Archive | April 2012

Elbow room

I was running late, then the bus was late. When it arrived it was much much much more crowded than usual, so we were packed in like sardines.

This is day four of antibiotics for me, and I’m feeling more human each morning. I wasn’t the only person in the office either working from home because of illness or taking sick days over the last two weeks, so everyone’s asking each other how they’re recovering, et cetera. All of which caused one co-worker to point out that a good method to get a little space on a crowded bus is to sneeze.

I wish I’d thought of that this morning. Read More…


It has not been a fun weekend. Friday morning I was rudely shoved out of denial1 that I was sick. The sinus headache that woke me up before the alarm went off was so excruciating, I had to put an ice pack on my head2. I had a deadline, a document that needed to be in a draft suitable to email to a person responsible for training some customers by the end of the day. So I couldn’t take a sick day, I needed to work from home.

Many of my work projects can be handed off to colleagues in my department, but this one isn’t one of those. I started out in technical writing without formal training in the field. Oh, yes, I’d had lots of writing, communication, and journalism classes, as I kept changing majors. And I’d been actively writing (and studying writing) since I’d made the decision when I was six to be a writer34, but I was hired as employee number 6 in a small startup. Tech writing was only one of my duties, and I approached it by asking the question: if I had to use this, what would I want to know? Then I played with the software and the hardware until I knew everything5, and wrote it up.

When we started hiring people with prior experience in tech writing (as the company grew), I learned that many tech writers were very uncomfortable writing about hardware, for instance. And if they had their druthers, avoid understanding programming logic altogether. To be fair, in well designed consumer products, users should not have to understand programming to use the product. But many of the products I’ve supported over the years have been enterprise, server-side applications and the platforms and hardware they run on. My users are usually administrators and installers, not end-users.

The upshot of all this is, within every tech writing group/department6 I’ve been in, I’ve been the hardware guy. The person assigned to write installation guides and the other super-techie docs no one else wants to do. This product is one of those.

And we’re still in the process of changing our production tool. I and the other Principal Tech Writer are still configuring the new repository, stylesheets, and support tools while we’re working. And this particular deliverable type is not fully defined and developed. So I’m also having to work on that end at the same time. All with an insanely short delivery time.

In addition to being the hardware/operating system/programming guy, I’m also the fix things guy. If I had a dime for every time a co-worker has said, “If you can’t figure it out, I don’t know who could” when we’re talking about software misbehaving, I could retire to the Bahamas.

That’s really just another manifestation of my study-it-until-I-understand-the-inner-workings trait. While in an ideal world, a user shouldn’t need to understand programming logic to use a consumer software product, in the real world, understanding that logic can help. Particularly if you can also grok the fundamental paradigm of the product7, you can figure out how to make it do things the designers didn’t plan on, and you can diagnose problems they never anticipated.

Related to that, I’m always the one who figures out how to use new systems, implement them, stretch them to meet our needs, and so forth.

I like doing all of these things. I like explaining. I try to teach my co-workers how to do all the things I do. Tasks that they have to do frequently they learn. But there is always a lot of stuff that folks only vaguely remember I showed them. And the whole “think like a programmer” or “think like a troubleshooter” thing seems to be something you either have a knack for, or don’t.

Which means I’m always going to be “the only one who knows how to do that” guy.

And that’s not fun when you get so sick you have to cancel the monthly writers’ meeting and the game I run, but you still have to squeeze in work from home time to make the deadline.


1. These symptoms are just hay fever because we’ve had really high pollen counts

2. And took cold tablets and went back to sleep for a bit…

3. I asked Mom where books come from, and she found a great explanation of the publishing industry in some sort of kids’ encyclopedia during our next visit to the library, and I was hooked!

4. And I made my first fiction sale at the age of 16, so I was a pro long before I got into tech writing.

5. Relatively speaking. It also helped that my other duties included testing the software and hardware.

6. Although I worked at one company for over 20 years, over the course of that time I had 6 different supervisors, as the company grew, shifted direction, grew some more, shifted direction, was split in two, et cetera.

7. For instance, the paradigm of the now nearly-gone word processor, WordPerfect, was the typewriter and how a typist used it. Text and commands for formatting are processed linearly, much like a mechanical typewriter. The paradigm of MS Word, on the other hand is a mutated cascading stylesheet8.

8. Yes, I know Word has been around longer than CSS. Of course I do. I’ve been using Word (and supporting other people using Word) since before Microsoft released Windows. But that’s the paradigm9.

9. Mutated. Because while it gives the illusion of having taxonomic behavior, it also works as a reverse taxonomy, and occasionally as a non-Euclidean hierarchy. But that’s a story for another day.

I clutter, therefore I am

The uncluttered don’t understand why clutter doesn’t drive the cluttered crazy. The truth is that it does. Trust me, we are as annoyed about it as the most obsessive-compulsive neat freak you can imagine. But there is a balance. Sometimes what looks like clutter to you is simply a spacial filing system. Things pile up on my desk precisely so they will be there when I need them, for instance.

Virtual clutter has been driving my craziest lately. I have too many podcasts. When too many unheard podcasts pile up on my iPhone and the free space drops too low, the phone starts misbehaving in small ways. Most of the symptoms are extremely minor—the wrong cover art is displayed while playing music, for instance. Some are a bit more annoying.

The obvious solution is to delete the old podcasts that I’m obviously never going to listen to. That takes time, and ca only be done, under the current software, at my computer. Until the annoying symptoms happen, my only indication I have of the impending problem happens when I synchronize the phone with the computer–which is almost always when I’m on my way out the door to catch a bus to work. In other words, when I’m rushing and short on time.

The next solution is to drastically reduce the number of podcasts I have my computer fetch for me. Obviously I’m not listening to a lot of them, right? Except I can’t predict in advance which ones I won’t get to. I listen to a small number of news podcasts each work morning on my way into work. I listen to the others very sporadically at work. I can only listen to talking people while doing illustration or design work, or if I’m working on some of e more design-ish or programming-ish tasks in the information architect side ofmy job. If I’m actually writing, editing, or reading specifications and such in prep for writing, I have to have music, not talking podcasts.

So some weeks I listen to no podcasts at all during work.

Then there are the times when I queue up a podcast, such as the most emailed stories on NPR, and the stories are things I just do not care to listen to. Or it’s a story I’ve already heard about or read about more than I need to know, so I go looking for another podcast to listen to, instead.

I’ll keep muddling along like this for a while longer, I’m sure. Yeah, I will probably explore some ofthe alternate systems that substitute streaming for downloading in advance, but I suspect the virtual clutter will manifest in new ways on the device.

At least there will always be tidying to keep me out of trouble, right?

When words move you

There’s this silly “alternate weekly” here in Seattle, the Stranger, that I read all the time. I admit, sometimes I read it to see what crazy thing one of them is going to say this time. But I also read it because several of the writers are good, and even when they aren’t, they often cover stories no one else does. The story I’m about the link for you was covered by lots of people. It was about a horrific double-rape, murder and attempted murder. About a pair of women waking up, one with a knife to her throat, the evening after they had a fitting for the dresses for their commitment ceremony. Only one of the women survived, and eventually she testified before a jury about that night.

Eli Sanders wrote a series of stories about the crime, the investigation, the perpetrator, and the process of how we, as a society, investigate and handle horrific crimes. All of the stories were good, but he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the tale of testimony the surviving partner eventually was able to give.

He called it, The Bravest Woman in Seattle. I cried the first time I read it last summer. I cried when I tried to explain to someone about the story that made me cry. I cried when I read again today after learning it had won a Pulitzer. I cried when I tried to tell Michael the link I was looking for.

Back in the days I was writing for college newspapers and thinking of possibly going into journalism as a career, that’s the kind of story you hoped someday you would get to tell.

Where the words go

Two different days this week I wrote most of a post on my iPad during lunch. I got interrupted both times, and closed the app. I had expected the draft posts to be saved, but it appears the app doesn’t work that way. Which is an extremely poor design decision1.

But enough critiquing of other people’s software design decisions2.

Read More…

On the shores of a blue C…

Currently, Wednesday is my work-from-home day, so Wednesday is the day I give my hubby a ride to work, then pick him up at the end of the day. Which usually means we go out for dinner that night. There’s a Blue C Sushi right on the route from his work back home, so if neither of us is craving a specific thing, we often stop there.

I love sushi bars with conveyor belts. I can watch the little plates of sushi go by for hours. Unless I’m super hungry, in which case I’ll grab the first thing that looks the slightest bit appetizing and eat that, first. Then I’ll watch, being indecisive for varying periods of time. The conveyor is like dinner and a show, all in one! Or maybe I’m just too easily amused. Read More…

That’s MISTER mad scientist to you

This ought to be my fourth day at the con report. Except we were barely at the convention at all today. We slept in a bit. We packed out the room. We met some friends for breakfast. We walked around the dealers’ room one more time (and picked up one thing). And then we headed home.

This was my 25th NorWesCon—in a row. Obviously I enjoy going to this convention, and I enjoyed myself this year. This was one of the years where I attended almost no actual convention activities, so all of my enjoyment was due to time spent with friends also attending the convention and all the writing I got done at the con. Read More…

I need the cat murder app

The third day of NorWesCon I was out and about a bit more.

I slept in, but this time nowhere near as late as Michael. I did some more writing in the room (intrigue! deception! plotting!), until the fourth or fifth time a friend texted to find out if we had done breakfast yet, which is when I decided to hop in the shower and go get lunch/breakfast. The upshot, I ate my first meal of the day at about 1pm.

Julie had planned to host a nail painting party in her room Saturday afternoon, while Auntie was doing her annual “Seattle Opera Trunk Show” later in the day. Sky and I had lunch and hung out at the restaurant talking to whoever randomly walked by for a bit. Then we walked up to Julie & Mike’s room, where Julie and a cool artist named Kat were painting their nails. Kat painted one Tardis on one nail over each of her hands. Julie did an homage to van Gogh’s Starry Night on one thumb nail.

It was awesome to watch them work, and I took way too many pictures.

Then Sky, Julie, and I headed over to the panel room where Auntie was doing her big panel. For those of you who don’t know all the background: I am a godparent, and my co-godparent is a fabulously talented artist and costume person who works for the Seattle Opera in the costume department. She does a number of costuming panels at NorWesCon every year, and one of those panels every year she brings some samples of costume pieces from the opera’s stock, along with pictures and background information on how the costumes were made, how they are used, et cetera. It’s always a very well-attended panel and a lot of fun. For me, much of the fun is seeing this person I hang out with doing other activities with getting to show off for a crowd.


I got there well before the panel stared, but still wound up in a seat off to the side. Her theme this year was wings. She brought a wide variety of costume wings, including some adorable angel wings meant for a small child. And a small child in the audience ran up and volunteered to model shortly after Auntie pointed out that none of the people helping her were small enough to fit in the harness.

Auntie preparing to show the magic


Afterward I chatted with a few people at a couple of the fan tables, did another run through the dealer’s room, and then headed back to the room do to more writing.

I kept getting caught in traffic jams in the hallways, or stuck behind people who would just stop right in the frikking middle of a hallway for either no reason, or to start a conversation with someone, completely oblivious to the fact that they were blocking sometimes HUNDREDS of other people from moving at all. Good thing pocket disintegration rays don’t exist, or a lot of people would have vanished today.

Anyway, once I got to the room I put my headphones on and first listened to some very unchallenging music while I tried to get my brain back into a writing space. Then I listened to silly dance music while I wrote some good scenes. Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 have made a lot of progress today.

By this time people were pinging us about dinner, so we gathered things up and headed down. We had a table over in the side restaurant this time, rather than the middle of the super noisy bar. And our waitress seemed much more able to deal with more than one person. I had a rather larger number of cocktails and buffalo wings.

Then most of us retired back to our room, where we talked about things we’ve done, TV shows, and a lot of other weirdness. Probably more weirdness than I remember.

I did not manage to get a photo of Julie’s Mike’s creature created by hyridizing several plushies. I will try to remedy that. I also failed to get a picture of Mark’s painted fingernail. Or the cool jewelry.

On the other hand, we seem to have managed to cajole Mark into getting a twitter account. He followed several of us right away this afternoon, and his second tweet was, “I have 0 followers. I will give candy to the first of my friends who notices my account.” Julie noticed first. I was second.

I should try to finish that next scene before I go to bed.

Writing and drawing

I spent most of my second day at NorWesCon in my hotel room, writing. Sky was also here doing some drawing, and even did a livestream of some vectoring of one of his sketches.

How I wound up spending the day in the room instead out out in the con begins with parts of the first evening I didn’t cover.

I bought a few things in the dealer’s den. Then several of us snagged a booth in the bar. Sky had just texted that he was leaving Bellingham and would not be stopping for dinner, so I only ordered an appetizer and beer while we sat, chatted, and waited for Sky. After he arrived we had dinner, and then retired to the room where we played at least four games of Give Me the Brain. One went exceptionally long. Juli won twice, Mark and I each won once, and Keith never one. Juli only did the “I win! I win!” dance after her second win, however.

Every body headed back to their own rooms. Sky, Michael, and I chatted for a while. Then they both crashed. I did not feel the least bit sleepy. I had composed yesterday’s blog post, then I tried to write. I couldn’t compose a decent sentence in any of the stories I tried. I would write a sentence, hate it, delete it. Or I would write a few words into a sentence, and already see that it would just end in tears, so I deleted what I had and started over. I tried reading for a bit since, as mentioned already, I was not in the slightest bit sleepy. But I couldn’t seem to concentrate on anything for more than a few paragraphs.

Finally, at 3:30, I shut down the computer, put the remaining light out, and crawled into bed. I lay there, in the dark, still not sleepy. After an eternity, I rolled over to check to clock. 3:32. I grumbled silently to myself, and rolled back over, trying some meditating. After another very long time, I checked the clock again. 3:35.

The last time I remember checking the clock was at 4:31, so I think I finally drifted off to sleep then. I woke up briefly sometime later to see Sky quietly getting dressed. I think I talked to him. But it is possible I just dreamed it. A bit after that I woke up again and went to the bathroom, then collapsed back into bed.

At about a quarter after nine, Julie called to see if we were up and interested in breakfast. Michael and Sky were both up doing things on their computers. I thought it might be a good idea to get moving. I think I even got up and talked about it with Sky and Michael. The phone rang again, at nearly 10 (oops), and it was Keith and Juli (not Julie, but Juli, they are different people), who were thinking about breakfast.

Eventually we got out of the room and headed down to the little breakfast restaurant. Everyone else we knew was not there, so we got a table. We hadn’t yet ordered when Darrell showed up and asked to join us. Had a nice breakfast. Then, since Michael hadn’t been in the dealer’s room, we went with him and wandered around there. While Michael checked out the art show, Sky and I chatted with Jeri Lynn and Jeff. Soon we were joined by Keith and Juli and Mark and Darrell. We had a large crowd there for a bit. Julie joined us briefly, then some people went to get food, others to panels, and we retired to the room.

The novel that I have finished, but is now in revision, had a plot problem. There are these two supporting character, both monks, who die during the course of the story. One originally died in a scene that I had removed after the first draft (because the scene was redundant both in terms of the action, and what happened with the emotional arcs of the characters involved). But because I had removed the scene, that meant that one monk had simply vanished from the story sometime between chapter 5 and 8 without any explanation. The other problem was that somehow the monk who had been elderly and thoughtful changed into the middle-aged bombastic one.

So I went through finding all references to all of the characters until I found the scene in chapter five where I seemed to have switched their names. I went through all the subsequent scenes fixing the names until I reached chapter eight. I rewrote the ambush in that chapter so that both monks appear and both die in that scene. So that’s one problem fixed. I also fixed a couple other bits so there is a better foundation laid for some things that happen later.

Having gotten all that sorted, I got back to work on the novel currently in progress. I have been stuck trying to get Chapter 8 going for a while, now. Today I finally got a scene written, and have a much better idea of the the shape of this chapter and the next. It is quite a bit clearer what needs to happen next and how all the arcs are moving toward the narrative climax. So that’s good.

Michael had gone out wandering for a bit, then decided to lay down for a nap. That sounded really good, so I did, too. Sky apparently couldn’t resist the idea, because just after I dozed off when my phone started chiming as people texted me, me was out cold in his bed, too.

Folks were trying to coordinate dinner. I didn’t feel up to playing relay, so I shared a bunch of contacts with Julie and went back to sleep until Keith called to see if we wanted to join them for dinner at a big table they had snagged.

We wound up with 12 people at a long table. Things got a bit chaotic. Some food for another table was delivered to ours, the upshot of which was that a couple people in our group wound up with two dinners. And my order was messed up, so I didn’t get my dinner until after everyone else had eaten. Kehf and Auntie joined us as some of us were having dessert (most people don’t think buffalo wings are dessert, but it’s one of my convention traditions).

Some of us retreated back to our room, theoretically to play some games, but some people had sewing, other people had other projects, and we just wound up doing a lot of chatting. Oh, and a few pony episodes were played for those what were interested.

This is not the first convention I’ve gone to where I spent much of it in my room instead of going to events. Some years all I want to do is see as much as I can. Other times I prefer to dip my toes in the convention only a little bit here and there, while doing other things. It’s one reason staffing a club table ofter works for me, since I can do all the people watching and have random conversations during much of the day, while either writing in-between that, or scanning the schedule to find interesting panels and events to go to.

I’m happy with the writing progress I made today. While it might be argued that I could have just stayed home to do this, there is something about getting out into busy places with odd juxtapositions of genres and themes and notions and people that can clear logjams in the mind.

And I think I know what happens next, so I should go write it.

Let me get this straight…

We got the car packed earlier than usual and were on the road to the convention before noon. We also lucked out at checkin, even though we are early, a room very close to all the events was ready. And then we found a perfect parking spot very close to the hotel.

I should have known something big was going to go wrong.

I ran into our friends, Keith and Juli, while standing in line to pick up my badge. We had a fun conversation as the line moved quickly. I wanted to go find our club table so we could start setting up, but Juli saw a t-shirt she wanted to check out.

While we were browsing the t-shirt table, the lady selling shirts noticed my Doctor Who shirt and showed me an awesome polo shirt with an embroidered Tardis. I agreed that it was a very tempting shirt, but noted that just last week, while we were cleaning up in the bedroom, my husband had pointed out we both had way too many t-shirts and such.

A kid, about seven or eight years old, I think, standing nearby said, “What? You have a husband?”

And I said yes.

“But… but… you’re a man.”


“You’re a man… and you have a man?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You’re a man who has a husband?!?”


“You have a husband.”

I held up my left hand and pointed at my wedding band. “Yes, I have a husband.”

By this point his mother, who had been some distance away looking at another part of the t-shirt display, had made her way through the crowd to grab her son. “<name>! Don’t be rude!”

“But he’s a man who has a husband!”

“Yes, he is. That happens.”


“Come over here and stop bothering people!” And she drags him away, never making eye contact with me.

I was merely amused by this, and turned back to find Keith and Juli. I then noticed a t-shirt whose design I really liked. I decided I wanted the shirts, so I grabbed that shirt, and went back to get the polo. The saleslady says, “If you buy a third, we pay the sales tax.”

By this time I’ve noticed a few more shirts that quite tempt me, so I start looking some more (having totally succumbed to the superior jedi mind trick of the salesperson). I had narrowed my choices down to three, when suddenly I feel a tug on my shirt. I look down, and the kid is back.

“Now, let me get this straight, you’re a man and you have a husband.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Where’s your husband at?”

“He’s back in our room, unpacking.”

“Do you really have a husband?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s back in our hotel room.”

“What’s his name?”



“His name is Michael.”

“Michael? Really? But—”

And his mother appeared from out of the crowd, looking quite flustered. “I told you to stay with me and stop bothering people!” Again, without making any eye contact or otherwise acknowledging my actual existence, she grabbed him and dragged him away.

We went looking for our table. Almost all of the club tables were labeled, but none said “Tai-Pan” on them. After checking several times, we wind up in the con office, where multiple attempts are made to get the person in charge of the club tables on the line. Eventually another staff member (one I’ve known for a long time) comes to help us. He takes my cell phone number and promises to find out where our table is.

Eventually the table person calls me, and tells me that we don’t have a table because she has no record that we ever requested one. I tell her that I applied for the table and received an email confirmation a few months ago. She says no I didn’t. If I had, she would have a record of it. She not only has no record, she has no outgoing messages in her email program going to me.

I asked her which address she was looking for to see if she had any to me, since I hadn’t told her my address, and I wasn’t sure if she even knew anything but my first name, but she talked over me and said that she had nothing about us in any email. I started to describe the form I had filled out and tried to remember the date I sent it. She interrupts me to explain that they have a new process with a form, so if I didn’t fill out the form… so I interrupted her to say that I was just describing the form, and the new policies, and so on.

Michael says I remained calm and polite, but I was feeling more than a bit irritated.

She said, “Well, if you can show me the email I… um, well, I don’t know what I could do at this point, because we don’t have any tables.”

My problem is that I did all of this from the editor@taipan-etcerata account. Which is hosted on a service that doesn’t support IMAP, so I have it set up as a POP3 that downloads all the mail to my desktop computer.

My desktop at home.

I am very, very certain that I have three emails from them regarding this year’s table process. The first replying to my inquiry about when we could apply for tables, telling me that there is a new process and a form would be sent, soon. The second containing the form. The third acknowledging receipt of my completed form. However, I can’t prove that without driving back to Seattle and checking my files there. And they have pretty much said that they can’t give us a table even if I find the emails.

One of the problems with this convention is that it outgrew this hotel many years ago. If you take your car out of the parking lot once the convention gets going, you might wander for an hour or more trying to find a place to park when you get back. So I don’t see the point of the aggravation I’d have of leaving, finding a spot, only to not get a table, anyway.

I’m fairly certain that this is just a mistake. I had been pestering the club table people asking about table applications before they had announced (because usually the information is available on the web site earlier), and it was clear from the early communications I got that they were still working on the process. So  maybe this is just an honest mistake.

But I keep finding myself wondering how she can be so certain there was no outgoing message to me in her Sent box when she didn’t know my email address…

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