Saturday, October 11, 2008


When I worked at Ilog in Gentilly (just outside Paris) and I annoyed my brilliant colleagues with nasty technical questions (mainly about Unix stuff), I would periodically receive a kind but firm RTFM reaction: "William, read the fuckin' manual! " But this kind of blunt advice was relatively rare, for the simple reason that my job consisted precisely of writing most of the company's manuals. In any case, I often felt that it was extremely efficient, in the case of complex computer queries, to question a wizard in an adjoining office—there were many such creatures at Ilog—rather than plowing through tons of documentation. (Incidentally, Ilog shares are being purchased by IBM at this very moment, in the context of an official month-long takeover bid that went into action a few days ago.) Needless to say, as a former professional in this domain, I've always respected and admired good documentation... of which many of the planet's finest specimens have been signed by a Californian company named Apple.

Every now and again, I say to myself that we modern humans should strive constantly to free ourselves from excessive documentation concerning various devices. I'm thinking, not of my Macintosh nor even of my Nikon, but of simple hardware such as my splendid Riviera&Bar bread machine. A month or so ago, I decided audaciously that I was determined henceforth to use my appliance intuitively, without browsing through the instruction booklet. Normally, that should have been easy, because there are only three parameters for which values have to be chosen: the program for the desired kind of bread, the weight and the kind of crust. Well, I noticed that there were up/down arrows on the control panel, and I immediately imagined that these might be used to jump back and forth between the parameters. When the ingredients were ready, and everything seemed to be set up correctly, I pushed the start button... but nothing happened. So, I repeated the set of operations, but to no avail. I concluded that the machine was broken, so I emptied out the ingredients and ended up cooking the bread in my ordinary oven. The next day, I took the bread machine along to the repairs section of the shop where I had purchased it. Three weeks later, they phoned to say that the machine had been fully tested, and that they had not detected the slightest fault. This time, I decided to browse through the instruction booklet while setting up the machine. On the first page, I discovered that the up/down arrows on the control panel made it possible to delay the start of the baking process for any number of hours, which explained why the machine had given me the impression that it wasn't working. This time, of course, I didn't touch these arrows. The machine went into action immediately, and finally gave me one of the best loaves I've ever baked. The moral of this anecdote is that it always pays to read—and maybe even reread—the fuckin' manual.

In a quite different domain, I've decided to finally make an effort to master the nice little Sony camcorder that I purchased last year.

So, I invested two hundred euros in the following Apple product:

It's unthinkable to attempt to manipulate a sophisticated software tool such as Final Cut Express in an intuitive manner. In other words, I'm obliged to study the documentation. The only problem is that the manual is a PDF file 1152 pages long! So, I've spent hours today printing it out on paper. I'm not complaining, though, because Final Cut Express is a truly amazing software tool. The Sony HDR-SR7E camcorder, too, is an awesome piece of technology... and its manual is a "mere" 117 pages long. That's even shorter than the 157-page manual for the LiveType software tool for inserting titles and graphics into a movie, supplied at no extra cost with Final Cut Express.

There's no doubt about the fact that electronic machines in general, and computers in particular, have made our existence vastly more sophisticated and complex. And we're obliged to spend a huge amount of time reading fuckin' manuals.

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