never ends.

Now it’s your turn. There’s a lot of time for you to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day. If you blog, check out Finding Ada and sign up. If not, comment here about women in science and tech that helped make you what you are today. Feel free to comment on the Google Settlement and Ursula K. Le Guin too! Check out the other ALD10 blogs too.

WordPress in Depth: Soon at a Bookstore Near You

It’s always exciting for an author of any sort: a few days ago, I got my author copies of WordPress in Depth. This means the book is making its way through the distribution channels. Thus, if you live in a decent-sized city that hosts a bookstore with a decently-sized computer book section, you should be able to see the striking white and blue cover of the In Depth series.

This being the modern age, books are also available online. You’ve got options, of course:

The website upgrade at michaelmccallister.com is taking a little longer than expected, but should be ready in a few days.

Another exciting thing: I’m speaking to the new Milwaukee PHP User Group on April 13. More on that as we get closer to the event.

More Free and Open Source Tools for Writers

It’s funny how social media can work so well sometimes. I happened to be playing with a new Twitter client (Choqok for KDE, if you must know) over the weekend and TweetOpenSource had a link to 100 Awesome Open Source Tools for Writers, Journalists, and Bloggers. After a quick look, I retweeted the link.

Anne Wayman, who used to run the Freelance Writing page at About.com, and has since struck out on her own, saw my retweet and posted it on her blog. I’m now returning the favor (Thanks, Anne!).

Anyway, the list is interesting. While not everything on the list is open source (Evernote for sure, and perhaps there are others that I’m not aware of), everything is free. All the tools I talked about at the WritersUA conference are on this list. I haven’t used a bunch of these tools, and I look forward to trying many of them.

A couple of notes and quibbles:

  • I would have switched the categories of LyX and Scribus. LyX is a document manager and writing tool. Scribus is a desktop publisher that prefers that you write your content elsewhere and import it on to a page.
  • NeoOffice was created as a Mac version of OpenOffice, but now that OOo has its own Mac version, I don’t know if NeoOffice is still in production. Could be wrong, though.
  • Azureus has a new name, Vuze.
  • It’s been a long time since NVU has been in production. If you’re interested in a simple web authoring system, KompoZer might suit you better.
  • The list cheats a little, in that Pidgin is the new name for the Gaim instant messenger (AOL was never too happy with the old moniker).

But overall, if you’re new to open source tools, this list is a great place to start.

What do you think of the list? What’s missing? Anything that doesn’t belong? Comment freely.

Upcoming Midwest Gatherings for Writers, Technical and Otherwise

I’ve been busy working on a summary of my WritersUA Conference experience, but while I’m doing that, the first week in June is shaping up to be a great time for writers in the Midwest (and elsewhere) to get together and talk in the next few months.

  • June 2-5: The DocTrain DITA Conference is in Indianapolis. For the rest of April, they have a pretty amazing special going, acknowledging the difficulty in getting people to come to conferences in a deep recession. if you call them at 978-649-8555 to register, you can get the two-day conference registration (on the 3rd and 4th), hands-on software and DITA skills workshops on the 2nd and 5th, all meals, AND three nights at the conference hotel for $999. The only other money you’d have to come up with is transportation. While that still works out to $250 a day, that’s still within many companies reach, and will be an important investment for folks looking at the Darwin Information Typing Architecture. That should be just about everyone involved in online user assistance.
  • June 6-7: WordCampChicago is likely to be a great time to learn more about WordPress, the platform that this and many other blogs run on. Lisa Sabin-Wilson of WordPress for Dummies fame is involved. Matt Mullenweg will give a “State of the Word” address on Saturday, and many other great things will undoubtedly happen. Of course, it’s all free of charge. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to be there, because I will be at…
  • June 6: WriteCampMilwaukee, a first-of-its-kind (that I know of anyway) unconference for writers of all genres. OnMilwaukee.com covered it in a short piece today. I’m going to do a session on getting into technical writing, and maybe introduce folks to the National Writers Union too. So if you write for a living, or write just to live, come share with us.

Finally, if you work on documentation for open source projects, you should think about hitting one more June conference: Writing Open Source in Owen Sound, Ontario on June 12-14. This is an intriguing idea, and while I may not have the resources to go, hope springs eternal.

All in all, some great opportunities.

Ada Lovelace Day +1: Honoring Ronda Hauben

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, a day to honor women in technology. When I first heard about the event, I knew instantly who I wanted to honor. Though we never met, this woman helped inspire me to participate in the community that is the Internet. I’d lost track of what she was doing over the years, so I had to do some research, which of course led to more research … so, I’m late.

So let me introduce you to an underappreciated Internet visionary, one of the original Netizens: Ronda Hauben. In her youth, Hauben worked in Detroit at the world’s largest car factory, Ford Rouge. As the story goes, Ford was sponsoring continuing education classes in computer programming. Hauben and others were outraged when the company canceled the program in 1987. After an unsuccessful attempt to revive the company-sponsored program, Hauben launched The Amateur Computerist newsletter to foster technology education among the workers. The first issue (PDF link) came out on February 11, 1988, the 51st anniversary of the Flint Sit-Down Strike. It declared:

We want to keep interest alive because computers are the future. We want to disperse information to users about computers. Since the computer is still in the early stage of development, the ideas and experiences of the users need to be shared and built on if this technology is to advance. To this end, this newsletter is dedicated to all people interested in learning about computers.

Sometime later, Hauben found Usenet newsgroups, and figured out early that collaboration and participation among users were the key to the future. In September 1992, the alt.amateur-comp newsgroup was founded to circulate the electronic version of the newsletter, which was:

dedicated to support for grassroots efforts and movements like the “computers for the people movement” that gave birth to the personal computer in the 1970s and 1980s. Hard efforts of many people over hundreds of years led to the production of a working computer in the 1940s and then a personal computer that people could afford in the 1970s. This history has been serialized in several issues of the newsletter.

A year later, Hauben delivered a speech on the history and promise of Usenet, which may have been my first acquaintance with her work.

Among the early stories The Amateur Computerist published included one of the first histories of Usenet in its Fall 1992 Supplement, “The Linux Movement” and the Free Software Foundation in Spring 1994, and more than a few basic (and BASIC) programs for its readers to try out, much like Dr. Dobb’s Journal.

In 1994, Ronda and her son Michael released Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet for free on the web. It was later published by IEEE Computer Society Press. It offers a terrific glimpse at the early history of the Internet, and an important discussion of its promise that remains largely relevant today; especially with the increasing corporatization of the Net.

Today, Ronda is a citizen journalist living in New York City. She is an award-winning United Nations correspondent for OhMyNewsInternational, and still contributes articles on the democratic promise of the Internet.

So go out and take a look at the complete Amateur Computerist archives, and think about how you can contribute to your online communities—including this one. Comments always appreciated.

So What Are Those Open Source Tech Comm Tools?

In my last post, I told you about the talk I’m giving at the WritersUA Conference next April Fool’s Day. While the post wasn’t exactly content-free, it was certainly more about me, and not-so-much about the promised topic: Open Source Technical Communication Tools. While you can find that information at the conference website, it’s only right that I give you a hint about the plan for this presentation.

Basically, I’m going to be talking about a selection of open source tools that a technical communicator can use to ply his/her trade. Paul Mueller from User Aid will take up a selection of (mostly) web-based applications to help consultants and small teams handle some of the business tasks independent writers (usually) can’t stand to do.

My 35 minutes will cover these tools:

  • OpenOffice.org: Every tech writer needs a word processor, most need a way to make Portable Document Format (PDF) files, and some need spreadsheets and a presentation tool. Perhaps you already know about the free, standards-based alternative to Microsoft Office. I’m going to do a quick run-through on all the suite tools, with an emphasis on outlining, list numbering and master documents.
  • LaTeX and LyX: Most technical communicators producing long documents destined for a printer work with (or long to work with) Adobe FrameMaker. It has a long and honored history, with a devoted following that has ascended FrameMaker’s fairly steep learning curve. The community pretty much lives with periodic rumors of the application’s demise. LaTeX and its many kin also has a long and honored history, is noted for its ability to handle long documents and technical tasks, and was far ahead of its time in seeing tags and styles as the proper basis for creating documents. Just recently I began to ascend the legendarily steep LaTeX learning curve, cheating a little by using the LyX GUI front-end. I’ll share some lessons.
  • Scribus: If you need some old-fashioned desktop publishing for Quick Start Guides, short-form materials, or a newsletter, Scribus is a great alternative to Quark or InDesign. It will do PDF as well.
  • The GIMP: Another open source challenger to the Adobe Creative Suite, the GNU Image Manipulation Program is a worthy alternative to Photoshop.
  • Inkscape: A vector drawing tool that defaults to the web standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), and creates very nice drawings and flow charts.

What’s cool about these applications is that they all run on Windows and Linux. I have to double-check on their Mac-friendliness before I do this presentation. This means that nearly every technical writer can get these tools and start using them today.

Time permitting, I’m also hoping to talk about my favorite web-based app, Evernote. While not open source (and needs Wine to run on Linux), it’s still a great tool for the mobile and/or forgetful. But that deserves its own post.

If you’re writing software manuals, online help and the like, you should try these. Let me know what you think about them, and if there are other apps in your open source toolkit that I should know about. I hope to see you in Seattle next spring!

Document Freedom Day — Hail Creative Commons

It’s a little late to be announcing this, but there are a few more hours (at least in the US and points west) in the very first Document Freedom Day. I only heard about this a few days ago, but I like the idea and hope it spreads.

Document Freedom Day follows in the footsteps of Software Freedom Day, and stands for “grassroots action for promotion of Free Document Formats and Open Standards in general,” according to the original announcement.

As my small contribution, I have finally completed a task that’s been festering on my to-do list for something like forever. From this point forward, Notes from the Metaverse appears under a Creative Commons noncommercial-attribution license (see the logo to the right here). What this means is that you can take these words of mine and use them in any way you like, so long as you don’t make money off my work, and quote me properly.

I owe a lot to the open-source community, and recognize that this small token represents a commitment to giving back to that community.