history's fools

I haven't had a good rant on the blog in a while. This one is going to be a little weirder than usual, because it's centred on a book I've only ever read the first five pages of.

As you may recall, when James Frey's A Million Little Pieces was released, there was a bit of a shitstorm over it. Oprah's Bookclub first endorsed it, then reversed and demanded an apology (although it seems there is still an OBC version around). What happened was that it eventually came out that it was not, as originally publicised, a non-fiction memoir, but a novel told as a memoir.

There was a brief period where some people were saying it was fiction, while others were still maintaining it was non-fiction (and Frey was trying to keep mum as to the real answer). A friend of mine bought the book, started reading it, and by the end of Chapter 1 was passionately telling anyone within earshot that the story had to be true. She mentioned she'd heard people criticising Frey for his weird use of grammar and word capitalisation, but she said that if you actually read the book, it was clear he was using his own, authentic voice, and anyone who thought otherwise was just hung up on conventions.

That's when I decided to take a look. I read the first five or so pages of my friend's copy, closed the book, and said, "It's definitely fiction."

"You're just prejudiced from the controversy and from what Oprah said..." my friend started to say.

"Nyuh uh," I said. "I know it's fiction because he's ripping off Daniel Defoe."

And it's always been pretty clear to me that's exactly what was going on. That "authentic voice" my friend fell in love with followed eighteenth-century conventions — that's why so many of the common nouns were capitalised. Defoe, of course, was a master of making an immediate first-person narrative read like a personal account, when really it was fiction shored up with a bit of research. After all, Defoe was a journalist as well as a novelist.

And the marketing? Defoe did the same thing, using pseudonyms and subterfuges to make his books appear to be non-fiction when they weren't, and then letting word-of-mouth do the rest. A Journal of the Plague Year was hailed as an authentic eyewitness account. Same thing with Moll Flanders. And yes, Defoe too had to endure uproars when it was revealed he'd gulled the reading classes yet again, but they kept reading him anyhow. Perhaps people in the eighteenth century were more cynical than we are, and didn't mind having the wool pulled over their eyes if they got some fun out of it.

Now, understand I'm no expert in eighteenth-century literature. I have a BA Hon in English Literature, no MA, certainly no PhD. I just happened to wind up taking both a full-credit course and a one-semester seminar in works from the eighteenth century, because I had to fulfil degree requirements and had run out of available options. To be totally honest, I wasn't expecting to enjoy either course, but I lucked out with excellent professors who presented great reading lists.

And that's why this bothers me so much. Yeah, I have a post-secondary education, but it's not a remarkable one. If I could figure out Frey's work was riffing on Defoe in five pages, at least one of Oprah's book evaluation people should have been able to. Maybe they did and just thought enough other people would as well (people with a strong voice about books, like book reviewers, journalists, and book club moderators). It really boggles me that so few supposedly well-read people were able to spot the reference. Go and Google, and you'll find a few mentions of the Defoe connection (I'm hardly the only person in the world to spot it), but it's swamped by the outrage. And the outrage has more authority than the style analysis.

I don't know if there's a direct connection, but it seems to me that after A Million Little Pieces is when publishers started tagging "a novel" on the cover of every fictional book. I hate that. It assumes the reader is gullible and stupid, yet somehow has the reading level to handle the language in the book. It assumes the reader is too proud to take a risk on a text.

There's a similar controversy brewing right now. I read on The Passive Voice blog that the creator of the @GSElevator Twitter account landed a book deal. The book is based on their supposed observations at Goldman Sachs, but now it's said that he's never actually worked there. Interestingly, even though this revelation is coming out in advance of the book's release this time, the publisher says they are going to go through with publishing the book. I'd like to think it's a sign we're ready to re-embrace what was taken for granted in the eighteenth century, but I suspect that the reasoning is closer to "any publicity is good publicity".

There were similar reactions when JK Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling was revealed to be by her and not the Robert Galbraith pen name (with accompanying fictional biography) she'd used. In that case, I even read several calls to charge Rowling with fraud. To me that's patently absurd. Even if you bought the Galbraith back story, the book was presented as a novel — not to be believed word-for-word.

Maybe it's time to remind people that the saying, "Don't believe what you read" was coined for a reason. Anything written, anything recorded in any fashion, is always filtered and distorted by the act of recording. This is not in itself a bad thing, but I believe a lack of awareness of the process — especially in the face of all this history — could be in itself dangerous.

worlds beyond these: some final thoughts

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

This post is the fourth and final in a series. If you haven't read any of the other posts, at least have a quick read of Part 1. You may want to also read Part 2 and Part 3.

To sum up the previous three posts:
  • The five stages of grief are, in no particular order, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, and Anger.
  • Not all grieving people go through all five stages.
  • Some non-grieving people will go through one or more of the five stages when they discover someone else is a survivor.
Now, here's the fun part. Once I actually started this blog series and mentioned what I was writing about, I found out from someone I know who does grief counselling that the five stages.... are bogus. They're not the five stages of grief at all. There is no such thing as the five stages of grief.

What happened was someone defined them as the five stages of a patient dealing with a traumatic health event: a major stroke, say, or an amputation. Someone else stole the idea and applied it to grief. Except, while there is some overlap, they're not really about grief.

So when the grieving family gets back from the funeral home and the casserole the neighbour brought over is warming up in the oven, please do me and all the other survivors in this world a favour and don't make noises about the five stages. They are a fairy tale, and my own subjective experience tells me they do more harm than good. They make people who are already going through grief feel like they have to respond in certain ways that aren't even necessarily applicable.

The stages of grief that Western society has internalised since at least the 1980s are fiction. They have nothing to do with actual grief.

What if you are trying to write actual fiction? How does death and survival and grief fit in?

What bothers me the most about survivors in fiction is that grief tends to be a Chekhov's gun sort of thing. That is, it's only mentioned when it's going to become a plot point or the cause for a character trait. There are precious few major examples in fiction where someone has a dead relative just by-the-bye. At best, they're orphans to deny them a safety net of support.

When death and grieving do get mentioned, they tend to be what's called "complicated grief", which is another thing I learnt about while writing this series. Complicated grief is when someone is so overwhelmed by their grief that they can't function. People with complicated grief wind up taking time off work for months at a time. Grieving is an unusually long and difficult process for them.

Real-life people going through real-life complicated grief deserve support and empathy, but unfortunately for the majority of us who have "regular" grief (whatever that really is), complicated grief tends to show up in fiction more prominently. Think  of Hamlet's behaviour after his father's death, or Lear screaming on stage with Cordelia in his arms. Everyone I know who has gone through, um, "uncomplicated" grief has stories about being told they're "heartless" or "didn't really love" their deceased relative because they haven't been seen in public wailing and tearing their hair out.

And you know what? It's not fair, and it makes a difficult situation worse for those dealing with death and loss. It's a great example of a situation where fictional conventions overwhelm psychological reality.

One of the few examples of regular grief done well I can think of is in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, where Laura decides to reconcile with Rob in part because she just wants a break from feeling awful. Grieving is often like that. You can go out, watch a funny film, enjoy it, then go home and spot the dead person's favourite coffee mug on the draining board and just fall apart. A lot of people are perfectly fine getting through their day-to-day lives at school or work, and then they go home and cry. They're not "hiding how they feel", or "putting on a brave face for the world". They're just doing what comes naturally.

On the other hand, there's also this weird pressure to "get over it". Grief counsellors I'm in contact with have told me stories about clients getting told to "snap out of it" one week after the unexpected death of a close relative. This too gets depicted in fiction a lot. A character will grieve just long enough to make the reader feel sorry for them, and then they shift gears and move onto whatever the next emotional prompt is. Maybe there will be some mentions of the death sprinkled later on in the book for continuity.

The consensus is that there is no "getting over it" per se. Most people say they have adjusted to a new version of reality. There is no going back.

Running in a weird parallel with the "get over it" attitude is the threat that if you don't "get over it", you'll somehow be forever messed up and wind up with "issues".

Personally I'm uncomfortable with the idea of "changed" being equated to "messed up" once death enters the mix. Yes, there's some things I'm not into because my dad died when I was thirteen. I will never, ever watch Mamma Mia or anything else with a  "search for my real dad so I can be walked down the aisle by him at my wedding" plot. My father died exactly one week before Father's Day, so I tend to arrange my errands so I don't have to go out a lot when the Father's Day sales are in full swing.

But there's crippling personality traits based on past trauma, and then there's quirks. The fictional Indiana Jones certainly seemed to be a well-functioning character despite a strong phobia for snakes.

So I'm going to wrap this series up by challenging writers to step up their efforts to depict grief more accurately. If you want a resource, I strongly recommend reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. It's a doorstop — the copy I read was over 1,000 pages — but it's worth it, it's a great read, and you can always skim the parts that don't touch you. There are more than enough wonderful passages in it to make up for the skimmed parts.

worlds beyond these: part 3 (penultimate posting)

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

If you haven't read Part 1 of this series, you might want to go back and at least read the introduction before continuing here. There's also a Part 2.

Parts 1 and 2 got the crazy, ugly, incredulous reactions out of the way. This post covers reactions which are a lot more understandable, and which are a lot easier to generate empathy for.

Depression

It happens. A survivor could be having a perfectly nice conversation with someone, and they'll say something like, "How long have your parents been married now?"

And so you explain, as briefly and with as little drama as possible, and the person you're having the conversation with falls apart.

I have made people cry by merely saying, "My dad died when I was thirteen." I was just giving information; it was not my intention to make them cry, and they weren't looking for an excuse to.

All that's happening is that the person is so able to imagine the same thing happening to them they have a grief reaction. All you can do is reassure them and, if necessary, change the subject.

Anger

I mentioned in Part 1 my dad died of a heart attack. While the exact cause was never determined, he smoked. He had a lot of work stress. Even though he was strongly against any and all junk food (including a lot of food which isn't even thought of as "junk food" in North America), he had trouble keeping his weight at healthy levels.

Starting about ten years after he passed away (so around 1993), I began to encounter people who would quiz me for health details. Once the ones I enumerated in the previous paragraph came to light, they would declare he was a bad father who should have taken better care of himself. They would say he was no better than a father who willfully abandons his children.

I will not provide my entire counter-argument here, but I will say it is not for them to decide how fit a parent he was.

I always wonder what has happened to these people that they feel so strongly about passing judgement on someone they never met.

Bargaining

Sometimes when people learn what happened, they don't become sad or angry. They become fascinated with hypotheticals.

"What do you think your life would be like it that hadn't happened?"

"Do you think it was harder on you or on your brothers?"

"How much do you think that affects you today?"

The answer to all of the above is that I don't know, and that I'm not sure they're even answerable.

Onwards

Those who have been keeping track of the phases will know I left out "acceptance". I can't think of anything to discuss there — people just say something along the lines of "I'm sorry" and then things move on.

The series wraps up next week with some reflections — including some things I learned as I wrote these posts.

I'm also going to tie this back to fiction writing, both to plotting and to characterisation. But more on that next week.

worlds beyond these: part 2 & some reflections

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

If you haven't read Part 1 of this series, you might want to go back and at least read the introduction before continuing here.

Li and John both commented that it would be a good idea to mark these as non-fiction. I've added it as a label, and put a note up top here and in Part 1 as well.

Part 2 is the second and last example dealing with denial. It's a little harder to explain, because unlike Part 1's example, I'm pretty sure I never got to witness the worst of it. It's sort of like reading a novel where the protagonist keeps on noticing people playing cards, but it doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything until two weeks later when you're trying to describe the book to a friend. I didn't put everything together until years after all these little snapshots of interactions occurred.

Part 2: More Denial

Snapshot A: church
I'm thirteen, my one brother is ten, and my youngest brother is four. So after my dad passes away, when it's communion-time at church, my mum goes up first, and then when she returns to the pew I go up with my ten-year-old brother. That way there's always someone old enough to be responsible with the four-year-old. Nothing more to it than that.

Except...

The whole time my mum is standing in line at the front of the church, the people behind us are whispering things like: "That's not allowed. A divorced woman taking communion... that's not allowed. Why doesn't the priest do something about it? Why doesn't he talk to her? Who does she think she is? I suppose it's the modern way... but it's not allowed. Well, if the priest wants to help her pretend..."

It was an open casket visitation. The obit was in the local paper. There was a church funeral. There was a condolences notice in the church newsletter. There were In Memoriam masses which were also announced in the church newsletter.
Even if they missed all that — Catholic congregations are big around here and you don't get to know everyone — there's no excuse.

I could have had a dad who was disabled and found it too difficult to physically make it to church.

I could have had a dad who wasn't Catholic but who agreed that the kids would be raised Catholic.

But no. They had to go there.

Snapshot B: music class interrogations
There's a girl, let's call her Vera, in music class. I only met her when I started high school. But she knows about me and my family a little bit, because her family is friends with my mum's hairdresser.

A couple of times a week, when we're getting our musical instruments out of their cubbyholes or putting them back, she asks me questions.

"Does your mum wear makeup?" she says.

"Lipstick."

"So, would you say your mum wears a lot of makeup?"

"Just lipstick."

"Do you think your mum is pretty?"

"She was a model in high school."

"You're lying."

"She wasn't a famous model. She modelled clothes from home sewing patterns."

"Did your dad know how to cook?"

"Yeah. He was good at it."

She laughs at me. "Oh yeah, sure. Hamburgers and hot dogs."

"His first job in Canada was working as a cook."

And on. Sometimes I'll interrupt her and ask what the point of all these questions is. She shrugs and acts like they're no big deal. They aren't presented like I've written them here — just one or two a day, a few times a week — but if the same question was asked more than once and I varied in my answer at all, I'd get grilled on it.

She says her hairdresser contact gave a different answer than mine. I ask her what the hell business it is of any of them and tell her I'm tired of being mined for gossip.

She says she just wants to know and that she doesn't mean anything by it.

The thing is, the incidents I described in Part 1 only started after the questions started. And Natasha and Vera knew each other.

I understand that there was a time (in some places that time is now) where a family that's been abandoned by one or the other parent will pretend the absent parent is dead. I get that. But I doubt very much that these pretending families will go through such an elaborate charade that they'll find a body to display at a funeral home for a couple of days, hold a church funeral for it, and convince the priests in two parishes to go along with the story.

Reading this post over again, it sounds like these things happened in a much smaller community than they did. We lived just outside of a small town until I was ten, but before my father passed away we moved to a suburb of 300,000 people. There were 1,800 people attending my high school the year I graduated, and the students who went there lived in two different municipal counties. The church where my dad's funeral was held had over 2,000 people in the parish.

There is a line where assumptions turn to malice. And I think these examples show two points that line intersects.

worlds beyond these: introduction & part 1

Please note this is non-fiction. Don't worry; I have no intention of bleeding all over the keyboard.

I've been wanting to write this for ten years. Just be forewarned that it's not about what you're going to think it's about from the next couple of paragraphs.

What it's not about is: death, grieving, my dad. Really.

Note, though, that the five stages of grief as outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler are, in no particular order, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance, and Anger.

Note also these bare personal facts: my father passed away thirty years ago this past 12 June. He had two heart attacks in one day, it was sudden, and there was no prior medical history to lead us to expect this might happen.

He had just turned forty-eight on 27 May.

I was thirteen years old, and my brothers were ten and four.

But that is not what this series of articles is about.

At the funeral home, at the funeral itself, in the months that followed, we got to hear a lot about those five stages of grief, got to have our every mood and emotional reaction pegged as one of the five.

No-one mentioned one very remarkable thing, though: that those five stages are not just about what you and the other loved ones of the deceased go through. Other people who have never met the person who passed away react the same way. And that's when things can get very, very weird.

This series isn't about me. It's about everyone else.

Because it's about everyone else, I've changed names for the usual reasons. The point isn't to embarrass anyone, although in the case I'm covering in Part 2, I'd like to. The point is to consider other viewpoints.

Some of these examples are understandable. The trick for the survivor is just to ensure they're ready for it when it happens.

Some of these examples are as inexcusable as they are unbelievable. Those are the ones I'm putting first.

Part 1: Denial

It is two years after the funeral. I'm in the second year of high school, as is a classmate I've known since before. One day we're in the corridor at lunchtime, talking to a mutual friend whose parents are divorced. The mutual friend mentions she's going to see her dad on the weekend. He lives in another city now, so she only sees him a few times a year.

Natasha, my classmate, turns to me and says, "How often do you see your dad?"

"Pardon?" I say. The question doesn't make any sense.

"Doesn't he have visitation rights?" she presses.

"Visitation rights?"

She rolls her eyes. "Well, I don't think that's right. He's still your dad, and you should be able to see him when you want to."

I finally catch up. "Natasha," I say, "He's dead."

"Whatever," she says, and flounces off with the mutual friend.

There's more to it than that. Not only was Natasha at the recreation centre where my dad had his initial heart attack, not only did she see him borne on a stretcher into an ambulance, but she represented my class at the funeral. She was front-and-centre for the entire event, but here we are two years later, and she's asking about visitation rights. When I confront her later and remind her about the funeral, she just keeps repeating "I don't remember that", as if it makes it true.

Two years later again we're both in senior year and she tells me that once I turn eighteen, any visitation restrictions are null and void. I remind her again of the truth, again she claims not to have lived through her part, and we're back in our starting positions.

Part 2 and a reflection on Parts 1 & 2 will be posted next week.

liebstered by bevimus

Beverly Fox at The Beveled Edge nominated me for a Liebster Award about four weeks ago (yes I am slow). Beverly has tons of cool ideas and brings an energy level in her writing that I envy very much.

I've already received the Liebster once, but since Beverly was kind enough to nominate me, the least I can do is answer her questions!

1) What is the last book you purchased? 
Wool by Hugh Howey. I'm about 90% of the way through it right now, and it is completely living up to the hype. It's a very well-spun yarn (sorry).

2) Recall your last dream. What happened?
I was driving to work and cars kept going by me dangerously close. At one point I had to swerve into an alleyway to avoid being hit. It was really frightening me, and then I realised that it was because I was on my bicycle and not in my car. It made me think about how inconsiderate drivers can be to cyclists, and about how much I miss commuting on my bike. (Note that when I worked downtown most of my commute was on dedicated bike paths!)

3) Name something that you do alone that you wouldn't do in front of others.
Um, besides the stuff that we all do by ourselves but not in front of others? [cough] I dance in my living room in the dark. I'm not a very good dancer.

4) Name the last album you purchased.
Your Mind is a Box (Let Us Fill It with Wonder) by Poltergeist. It makes me very, very happy to listen to it.

5) Any scars? If more than one, pick one and tell us how you got it. If none, tell us about your most bone-headed injury.
The scariest scar I have is probably the one on my left thumb. I got it taking the top off a pumpkin to carve a jack o'lantern, and the knife slipped. I'm really lucky I didn't do any nerve damage; the scar is quite deep and goes almost to the bone in some places.

6) Favourite quote?
I collect quotes — in high school I decorated my binders with quotes instead of the usual cartoon doodles and band names. My quote for today is from Donnie Darko:
"If the sky were to suddenly open up, there would be no law, there would be no rule. There would only be you, and your memories — the people you'd loved, and the lives you've touched."

7) Most exotic (your definition) location you've been to?
The farthest away from home I've ever been is Mumbai.

8) If you could meet any famous person from history, who would it be?
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. No doubt he would not want to meet me, but I'm enough of a fangirl that meeting him would be enough.

9) What are your nicknames?
I don't really get nicknames. People try to come up with ones for me, and they never really stick. If people complain "Katherine" is too long to say, I tell them to call me "Kat". That's about the closest to a nickname that I ever get.

10) Favorite childhood T.V. show?
The original run of The Muppet Show. To a large extent it still is my favourite TV show. I have the first three seasons on DVD.

11) If you could have a super power, what would you have?
I usually say "teleportation", but today I'm going for "super healing".

GIGO

This blog post is going to seem like it's all about math, but really it's about writing and editing. More to the point, it's about some of the stupid mind tricks we can pull on ourselves when we're planning things like writing and editing, and trying to get a schedule together.

Last Friday I wrote a story about a near-future corporation who replaces their office workers with robots. They then discover that they didn't do a very good job of projecting some of the consequences. True to Friday Flash, the comments were the best part, including a chilling real-life example which Sonya Clark provided.

The effects of outsourcing and automation were certainly a big part of the story, but today I wanted to delve more into the math behind a line I gave to one of the executives:

"We bought these robots expecting 24/7 productivity out of them, or one robot for every 3 FTEs, but we're only seeing about 23 hours of work for every 24-hour cycle. That's a 4-hour lag 3 weeks into the launch."

The executive is claiming that a human worker puts in 8 hours a day, that each robot does the work of 3 humans, and, therefore, unless a robot is working 24/7 like she assumed it would (because she forgot to calculate in maintenance time), the company will be less productive and losing money.

Here's a quick spreadsheet I made to show how that assumption works out versus the actuals:


Even leaving out human-worker variables like overtime, vacation, and sick days, the executive's math is off. She assumes humans work 7 days a week, for one thing. Okay, a lot of us do, but it's not assumed to be the norm when figuring out FTEs. Nor did she include vacations, which should have been a no-brainer. Probably if she'd worked out the numbers on a per annum basis instead of per week she would have noticed something was off.

Instead of getting 3 FTEs from a robot, the company is actually getting 4.29 FTEs. They are ahead in terms of productivity, not behind, even with that one hour of maintenance mode per day. Even if you factor in vacation time for 3 FTEs, you still don't lose a whole FTE's worth of hours over the year. There are still too many robots to replace the humans, too much productivity for which there is as yet no measurable demand. Yet perception is reality, and the executives believe productivity goals won't be reached because of the maintenance hour.

But that's the thing about spreadsheets, or any other "what if?" math. Humans tend to simplify the variables as much as they can to eliminate the fuzzy, unmeasured parts of a problem, and in turn come up with off-base predictions.

While I was writing this blog, I Googled the term "how efficient are office workers?". I was trying to find some quick and dirty numbers on how much time the typical office worker gets to, you know, do work, instead of handling interruptions or creating their own. (Yeah, I know, "quick and dirty" numbers. I've been trying to write this post for four days and instead been spending it on overtime. Please understand.)

Check out the results. Loads of tips on how to become "more" efficient, sure. How to measure how efficient you are right now, or how much more efficient you've become after following those fabulous tips? Not so much.

So: writing. Next time you tell yourself you're going to get more done by getting up half an hour earlier, or staying up later, or writing with a fountain pen on paper, or whatever the heck scheme you come up with.... get some numbers. Find out how much different practices improve your game. Okay, don't get to the point where you're spending all your time measuring yourself and no time writing, but get something together.

You may well be surprised what you find out.

writing: the physical environment

Over the years I've read a lot of articles about where writers physically write. Alice P. Sheldon had three different desks: one for her non-fiction, one for her SF fiction written under the name James Tiptree Jr., and one for everything else. Ernest Hemingway had a standing desk. Stephen King has a large room with a skylight. And so on.

I went deskless in 2008. At the time it was to save space in my apartment, but now I have another reason: due to an injury caused by a hit-and-run drunk-driver accident three years ago, my upper back can only take so many hours a day of holding my head up. I can make it through the day job all right, but I'm better off in a semi-sitting position once I get home. I'm writing this with my head and back propped up on some giant pillows I sewed, and the laptop on my lap (or what would be my lap if I were sitting upright). Here's a photo of my usual spot at home, with the computer added in to show the entire physical environment.

Sometimes I go to a café or the local library for a change of scene, but typically that's only on long weekends or vacation time.

One thing I don't do, and stopped doing as soon as I got my first laptop, is write longhand. I have report cards going back to Grade 3 proving my handwriting has always been terrible, and I'm tired of apologising for it — especially since I've been proficient at touch typing since I was thirteen. It's just as well now that I have the spine issues, because typing is one thing I can do quite comfortably in this position.

The one thing desks are wonderful for is spreading out lots of pieces of paper and marking them up. This activity certainly has its merits, but from what I've been reading in the blogspace, it seems like more and more people are doing their editing onscreen these days than previously. Tony Noland's posts about using yWriter are illuminating on the subject (although it sounds like he edits from printouts too). So was E.D. Johnson's recent Friday Flash .org post about writing on a mobile device.

Everyone needs to find their own writing space, of course. I'm just offering mine up as an example because I've read too many advice articles saying that writers need a special room (when I live alone?) or a special desk setup (in this apartment? not going to happen).

Stay comfortable.

YOU MUST LEARN

The cliché is that those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it. There's another cliché, though, the one about history being written by the victors. In this case it's not so much the victors as the advertisers, though, and historical accuracy is not in their selfish best interests.

I've seen lists like these in some of the computing magazines etc., and they always have one or two things wrong with them. First of all, they're often inaccurate, and rush too quickly to get to the star names. It's like they're worried their readers will stop reading if they learn something new.

Second of all, they're often confused. They'll start way early in the timeline, or way late, like a student who didn't exactly understand what their own thesis statement was.

This is my timeline for the development of personal computing. Don't let your eyes glaze over, 'cos unless you're a computer science major (or act like one), you may learn some surprising things. Besides, if you're reading this blog, it means you're taking a break from on-line games or porn or your friends' status updates or whatever else you usually look at.
  • The rough sketch for what we now call the personal computer (or tablet, or smartphone, or whatever) was published in July 1945 by someone called Vannevar Bush. He wrote about it in an essay called "As We May Think" in The Atlantic Monthly, and it's still available on-line today. It's as good and accessible a read as anything that magazine publishes now. Bush gives a series of small examples, which, while interesting, leave you thinking, "okay, so....?" until he puts them all together and delivers the knockout punch at the end.
  • That July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly was read by, amongst other people, a man named Douglas Engelbart. Once he finished serving in the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, he went home to the US and started working on creating some of the things Bush presented in his essay.
  • Engelbart invented the mouse in 1963. Bill English carved the first prototype out of a block of wood. Engelbart patented the mouse in 1970, but the patent papers were filed in 1967.
  • 1968: The Mother of All Demos. Engelbart demonstrates using the mouse, display editing, copying & pasting text, hypertext (links), and multiple windows. The whole thing is video conferenced, so that those who want to see the demo but can't attend in person can watch on closed-circuit TV.
Please pause and re-read that last entry. All of that stuff was working well enough to demonstrate live in 1968.

Oh yeah: in 1969 Engelbart (again!) helped start ARPAnet, which eventually became what we now call the Internet. I don't think it's a big exaggeration to say that he's shaped to a very large extent everything the world thinks of as "normal" in a human-computer experience, and yet most people haven't heard of him. Luckily he seems to be a force for good.

And that is where I'm going to end my timeline, because from where I'm sitting, everything that comes afterwards is a long, slow, painful crawl to commercial acceptance from that 1968 demo. If you look around Doug Engelbart's site thoroughly, you'll see that his overarching aim has been to augment human intelligence. That we were stuck with the 1968 paradigm for so long (albeit with prettier video interfaces) is a tad worrying.

Where is computing going now? On the one hand I'm glad that innovations like the gesture-based commands in the Wii and Kinect systems made it to market, because I think a thinking environment that encourages us to use all of our bodies instead of being hunched over a desktop is a good thing. On the other hand, it's a tad worrying that these are coming out of the gaming world, which means they might be a hard sell in the business realm. After all, back in the 80s PCs themselves sometimes had to be purchased at large corporations as "word processors" or "adding machines" to avoid refusals from the accounting department.

Notice I made it this far without mentioning Bill Gates or Steve Jobs (or even Steve Wozniak). Notice how young Gates and Jobs were when all this was happening. Bush's essay was published ten years before either of them were born. I don't mean that Gates and Jobs haven't contributed; I just mean that there was already a lot in place by the time they started working on things.

The advertisers tell us that computing is changing very quickly, and that we have to run to keep up. Given that the idea came in 1945, was realised by 1968, and then didn't catch on until the 1980s, I'm not so sure.

amazons are made, not born

I am, according to my doctor, exactly 175cm tall. That's almost-but-not-quite five feet nine in Imperial measure; the actual fraction is five feet, eight-and-nine-tenths inches or something awkward like that. Since the average Canadian woman is only five feet four, that makes me stick out as a tall woman, at least in this country.

Being a woman, I talk about personal safety with my friends from time to time. It's just the usual stuff that gets distributed in those "safety tips" e-mails that float around the internet — how to carry your purse so that a mugger will decide you're not a good target, how to keep your cell phone handy so that you can call for help quickly but not get noticed by a cell phone thief, and so on. While we're on the topic, we might discuss toxic relationships, domestic violence, what to do if someone tries to assault us. Not something to dwell on and get paranoid or hateful about, but information needs to be shared, right?

It never fails, though: there's always a more petite friend who will turn to me and say, "You're lucky. You're tall, so you can protect yourself better."

This blog post is about why that is complete and utter nonsense.

Yes, I'm fully aware that many sources (like this one) will mention that women can be at risk because of their smaller size (they should say "on average", but this is rarely included). But consider: being tall just means that I'm tall. It doesn't turn me into Wonder Woman. I am most definitely not stronger than the average man my height or even a few inches shorter than I am. I don't have any special innate self-defence skills because I have long legs. It doesn't increase my pain threshold, or how likely I am to get bruised or broken when struck hard enough. I have no idea how to throw a punch, or how to shield myself while I'm throwing it.

If anything, I would argue that being tall puts me at a disadvantage to some extent. I can't move as fast. It takes longer for me to duck. It's harder for me to escape if I'm in a tight spot.

I've also got the myth going against me. I'm tall, so I'm supposed to be at a lower risk. If I do have someone smaller, man or woman, assault me, and I try to defend myself, what do you think is going to happen to me if my assailant claims I started the fight?

The thing is, height doesn't make might any more than might makes right. There's this weird perception out there that just because a woman is tall, that means she has other physiological attributes normally associated with men her height, like relatively greater strength. There's a whole host of other ways this assumption manifests itself in non-violent situations, but that's a rant for another day.

Meanwhile, stop thinking that just because tall people can reach the top shelf without a stepladder, we can "fight back" any better than shorter people.

how soon we forget

Hey Canadians!

Remember the National Do Not Call List registry?

It was (is!) a web site where you could register your phone numbers — home phone, cell phone, the works — and make sure that companies didn't tie up your phone lines trying to sell you crap. There were some exceptions, which are very clearly explained on the web site, but overall it meant that those after-dinner sales pitches were off your phone and out of your face forever.

In theory.

I don't know about you, but of late it seems to me that I've been getting more of those stupid calls. Since I've been spending my winter vacation at home feeling ill, the resentment of dragging myself out of my sickbed just to find out someone who can't pronounce my last name wants to pitch a chimney flue cleaning service at me has been, uh, increasing. Just ask any of the poor saps who have called me lately.

Then I remembered that the DNCL was only good for so many years, at which point you had to re-register your number.  Aha! Must be that time. So I went and did it, and the web elves who work for the government served me up this page:

(In real life, my actual home phone number displayed, of course.)

Okay, so if I, and everyone else who hit the registration web page as fast as they could, are good until 2013, then what's with the increase in phone solicitations?

Two possible explanations.

One: companies that you already deal with are allowed to call you up and pitch more stuff. So are politicians, newspapers, charities, and a bunch of other organisations. I have learned that if you say the magic words, "I do not accept phone solicitations. Please take me off your list," you can get these calls to diminish, but it takes many tries before it works.

Two: just like many people predicted, companies that indulge in telemarketing just waited a few years until they figured things had settled down, and have quietly started calling people again.

Consider this a public service announcement. If your number is a Canadian phone number and you are registered on the DNCL, you can complain about unsolicited calls via the web link I gave above. You have to know the number that called you, which is a pain for people like me who don't have caller ID, but it can be done.

If you have a Canadian phone number and are not registered yet, you may still do so using the link at the top of this post.

And if you get companies calling you, especially if they sound like some offshore outfit with a poor grasp of which country they're even calling, you can always use the magic words, "I do not accept phone solicitations. Please take me off your list." A professional marketer told me if you use that phrase, any self-respecting business will remove you from their list, because they know it's a waste of call time to try to contact you for a sale. If the person calling you doesn't understand what you mean (the caller I had this afternoon found the statement confusing), just say, "Add me to your kill list." That's telemarketing lingo for a list of numbers the auto-dialers will skip because, again, they know they won't get a sale by calling that number.

It can be a hard slog, but it's worth it for the peace and quiet. Don't forget.

how i found time to post this blog

Usually I hate it when someone gives time management advice, or evangelises about a time management system. Most of the ones I've come across aren't flexible enough to adapt to different work situations, involve spending as much time managing the thing as they do using it, and don't scale well.

I do even worse with the common suggestions for writing routines. Keeping a word count minimum and/or writing first thing in the morning have the opposite effect: I get so wound up about meeting the goals that I don't write at all. Deadlines can help — I've sucessfully completed NaNoWriMo more than once — but all this stuff about "goals" and "milestones" leaves me clammy.

Sure as I started out this blog post with the above paragraphs, I think I've found a method that works, at least for me. It's called the Pomodoro Technique, and it's been around for twenty years. But it's new to me, and it seems to be new to the people I've been evangelising to telling about it.

Instead of worrying about your word count, or letting the whole whatever-it-is at hand loom over you, you just concentrate on working steadily on one task, for twenty-five minutes straight, without interruption. When the twenty-five minutes are up, you take a five-minute break to do other things. Then you start the timer for twenty-five minutes again. Each twenty-five minute work period plus five-minute break is called a Pomodoro. The details of how to apply the technique are available for free from the Pomodoro web site.

Note: I have no idea how good or bad the stuff they're selling on the site is. My enthusiasm is strictly for the free book you can download. I also found a free timer for my cell phone that was made to manage Pomodoros. Apparently there are several out there for both phones and computers, although the book just recommends a regular kitchen timer.

What I like is that the technique gets rid of all the anxiety that was making me freeze up. I wrote five nights out of seven last week, and got 4,631 words completed — 369 short of the 1,000 words a day x 5 days a week I was aiming for previously (and failing miserably to obtain). I only wrote one Pomodoro per day, averaging 840 words per session. At two Pomodoros per day, someone could comfortably win NaNoWriMo writing at that rate.

Every technique has its pros and cons, of course. But if your current routine isn't working for you, Pomodoros are definitely worth trying.

Kobo coda

Last Saturday I gave my mum the Kobo I won at Book Summit 2010. It was an interesting study of both usability and the inaccuracy of stereotypes.

My mum is pretty computer literate. She knows how to build web sites, use Photoshop, and create multimedia presentations. She's an MS-Excel power user, and is comfortable talking about hardware specs on laptops.

So it gave me pause when I was the one who wound up installing the Kobo synch software on her machine.

Explaining how to use the Kobo itself to her was easy, even with my toddler niece sitting on Mum's lap and trying to help push the buttons (the gadget-fascination continues to the next generation). My mum's only comment was, "That's all there is to it?" We decided to move to the next step of loading the synch software on her laptop.

We went to the Kobo web site. We found a very aesthetically pleasing, clearly-written page that extolled the virtues of the software, but noted nothing about where to get the software from.

"Where do you buy books for this thing, anyhow?" Mum said, so we took a break and bought a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Buying the book from Chapters/Kobo was easy, but once it was bought we couldn't figure out how to download the ebook file.

At this point we were both getting confused and worried. Sure, checking the Kobo's on-device manual probably would have helped, but, as my mum pointed out, you can't power on the Kobo while it is attached to a computer, and we didn't really want to undock it until we had no other options to check.

My mum gave me the computer to fiddle with, and I checked the Kobo folders Windows could detect over the USB link. Sure enough, the required software was on the device all along. It wasn't in a very obviously labeled folder (I was hoping for something called INSTALL), but it was there.

The installation app itself was a joy to behold. It started with a device operating system upgrade, then installed the synch software on the laptop. All along the way, the instructions were provided in wonderfully clear text plus easy-to-follow diagrams. Everything worked like a charm. Sure, I've been updating firmware on various devices almost as long as firmware has existed, but I have to say I appreciated this process like no other. The instructions make it easy for any newbie or casual computer user to follow the steps, yet at the same time treat the user with respect. If all technical writing was this good the world would be a far better place.

Best of all, when the synch software itself finally launched, it immediately discovered that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had already been purchased and promptly added it to my mum's library of Kobo books. I clicked the "synch" button on the software, and the ebook was added to the Kobo device.

My mum's been reading the book on the Kobo ever since, and she loves it (mostly the device, but also the novel). Her only concern so far is how to share the device with my stepfather. He reads mostly nonfiction, and she reads mostly fiction, so probably they won't want to read the same book at the same time, but arranging reading time on the device itself could prove to be difficult.

I think I know what he's getting for Christmas already.

Coda to the coda: For any readers who are bursting to say, "Why didn't you just follow the damn instructions? It says the software is on the device!", here are a couple of points to ponder.

Yes, the Desktop page does state, right near the top, "The Kobo Desktop Application comes preloaded on every Kobo eReader." It doesn't say which folder it's in, though, and it doesn't have any technical how-to information (or a link to the same). That was the sort of text my mum and I were scanning for when we went to that page. People who are reading in a hurry for how to install something are going to skip right past that sentence, which is what we did. If you want to call us idiots and not typical users for doing that, that's cool — it won't be the first time and I'm sure it won't be the last.

Again, once the user finds the software to install, the experience is absolutely superb.

what real roads look like

The Netherlands is famous for how much people use bikes, but what's missing from that reputation (at least as people seem to understand it in Toronto) is why so many people bicycle. This is what I've learned from just watching people and talking to my cousins who live over there:
  • Bikes are much less of a pain to navigate and park than cars. 
  • You can park dozens of bikes in the amount of space that it takes to park two or three cars. 
  • The acquisition and maintenance costs on a bike are much less than on a car — an especial concern in these days of wildly fluctuating gas prices.
Notice that "exercise" is not explicitly on the list. Neither is "the environment." More about that in a moment.

Given the above, there is an infrastructure in place in the Netherlands to make cycling a good option. Bicycles have dedicated lanes on the vast majority of streets, which car drivers respect (see photo above). Parallel parking a car in a bike lane carries the same penalties it would for parking in a driving lane, ie: you don't do it. Notice that in that photo at the top, parallel parking in the bike lane would actually mean you were double parking. That's something even most Torontonian car drivers understand is a no-no.

While I'm going on about that shot from my Amsterdam hotel window, notice that the car lanes are only as wide as is required for a typical car. That means the lanes overlap a bit. That means drivers and cyclists have to pay attention to each other and create "safety cushions" around them. And that means no weaving through traffic just because a car-size (or bike-size) gap appears. Life is not a game of Pole Position.

The bike lanes ensure that bicycles are considered part of the overall traffic. Compare that to the Greater Toronto Area, where things are so car-centric some drivers don't even give respect to pedestrians.

Back to Amsterdam: A lot of people switch between driving their car and riding their bike depending on what they need to do and how far they have to go.

Cycling on roadways that encourage it for basic transportation means that everyone who uses a bicycle regularly gets some "free" exercise that they don't have to think about too much. In other words, it's a setting that encourages people to move around instead of just sit around. It also means that most days, in most weathers, there is less incentive to use a polluting vehicle than a non-polluting one. To any climate change deniers out there: cars were established as sources of pollution long before "global warming" became a catchphrase. Even if you are right about global warming, cars will still be polluting, and oil will still be a finite resource. Cycling helps manage resources and clears the air. Period.

For all that, when you mention cycling in Toronto, you get pigeon-holed as someone who is dreaming in technicolour and obviously doesn't have "real" transportation needs. It really is an amazing backlash mentality — this idea that doing something that happens to be environmentally friendly must needs have major drawbacks otherwise.

A lot of people cite the winter snow and cold in Toronto as being reasons why cycling will never catch on the way it has in the Netherlands. I don't buy it. Okay, sometimes it does get too cold or snowy, but that's only a tiny portion of the overall winter season most years, never mind the entire year. Most of the time the weather is nothing a good pair of cycling gloves and a windbreaker won't mitigate. The last day I was in Amsterdam, it was very windy, with bursts of rain that turned to hail a few times, but the cyclists were still out. Of course, braving the weather is something you get better at the more you do it.

From what I've experienced as a Toronto cyclist and driver (and pedestrian, and public transit-taker), true acceptance of bicycles as transportation has two things going against it: drivers and cyclists. Drivers, because too many of them treat cyclists either as invisible or as targets, and nearly all of them seem to have forgotten the rules of the road. I've had a lot of drivers tell me point-blank that roads are only for motorised vehicles, and I've had to remind them that according to our road laws that's actually not true.

Cyclists seem to agree with the drivers' assessment that they aren't covered by the road laws (even though they are), because most of them don't follow the rules of the road at all. Drivers both good and bad can't deal well with unpredictable moves that break the geometry of lane use. As a cyclist, I have actually had drivers roll down their windows and thank me because I was doing things like signalling, sharing the lane correctly, and stopping at intersections. I've also noticed a lot of cyclists riding at night with no reflective strips or lighting on their bikes or themselves. They have no right to complain if people don't see them, and they're breaking the law.

I think part of it just might be critical mass: once enough cyclists get on the road in Toronto, they will have to be paid attention to by the drivers, and the cyclists will have to start behaving. But the critical mass will have to be helped by the environment, and by attitudes. Drivers need to stop endangering cyclists. Cyclists need to stop pissing on everyone who is a non-cyclist (including a friend of mine who claimed that those who took public transportation weren't really helping the environment because they weren't taking any exercise while riding streetcars and subway trains).

Here's Amsterdam's take on that. See the buses using the dedicated bus/tram lanes? Cars use them for passing, but not a lot because they are not supposed to block the way of the public transit. Certainly the buses and trams don't get stuck during rush hour the way they do here.


It's a fucking bike. It is not a moral indictment of everyone around you who is not riding a bike at the time


One last photo above. This is a smaller side street. The bike lanes disappear because the street is too narrow for them (the dashed lines mark where one can parallel park). So the cars and bikes must share the road. And they do.

Seriously now: why can't we?

a quick visit to civilisation

Okay, Torontonians, try this out as a mental exercise. Imagine a place where everything is organised without being draconian, where the citizens are cared for without being nannied, yet where all the grown-ups get treated like grown-ups. Public transit is clean, quick, and usable (even a distance of over 30 km can be easily travelled in less than an hour by frequent-interval, electrically-powered trains). Furthermore, the buildings all more or less go together, even the street food is decent, and people say "sorry" when they realise they accidentally stepped in front of you. Despite all this tidiness, efficiency, and politeness, people are more relaxed than in TO, and it's possible to spend an entire week there without seeing anyone get more than kind of annoyed about anything, at least by Toronto standards of road rage and general irritability.

The truth is there are lots of places in the world like this (arguably Toronto even used to be one of them), but the one I went to visit two weeks ago is called Amsterdam. This particular comparison is apt because Toronto and Amsterdam used to be sister cities, back when that didn't seem like a joke. They even named a street after Toronto. Did we name one after Amsterdam? We have the Amsterdam Brewery, at least. I suppose that's something.

If you click on the link to the photos I took there, you'll notice that it was mostly cloudy while I was there. I only really noticed when I was taking photos (and I hardly took any photos). The rest of the time I was on my way to or from a museum, or on my way to or from a café, or just walking around and... just walking around. I also did a lot of writing. Somehow it just felt better to be writing in a café there than here. I think it was the organised-yet-relaxed vibe.

I want to blog about some particulars in future posts. For now, here's the photos:


Augmented Intelligence

It was 40 years ago today that Douglas Engelbart first demonstrated, in a single groundbreaking multimedia session, an awful lot of things that we take for granted in personal computer user interfaces now:
  • an on-screen pointer controlled by a mouse
  • a screen organised into windows
  • copying and pasting between documents
  • hyperlinks
  • one of the first (if not the first itself) slide-style presentations
The whole thing was filmed, so we can still see it today.

In 1968.

I taught for seven years, was a corporate trainer for three, and now work as a business systems analyst, and I have to say: the quality of the tools may have got better, but the tools are still basically the same. You have sound capability on most business computers, but it's often disabled or not set up, so instead you use a conference line for sound and show the visuals over remote desktop sharing. You almost always make a slide presentation, if only to kick things off, and you use the mouse pointer to keep everyone focused and on track.

And so, every time the anniversary of the invention of the mouse (in 1965) or of this demonstration comes around, I think about what the purpose of inventing all this interactive "stuff" was: the augmentation of human intelligence so that we could work better together and, to put it one way, surpass ourselves.

Have we? And if we haven't, why not?

I don't know what research has been done on this, but I do know what I've seen in workplaces, teaching, at home, and in various capacities as a volunteer. For one thing, there is often resistance to change and radically new ways of doing things. From what I've observed (and experienced myself), it's not always simple pigheadedness. There is a tendency to throw out the baby with the bath water when it comes to new technology, where some people evangelise and other people immediately become suspicious from the hard sell. I think the world would be a better place if people assessed technology rationally rather than emotionally. It feels silly to point that out, but it's true. I have four computers at home. I also have a glass pen that requires an inkwell to dip it into to write with. Both are communication technologies better suited to some contexts than others. I think we're very fortunate that Engelbart's audience wanted to analyse and innovate based on what he showd them that day 40 years ago, rather than knee-jerkedly falling into either technolust or Luddite horror.

What about groupware technologies that let people work together better? Maybe I hang out with too many Luddites, but I have to say that it's only been in the last two years that I've found people willing to use groupware without being in a paying work situation with a manager dictating its use to them. It's as if we all finally learned how to use this openly, instead of fighting with it all the time.

The major point for me as the "mother of all demonstrations" turns 40 is that while there may be the occasional flash of invention, the truth is that these changes happen far more slowly than the hype would have us believe. It's popular to build up remarkable statistics about the rate of progress. But again, that's about technology, not the real standard of living: education, nutrition, work/life balance, happiness. In some parts of the world, these have gone up. In others (including North America, where I am), they're deemed to have gone down or stayed the same, depending on the measuring stick and who's wielding it.

Ultimately the augmentation of our collective intelligence has to be done with our humanity, not our technology. Visionaries like Engelbart can provide us with excellent tools, but it's down to us to learn how to use them and apply them to the right jobs.

Trust in the Age of Automated Machinery

What's the point of having a blog if you can't embarrass yourself in public with it?

This morning, I turned on my laptop — just to check the weather and pay a bill, nothing special. I'd used it last night to read the news and catch up on blog-reading, and I'd installed one update, but nothing untoward happened, and everything shut down fine.

Startup was not going fine.

The hardware check would go okay, GRUB (a thing that manages booting in Linux desktops) would start alll right, I saw a message saying that my kernel (the core part of the operating system) was "alive" and starting up... and then the screen would go black, the hard drive light would stay on, and... nothing.

No problem, I thought, maybe it's just doing a hard drive check. I'll wait a few more minutes, and then I'll reboot if there's still nothing happening.

Nothing happened. I powered down, waited a few seconds, and then tried again.

Same thing. So I tried again.

Same thing.

This is when the low-grade panic set in. I'm still organising my stuff in my new apartment, and I have no idea where my emergency recovery CD is. Sure, if I were desperate I could plug in my old desktop machine and burn an emergency CD on that. Once I found its power cord and my blank CDs, anyhow.

I decided to do what I always do in cases like this, which is houseclean for fifteen minutes. The washroom reeks of bleach even now, but hey, those mildew stains are fading away very nicely.

While I was rinsing off the grout around the bathtub, I thought about the laptop. Although a dying hard drive couldn't be entirely ruled out, it didn't act or sound like it to me. A dying operating system was more likely. I've used Slackware, Red Hat, and Ubuntu, and have never had an installation fail unless I deliberately did something stupid and destructive to it, so this seemed unlikely, but it was possible. Maybe that update I ran the night before had thrown something out of whack.

Right, back to the computer. GRUB has an option when it is starting up whereby you can press the Escape key to make a bootup option menu appear. I chose "recovery mode" for the latest kernel version.

What "recovery mode" does is show you all of the messages from the various hardware checks, daemons, services, and whatnot as the operating system loads up — everything that happens before you see the screen to log in. Normally these go by too quickly to pay attention to, and besides, who cares if nothing is going wrong?

I watched the messages go by. I didn't understand them all, but they all ended with "OK", which was a good sign.

Then a message came up saying, "System started more than 35 times without a hard drive check", which forces one to happen. I know Ubuntu does this, so that was fine. Hard drives are the only essential moving part on a computer (not counting the power button), and they tend to die faster than other components. It's a good idea to have them checked regularly.

This hard drive check took about five minutes, but was successful. Then GRUB asked me how I'd like to proceed. I decided to do a normal boot, since nothing had come back with an error message.

And then everything started up fine — no changes, no heroic measures.

Diagnosis: The machine would have started up fine before if its owner hadn't kept panicking and shutting if off before the hard drive check had a chance to finish.

Moral of the story: When in doubt, use "recovery mode" for reassurance.

Real moral of the story: Using Linux after Windows is like being in a good relationship after a bad one — you have to learn how to trust all over again without hurting the other party. I mean, I was ready to do a data rescue followed by a completely new installation, just because everything was working the way it should be.

Really real moral of the story: I need to lay off the caffeine and relax already.

intro to OpenOffice

I just saw the "writing in Linux" summary post on Becoming a Writer Seriously from 5 August, and thought, "Right, I was going to write about OpenOffice next". Then I saw the date on my last blog post and thought, "GAH!"

You see, while the on-line eyrea has been staying in the same place, the physical eyrea (ie: where I live) has been moving to a smaller, but much, much nicer apartment that I actually own instead of renting. I'm about 1.75 km west of where I used to live, so I'm still in the Beach. Nevertheless, it's Day 11 of moving and I'm just starting to feel settled now. As you can see, blogging has been taking a rather distant back seat.

Right then: here's a quick overview of OpenOffice, and what I use each application for (your mileage may vary, of course). Before I start, I need to say again that this suite, like most home-user Linux distros themselves, is absolutely free. OpenOffice is also included in the base install of Ubuntu, so if you choose that distro, you don't even need to install it separately — it's installed the same time as the operating system.

OpenOffice is basically the front-runner freeware competition for Microsoft Office, and is available for Windows and Macintosh as well as Linux (that means you can check it out without installing a new operating system on your computer). The full installation for OpenOffice includes:
  • a word processor

  • a spreadsheet

  • a database application (like MS-Access)

  • a presentation application (like MS-PowerPoint)

  • a drawing application (like Adobe Illustrator)

The word processor

Not surprisingly, the word processor is what I use the most for writing with: short stories, novels, query letters, and whatever else comes up. I also use a desktop publishing application and sometimes roll some HTML pages by hand, but almost always I'm using the OpenOffice word processor.

Pros: The file converter is excellent — I've even used it to convert from one MS-Word format to another because it did a cleaner job than Word itself. This means you never need to break into a sweat just because you're submitting something electronically and a certain software format is specified. OpenOffice is quick (ie: non-sluggish), supports styles very well, and has very friendly, easy-to-use help so that you can learn as you go along.

Cons: This is not just a Linux version of Word. You will have to keep an open mind, especially when you're trying to figure out how to do things like having a different footer on the first page of your document. It can be done, but it is not done the same way as Word does it.

By the way: the Styles dialogue box has a shortcut key of F11. I use F11 more than any other shortcut key in OpenOffice. If you learn one new shortcut key, learn that one.

The spreadsheet

I don't know if this is typical usage or not, but I do use the spreadsheet at least once per writing session. I use it to track my word count/editing sessions, because I have a "cookie jar" account set up and give myself a dollar every time I make quota. It's a stupid mind trick, but it works for me.

Pros: the spreadsheet does everything that I would ever want to do in a spreadsheet — fills, multiple tabs, formatting. I even like the cell formatting better than Excel. I have a spreadsheet I use to track my income and taxes for my contract work, and my accountant thought it was well-organised and easy to use when I gave it to him in Excel format. That's a ringing endorsement as far as I'm concerned.

Cons: Haven't come across any yet.

The database application

I built a little two-table form to use to make notes at my day job with the OpenOffice database application, because I prefer to type my notes and I was tired of trying to remember where all the different word processor notes were. I'm also in the midst of building a query letter database, but that was more complicated (I want it to include a contacts list plus track acceptance/rejections and from where), so it's not done yet. If you understand form drawing and SQL it's very, very easy.

Pros: Very easy to use if you understand forms and databases first (the tool's only as good as the hand that guides it, after all).

Cons: It might just be my own bad habits getting in my way, but sometimes setting up an auto-incrementing field in a table that is also the key seems to take more steps than it ought to. It always works in the end, but I resent having to confirm some of the steps.

The presentation application

I haven't actually used this as a writing tool yet, but I have used it to document an event (dying knitting wool with Kool-Aid — an experience that would scare one off artificial food colouring forever, believe me). It has all the pretty transitions and slide layouts that PowerPoint supports, and some of the animations.

Pros: If you know PowerPoint, you'll barely notice you're using a different application. As with the rest of OpenOffice, the file conversion support is excellent.

Cons: The default templates are... underwhelming, shall we say. Fortunately, there are plenty to download for free on the web. You can also use any PowerPoint templates you have or download.

The drawing application

I've only used this in my writing for sketching out ideas, relationships, and timelines. It was good for two reasons: first, I was able to read what I had sketched when I was done (not feasible with my regular handwriting!) and second, it meant I could keep all the information for my project in one place.

Pros: Again, if you've ever used any drawing application before, you'll be at home in no time. All the usual tools are there.

Cons: I haven't used this application enough to find any real drawbacks to it. If someone knows of one, please comment!

Summary

You need to accept that OpenOffice is an alternative to MS-Office or whatever it is you are used to using. If you want to try something new, and are willing to keep an open mind, you'll be surprised with how much you can get for free.

PS: The "cookie jar" trick comes from Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. I had a long, horrible writing drought in my twenties (too much work, no time to sleep, never mind write), and this book plus some other similar ones helped me make writing a normal part of life again. Which, of course, is how things should be.

How this blog got set up (and why I suggest you think about doing it too)

To set this up, you need:
  • About two hours for the initial work (you can do little bits at a time -- it took me a week to get to the layout present when this post was written, working in half-hour sessions).

  • A blog site. Everyone I know uses either:
I chose Blogger because I have a Google account, and it's owned by Google. I checked out WordPress as well, and it looks great, but I decided to go with the interface I already knew.

At first, I changed the settings so that the blog was only visible to its author (me). Then I invited a small group of friends that I knew would go and look and give me feedback, which in fact they did (thank you!). Finally, I made it public. I'm still tweaking here, adding links to the lists there, but it's pretty stable, and now that it's the way I like it, there's virtually nothing to maintain except the content.

I also added:

  • a Twitter feed so I could do status updates, just like on F-------, except with more ways to do the updates. Twitter has a widget in its settings that lets you add it as a feed to any blog. Note that you have to make your Twitter stream public, so don't give any statuses you don't want the whole world to know. Besides, do you really want to get deeply personal in 140 characters or less?

  • a photo feed from Picasa so I could show off my favourite photos. I don't consider myself a great photographer, but every once in a while something turns out, and I like to be able to share. Flickr is also a good choice for this, and there are lots of other options available on the web. Blogger has a widget that lets you make an on-line album a photo stream (the photo stream has to be made public, so don't include anything you don't want the whole world to see.

  • Links to other information about myself, including my Google calendar. I've set up my calendar so you can only see it if I personally invite you to, so I feel okay about putting the link on a public blog. This one isn't terribly exciting (I mean, even my best friends don't really care how I spend most of my time, and that's only one reason why I like them) unless a group of us who like to hang out together do it, and then it's a great planning tool. You can also share events, so you can use it for invitations.

  • My Orkut profile is the closest thing I have to F--------. I have to say, though, I like the internationalism and tone a lot better.

  • Scrabulous is just to show that there are fun widgets around outside of F-------. That's fun as in "fun", not "annoying."

Last but not least, if you want to set up something like a group page (like, say, for scooter enthusiasts, right Glenda?), check out Google groups. I've been using it since last October for a collaborative writing project and it's been very handy. You could use a blog page for public announcements and group contact information and the group for private information. There are other ways to do it, of course.

There's also the issue of finding people, but you know what? People will find you if you go looking for them. That sounds backwards, but what I mean is, the more you network, the more people network with you. So long as you're not being annoying, of course, or a stalker.

And that's the nice thing about getting out of F-------. There's a whole world's worth of choices in how to do things out there. It's refreshing.

Even more (more!) options are listed on Wired's how-to "Replace F------- Using Open Social Tools". The article that got me from feeling uncomfortable about F------- to actually doing something about it is the one that spawned the how-to wiki; check it out here.

By the bye, if you are in the midst of setting up your own space and want to talk shop, feel free to start a comment tree from this post. There are lots of different ways to get things the way you want, and it would be fun to compare notes.

Intro: A Better Mousetrap



Note: If you can't access my stuff from the Web Toolbox on the right, and you want to, and you think you know me well enough you should be able to, send me a comment or an e-mail and I'll change my privacy settings to let you in. Like anything on the web, there's going to be a bit of awkwardness during the initial construction until things get streamlined.

Welcome to The Eyrea. That's pronounced "area", and if you're wondering why I picked such a punny name, from a nineteenth-century novel I somehow dodged even during my English degree... you'll have to wait, although I'm sure I'll blog about it sooner or later. Let's start with the basics for now. Here's a little FAQ for you:

What is this place?

This is my own space, where I have gathered all the social and sharing tools I want to use, how I want to use them. I got a bit (okay, more than a bit) frustrated with the "social networking" sites out there -- social pigeon-holing, more like. This organisation, once I get it going, will let the people whom I want looking at my info see it easily. Everybody else is out of luck. If you're here, please consider it a compliment.

So you're going to post here all the time?

I don't know about "all the time", but when I do post, it will be here. You can contact me, keep track of me, play Scrabulous with me, and see my photos, all from here. If you want, you can even use Bloglines so you don't have to check here unless there's an update. (Thanks to the ever-fabulous Lisa for recommending Bloglines. It rocks.) The uber-cool-yet-approachable Carla recommended Google Reader for the same job. Isn't it great to be out on the interweb where you can choose and customise?


Think you're special?

Hey, everything here is the same as some, ah, other social networking sites. But now it's my way. If you want, you can just as easily set up something similar to be your way (some of you already have). It's all about taking back control.

Why don't you just update your F------- profile?

Because I never liked that site. It's ugly, it's limited, it's inconsistent in its interface, and even though there are privacy controls, they're confusing and it's hard to tell who can see what. With this setup I know what's going on, and even the default template is prettier than the other option.

What's up for the future?

You can use any of the links in the toolbox to RSS or check up on that particular aspect. I promise to always tag my posts, so that those of you only interested in knitting or fiction-writing or whatever will know what to read and what to skip. Eventually, I would like the main blog part to be mostly public (some posts will be exclusive to vous), while the links will have varying degrees of privacy on them. So, for instance, some of my photo galleries may be public, but not all of them.

Hope you stick around for the experiment. Comments will always be on so that I can get feedback on the new mousetrap!