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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11/2001 - Where were you?

So, September 11, 2001 - a day that changed the lives of many people immediately or later down the road with its repercussions. Do you remember where you were on that day? I imagine it's something that people will often be asked later - kind of like how we'll ask the older generations if they remember where they were when Pearl Harbor was bombed, when Kennedy was assassinated, or when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

I was on campus at the University of Missouri - Rolla doing some reading before my first class in the Engineering Management building. I had gotten bored with my textbook and decided to call my mom to see how she was since I still had plenty of time before class. I apparently called her right after the first plane hit the first tower and she was watching it on TV. Then the 2nd plane hit. My mom was describing to me what was going on on the TV and I couldn't believe it. I frantically searched my memory to try to see if anybody I knew from college worked in the WTC. I had to hang up with my mom after a little bit and go to class - an advanced writing course with Dr. Zepernick. She understood that people were upset, but she tried to carry on and teach class as normal. It was difficult but she succeeded.

After class, I went home to the house I shared with Marie, Vaz, Jay, and James. I think we were all glued to the TV for the rest of the morning and afternoon (until I got called in to work). A couple of the guys had even filled up a couple of water barrels used for camping with water and put them in the bathroom just in case all hell broke loose. I remember us all discussing who could possibly be behind this and what the possibilities of more attacks were and where. I also got called in to work at the Phillips station that I worked at because they were being overrun by people getting gasoline. People were afraid that it had something to do with Saddam and were worried about gas prices. The BP across the street was out of gas. We had a tanker on the way from St. Louis to fill us up, but we were low. Every employee that worked at the station was on duty that afternoon. To speed up the gassing process, a couple of people were outside taking cash payments and sending people on their way, using the intercom to call inside the store to tell use they had payment for a certain pump. Some gas stations were caught raising gas prices to almost $3/gallon and had to pay fines for it (gas was still hovering around the $1/gallon mark in Missouri).

An extremist terrorist group eventually claimed responsibility for the hijackings, and American patriotism reached an all-time high with the likes of Toby Keith singing about colors not running and little flags (made in China, mind you) being sold everywhere. With this patriotism also came hatred towards people that had nothing to do with the attacks. Students from Middle-Eastern countries and India (basically, if you had brown skin) attending UMR were put on alert and warned to watch out for people mistaking them from being from certain countries.

Since then, people all over the world have paid a heavy price for this event. Many Americans can't seem to differentiate a small group of extremist from the larger religion that they belong to and spout hatred towards them. Many American soldiers, Afghanis, and Iraqis have lost their lives (civilians and soldiers) needlessly. Air travel has become tedious and makes people feel like they're losing their privacy and freedom all for the sake of feeling secure. People directly affected by the hijackings are without their loved ones for no reason.

Many innocent people of all creeds, colors, and religions lost their lives on 9/11: the people working in the WTC, people in the Pentagon, brave emergency responders attempting to help people trapped in the buildings, and the people on American Airlines Flight 11, United Airlines Flight 175, American Airlines Flight 77, and United Airlines Flight 93. Flight 93 was intended for the White House, but the brave passengers on that plane took it back and saved countless lives while knowing they were forfeiting their own. Many people mourned all over the world with the U.S. that day - people of all creeds, colors, and religions.

There are many lessons that we can take away from this horrible day in the U.S.'s history, but, to me, the most important is to love one another and not take each other for granted. No amount of hatred or war or fighting is going to erase what happened or bring back those lost. All we can do as a race, the human race, is look forward and help each other and love each other: put aside our differences and pettiness and make the world a better place for the future. Many of the people that lost their lives on 9/11 chose to call their loved ones and tell them how much the loved them in their final moments. So, I challenge every person that might read this post to not wait for a tragedy to do this: as we remember those that lost their lives on this day, tell your family and friends you love them. Tell them every day, don't take them for granted. Love each other and spread love, not hatred, to the future generations.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Counterproductive Much?

So, while navigating around Microsoft's website at work, I spotted this little ad on the page:

I read it twice to make sure my eyes weren't deceiving me and promptly clicked the link. My first thought was "Holy shit! Why weren't they doing this shit when I was in college?" My second though was I wonder "Does Microsoft want kids to fail out of college?"

Yes. Yes, they do.

Why on Earth would Microsoft make this offer? Do they not know that after receiving a free Xbox 360, classes be damned. The type of students that would respond to this offer are the type that will be covered in Cheetos dust and surrounded by Mountain Dew cans instead of going to class or studying.

Yes, why indeed, Microsoft, why indeed *strokes white cat in lap*. See, I'm on to your little games, marketing/engineering people at Microsoft. Job security. That's why this offer is being made. You're all worried about the next group of college students graduating and being able to take your jobs as new hires for lower salaries; therefore, you will offer them free Xbox 360s to ensure that they never graduate.

Well played, Microsoft. Well played.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Are Screenshots and Images Necessary?

Hey, look at that! I’m posting in my other blog for once. Careful…the apocalypse might happen before you finish reading this post.

So, this is something that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while: screenshots and images in manuals – do we need them? In my opinion, yes and no: It all depends on the situation. I know that seems like a copout answer, but hear me out on this. Like anything, there is a time and a place for it. Also, being just a technical writing team member might leave the decision out of your hands anyway.

Screenshots and images should enhance the manual and make the steps or text clearer. It’s fair to reason that nearly all users are going to be using the item or software while using the manual, so clear text instructions will usually be sufficient. For this reason, when I’m writing a software manual, I will always include at least 1 screenshot in the beginning chapter outlining the parts of the user interface. This is so users will know where I’m talking about on the screen if I write “In the left pane” or “Select Job Accounting from the main menu.” You’ll notice that nearly all embedded help files in software will be primarily text based, and user manuals seem to be heading that way, too. Since I write software manuals, this is where my personal writing experience lies. For hardware manuals or instructions on putting something together, starting with what is included and labeling them so the users will know to what’s being referred is usually the first step.

I’ve recently had a project manager than I work with quite frequently tell me that he wants all screenshots removed from user manuals for his projects. What purpose could this serve? I believe his reason for this is simply “laziness,” really. I use that term loosely since he’s not the one doing the work, but he doesn’t want any images because that means one of his engineers will have to capture the foreign language screenshots for me when it comes time for translation. This comes down to each screenshot for 7 or 8 languages typically and can add up if you have 10+ screenshots. Honestly, in my opinion, this particular PM has no idea what goes into writing a manual and doesn’t know what one needs to make it usable, but I digress. I had to argue with this particular PM for several weeks to include a few screenshots where I thought they were necessary to explain difficult parts of the UI when different sections dropped down or different areas had the same sub-menu names (this was a very complex piece of software and gave me multiple headaches on a daily basis). He didn’t expect me to be so adamant about it because, quite frankly, in Korean culture, subordinates don’t question their superiors and are supposed to do what they're told without question. Poor guy didn’t know what hit him when he had to work with the only American tech writer on the team that has no problem giving opinions, but that’s for a different topic. The point that I tried to make to him was no matter how intelligent or knowledgeable about the network the users of the software are, they’re learning a new piece of software and will need to know where what I’m telling them to do is located.

Since I’m usually learning the software as I’m writing the manual, I think I have a pretty good idea of where things could get confusing for the user since I’m essentially a new user when I start writing the manual. However, in some situations, your audience might require more than you think they do. I write primarily for enterprise software, so I don’t typically have to worry about general home users trying to use something I’ve written. However, once in a while, I do write a manual for some software included with our SOHO (small office home office) printers. For these, more screenshots might be required since I really need to write for the most software illiterate user that I can imagine. To do this, I try to imagine explaining using the software to my mother, who, poor woman, was one of the most technologically impaired people I’ve ever known and never even owned a computer or a cell phone let alone a printer *fondly remembers many frustrating phone conversations explaining how to use the DVD player or program the VCR*.

With most manuals being provided online or on installation CDs as PDFs, the argument of printing costs doesn’t really hold up anymore. However, if manuals are provided in hard copy, this could very well be a factor – especially outside of the software realm. For hardware, in my division (printers and computers) we also provide hard copy manuals. If you’re across the office trying to use the multi-function printer (MFP) and need to know how to do some tricky copying task, running back and forth between your workstation to consult a PDF and the MFP just isn’t practical. There should, of course, be a manual tucked away somewhere by the machine for quick reference. We also tend to provide installation guides for software as hard copies. Funny story about that really quick for y’all: I had finished writing a manual for some software and it was released. A few weeks later, one of the engineers contacts me and says they need a separate installation and setup guide ASAP since customers have requested it. I asked him why since that information was provided in the first chapter of the user manual. He tells me that users can’t access the manual until the software is installed and set up. O_o Forehead, meet Desk. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I just looked at my teammate and said, “They have got to be kidding me,” and explained the situation to her. She was as confused as I was. Anywho…screenshots and images.

Speaking of hardware manuals or instructions on building something, what about drawings vs. pictures? Drawings. Always. Unless there is absolutely no way to provide drawings, always try to include drawings instead of pictures. You might think that a picture would provide more detail, that isn’t the case. Remember back in your college days when you’re putting together that cheap furniture from IKEA or a bookshelf from Wal-Mart? What did the directions look like? Yup. Drawings. Pictures introduce too much distraction away from what you’re trying to draw attention to. With drawings, you can provide as little or as much detail as necessary and make things sharper than with a picture. If you have to include pictures instead of drawings, try to use as crisp of an image as possible and have them be in color. If you need to provide arrows or markings on the picture, use a color that will contrast well and make things clear instead of more confusing.

So, to sum it up, use screenshots only where they’re needed and sparingly. Using too many will just increase the visual length of the steps and frustrate users: I doubt users will need a screenshot for “Click OK.” You’ll have to really put yourself in your users’ shoes to do this. For pictures vs. drawings for physical items, always go with drawings when possible to make things clearer for your users.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Ya can't miss it." "Wanna bet?"

So, before I go to sleep at night, my mind often wanders to random things. Last night was no exception. My mind for some reason began to think about how much the phrase "ya can't miss it" bothers me.

It's often used when giving directions to people - "Go down the road about a mile then turn left on 3rd Street. It's about two blocks down on the right - ya can't miss it." To me that just triggers the response in my mind of "Great, I'm going to go right past it and look like an idiot." If I "couldn't miss it," I wouldn't be asking for directions in the first place now would I? Unless there is a giant monkey, a clown on a unicycle, or people sword-fighting to the death outside, I can definitely miss it.

If I'm on foot, yeah, I probably won't miss it since I can stop and look around without fear of being rear ended by the Hummer behind me. But if I'm driving, that's another story. Trying to pay attention to the road and other drivers while trying to look for a sign or building is a completely different story. I'm probably going to drive right on past it and have to make another pass back through to look for it unless I have a passenger that can be keeping an eye out for me.

Anyway, that's my randomness for the day.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Can 2011 Just End Already?

So, 2011 has to be one of the absolutely shittiest years ever. The universe decided that it would take my mom and one of my best friends from us. Why? I don’t know, but I would give anything to bring both of them back.

I typically pride myself on the control I keep over my emotions and my ability to keep things in check and rational. However, there has been absolutely nothing rational about this year, and it’s been a crazy roller coaster of emotions all year. I find myself bursting into tears at the mere thought of my mother or Lori. Luckily, I’m able to control it when I’m around others so that I don’t become a blubbering mess of snot and tears and look like a complete emotionally loose cannon. But that is how I feel this year – like I have absolutely no control over anything anymore, least of all my emotions.

I had already decided that this year was going to be my last one in Korea – I just felt it was soon time to move back to the U.S. and start living my life again around those that I love and care about. This year is just persistent in its “do it now” mentality and shoving it in my face that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. I’m probably one of the worst procrastinators that I know. Oh, I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll start that blog next week. I’ll call so-and-so this weekend. I’ll start that new training or degree program next year. Why can’t I do it now? I know everything can’t be done immediately and if I go at every day full tilt, I’ll just run myself into the ground. But I can try. Most of all, I can make sure that I don’t put things off, especially when it comes to my loved ones. My friends and family mean the world to me and I hope they know that even if I don’t stay in touch as often as I should.

Losing two people that I loved very dearly is just more of a wake-up call than anything else I can imagine. My mom being diagnosed with leukemia so suddenly and losing a battle that she fought so hard to win was tough to take. Mom took it better than any of us and found herself in the role of comforter to those around her. She made peace with the fact that she was going to die very soon and began to plan her funeral so we wouldn’t have to. She even picked out her own casket. It was her last hurrah, so she might as well be able to go out like she wanted. She rejected my song idea from Linkin Park, though – can’t imagine why (Leave Out All the Rest – I’ll have it played at my funeral). People wonder where I get my weirdness from – well, if they knew my mom, they’d know. She had a good sense of humor and would let it out once in a while. She could joke around and kick your butt in Rummy (I let her win most of the time *cough*). She adopted my brother’s, sister’s, and my friends as her own and they would end up just calling her “mom” or the occasional “Miss Patty” – she hated being called ma’am though. I know she made the cancer ward at St. John’s a brighter place even if only in her own room. She refused to let people be sad or cry when they visited. The nursing staff came to love her like the rest of us and some of them cried with the rest of us when mom was discharged after there was nothing else that could be done. One of my biggest regrets is that I was in S. Korea when she passed and I couldn’t be here for her in the very end or for my brother, sister, and aunts. I only hope she knew how much I love her even though I wasn’t the best daughter and didn’t visit or call as often as I should have.

Lori was one of my best friends over the past 12 years. Sure we had our issues like most friends, but at the core we were friends. One of the things that Lori always said was, “Friends are the family you choose.” And it’s totally true. That’s the great thing about close friends – you don’t have to love them or feel obligated to – you do it because you want to and because you love them for who they are. Lori had many demons to fight in her life, from being gay to alcoholism. She was finally at a place in her life where I believe she was truly happy – she was in a stable and healthy relationship, she was working, and she was going back to school. She was doing volunteer work that she loved and was living near her parents and nieces and nephew again. She had the brightest blue eyes and mischievous smile that just told you she had had an inappropriate thought or was up to something. She had a horrible sense of humor and found things funny that shouldn’t be found funny, which is probably why we got along so well. We had many late nights at Denny’s having coffee with Brennan or Wade doing homework or just bs’ing. I’ll remember and miss those days immensely. I’ll also miss her greeting of “hey homo,” and her exasperated sigh and “dammit, Libby” any time I’d say anything remotely negative about myself (even jokingly). She was a caring soul and wonderful person that can’t be summed up in a short paragraph, but most importantly to me, she was one of my closest friends and I miss her more than I can possibly express here or in any words.

So 2011 can basically kiss my big ol’ fat ass and end already because I’m totally over it. I just have to keep reminding myself that life is too short to let things slip by. Hug your wife/husband/bf/gf and tell them you love them; go back to school; rescue a puppy or kitty from the animal shelter; joke and laugh with your friends one night a week at least; make sure people know you care. There is a quote from Kung Fu Panda that pretty much sums it up (yes, Kung Fu Panda – shut up). Master Oogway tells Po, “…Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present."
Nothing is guaranteed, especially not tomorrow, so live for today and make the most of what you have, which is the moment.

Leave Out All the Rest

I dreamed I was missing
You were so scared
But no one would listen
‘Cause no one else cared
After my dreaming
I woke with this fear
What am I leaving when I’m done here?
So if you’re asking me I want you to know

When my time comes forget the wrong that I’ve done
Help me leave behind some reasons to be missed
Don’t resent me and when you’re feeling empty
Keep me in your memory
Leave out all the rest
Leave out all the rest

Don’t be afraid, I’ve taken my beating
I’ve shed what I’ve made
I’m strong on the surface, not all the way through
I’ve never been perfect, but neither have you
So if you’re asking me I want you to know

When my time comes, forget the wrong that I’ve done
Help me leave behind some reasons to be missed
Don’t resent me and when you’re feeling empty
Keep me in your memory
Leave out all the rest
Leave out all the rest

Forgetting all the hurt inside you’ve learned to hide so well
Pretending someone else can come and save me from myself
I can’t be who you are

When my time comes, forget the wrong that I’ve done
Help me leave behind some reasons to be missed
Don’t resent me and when you’re feeling empty
Keep me in your memory
Leave out all the rest
Leave out all the rest

Forgetting all the hurt inside you’ve learned to hide so well
Pretending someone else can come and save me from myself
I can’t be who you are
I can’t be who you are

Monday, August 15, 2011

When is it too soon?

Sometimes..um, OK, all of the time when I read the news on cnn.com, I’ll check the entertainment section to see what’s going on in the entertainment world back home in the U.S. - I figure the lives of celebrities have to be more exciting than mine. Sometimes it’s worth reading, sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s good news, but usually it’s not. One of the more recent not-good-news articles was the death of Amy Winehouse. Comments from readers ranged from heartfelt sadness to people making wisecracks about the cause of death coupled with her last name. The cause of death speculations were valid due to the facts that the news of her death came shortly after news of her being booed of off stage because she was so out of it and of her recently coming out of a stint at rehab.

Why the joking and ridiculing so soon after her passing (literally, just hours after the news broke)? Why are we so quick to demonize and have no sympathy for a celebrity that dies tragically? It should also be noted that at the time of this writing, her autopsy results are still inconclusive: her family insists that she had been clean and looking forward to life at the time of her death. I’m probably guilty of a few off-color thoughts myself that I immediately felt bad for having in the first place – but with my off sense of humor, it’s to be expected at times. When Heath Ledger died, I don’t remember people being so crass about it. Was it because his battle with drugs and alcohol was kept out of the public eye? We didn’t see him on the front page of TMZ after being arrested for a DUI? I imagine the same persecution would happen if Lindsay Lohan were to suffer the same fate.

Is it simply because we don’t recognize celebrities as having the same weaknesses that we do? They have all of this fame and disposable income – they should be able to afford to seek help. They have so many people around them all the time that can tell them when they are spinning out of control. But what if these people are the enablers? Or what if they just don’t realize it’s a problem? Sure, they might see their friend do a few lines of coke once in a while, but it’s not an everyday thing…at least as far as they know. I’m sure just about every single person out there either knows someone that has suffered with alcoholism or drug addiction or you’ve battled it yourself. Or even, heaven forbid, know someone that has died due to one or the other? Imagine, if you will, someone coming up to you and making a wisecrack about it being about time your loved one/friend died from their vise. I’d be foreseeing someone leaving with at least a black eye and maybe a few teeth missing after making such a comment. So why is it ok to say it about someone we’ve never met over an anonymous news website posting? Why do we hold our celebrities to such higher standards (other than the fact that young kids look up to a lot of them)?

If you’ve ever seen the TV show Intervention on A&E, you’ve seen some pretty crazy addiction stories. One of the few episodes that I caught a while back home was the one with the girl addicted to huffing compressed air. Wow. It was a powerful story and it just made me think, “Why can’t she see what she’s doing to herself and loved ones? Can’t she see it in her moments of sobriety?” I imagine she probably could. She lost everything, but that still wasn’t enough. I don’t remember what finally brought her out of her addiction, but I do remember that it took A LOT of work. I imagine that Amy Winehouse could see it, too. Hell, all she had to do was look at any semi-news publication or in the mirror to see what she had become.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done any reading up on addiction, so I may jumble some facts here. Addiction is a disease. For most people, the body/brain becomes dependent on the chemicals being fed to it. To overcome these cravings takes an immense amount of willpower. Which is where rehab centers come into play. They make sure these external stimulants can’t be accessed and that they’re replaced with healthier alternatives until the chemical dependency on them is to a manageable level for the patient. Being the offspring of someone with a chemical dependency can also make you more likely to be an addict – this is most notable with alcoholism. Some people realize this connection and will use it as an excuse (“Well, it’s in my blood – I have to drink”) to continue the negative behavior. Of course there are many other reasons that people will become addicted, but those are just a couple. So what was Amy’s issue? Who knows? It seems that she had drug issues before she famous, and becoming an international singing sensation just gave her the means to continue on a regular basis. If we look at it as her succumbing to a disease instead of merely taking one to many, then it is surely no laughing matter.

It seems that towards the end, though, Amy recognized that everything she had worked to achieve and everything that she was to her fans was failing miserably: She finally went to rehab despite her insistence years ago that she wouldn’t go. Until the autopsy results are final, we won’t know if it was a relapse into using that killed her or if her body had just been abused too much over the years to make it out on top just as Amy decided it was a battle worth fighting.

So while the world may have lost a talented singer that had a very public battle with addiction, some people seem to forget that lots of people lost a friend and a family lost a daughter that day.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ya want translation with that?

Translation. Ugh. Remembering to make sure I’m writing in English that’s suitable for translation is probably the bane of my work existence. I would often prefer to be writing something that will never be translated, but since I work for an international company at their HQ, that’s pretty unrealistic. Often it’s not the actual writing that is so difficult – it’s remembering what I’m going to have to provide to the translation company. Honestly, I’d prefer we change companies for this task, but hey, that’s not my decision to make (but I am one of the ones that has to suffer due to the poor choice).

So what kind of a checklist do I try to run through in my head while writing (and later editing) my stuff?

1. Is the sentence structure simple?
2. Am I using active voice? If not, do I have a good reason for it (i.e., active voice sounds wordy or awkward)?
3. Am I using the same words to make the translation easier overall?
4. Am I using the same sentence structure? Repetition = a good thing in tech. comm. albeit boring sometimes.
5. Are the words clear? Any double meanings? Most of the translators are native speakers of the language being translated into and not English.
6. Am I re-using previous content? The translators (supposedly) have a database of some sentences/terms; however, I’ve yet to see evidence of this, but we’ll discuss that later.
7. Have I eliminated un-necessary words (typically when I’m editing other people’s work)?
8. Have I used any idioms or slang?
9. Are the technical words OK to be used and will they translate OK?
10. Do all of my user interface terms match the actual application or device?
11. Is everything labeled properly in Structured Framemaker?
12. So I need to re-iterate something or can I simply provide a link to another section?
13. Do I have any hair left to pull out?
14. Wonder how much easier it would be to have a 1-page manual that just says, “Figure it out yourself!” in every language…

And that’s without having added any images or screenshots. In addition to making sure the language that I’m using is appropriate, images have to be provided in the target language. Those present a whole new headache. Luckily for me, the developers will usually provide these for me. To make their job easier, I try to limit the number of screenshots used in a manual and make the text as clear as possible – especially if the documentation is being provided as a CHM file or HTML. You can imagine how much of a headache this can be if something is being translated into 10 languages – that’s a whole lot o’ screen capturing going on. I also have to make sure that they name the screenshots the EXACT same name that I have for the English versions, so I try to give them a list of these names when I send them a manual to review (note: they never notice and it doubles my work later to provide them a final PDF w/ every single image labeled). Basically, I have to have screenshots for all of the languages provided. If I need to write something on an image, I have to either make sure it’s editable or (and this is what I do usually) just provide a number reference to text outside of the image.

Seems simple enough. Except for a slight snag. Remember that database of terms? I don’t think it exists. I’ve had some issues where I’ve had to contact 3 different teams to ask them for their list of translated terms (e.g., driver terms, software UI terms, and hardware UI terms). Now, in my opinion, if the translators actually had a database of some of our more frequently used sentences/terms, I wouldn’t have to provide all of these various spreadsheets. Also, the terms would all match (which isn’t always the case). Oh the English is the same, but the translated terms can vary depending on who was doing the translating. Anywho, that’s just complaining about our translation team’s processes. So, I also have to remember to gather up any terms and give them to the translators so they don’t have to, you know, translate things...

So, that’s the basic process of what I run through when it comes to getting ready to have a document translated.

Here’s a bonus (not) funny story about screenshots… So I was working on a manual a couple of years ago. It had lots of helpful screenshots. Then came the time for the international screenshots….dun dun DUN!! What do I get from the project manager? A huge, nay, ginormous headache. The screenshots were named as the page numbers they were found on for every…single…image…in…every…language. Maybe 8 languages with about 200 images each? Guess who got to stay in the office overnight and rename EVERY SINGLE IMAGE so we could request translation the next day. I’ll give ya a hint: not the project manager. *sigh* Now when this particular project’s documentation needs to be updated, the PM sends someone else to tell me, and if he has to do it, he ducks and cringes after telling me. But I digress…

Translation is pretty much a necessity in today’s market if you want to do any kind of international business, but it requires a lot more thinking and work than just saying, “Hey, translate this!” to a translator. A lot of extra work and thinking has to be done and red tape has to be muddled through before it can finally become a reality.