Embarking on a Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic waterfalls


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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted to Foss Docs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NaNoWriMo 2009


NaNoWriMo is coming!