Do Writers Ever Take a Break From Writing?

I think the answer is different for everyone. For me, though, the answer is "sometimes". Sometimes I do just stop writing, but I don't stop playing with language. When I'm not writing, I do crossword puzzles, I play word games, I dream up little passages in my head that will fade into the mists of memory before they're ever committed to paper. But most of all, I read. A lot.

I've just picked up the latest offerings from two of my very favourite authors - Stephen King and Michael Crichton. Both are interesting releases, for different reasons.

King's Under The Dome is his first full-length thriller release in a while. It's been marketed as his biggest novel since The Stand which is for many people his best and most admired work. Much as I adore King's short fiction, and as much as it inspires and encourages me to write my own, his full-length thrillers are what made me fall in love with his writing from the first. He touches a dark, and frightened little place in the human psyche that no other other author manages to be able to achieve. His writing is the only writing that has ever kept me awake at night. I can't wait to get stuck into Under the Dome to find out if it lives up to its marketing.

Crichton's Pirate Latitudes has an even more interesting story. When the author died late in 2008, amongst the papers in his desk they found a complete manuscript, which has now been published post-humously. That in itself makes it exciting, since I had reconciled myself to never reading a new Crichton again. That said, though, it has received some less-than-fabulous reviews, and it seems that the jury is still out on whether or not it should have published at all. I'm looking forward to reading it, all the same.

Anyway, I hope you all have a fabulous Christmas and New Year, hopefully you will get a chance to get some holiday reading in too. See you all next year!

Won't Someone Think of the Children (Conroy's Folly)

Something that I thought wasn't going to happen, today happened. Senator Conroy announced his plan to filter the internet (which I have previously referred to on this blog as "Conroy's Folly"). Admittedly, they have to get it through the Senate yet, and it's going to take a few coalition ministers crossing the floor to do it, but I just don't trust them. The fact that something I passionately believe in is hanging in the balance of a few liberal MPs bothers me no end. Politics aside, though (you can get the details on that on just about any other news site), what's bothering me the most is an alarming trend towards the idea that the government is responsible for child safety.

On the NSW Department of Community Services (DoCS) website, they list four different types of child abuse: neglect (being left without adequate care); physical abuse (smacking, or other forms of physical violence); psychological abuse or harm (emotional trauma); and sexual abuse. How many of these four are investigated by the department? Just one. Reports indicate that of every 23 reports of child abuse made, only one is investigated. What this means is that when a report is made, it is prioritised, and only the very, very worst investigated. In practice, this means that only those children at immediate risk of sexual abuse get even a second glance. Of the cases that do get investigated, however, a quarter of them are substantiated. This would indicate there's an extremely large number of children in NSW alone that have people concerned enough for their safety to report the case to DoCS, but are never even spoken to, let alone removed from the abusive situation, or helped in some way.

On the other hand, our government is now attempting to pass legislation to filter the internet. They're doing this with the catch-cry of "protecting the children". Apparently, it is no longer the responsibility of the parent to protect their child from net-nasties, but the government's. I am very interested to find statistics on the number of children who had inadvertently stumbled across RC (Refused Classification) pornography, paedophile rings, or other 'harmful online content', compared to the number of children who succumb to child abuse in their own homes, by family members or close friends, and who never come to the attention of the department designed to prevent that happening.

Why not use the $125.8 million earmarked for the government's cyber safety plan, and use it to fix DoCS? If the government were truly thinking of the children, as they claim, then it would be money well spent, and might actually save some kids lives.

Also blogging on this matter:
Be The Signal
Lauren Cochrane
Sometimes, Maybe, Never
Google Australia
Sleepy Dumpling
Atomik Soapbox
(More to come as I find them ... )


If you're angry about this, and I really think you ought to be, then do something about it:

* First of all, check out the No Clean Feed website from the EFA. It has a lot of information, and a lot of good ideas.
* Then, write a letter (yes, an actual letter, on paper, with a stamp) and send it to your local member, and to Senator Conroy's office. There's some good tips for letter writing on the EFA site.
* Sign the petition at Get Up or Petition Online.
* If you have a blog, or you're a member of a social network such as Twitter or Facebook, talk about it. Let people know what's going on, direct them to the No Clean Feed website and encourage them to spread the word too. Jeff Waugh also has some good ideas for changing your avatar. The more people talking and understanding this issue, the more force we as a population have.


Rule 16 of the Internet

In her introduction to the 1994 edition of "Damned Whores and God's Police", the wonderful Anne Summers wrote "I believe that to address these questions [of women's struggle for equality] adequately, a new book is needed and I hope that someone, somewhere, right now is hatching another 'big book', a sweeping feminist perspective on contemporary Australia, because we need another interpretation, a new perspective ... We need new voices, and new visions."

I read those words for the first time in 2003. I had gotten married that year, and was busy falling pregnant. I gave birth to my daughter early in 2004, and settled neatly into my new found role as wife and mother. I helped in my husband's business as a secretary and book-keeper and cooked healthy and satisfying meals for my family from the Women's Weekly. I kept the house clean, my husband's shirts ironed, and my baby's bottom dry. Sometimes when the baby was asleep I would write short stories to amuse myself that I never shared with anyone. Occasionally, my feminist best friend would call me on the phone, we'd chat, and at some point she'd laugh and say "you are the typical housewife. You've turned into your mother". Of course I hadn't, I scoffed back. I had a job, my child went to daycare three days a week. This being the epitome of working motherhood to me. That, and all the associated guilt that came with it that Ita Buttrose ("Motherguilt: Australian Women Reveal Their True Feelings About Motherhood") and her ilk told me was right and proper that I should be feeling. I had read Greer's "The Female Eunuch" and Summers' "Damned Whores and God's Police". I thought I understood the issues, and I empathised with the few feminists I had met. What I didn't understand was why they had to be so angry about it all the time. They were missing the point. We had come so far, already. We didn't have to worry about getting the vote, or equal pay for equal work, or sexual freedom. We had all that. What more did they want? Really?

Four years later, I found myself celebrating the second anniversary of my divorce with a melancholy kindergartner torn between two homes. At the age of 27 I had finally discovered that it was possible to have a job that I enjoyed and that also paid the bills, and it was the only thing keeping me sane. I started watching the world around me with jaded, cynical eyes, and writing down the things I saw. I found myself re-reading Anne Summers book, and her words sang away in the back of my mind. I dug further, craving more information, and gradually became familiar with the online world of hurting, angry, and pained feminist bloggers. I started reading what they wrote - not the vitriolic and accusatory words they used, but what they actually were trying to say. And when I cut through the verbiage, I heard one thing over and over again: Why is this still happening?

Feminism is now a dirty word. Efforts to achieve gender equality are encouraged to employ language that is less confronting and not quite so scary. Young women don't want to be feminists any more, we're told. Feminist rhetoric everywhere is beset by women commenting that the authors are beating dead horses, and they just wish we'd all stop talking about it already.

Where does this disconnect come from? Why was it that while I was fulfilling my role as a wife and mother that I thought we had equality? Why was it that not until I ventured into the online world did I discover this apparent lingering inequality in our society? I think it had to do with a number of different factors.

Perhaps the most glaring answer was that I was now viewing the world via the social web, rather than the mainstream media. My news was no longer filtered by what would sell newspapers and magazines, but by what people found interesting. The natural result of this of course is that when you read one feminist blog, it links to another so you read that one as well. That one might link to a few different articles, and another blog. Eventually, you find that your entire morning news consists of feminist ranting and not much else. That, in itself, had a lot to do with my perspective, but it didn't fully explain whether the deception occurred in the years before I started reading blogs, or after.

I also wondered if it was because I now had access to individual and very personal accounts of sexism and inequality. These were stories being shared directly by victims. Prior to reading my first ever feminist blog, I had never been friends with anyone who had experienced anything so brutal, demeaning, and sometimes violent as these stories I was reading now. Was this a matter of statistics? It is entirely believable that the number of people recounting these acts were statistically insignificant, meaning the problem where it existed was truly horrifying, but probably not anything worth actually getting upset over, unless you were the victim of course. After all, there are a small percentage of people in the world that can only be considered sick fucks. We all know they exist, we do what we can to combat it legally and socially, and we all recognise that the whole of human society is not at all like that. This had a ring of truth about it too, but it was still hard to swallow as a complete answer.

Eventually, something came up in a conversation with a friend of mine. We were discussing geek culture, and how being a 'geek' suddenly had street cred and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Everywhere she turned, she was faced by people who had never done anything more with technology than log into Facebook, but they were suddenly branding themselves as a geek. Icons of geek culture - such as Star Wars, the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy series, Battlestar Galactica, and an overt interest in fonts - were being adopted in the most mainstream ways. It was enough to make HG Wells turn in his grave, she said. Suddenly, geek was the new black: everybody was making jokes involving hex codes, everyone had a Twitter account, and every photo of a cat had a poorly spelled caption. And that was when it hit me. It wasn't that the internet had opened my eyes to sexism that had existed all along. It was that sexism existed on the internet in a way that it no longer existed in the rest of society. Online society reflected real life, but it was socially many significant steps in the past.

Internet culture has long been the stronghold of the uber-geek. Before MSN Messenger, Google, and Facebook made the internet accessible for everyone it took quite a lot of technical know-how to be able to get online in the first place, let alone find your way to online social groups and communities. Not everyone knew someone technically literate enough to get them online, and keep them there. Many people weren't quite sure what they would do if they did get online. The internet was full of strongholds like USENET and IRC, inhabited by mathematicians, engineers, scientists and university students. They all spoke a special language comprised of acronyms, in-jokes, and slang that served to filter out the general public. For the most part, they were quite happy to keep it that way. I was at university in those days, so hanging out in an IRC channel or two was expected, but you didn't dare speak up too loud, or wander into the wrong BBS, because it wouldn't take long before you either showed your ignorance, or had some channel operator ask who you were and what you thought you were doing there. By keeping the riff-raff out of the networks, they were able to discuss their projects in detail without being bogged down by silly questions; they were able to monitor and filter what was said, and by whom. Although it was probably unintentional, these enclaves were also able to maintain the notion that they were part of an elite minority. They were the ones who ruled the internet - they would choose who could come, and they would choose who could stay. Overwhelmingly, the people who were making these decisions were male. It was not that they did not allow women in, so much that there were very few women who wanted in, or even knew about it. There weren't that many women in their offline communities, so there were very few women invited into the newly developed online ones. So it was that with this technological leap forward into the early dotcom years, the skewed gender profile of generations of science and engineering labs filtered into the next great social revolution.

Acronyms and industry jargon have always been used to delineate those who are in the group from those who don't belong. This is true in no place so obviously as the internet, particularly in those early days when internet access was just starting to creep into homes. Just like the offline world, outsiders have increasingly found themselves having to fight for acceptance into this culture. The technology that allowed access to all and sundry has, unfortunately, moved slower than the norms and rituals surrounding it. Which leads us to an interesting situation. Offline, women have achieved a lot in terms of gender equity. Sure, there is still work to be done, but for the most part women enjoy freedoms and equality that Germaine Greer and Anne Summers, when writing their seminal works, didn't even have the words to describe. Online, however, is a different story. Rule 16 of the internet states: "There are no girls on the internet".

Where do you get your ideas?

Every writer has been asked this. Even unpublished, unknown, and unrecognised writers like me. In Stephen King's brilliant book "On Writing" (which, you might have noticed, was the inspiration for this blog's title) he gives a simple and succinct answer:
Anything you damn well want.

Honestly, I don't know where I get my ideas. Sometimes I turn a little tiny nub of an idea around in my head, stretch it and bend it and flip it on its head, until it starts to form a plot. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it's just sitting there, whole, waiting for me to pick it up in my hand like a glass bauble and make it come to life on the page. Honestly, though, I think that the people who ask this question aren't really wondering where the writer gets the ideas so much as "Where do you find the words?". I read an interesting answer to this question by Julie Norris on the 2moroDocs blog. She explained that she
always visualize[s] words up in the sky, like stars, and when writing, I just reach up and gather some. Sometimes they’re easily in reach, and other times not. Depends on the word, I suppose, or the day.
I'm not sure I'm that visual, but I know there are days when the words come like a torrent, and it's all my fingers can do to keep up with the flow. And then there's days when they don't ... because sometimes they won't (to paraphrase Dr Suess).

There is a school of thought that says write every day. While I'm not sure I agree with the preachy tone of that advice, I would definitely recommend that you write a lot. And if there's a day when you don't write, at least take the time to read. As part of the NaNoWriMo frivolities, a 'pep talk' email gets sent out to participiants every few days. My favourite one this year was from Peter Carey who said, in part:
First, turn off your television. The television is your enemy. It will stop you doing what you wish to do. If you wish to watch TV, you do not want to be a serious writer.

I never watched a lot of television, even as a kid, but I completely unplugged it about three years ago. I will note that when I say "I don't watch television" I don't, like a lot of people, mean "I don't watch television, except for the news and the Saturday night movie" or "I don't watch television, except for my favourite sitcom on Wednesdays. Oh, and that reality show on Saturday nights. Oh, and the lottery draw of course". When I say "I don't watch television" I mean "I don't actually own one". I don't know how I would find the time now to watch even an hour of television a week. There's washing to do, food to cook, books to read, blogs to comment on ... any number of interesting things that are vying for my attention. It's a concept that Clay Shirky write about in his (lengthy, but well worth reading) article Gin, Television, and Social Surplus. He refers to the time spent in front of television as a "cognitive surplus", and suggests that when that time is spent doing, well, just about anything other than watching television, we are making a massive change to the very structure of our society. He also argues that children are growing up in a world where that cognitive surplus is being put to much better use. Children do not see value in media that you can't interact with. While some decry this as shortened attention spans, I see it more as a shift in values. It's not so much that we require constant entertainment, or constant stimulation, so much as we ask more from our leisure time. We're not going to sit there and just mindlessly consume what's on television so much anymore. We want our leisure to be spent creating, interacting, sharing, and collaborating. This is a good thing.

If you've always wanted to write, but you never have the time ... try turning off the television. If you've always wanted to write, but you don't know where to get your ideas, or you're not sure how to find the words ... turn off the television, and take a look at the world around you. It's a hell of a lot more interesting, awe-inspiring, and wonderous than what's on the box.

Coffee and Consent

Waiter: Would you like some coffee? 
Woman: Yes, please. 
Waiter: Just say when. (Starts to pour.) 
Woman: There. (He keeps pouring.) That's fine. (He pours.) Stop! (She grabs the pot; there is coffee everywhere.) 
Waiter: Yes, ma'am. 
Woman: Well, why didn't you stop pouring? 
Waiter: Oh, I wasn't sure you meant it. 
Woman: Look, of course I meant it! I have coffee all over my lap! You nearly burned me! 
Waiter: Forgive me, ma'am, but you certainly looked thirsty. I thought you wanted more. 
Woman: But - 
Waiter: And you must admit, you did let me start to pour.

Courtesy of Female Impersonator

Everyone has an opinion

Including the PM, it seems. And he's not afraid to tell everyone about it, either. Just off the top of my head, Kevin Rudd has voiced his opinion on everything from Bill Henson to Kyle Sandilands, and had a go at The Chaser on the way through. Now, the latest target for his disapproval is Westpac, it seems.

Westpac, to be fair, hiked interest rates much further than the RBA did, but that's their decision to make. I have no doubt that the board pondered the hike, weighed it up against consumer backlash, and chose to make that change for a very good reason. Not to say I agree with it, but I wasn't in the board meeting, either. If you're a Westpac customer, and you don't like it, you have a choice.

The ad itself (you can see it here) is a very quick explanation of the global financial crisis, and the bank's justification for the rate hike. It is an accurate - if somewhat over-simplified -  explanation of how banks and the money market works.

So what's wrong with it? Well, I'm not quite sure. Kev has spouted a lot of guff about how the bank shouldn't have compared homes (big dollar important stuff) to banana smoothies (small dollar not-important stuff, presumably). But, I spent six years at university boiling big concepts down to simple transactions involving 'widgets' or 'bottles of lemonade' to be better able to understand them. This is not a new idea. It's actually a really good aid to understanding. Since Westpac's aim was education in this instance, I think they chose a suitable method. And I happen to be partial to a good banana smoothie.

The only criticism I can possibly level at Westpac in this case is that they make an assumption that the average consumer doesn't understand financial markets. I can see how some more educated customers might be offended at that assumption, but let's face it - who does understand global financial markets? Really? And if these customers understand it so well, why are they clicking on a link that explains it anyway?

In the meantime, there's a little meeting going on in Copenhagen ... and our Prime Minister is commenting on banana smoothies. Who is the one really making a gaffe here? Westpac, or the PM?

Spend less. Be Happy.

Last year, I wrote this:

This year, I'm making an effort to give more than I receive, to make more than I buy, and to recycle more than I throw away. It isn't just a gift for now, this year, but a gift to our children, and their future.

This year, T is spending Christmas with her Dad, so we will be child free here. I decided to take the opportunity to do a big chunk of volunteering, including Christmas Day itself.

I started by calling as many people as I could find. It was amazing ... organisations either aren't doing anything for Christmas, didn't know what needed to be done or who to contact, or just couldn't think of something I might be able to help with. Or, worse, they'd be uncertain. They would promise to call back (sometimes multiple times), and then just never would. Anyone would think that we didn't have homeless or hungry or unfortunate in Canberra.

There was one thing that made me happy though. While looking for something, I put a message on Twitter asking if anybody knew of organisations looking for help. I didn't get any organisations popping up asking for volunteers, but I did get four or five people all say, "I don't know of anything, but if you find something let me know, and I'll come too." The upshot is that now I have a small band of Christmas Elves willing to spread cheer and goodwill, and nowhere to send them to do so.

Thankfully, we have found one place that needs our help, Communities@Work have asked us to help with hamper packing in the week before Christmas, which is bound to be a whole lot of fun. But at the moment, it seems I'll be hanging around at home twiddling my thumbs on Christmas Day. Because I absolutely refuse to give in to the consumerist version of Christmas, and I'm agnostic and won't be partaking in the religious model of the day, I guess I'll get some housework done.

If you know of anyone who does need some volunteer help (in Canberra preferably, but I'll consider Sydney too), send me an email won't you?

And they all lived happily ever after


I did it! Three days ahead of schedule too.

Where's the fiction gone?

In order to protect my own sanity, and in light of the increased traffic to my site, I've decided to move my fiction offshore. I'm just moving the current NaNoWriMo off for now, but I'll be moving the rest (NaNo of past years and short fiction of all varieties) off as soon as I find two seconds.

The best part is that in the process, I'm organising them a little better, so it should be easier for you to find where you're up to, and then continue on from where you left off with a minimum of fuss.

The worst part is that - for November at least - I'm locking the site down. It's easy to get a password though, just send me an email or DM and let me know who you are, then I can grant you access. During November, I'm more or less glued to my computer anyway, so you should be more or less straight in to the good stuff once you've sent me an email.

The new site is

Apologies again for the continuing interruptions to the novelling. Hopefully this will help to alleviate that problem.

Enjoy! And please remember to let me know what you think about the fiction. I'm a writer, so a little positive reinforcement is a great way to get me to write more :)

Why Thank You!

To all my new wonderful visitors - hello and welcome! Thanks for dropping by! As you can see, the blog is a little crazy right now, due to a little thing that I participate in every year called NaNoWriMo. Be assured that it's not always like this.

To everyone else who is just looking for the next installment in the story - I'll return you to your regular November scheduling madness shortly. Please bear with me!

Yesterday, a co-worker alerted me to the fact that my name had been listed as one of the Top Open Source Technical Writers on the web. I was blown away! I am seriously over the moon about it all, and wanted to sincerely thank both Aaron Davis and Scott Nesbitt of DMN Communications for the vote of confidence.

Technical writing is a funny kind of industry to be in. The people who are in it are for the most part seriously excited about where tech writing is going, and what we can do along the way. Of course, combined with the type of people who are involved in open source generally, it means you end up working with crazy-smart people who are really seriously passionate about what they do, and how what they do can make the technical world a better place.

I'm very privileged to be able to write free/libre and open source technical documentation for a living. Not many get to have that experience. The things that the open source community has taught me, and the experiences I've been able to have doing so, are something that working anywhere else just wouldn't offer you.

My passion is creating the best technical documentation I possibly can, and making it available to as many people as possible. More often than not in open source, the deadlines are tight, the scope is big, and the resources limited. The challenge that situation creates is, as expected, pretty huge. Being given the opportunity to attempt to create documentation that shines within that environment is one of the biggest challenges I've ever encountered. It's a challenge that I wake up every morning to, and while there are days that I think I can't do it, there are many more days where all I want to do is inch a little closer to that goal. Having people like Aaron and Scott publically recognise that effort is what makes the hard work all worth it.

To follow on from Aaron and Scott's list, I'd like to shout out to all those people who write, contribute, edit, review, and use open source technical documentation - even if it's only spotting typos and raising a bug. You are the ones who deserve the recognition, because without you, I wouldn't have the opportunity to do what I love. I hope you all enjoy creating and using open source technical documentation as much as I do.

Cross-posted to Foss Docs

Embarking on a Journey

Once again, November has rolled around with its usual alarming regularity.

The end of October marks not only the beginning of that rather fast descent into madness that is NaNoWriMo, but also the second birthday of this particular blog. Thanks for hanging in there for the ride!

This year has been ... interesting. And it's not over yet. All in all, I'm a lot happier now than ever before, despite the fact that I'm so busy I can't even scratch myself. But, the Girl Geek Dinners have taken off, my speaking engagements have gone from none to wow, work is awesome as always, and my little girl is nearly in grade one. Despite all her new found knowledge, she's still eager to cram in some more, and she's horribly excited about being a 'big girl'.

There have been some other things happen this year that were not so good, but I've learned a lot, I've discovered a few things about the world that I didn't know before. And I've also gotten over at least one of my fears. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, hey?

As for NaNoWriMo, well it all starts with a gigantic Kick Off Party (KOP) at the Pancake Parlour tomorrow. Some nutters are planning on being there from 7am. I intend to struggle in as soon as I get out of bed. If today is any indication, that should be around 11am. Pancakes for lunch, I guess.

As usual, I will be blogging each day's writing efforts here. I strongly suggest you don't read any of them. If you do decide to take the plunge, though, be prepared for disjointed storylines, bad typing, plot holes big enough to walk through without ducking your head, and the type of grammar that no self-respecting writer should ever make public.

In other words ... a whole boatload of fun!

UPDATED 14 November: There was a fraction too much fiction, so all the NaNo stuff has been shifted off to a new site. Read this blog post to find out where it's gone, and why.

Magic waterfalls


I was invited to speak as a guest lecturer at the Australian National University last week. The audience was a class of third and fourth year computer science students, and the topic was technical writing. After speaking for somewhere pretty close to an hour, and successfully getting a few laughs in that time, I answered a clutch of questions, and was then drawn into a discussion about engineering methods. The course convener had pointed out that the five-phase model (that I discussed at least briefly in this blog post) that I use is, in itself, a fairly typical engineering process. And of course he's absolutely correct. It's a perfectly ordinary process, based on the waterfall model.

It's called a waterfall model because if you start at the top, the results of the first step are used to move into the second step, just like water flowing down a series of steps into a pool.

The students I was speaking to are at a point in their projects where they need to be producing some documentation. For a bunch of budding engineers this process can be a little daunting, and the question came up about the best way to tackle it. The answer is fairly simple - start the top of the waterfall, and let the current take you. By answering a few questions in the information plan, you can start creating a content specification. Using the chapter headings and source information you developed in the content spec, you can write the document.  Once it's written, you can publish it, once it's published you can review it, and then you're ready to start again at the top with the next project.

Technical writing is less of a creative process, and more of a scientific process than just about any other kind of writing (with the possible exclusion of some kinds of academic writing).  The creativity only becomes important when you try and turn it from something dry and boring, to something magical.

Anyone with a scientific or engineering mind can create technical documentation, they might not enjoy it, but they are more than capable of creating it. It takes an artist to make it something wonderful, to turn it into something that people actually want to read, and to make it shine. It's the difference between 'magic' and 'more magic'.

Cross-posted to Foss Docs


Today marks the start of the 8-day long diwali (or dīpāvali) festival. It is a festival of light, celebrated in Hinduism and Buddhism, among others.

Traditionally, people light candles, wear new clothes, and celebrate with sweets and snacks. What got me thinking, though, was the many and varied stories of how diwali came about, through legend and history. I won't go into detail (if you want it, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start), but the stories are all essentially about a homecoming, a return from exile, the release of detainees.

In the past few days, I've been bothered by our government's reaction to the 250 Tamil asylum-seekers, who are now on hunger strike in a boat in Merak, Java. These people are apparently so evil that both sides of politics agree that they shouldn't be allowed in to our country, to enjoy our freedoms.

We quite happily advertise our wealth to the world. When those who have nothing; those who live daily in fear and poverty; seek to improve theirs and their childrens' lives by giving everything they have to come here, we turn them away. We turn them away.

What evil do these people encompass? The detractors will cry that we will be over-run. Well, so what if we are? We have boundless plains to share, after all.

Even if you have never heard of diwali before, even if this day would normally have passed for you without a glimmer of recognition of what today means for so many Hindus and Buddhists, please just take a moment to think of those who will not be returning home. Take a moment to consider how many people are currently living in fear of their lives, in complete and abject poverty, and who are willing to give everything they have to try and rise above that. And think about the people who are so close to their dream of the future ... yet so far.

Happy diwali. I hope that - for you - it is a time of light and happiness. And I hope that you will spare a thought and light a candle for those who cannot celebrate diwali this year, through no fault of their own.

NaNoWriMo 2009


NaNoWriMo is coming!

Haecksen in Te Whanga-nui-a-Tara

I'm going to in Wellington in January, to give my "Beautiful Technical Documentation" talk for the Haecksen mini-conf. Haecksen is the German feminine version of the English word 'hackers'. Te Whanga-nui-a-Tara is the Maori word for Wellington.

I've done a bit of travelling in my time, but the opportunity to hop over the puddle to New Zealand has never presented itself before now. I'm quite excited!

Incidentally, I've also been asked to speak at the ANU in a couple of weeks, so I'm going to be using an extended version of the same talk. Now, to write it!



T has her school fête coming up next weekend, which means I get to bake. And I don't mean baking boring grown-up stuff, either. Kid food rocks :)

I'll be making my standard chocolate buttermilk cake, and these Open Source Brownies. Yay!

Image credit here. Check it out, it's an awesome site!

The beast within

Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don't feel I should be doing something else.

Gloria Steinem

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is coming up again. And so, like many other writers (both professional and aspiring), I'll be setting aside the thirty days of November to pump out 50,000 words of a novel, or about 1,600 words a day. This is in addition to the thousands of words I pump out every month as part of my role as a technical writer, of course. The question here is, what on earth makes someone who writes all day for a living, want to go home and write all night as well? It sounds like a Dr Suess story: "Oh I say, we write all day. Write, write, we write all night". The really peculiar thing is that I'm not alone in this endeavour. There are many tech writers out there moonlighting as novelists every November. Don't try to take a tech writer out to dinner in November, unless you're willing to have them with their laptop out at the table ... taptaptaptappitytap


I suspect writers are born, not made. That's not to say that good writers are rare, I actually suspect that they're quite ubiquitous. Many of them never actually become writers. They become all manner of other things - butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers - but that drive to write exists within them still. They might write a private journal, be secretly working on a novel, submit letters to the editor, write lengthy letters to their friends, submit stories to a website, or keep a blog.  Or just wish they had the time.

All of this means that, as a writer, when you meet another in the street, you see that gleam in their eyes. There's a passion, an excitement, a certain joie de vivre that they only truly experience when they are head down and writing. Have you ever wandered down the street, completely lost in thought trying to work out a plot twist, a character development, a particularly witty piece of dialogue, only to realise that you're grinning your head off, looking like a loon? Then you're a writer. And here's my advice to you: don't fight it.

I have a stack of manuscripts in my desk drawer. Will I ever submit them to a publisher? No. Will I ever give them the edits and re-writes they really need? No. Will I ever look at them again? Probably not. So why bother creating them in the first place? Because I need to write. There is a living thing inside me that is only satiated when there are words flowing through me. What happens to those words afterwards is entirely irrelevant. I think them up, I write them down, I make sure I like the way they sound, and then I let them live on without me.

So if you share my passion, why not join me in November? And if just one month a year of crazy writing isn't nearly enough, why not apply for a job?

Cross-posted to">Foss Docs

They're genderising what now?

I went to Woolworth's on the weekend. Not exactly blog material, I know, but what I saw there was. I didn't snap a picture (left my phone in the car, bummer!) but I'll try and get one up shortly. It seems as though we don't have quite enough gendered food to offer our children these days, so Allen's (owned by Nestle) have stepped into the gap we didn't know we had ... "Boy's Adventure Mix" and "Girl's Enchanted Mix" bags of lollies. Ummm. What?

I didn't get a good look at the type of lollies in each bag, but the names on their own are disgusting. Do boys not like wizards and dragons? Can girls not have adventures (aside from the enchanted kind, I guess)? And what would happen if - shock! - my little girl ate a lolly from the boy bag? Would she be scarred for life? Do Allen's provide a phone number hotline for these types of gender emergencies?

Dear Allens,
Grow up.
No love,

Updated 14 September with pic

Of Babies and Pendulums

Back in December, I blogged this, which questioned the rationale behind the laying of criminal charges on the like of Chris Illingworth, at the centre of the "baby-swinging" scandal. I was lucky enough to have that post repeated over at The Thinkers' Podium, and Mr Illingworth himself responded to my original article as a result of that.

And so it was with great excitement that I read that the charges against Chris Illingworth had been dropped. Finally sanity prevails! As I read the article though, I was struck by the entirely human problem that Mr Illingworth now faces - restoring his life back to something resembling normality, and moving on. I don't envy him at all.

To continue in the theme of my original post, though, I wonder if this is really the pendulum of over-protecting our children swinging back, or is it merely that the case itself was so fatally flawed that it just wasn't going to fly? In other words, were the charges against Mr Illingworth dropped because the prosecution had a fit of sanity and reason prevailed, or because there just wasn't enough evidence to follow through with the whole crusade?

Mr Illingworth is understandably upset that he didn't get his day in court. He was denied his opportunity to speak his piece, to defend his choices, and to justify his own actions. That must hurt, and I can only hope that the normally rabid media at the very least offers him a podium of sorts to help him get that off his chest. The linked article also suggests that he is seeking legal advice over possibly counter-suing over his treatment during the proceedings. Obviously the stress of any court case is horrific, and by all reports he has spent time in hospital as a result of the stress of it all. I can say that I know how he feels in that matter at least.

The other thing I found interesting is that Mr Illingworth is calling for an official enquiry into the matter. While I whole-heartedly support this, I find it difficult to believe that it would happen. An enquiry into the bumbling idiots that made a mockery of his arrest, maybe, but an enquiry into why they decided he was guilty in the first place? An enquiry into why we feel we need to protect children to this increasingly over-zealous degree? An enquiry into why we wrap our children in bubble wrap on the off-chance that a dirty peadophile might be lurking at the school gate? I doubt it.

This question goes much deeper into societal norms and taboos than a single investigation. What happened to Mr Illingworth late last year is the sad culmination of a growing fear that our children are likely to be abducted, abused, or molested if allowed outside in the backyard for more than a few seconds without parental supervision.

So where does it stop? Again I ask - when does the pendulum start to swing back? And this time, I'm going to answer it. It starts to swing back when you start giving your children freedom. It starts when you stop living in fear of paedophiles. It starts when you lose the irrationality of fear, and start to critically think about crime, your child, and the likelihood of the two meeting.

As for Mr Illingworth ... sir, I salute you.

One Simple Diet Rule ... ?

I had the misfortune to come across this ad while browsing today:

Apparently, to be 'sexy' (which inevitably requires me to lose 10lbs of 'stomach fat'), I just need to give birth.
Is this genuine, or just a bot-fail, I wonder? 


Updated: 14 September

Just found another pearler:

(Click to embiggen)

How do you lose 35lbs? By shaving your edges off (unevenly) in photoshop! Yay!

We are here! We are here! We are here!

Pixar has a new movie out (warning: horrible flash site with sound) in a couple of weeks. Naturally, T is itching to see it. It even sounds like a decent story. The main character ties a whole heap of helium balloons to his house, to embark on a long-wished-for holiday. The climax is seemingly built around a somewhat irritating small child. The main thing I noticed, though, like a scratch that you can't quite itch, is the lack of female characters. Again.

Why, Pixar? At least a few of the others have had female sidekicks. Up lacks even that, from what I can see. Of course, I'll take T along to see it, as I have done with the others. She'll love it, of course, and want a copy on DVD. But what message will she bring home? How much debriefing will I need to offer this time?

Of course, Pixar isn't alone. The last one to really get my goat was Horton Hears a Who. I loved the basic premise of this book, but the Mayor's 96 daughters (all caught up, appropriately for their gender, in issues such as homework and hairbrushes) and the one son, who - quite naturally - saves the day. I'm sure at least one of those 96 daughters could have been a strong character, but we never got to hear about them.

And yes, I know Coraline's out. I'm personally quite excited about it. But I'm afraid it's too scary for my daughter's often quite fragile constitution. I might have to go see it myself, and pass judgement then.

When are going to see a genuine kid's movie, with all of Pixar's charm and humour, but with a female in the driver's seat? It's not that much to ask, is it? After all, over half of our children are girls. Give them something to watch, and love, but also give them something to aspire to.

Creating technical documentation in five easy steps

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him out to the public.

--Winston Churchill

Step 1: Planning - who is the audience? What are the book's goals?

Step 2: Content - what are the chapters about? Where will you get the information?

Step 3: Writing - first draft, review, second draft ...

Step 4: Internationalisation/Localisation - will the book be translated? Into what languages?

Step 5: Review - what worked? What didn't? How will the book be maintained?

This is a very distilled version of JoAnn Hackos' method. It all seems very easy doesn't it? It's a fairly logical progression through the steps. Writing in general is often considered an art, a talent (you either have it or you don't), a skill, and somewhat mysterious and unique to a small portion of the population. In fact, writing is something that many people can do, and a lot of people can do well. Where it gets difficult is the same place as where any task worth doing gets difficult - sticking with it. Writing is not something you can start on Monday, and have a completed book by lunchtime on Thursday. This goes for technical writing as much as any other style, and it's where the apparent 'magic' comes in. Some people have the ability to sit in a small room on their own for weeks at a time, taking and distilling technical minutae by day, and sipping absinthe by night until - like a miracle - they give birth to a brand new shiny technical manual. And some people ... well, some people just don't. Which is not terrifically surprising, on the face of it.

The idea of writing a book is romanticised in our culture. Everyone 'has a book in them'; we're all trying to write the 'great American/Australian/British/$NATIONALITY novel'; one day, I'll 'be the next Hemingway/Dickens/Crichton/$AUTHOR'. How many people have started on the path, only to find - days, weeks, months, or years later - that it has been consigned to the desk drawer, and forgotten? This all leads us to believe, however subliminally, that writing a book is hard. It takes a long time, it is terrifically difficult, and only a bare few make it out the other side. It makes us feel better about the unfinished manuscript in the bottom drawer.

Which leads us to realise why so many versions of the writing 'process' exists. If you google for it, you will be spoiled for choice in the methods available. It's a way of breaking down the mammoth task of creating a book into small, manageable, easy-to-chew lumps. Somehow, five (or six, or seven, depending on the method you choose) small steps aren't half as scary to tackle as one big one: "Write a book".

When it comes to technical writing, though, the process has more purpose. Technical documents are very rarely produced in isolation. The book could be part of a suite of documents for one product - the Installation Guide, the User Guide, the Reference Guide; it could be a guide for a product that forms part of a complete solution - the front-end tool, the back-end database, and the libraries; it could simply be a book produced by a large technical company that produces a large range of products. Whatever other books or products compliment the work in progress, there needs to be a consistent approach, a 'look and feel' that creates a brand around the product. By following a standard process for each and every book written, that brand is more easily created and maintained, even by many authors, all working on individual projects, and in their own unique ways - absinthe or no absinthe.

Cross-posted at Foss Docs

I put my proposal in to last night. The conference will be in Wellington for 2010, in January. My talk is about technical writing for open source projects, and I've called it "Creating beautiful open source technical documentation". That was a little boring, though, so I gave it a subtitle: "Writing FOSS docs that don't suck". Better :)

For posterity, I'm recording the abstract here:

Creating beautiful open source technical documentation (or: writing FOSS docs that don't suck), is a look into why documentation is so important to open source projects. Many open source projects are created by very small teams of dedicated individuals. In this situation, the importance of effective documentation often goes unrecognised and technical writers are viewed as an unnecessary expense.

Documentation, particularly in an open source project, is all too often created by people who are very close to the technical minutiae. The end result is a documentation suite that starts at a point beyond the users' understanding, and rapidly becomes more complicated. The user gets lost at step one, and throws away the documentation - and the software - as a lost cause.

Standard usability guidelines for software development apply equally to creating documentation. When the focus is put on the user, and what the user needs to achieve, then it is possible to create documentation that takes them beyond merely using the software, and on to enjoying it.

This presentation explores the different facets of documentation usability. It explains how to create documentation that will empower your users, guide them through the somewhat daunting learning curve of using new software, and in the process make your project look fantastic. Beautiful technical documentation might sound like a completely unrealistic fairy tale, but it can make the difference between a successful project, and a wildly successful one.

Crafting beautiful technical documentation

Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it's just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.

- David Sedaris

Technical writing is a strange breed. When you write fiction or poetry or a screenplay, it's a release, it's a way of expressing what is inside yourself, and allowing your imagination to creep into the those little crevices in your brain, and poke about to see what squirms. Writing technical documentation is almost entirely the opposite. It's about getting into the heads of your readers, finding out what makes them tick, how they work, and then presenting them with the information in a way that will make them go "Aha!". It's about taking source documentation that would make your eyelashes curl, and crafting it - shaping it, massaging it, chewing it up and spitting it out - into something that not only makes sense, but is useful, intuitive, and - dare I say it - beautiful.

Beautiful technical documentation? Why yes. I think so. Bad technical writing is hard to use, hard to understand, and hard to find what you want. Good technical documentation is intuitive, easy to navigate, and aesthetically pleasing. Good technical documentation is beautiful.

The question, then, is how to create beautiful technical documentation, and how to know when that's what you've got. While it would seem easy to tell when you haven't got it, it is not always as simple as it might sound. The problem is the same as a lot of artists and craftsmen complain of - getting too close to the subject matter. One of the reasons that engineers can not generally create effective documentation is because they get too close to the nuts and bolts of the thing. They spend too much time looking at the engine of the beast, that they become unable to describe what colour the paintjob is. That is where the documentation team step in - we bring fresh eyes to the project, and are able to look at it from the top down. We can describe what it looks like, what it does, and how to do it, without having to explain how that happens. But once you've been working on that single document for months, you've been through revisions, and revisions of revisions, you've been bombarded with information from the technical team, you've had requests for more detail, more depth, and more minutiae ... then how do you tell if it is any good? Your advantage - your fresh pair of eyes, your ability to see the big picture, and your talent for information organisation - is no longer whole. Now you are the one who is too close to the project.

A writer of fiction would tell you this: put the book down, step away from the desk. Leave it for a week or two, a month or two. And then tackle it with fresh eyes. A technical writer would scoff - who has time for all that? This book needs to be released next Wednesday!

Often, the solution is to hand it to someone else - a fellow writer - for review and comment. But what about when that option isn't available either? Every writer has their own method of handling this. What I do is this: I put it down, not for long, but for an afternoon, or overnight. And I write something else. Something completely different. A blog post, for example, or a chapter of a novel, or a short story. Anything that has absolutely nothing in common with the piece you're working on. Ensure the voice that you are writing in changes, the topic changes, the emotion changes. Then, make yourself a cup of tea, and pick the book back up again. But don't start at the beginning. Read it backwards. Read each page, on its own, in reverse order. I even read the paragraphs in reverse order. Start at the last one, and work your way back to the beginning of the book. You're checking for typos, for sentence structure, for punctuation, grammar, and all that good stuff. By reading it out of order, you're less likely to drift off and start thinking about something else. You're more likely to read what's there, rather than what you think is there.

Then find a blank piece of paper. Put yourself in the mind of your customer: What do they need to know? What are they trying to achieve? Why do they have your book? The answers will be myriad - but list the obvious ones out. You need to think about what your customer knows, and what your customer doesn't know - that gap is where your book fits.

Once you're thinking like a customer, pin that list up somewhere you can see it, go back again, and read the book in order. If you're able, read it aloud, it helps to catch odd phrasing. This time, you need to be looking for flow. Make sure each paragraph flows into the next, that each section flows into the next, that each chapter flows into the next. Check that you're introducing concepts in order from the top down - start with the big things, and then explain the detail as you go on. Cut out anything that doesn't fit. Don't be afraid to cut and paste paragraphs, to taste-test them in a new arrangement.

And the whole time - there's only one thing you should be thinking about - your customer. If the customer perceives value in your documentation, if your book bridges that gap between what the customer knows, and what they need to know - then they will see the beauty in it.

Cross-posted from Foss Docs

The answer to the kitchen question

I've been wondering what to do about the kitchen in the new place in the short term, but the answer has hunted me down, it seems. I was thinking that if I can just change the colour of the benchtops somehow, it would make me a lot happier. My first idea was to buy new laminate, and somehow glue it on top of the orange stuff, but after some investigation, it seems a lot more difficult, expensive, and time consuming than I was willing to deal with. Especially considering the kitchen will be entirely replaced within a matter of months (funds permitting!). Anyway, the renovation forums - combined with a touch of Google-fu - have come to my aid again, and the answer lies in this: paint!

White Knight Paints do a beasty called a "laminate paint", which is designed especially for - you guessed it - painting laminate! The beauty of it all is that you don't need to pull the sink and the stove and everything out to do it, you can just mask them off. And the really cool bit about this whole adventure? My brother is a spray painter ... wheeee!

Ban the burka - or the bigoted leaders of this movement?

From the comments section on the skepchick article regarding the "Ban the Burka" furor:

ekimbrough // Jul 3, 2009 at 5:14 pm

The argument for banning burqas is an argument that shoots itself in the foot. We don’t like burqas because they’re a symbol of a ruling authority forcing a restriction onto women because the women aren’t respected enough to be allowed to decide for themselves. So, what would ban on burqas be? Uh…That would be a ruling authority forcing a restriction onto women because the women aren’t respected enough to be allowed to decide for themselves.


Never was a truer word said.

I'm not going to go into detail on this, it really does stand on its own. I will however, say this:

If Terrie-Anne Verney is sacked, so should Virginia Haussegger.

Let them say it in their own personal ways, but don't give them the national broadcaster as a platform.

Of Mice and Men

What's so wonderful about being a little boy anyway? Why is that necessarily any better than being a mouse? I know that mice get hunted and they sometimes get poisoned or caught in traps. But little boys sometimes get killed, too. Little boys can be run over by motor-cars or they can die of some awful illness. Little boys have to go to school. Mice don't. Mice don't have to pass exams. Mice don't have to worry about money. Mice, as far as I can see, have only two enemies, humans and cats. My grandmother is a human, but I know for certain that she will always love me whoever I am. And she never, thank goodness, keeps a cat. When mice grow up, they don't ever have to go to war and fight against other mice. Mice, I felt pretty certain, all like each other. People don't.

Yes, I told myself, I don't think it is at all a bad thing to be a mouse.

Roald Dahl "The Witches"


Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it's just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.
- David Sedaris

The Twitter backchannel - useful, or just a nuisance?

I've been lucky enough to be present at a few conferences now where there has been what has been termed the 'Twitter backchannel'. One formal, and a few informal. I gave a short talk at one of the informal ones, as well.

The term 'backchannel' refers to a conversation being held by the audience, in addition to and alongside the formal channel of the speaker talking to the audience. Increasingly, Twitter is being used to enable this conversation, as it is fast, easy, and very accessible using mobile devices. With Twitter readily available on iPhones, netbooks, and all manner of mobile devices, it's easy to make a quick comment about the subject of the talk, especially if you feel strongly one way or the other about the subject matter. But what happens as this trend grows? As a greater proportion of audiences take advantage of this easy method of commenting, what happens to the value of the medium?

It is becoming more and more common to enable a commentary about a topic. Through 'comments' sections on news stories, blogs such as this one, and other social media. Even traditional mass-communication devices like television, newspaper, and radio are increasingly using social networking to create a backchannel to their stories. It is now perfectly ordinary for radio presenters to discuss the text messages and 'tweets' they have received on their programs. While the model is not perfect, it does create a dialogue between traditional one-to-many media outlets and their audiences that has never existed before. And so it is in this environment, and with this public expectation of dialogue, that the backchannel has been created.

In general, a speech at a conference offers only a single communication channel. The interesting part is that the backchannel doesn't offer reciprocity. In fact, the speaker is (in most cases) completely ignorant of what is going on in the backchannel until they've finished speaking. The first conference went to with a formal backchannel actually prompted one speaker to comment that the only thing that wasn't great about it was the fact that he couldn't see it happening. He jokingly asked for a screen at the front so that he could see what people were saying. But how much of a joke is that? The backchannel can often provide critical information to a speaker - information that could be responded to, acted on, or qualified by the speaker while on the podium. It could also give them valuable feedback that they would otherwise have received face to face, but because of the existence and nature of the backchannel, they may never receive. It makes the backchannel an ineffective medium for dialogue between the speaker and the audience.

With that in mind, can a whole audience full of people tapping on their mobile devices really be paying attention to the speaker anyway? There's an argument that says at least the audience is commenting on the speech itself, so it can't be all bad. It really does feed into our newfound short attention spans though. It has been documented many times over that society's increasing focus on instant gratification and constant entertainment is ruining our ability (or our will?) to be able to focus on one thing at a time - and one thing only. Perhaps by offering two attention-getters - the speaker, and the backchannel - on the one topic, the speaker is more likely to get the audience to think about the topic, instead of drifting off and thinking about something else? More research needed, perhaps.

So what benefit does it bring? It might not give much apparent benefit to the speaker as an individual, but it does bring benefit to the conversation as a whole. If the speaker's purpose is to get everyone paying attention to them, and to increase their own visibility and importance, then the backchannel will probably only serve to detract from the purpose. If, however, the idea is to create a conversation around a topic; to raise awareness; to get people thinking; to encourage action; then the backchannel might just be the way to do it. Not only does it get the people in the room excited about the topic, but it also creates a way to reach outside the room, to the followers and the followers of followers of the members of the audience. If the idea is good, and the support strong, it could potentially cause a waterfall of cascading information, the beginnings of a grass roots movement.

The Twitter backchannel is a new concept, and at least in some ways, entirely inappropriate for many traditional conference talks. But it's also new, relatively untested, and contains enormous potential, if it can be tapped in to effectively. Until it's been fully developed, and put through its paces in all manner of situations, I can't hold judgement, and I don't believe anyone else can either. Hate it or love it, it's the way of the future. Let's see how it gets used before we make a call.

Linux Zealotry

I like the word zealot. Much more than I like the trait, I must admit. What's interesting is how much the term gets used to describe people who use Linux. And as much as I wish it weren't so, I can see why it happens too. All too often, Linux users are seen to be ranting on about why the whole world ought to be using it. Yes, I like Linux too, but what kind of dream world do some of these people inhabit? It really comes down to what you do with your computer, and what tools are best for the job. If you need to whack a nail into the wall, you're going to need a hammer to do the job properly - half a housebrick might work, but it's going to be time consuming, you might waste a few nails doing it, and you're probably going to have added a few new and interesting words to your vocabulary by the time it's done.

To get away from the metaphor, and into reality, I was lucky enough to give a talk at a computing group recently. The audience was primarily Windows users, with a scattered few hobbyist Linux users, and the talk was all about debunking Linux myths, and trying to give a realistic impression of what Linux could offer. At the end of the talk, I took questions, and there were a lot of them (as an aside, there's nothing better than an interested audience, let me tell you!). The one that really stood out for me, though, was an older gentleman who said "I have a Windows machine running at home, and it does everything I need it to. Why should I switch to Linux?". My answer might have shocked some of my audience, because after banging on for the better part of an hour about how great Linux was, I told him, "you shouldn't." Why did I tell him that? Because Windows, in his words, did everything he needed it to do. Why should he be subjected to a learning curve that he didn't need? Why should he be forced to learn new ways of doing the same old things, when he knows how to do them now? Why should he be pushed into the proverbial deep end, and told to swim, when all he wants to do is splash in the shallows? More to the point, who am I to tell him he ought to?

I know a lot of people have an answer to that, and it generally goes along the line of "but Linux is free software - it's better for the community, it strengthens the greater good, and anyway, Linux just runs better." I can agree with that too, for what it's worth. But why does Linux need to worry about rate of adoption, the number of global users, and whether or not it's a 'true competitor' for Microsoft or Apple? And the answer to that lies in the answer given before - it doesn't, because it's free software, it's better for the community, and strengthens the greater good. It's a very circular argument, really. Free and open source is a very worthy cause. But because it's free and open source, it doesn't matter how many people adopt it.

By running around like idiots, claiming that everyone should be using Linux and contemplating a Windows-free world, the Linux community (and I count myself among them) are shooting themselves in the foot. Why not step quietly through the world, present your option, and then let people decide for themselves. They'll either come to Linux, or they won't. Either way, it doesn't hurt the cause. The cause, after all, is software freedom, not Linux on every desktop. Quite frankly, software freedom is something I'm more than willing to fight for, but a monopoly? Isn't that what we're fighting against?

An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.

Chicken Leek and Bacon Pies


Looking for a recipe hit? I've just added a new one, over at Slow Food Adventures, my new foodie blog.

By the way, happy winter solstice everybody. I intend to spend my extra night-time sleeping, how about you?

Where have all the recipes gone?


In preparation for launching my brand new foodie-blog, I've moved the recipes to a temporary home over at Wordpress - And, to add to the excitement, I'll be posting a new one up this weekend. What is it? Not telling!


Wordle: On writing, tech, and other loquacities

(click to embiggen)

Lifelike Organism Qualified for Ultimate Assassination, Ceaseless Infiltration and Thorough Yelling

Get Your Cyborg Name

Renovations. Step 1: Planning

We got the building report for the new house the other day. The main points were the floors:

the kitchen:

and the front fence:

All of which were already on the plan (for reasons that should become obvious with those pictures!).

To that end, I've been hanging out on the Renovation Forum, where I happened to meet a guy who polishes floorboards for a living (he's also a Linux user, which makes him good people in my book). Anyway, he's been awesome with information, and I've decided that we'll rip the old carpet up and get him to polish the floorboards for us before we move in. Will be easier than doing it later, I suspect.

The kitchen, however, is another matter entirely. It's going to take a lot more money, for starters, so there's a very good possibility that it's going to take a year or so before I'm financial enough. So, what to do in the meantime? I'm considering doing a cheap-arse coverup of the orange laminate. Not sure I can cope with that for much more than a few days. Does anyone know about these things?

And the fence? Well, it just so happens that my Dad knows someone with a backhoe ... this is gonna be fun!

Linux beginners are go!

For those of you who have been wondering what's happening to my absolute-beginner Linux idea, wonder no longer! Jumpstart Linux is now up and running over at Once you're there, please sign up to the mailing list. We also have a Facebook group so if that's your poison, you can sign up over there too.

Just a quick thanks to you all for the massive response I had to the idea here on this blog. Now let's use that momentum to build something really wonderful!

Why tech writing?


Because customers don't always think the same way you do.

Fedora 11 arrives in a flurry of not-that-amazing praise

Well, Fedora 11 is finally here. And the first reports are out. And they are ... well ... less than glowing. Here's arstechnica:

The developers behind the popular Fedora Linux distribution announced this week the official release of version 11, codenamed Leonidas. This release introduces some significant new features but it also comes with some unfortunate bugs, particularly in the installer.

It seems that the new ext4 filesystem is causing some serious issues, which is disappointing, given the hype around it. There's also partitioning problems. A lot of partitioning problems. *sigh*

I was intending to install F11 on my work machine, in order to get my screen setup the way I want (unfortunately RHEL won't cut it until RHEL6, and I wasn't prepared to wait that long). I might sit it out for a little longer yet, and see what happens with Fedora. A patch or two in the future and with any luck it'll all come good.

Hang in there with me!

Geeky gifts

My beloved bought me a present today, and I just had to share it:

Very geeky, no? It's around my neck. It's staying there. In case of emergencies, you know ;)


It is the struggle that won't let me fall asleep. Because I have to write. Something. I don't know what it is yet. But it's there inside of me, barking, screaming, crying, aching, swearing.

Linux n00bs

Is "noobs" the kind of term that people consider offensive these days? It appears to be perfectly acceptable within the geek community, but what about non-geeks? Would love to know people's thoughts on that ...

The reason I ask is that I've been doing some thinking. I did a talk at the beginner CLUG last Thursday that was all about debunking some common Linux myths, and explaining why people might consider coming across to Linux. Very high level stuff, touching on ten major myths (things like "Linux is ugly"; "Linux is too hard for normal people to use", "you have to use a command line in Linux". That type of thing). Well, the response was really good, and it made me realise that there's a bit of a gap out there in Linux-land. There's a lot of people telling you to get Linux and use it, and there's a lot of people out there to help you with bash tips and tricks, networking, contributing to the kernel and other open source programs, getting your dual display working, upgrading your sound card. But where's the stuff that fits in between? All Linux users were noobs once (if I can use that term!), and there's a pretty big hurdle to jump to get to the point where you might start feeling comfortable in a room full of people talking about shell scripts, and that's a hurdle we've all gotten over. But what about the people who didn't get over it? What about the people who installed Linux, couldn't immediately pick up their wireless network, get their display working, or find an internet browser on the desktop? OK, so the people who use Linux now are the people who persisted with it and found an answer, but a good portion of people are likely to throw their hands in the air, say "it worked on Windows!" and grab that XP or Vista disk again. How do we get to them? How do we tell them, "Hey, Firefox is here", or exactly what to do to get Network Manager to bend to their will?

Judging by the number of people who have responded to my talk, these people are out there, and their needs aren't being addressed. So, this is what I propose: A course, run fortnightly for twelve weeks (six sessions). A half hour talk on a beginner topic like "choosing a distro", "basic configuration using graphical tools", "introduction to the command line for people who have never seen one before", or "getting networking happening". Follow it up with an anything-goes question and answer session for an hour or so. It wouldn't cost much to do, perhaps $20 a head per session, we can provide handouts for that price.

So, the question is ... would you come along? And if you would, what topics would you like to see? Drop your opinions in the comments. If I can get enough interest, than I say let's do it!