Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Self Righteous Fire Storm

A fascinating miniature firestorm is going on across the US at the moment. No, it's not about a guy with explosive jocks. It's about a woman who styled herself as Alexa DiCarlo. She had, to my knowledge, three different but related websites: Her blog - The Real Princess Diaries, a site with stories of sex workers' first experience of professional sex - My First Professional Sex, and her "professional" site as a sex worker. Alexa also had a formidable presence on Twitter as AlexaRPD.
Of those sites the first and last are currently "down for maintenance" and only MFPS is still up. Alexa has also gone silent on Twitter. Why? Well that's the nub of this story.
Alexa popped onto the scene about 2 years ago with the Real Princess Diaries. Briefly the story was that she was in the process of moving from Florida to San Francisco in order to start a Masters in Human Sexuality. She was also going to change from working as a stripper to working as an escort to fund her studies. She was leaving her girlfriend Niki behind in Florida but the relationship continues.
The RPD website was a place for Alexa to present her views about sex work, sexuality, Yellowstone National Park and anything else that caught her fancy. She also increasingly posted about elements of her work and private sexual activity. Alexa also maintained Tumblrs with erotic photos. She is a pretty engaging writer, opinionated and forthright. Clearly intelligent. She presented strongly as a sex workers' advocate and had a passion for sexual education. Her politics are left rather than right.
You can imagine that she garnered a pretty big following on her sites and on Twitter. But trouble was brewing. Alexa refuses to meet with other sex workers. She says that she doesn't want to compromise her future by becoming publicly known for engaging in illegal activity. And sex work is illegal in the US for all intents and purposes. It seems to me its her right to remain anonymous if she wants to.
Behind the scenes there have apparently been attempts to meet with Alexa and to verify that she is in fact who/what she says she is. To no avail. And so this article appeared on Carnal Nation and one of its key targets was Alexa. The premise being that she is likely neither a sex worker nor "real". That then spawned articles such as this one - it's the Drama Llama post of 23 December you want; and this one by Amanda Brooks.
I'll let you read those articles and blog posts for all the gory details and all the "evidence". Basically the argument is that she's not real, she isn't a tart, she has ripped off others' photos and she certainly can't claim to be an activist.
Perhaps the mildest of the posters is Amanda Brooks, a noted activist and writer who wrote a thoughtful piece. I posted a comment on Amanda's blog which she responded to. Basically we differ and the difference is, to quote Amanda: "As you yourself stated, you are not a worker, therefore you will NOT see the issues the same as we do."
That's absolutely right, but there is always more than one perspective on a situation and none of them is necessarily "right". I'm a radical constructivist by the way so that might help you understand how I think about these issues!
So now to the bits that make this so interesting. Firstly you have got a group of people - sex workers and sex worker advocates - who are all in a tizzy about who can call themselves an advocate. I fundamentally differ at this point. I can call myself a "car drivers' advocate" if I want. You of course don't have to accept that I am, and if you are a car driver you don't have to accept that I represent you. But what you have no right to say is that I can't call myself a car drivers' advocate because you don't think I am. I believe the same principles apply to the Alexa situation. People can say "I don't see Alexa as an advocate", I don't see that they have a right to say "Alexa can't call herself an advocate".
The second interesting point is about "what's real". In this country we've had a number of literary "scandals" over the years - writers who were not as they presented themselves. The Ern Malley affair and the Demidenko "scandal". These matters were not funny for a lot of the literati. They did however shake the tree, many of us found them enlightening for the way that they shed light on the literary establishment. More recently we've had the whole discussion about Anon - the author of a Bride Stripped Bare and even more recently the whole disclosure of the identity of Belle de Jour.
As far as I'm concerned this is all grist for the mill. You can present as whoever you want on the net or in print. It's up to your readers to determine how authentic you are and whether you are worth reading. I think there's a bit more to flow under the bridge with the Alexa saga and it will be an interesting thing to watch. But two elements of the whole issue are worrying:
  1. Somebody or a group of people have taken it upon themselves to begin outing sex workers in the US. They are on Twitter here. I have no idea what their motives are but they appear to be related to the Alexa saga somehow. I think that's most unfortunate;
  2. A commenter on Amanda Brooks' blog said, in part " To see people who should know better, who do know better continue to buy into the line that “Alexa” is somehow being harmed in all this, floors me. “Alexa” Is a fictitious character. " That also worries me. "Alexa" is certainly a working name, a blogger's handle, but there's a human being in this somewhere. I think it would be unfortunate to forget that. Human beings can get hurt, even if they are not who we think they are.
Food for thought in this movable feast called the net. Oh and if you are wondering...yes I'm real. It's just that my Mum doesn't call me Critical Alpha.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Days of Christmas - Number 12 - Christmas Reflections

Well the first thing to do is to apologise that this is so late...but I've got a fair excuse. I've spent the whole Christmas period in increasing pain, culminating in a trip to the Emergency Department today. I hope, after 7 hours there, that I'm finally on the improve, though it's not really clear at the moment.
Seven hours, mainly waiting, gives you some time to reflect. The thing that always comes to me is that EDs are amazingly inefficient. It's interesting to speculate on why this is. What is clear though is that the process is not very streamlined, not designed for speed and effectiveness. What it appears to be designed for is to deliver on the antiquated notions about how a doctor should do their job.
Before I go further I need to say two things: Firstly, every time I've been to an Australian ED the care has been exemplary for whoever the patient was. Protracted, a feat of endurance, but great care. The second thing is that on a number of occasions I've been to an ED and have been startled by the speed with which they have assessed and treated the patient. Royal Hobart Hospital holds the record: 15 minutes to clerk the patient in, assess them, suture the wound and kick them out onto the street. The suture line was very pretty and the result was great. It is therefore possible to be efficient.
Go to a busy ED on a busy day however and you see the system failing. Each and every staff member, individually works hard to do a great job, to look after the patients and to get a good outcome. Collectively however the system creaks and groans. Staff are often tired and overworked, the "doctor system" just doesn't work. It is patently inefficient, repetitive and slow.
The difficulty is that doctors, by and large, believe that doctors and only doctors are the people who are capable of understanding the system. Therefore it is only doctors who are capable of proposing change. Take the matter of overwork. Which other profession would not only tolerate fatigue from excessive working hours, but actively propose that it was necessary to achieve good training outcomes? The airlines, the maritime industry, train and truck drivers are all subject to mandatory maximum working hours and prescribed rest periods. We know from detailed research that fatigue has a similar effect on human performance to excessive alcohol intake. The medical profession continues to argue that in order to get the necessary amount of patient contact during a period of training, doctors must work excessive hours - sometimes shifts of 24 hours or more. Sorry that's simply wrong, negligent and unacceptable. Quality not quantity is what we should be aiming for and please don't let me hear "I did it so why shouldn't this generation". Yes steps have been taken, but we are still a long way off.
I think there is also plenty of evidence from a wide range of fields that often really effective change is generated by a set of outside eyes. A new perspective leads to challenge and change that never would have occurred if those who "own" the system are left to their own devices. I suggest that this is never more true than in Emergency Departments. These are intensive environments, resource hungry and highly inefficient. The nurses, doctors, radiographers, porters, cleaners, ambos and all the other staff deserve a better working environment. The patient, oh so patient, population deserve a better deal. Ultimately as a society we can't afford the continued inefficiency.
Someone I know, a medico, once tried to reform the system at a major ED. He described the "assassination" process that ultimately led to his demise. It wasn't pretty and it points to the inordinate power that the medical establishment wields. It was ultimately the worst sort of industrial thuggery.
The irony is that perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of real reform at the coal face - the EDs - would be the staff. Reform can't come soon enough for them - or for me!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Days of Christmas - Number 11 - Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve wasn't a big deal when I was a kid, it was just a day of waiting. Now though it's taken on a new significance, for two reasons.
Firstly it's the day of preparation, make sure we have all the ingredients for tomorrow's food, make sure we have the wine and drinks for tomorrow and make sure that we've got gas for the barbecue and presents for each other.
That makes it a busy day. Shopping, sometimes battling through crowds, and it's nearly always hot. Today wasn't so bad, it was around 30 degrees C but very muggy and humid. I did my last minute present shopping and then it was on to the food shopping for tomorrow. We're having a simple day with a menu that's based on Thai snack food, rice flour pancakes, satay sticks, prawns, mussel pancakes, green papaya salad. Seafood is always a feature of our Australian Christmas. Not for us the big hot Christmas dinner, the weather doesn't suit it and anyway, the seafood is always so good.
Tomorrow is going to be very low key - just four of us. It brings memories of one Christmas a few years ago where our extended family all stayed at a conference centre near the beach. Four of us started cooking at 5:30am and at 1:00pm we served Christmas lunch for 56 people - the extended family, including 99 year old great grandma. I felt like an afternoon nap after that.
With the food, presents and wine laid in it's home for the second part of Christmas eve. Our small family has had a tradition for the last few years of having a low key evening meal on Christmas Eve. Sometimes we have friends over, sometimes we don't. We eat a simple meal, decorate the tree and lay out the presents. Sometimes we watch a movie, sometimes we just chat. It's a low key, relaxing preparation for tomorrow.
I'm sitting here right now with the first glass of bubbly, looking at the decorations and thinking about tomorrow and thinking about the snow storm in the US.
A happy evening.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Days of Christmas - Number 10 - Kevin Rudd's Report Card for 2009

This is a bit like my school reports as a kid: Kevin could do better if he tried. In fact Kevin could do better without even trying.
This has been a pretty disappointing year for those of us who had some hope for this government. Very disappointing indeed. Here's how I read it:
  1. The internet nanny filter: Kevin, you and Stephen Conroy just need to get over this. I WILL vote against you if you implement this as you are proposing to do. I know I'm not alone by a long chalk. Let's agree on a few things first: paedophillia and other similar material is abhorrent but you don't need a net filter to get rid of that. You have ample laws in place now to stamp on that stuff. As for the rest of it, you would do much better if you looked hard at the violence in films and television. You want to filter out sex on the internet but it isn't sex that does harm, it's violence that does harm and the biggest feed of unacceptable violence is in television, film and video. Change the censorship laws to get stricter on violence and you will do a lot for society. As for censoring the internet (and it's not just sex you want to censor), sorry that's like China. We don't like it when they do it and we don't like it when you propose it. Beyond the obvious we are big people and able to decide for ourselves. Bluntly, we don't trust you, we don't trust you not to filter valid dissenting content like China or Iran do. We don't trust any politician with that sort of power. Spend your effort elsewhere not on this.
  2. The intervention in the Northern Territory. Fail, Kevin, fail. The approach that the previous government took was one of command and control. You have followed that approach. You have insisted on taking control of community resources in return for action. You don't need to. What you need to do is things like working with the Territory government to get the housing money they have already, actually doing some good. You need to do something sustainable about health in these communities and you need to do it now. To much worrying about fighting for control and not enough action. Apologies are important but real, meaningful action needs to follow and it hasn't;
  3. Rudd the International Statesman. It's a fine line this. We like to see Australia playing a meaningful role in world affairs; we like to see meaningful international influence. We hate hubris. Watching you through the course of the year I felt that you slipped from playing a sensible and competent role on the international stage to displaying unacceptable hubris. Copenhagen was the worst of it;
  4. So let's talk about Copenhagen. Watching from the outside the appearance that we got was that a small group of nations, with Australia in the vanguard, tried to scam a deal and shove it through. You failed to get a meaningful deal and in so doing you appear to have created damage to our relationships with other countries, not the least being Pacific nations. Not good enough, we expected more and you promised more. The key issue was hubris in my view, an excess of it;
Kevin, those are the main things we want you to work on. Next year is a very important year, a lot rides on 2010 for you. You'll probably scrape through but you have that unpleasant fellow Abbott chasing you hard and I think he'll do a fair bit of catching up to you if he works hard. He won't catch you completely but he might give you a fright.
Whilst you're at it do something about the refugee issues that you've stuffed up. There are other things you'll have to work at but that will do for now.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Days of Christmas - Number 9 - Google Me Dead!

I was just doing some run-of-the-mill tasks in my digital life and I stopped short: how fundamental is Google to the way I run my digital life? How much does Google know about me? How ubiquitous is Google?
The answers to those questions are really something to make you pause for thought. Hands up if you have never used Google or any of its services. I bet there isn't a single hand up, in fact there can't be - you are reading this blog by kind favour of Google, they offer the service that I use.
My guess is that Google "knows" more about you than any other organisation or person in the whole world (please read the NB at the bottom of this post). They have your email running through their systems, they have your thoughts on their blogging system, they "know" what you search for; if you use Latitude they "know" where you are; if you use Google maps on a GPS equipped device, they "know" where you are...
There is another side to this though. Google is pretty fundamental to my digital life:
  • If you want to read RSS on the iPhone, in my view the simplest way is to manage your RSS feeds in Google Reader and read them on the iPhone in something like Newsstand. That's what I do and it's fast and simple. But of course Google "know" what RSS feeds I subscribe to;
  • The quickest way to search the web on the iPhone is with the Google iPhone app. I use it every day, and I like the way it also gives me direct access to Google apps. But you know the tagline here...;
  • Here's one for the pilots. Do you want a simple, cheap (free), flight tracking app for your iPhone? As long as you are in mobile range Google Latitude does that for you. You can make your friends aware of your exact location...and Google of course;
  • Google Calendar is the best way of managing shared calendars, if like me you don't have a corporate network and calendar server. The functionality is good and the iPhone calendar app allows you to synchronise direct. Now they "know" what I'm doing and when and probably with who!!
  • The best thing about Gmail is IMAP. That makes life so simple if you access your mail from multiple devices. It keeps everything nicely synced and once you've read an item in one place, every other place knows its been read. Very nice...and a great reason to let Google "know" what you are saying to who;
  • Google Maps is just about the most used app on my iPhone. Where's a particular shop, show me a picture of the front door of that address, show me the way to go home, show me the traffic on the way...But in a way it's the most worrying. Do I want a picture of my front door on the internet for all to see?
That's just a sample but you get the idea, there's also Earth, and YouTube that I use a bit.
So my bottom line is that Google makes my life a hell of a lot easier than it might otherwise be. I do have genuine concerns however about the information that I "give" to Google in return. It's the same old story. Your concern about that is going to be directly related to your view of Google. If you see them as a benign force for good, then you probably aren't concerned that they "know" about you. If you see them as like any other corporate titan then you are probably substantially more concerned.

NB: Please be aware that I am NOT suggesting that Google pries into your email, your search history or any other information about you. Nor am I suggesting that they do anything improper with the information which flows through their systems. I simply don't know what if anything they do with that data. My point is that all of this information flows through their systems and is capable of being used in a way that you may not care for.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Days of Christmas - Number 8 - Live to Fly Another Day

Changing subjects entirely for this day of Xmas: Human Factors in Aviation.
If I have one thing I'd like to see in 2010 it's for all of us who fly light aircraft to realise that it's us, and generally us alone who cause crashes, and then to act to fix that. It was this realisation that spurred the whole development of Human Factors and CRM in heavy aircraft flying. It's long overdue that we get the same benefit in light aviation. Sadly we still get human factors derived crashes in RPT operations. This recent crash in Vanuatu is an example. The pilot flew the Islander about 7% overweight and misjudged the aircraft's climb performance and its clearance from a ridge. Realising that he would not clear the ridge he slowed the a/c and tried to land amongst the heavy timber. The pilot and one passenger died and there were some serious injuries amongst the other pax. Weather does not appear to have been a factor.
I think that, at the initial and commercial training level, too much emphasis is placed on "human factors" such as how your ears work and how altitude affects us. Not enough emphasis is placed on decision making, situational awareness and threat and error management.
Try this: think of the last 3 aviation accidents that you have personal experience of or which you know well. Now ask yourself "what was the underlying cause of that accident?" I think it will be a salutary experience. Rarely if ever will the primary cause be structural or mechanical failure. Yes engine failures do happen. But a fair proportion of those are due to things like fuel starvation or exhaustion - both almost always down to human factors.
One recent ATSB report appears at first glance to be a structural failure. However closer reading suggests that other factors, human factors, probably played the major role.
I can't think of a single crash that I have seen or known about that wasn't driven by the person at the controls.
To understand that is really important. It means something vital for my safety and for your safety: If we are the cause of our crashes, then we can do something about not becoming a statistic. If we change the way we manage threats and errors and we enhance our own situational awareness and the way we manage situations then we are less likely to be the subject of a crash report. I reckon that's something worth doing.
If you want to explore HF further then here's a simple starting point. Google will find plenty more for you.
Stay safe and live to fly another day.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Days of Christmas - Number 7 - Yet More Perfection



Zuline

Lyle C Hess was born in Blackfoot Idaho in 1912 and whilst still a boy he moved with his family to Southern California. Lyle loved boats and the sea and from an early age he built and sailed boats. The first large sailing boat that he designed and built was Westward Ho. Lyle once said "All I've ever wanted to do is design boats". And design boats he did, beautiful, functional boats. Many of them based on the lines of the British Pilot Cutters. Perhaps the first of Lyle's designs to achieve fame was 24 foot Seraffyn launched in 1968 by Lin and Larry Pardey. Seraffyn subsequently circumnavigated and had a series of books written about her. There are at least two 24s in Australia, Daisy Cutter in Oyster Cove and Heather Belle in Melbourne.
In that same "series" of designs Lyle also designed a 26 footer of which there is at least one in Australia - Sally; a 30 footer, of which Lin and Larry Pardey's Taleisin is the most famous, having herself circumnavigated the globe about one and a half times. There is at least one 30 footer in Australia, Friendly Light in Port Albert.
Then came a 32 footer, designed at almost the same time as the 30 footer. There are at least 4 of these in Australia, Wild Honey (gaff rigged), Ubique (modified bermudan rig) and Zuline (Lyle's original bermudan rig). These three were built at the same location in Tasmania, in the order listed. The latter two are both in Melbourne. Wild Honey and Ubique are both planked in Huon Pine and Zuline in Celery Top. Another 32 has also been built in Tasmania on a cold moulded hull - Aziza.


A Fatty Knees Dinghy

Finally there was a 40 footer. To my knowledge only one has been built - in the US. Lyle however did not stop there, there were many other designs. Perhaps my favourite Lyle Hess design is his Fatty Knees dinghy, a beautiful little dinghy to row and sail and with the lines to carry a load. The story of the name is an insight into Lyle's sense of humour. Lyle's wife was known as Doodle, one of her grand children looked at her one day and said "Grandma you've got fatty knees!" and so a dinghy was named.

Underwater

To sail a Lyle Hess design is a privilege and a revelation. Their lines are classical, a long keel, beamy and with maximum draft right at the stern post. Whilst no slug to windward they relish just eased sheets and will romp away in the right conditions. Once I crossed Bass Strait from the Rip to Banks Strait, on the tail end of a very heavy south westerly gale. The wind was about 25 knots and a big sea was running. We completed the whole trip at an average of 7.33 knots with two reefs in the main and a staysail. Not bad for a heavily laden, long keel boat on a 30 foot waterline. Just very occasionally we thumped off a wave with a hell of a bang. Generally though it was a very comfortable passage.
These are not boats that will spin on a dime, but they are very well behaved and very predictable. In a gale they give you a great sense of security. Hove to in 40 knots of breeze with the very steep short, slightly breaking seas of Bass Strait, the boat rides very comfortably, only taking wind blown spray on board and making somewhere between a half and three quarters of a knot to leeward. The trysail is the key to heaving to in that sort of breeze and there is no need for any canvas forward. As each steep sea comes along it seems impossible that she will climb up it safely, but after the first couple you realise that she is in her element. The biggest danger is passing ships. In those conditions they just cannot see you.
To quote from an interview with Lyle Hess:

When asked if there is a common quality running throughout his designs, Lyle thoughtfully answered, "I feel that any boat that points her bow out to sea should be designed so that the crew need not worry about a safe return--no matter what tricks the weather may play. I guess if there is a unifying thought behind my designs it is to bring skipper and crew home, in one piece, no matter what."

My experience of Lyle's designs is that is exactly what they do, and they're fun too!

The Days of Christmas - Number 6 - Favourite Things

OK, enough of the seriousness for a little while. All too preachy maybe, but those things really piss me off.
A favourite thing.
It's a warm summer morning, there's hardly a breath of wind, the sun is bright and hot and the sky is that pale blue that spells heat. There's a light, white haze so that visibility is not great. We get aboard and cast off, motor out and hoist the main and the yankee. It's hardly worth it but we're in no hurry. Friends drift up alongside as we head southwest across the bay. We drag cushions up from down below, chat to our friends across the gap between the boats and slowly trickle along. The water is glassy and there's just enough wind to create tiny eddies as the water passes along the hull and over the rudder. The crew lounge on the deck to leeward, in the shade of the coach house. The camera appears and we take pictures of our friends and they of us. The day is sleep inducing, so still, so hot, so quiet. Motor boats zip across the water leaving wakes that shimmer and disappear in the heat mirage.
Lunch appears and we graze and chat, children disappear below and sleep away from the heat. Finally I find myself alone. The whole crew are asleep, leaving me to watch the boat. I must have drifted off in a reverie, becoming aware, with a start, that I'm about to run down a little aluminium runabout. A scrabble, the helm hard over and we slide past with appropriate apologies. Too close that one, too close.
As the afternoon slides on the breeze slowly increases. The land is heating and the convection is dragging in a sea breeze. The boat comes alive, the water hisses along the rail and the bow wave whitens. Our destination begins to rise from the sea, we can just lay it on this tack. Reluctantly I call the crew from their dream sleep. They stumble on deck, to the cool freshness of the breeze. Little gusts funnel off the land as we round up and drop sail. A peaceful perfect day.

The Days of Christmas - Number 5 - Catholic Abuse

I think it's time that the community stood up to the notion that the catholic church is somehow interested in the welfare of people ahead of the welfare of the church. This proposition is simply, demonstrably not true.
The catholic church has demonstrated, over the last 80 years or so that it is focused above all else on the survival of the church as an institution rather than the continuance of the mission of the church as a force for good. During the second world war the Pope collaborated with the Germans to protect the Vatican, with much evidence that Italian Jews were sacrificed as a result.
During much of the last 80 years the catholic church has been a breeding ground for clergy who are sexual predators of the worst possible kind. What in my view is unforgivable is that far from seeking to promptly and effectively identify these predators and hand them to the authorities, the church has protected them. I can think of no greater betrayal of trust. The church quietly moved priests when complaints arose; simply allowing them to betray others in fresh hunting grounds. Perpetrators, far from being handed to authorities, were protected and hidden from them.
Whilst the greatest betrayal has been the sexual abuse of thousands, possibly millions of children, there has also been not inconsiderable physical abuse by various religious in catholic schools. The principal of one large catholic school once said to me "there's not much a good bashing won't fix". It wasn't a joke, he ws talking about the children in his care.
What rankles even further is the behaviour of the church towards victims. The system set up under George Pell and still continuing in Melbourne, is designed - in my view - to achieve one thing only: the silencing of victims at the lowest possible cost to the church. Having suffered abuse at the hands of the church already they are then faced with what I believe to be a manipulative and cold hearted process.
Until the catholic church has demonstrated - over an extended period of time - that it has taken action to effectively stamp out paedophillia in its institutions, I believe that it should be sanctioned by governments around the world. The church hierarchy who protected paedophiles by acts of commission or omission should be actively prosecuted by authorities. Government funding should be withheld and in extreme cases catholic schools and institutions should be forcibly shut down.
It is my view that the catholic church has, somehow, created what appears to be the perfect breeding ground for paedophiles and abusers. The problem is therefore institutional and all the more difficult to eradicate. We should take special care before we accept that change has been effected.
At a time when all other institutions in society have gone to - sometimes extreme - lengths to stamp out paedophillia and to protect children the catholic church is a salient failure. Society should no longer tolerate the failure of the church to protect those most in need of protection whilst actively protecting its own and its own institution.
Enough right now.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Days of Christmas - Number 4 - Ethnicity, Religion and Violence

Where did number 3 get to? It was the post on the alcohol/violence crackdown. It wasn't intended to be but when it was finished it sort of turned out that way.
This day is a thought about global violence. Why is it that in every (almost every?) conflict in my lifetime there have been one or more of three root causes? Those causes are:
  1. Religion
  2. Ethnicity
  3. ...ism
Think about it: Northern Ireland - religion and ethnicity (the catholic Irish hate the British); Israel vs the Arab world - whether it's been Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan...religion and ethnicity; The Vietnam war - that was an ism, the "free world" against the "forces of darkness" in the form of communism; Rwanda - ethnic violence; the former Yugoslavia - ethnic violence with some religion thrown in; Sri Lanka - ethnicity and religion; Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan - religion, ethnicity and more than a dash of cultural imperialism from the "coalition" forces. There are more but I think you get the point.
So my question is this: why is it that your where your parents were born or what you believe in is a cause for such bitter enmity? How does it justify waging war, conducting genocide and creating so much more hate and chaos? That's the worst part: each injustice leads to a further perpetuation of the conflict, new generations are infected with the same hatred as their parents.
I have nothing against peoples' belief in religion. I don't care which religion you believe in or indeed if you don't believe. What I object to most strongly is the waging of war and the delivery of injustice to others on the basis of belief or ethnicity.
I want it to stop and now would be as good a time as any. All it takes is for individuals to refuse to follow a path of violence and to stop persecuting others on the basis of belief or ethnicity.
And lest you think I am selectively pointing the finger here, let me make it clear that the western world, with its sickening sense of moral superiority and fear of "the other" is responsible for inflaming and fuelling many (most?) of the conflicts of the last 50 years.
We should just stop it. Pie in the sky? Maybe, but who wants more death and destruction in 2010? Not me.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Australia and New Zealand Alcohol Induced Violence Blitz

Over this weekend police in Australia and NZ are running a blitz on "alcohol fuelled violence". They are out in force cracking down on people engaging in drunken behaviour and violence.
First thing to say is that I like a drink as much as anyone else I've met. But this situation, in Melbourne at least, is out of hand. We keep reading about manslaughter in close proximity to licensed premises, bashings....on and on. I live very close, read very close, to 8 licensed premises. Barely a weekend goes by that someone doesn't vomit in the lane-way or have a massive, alcohol fired, domestic dispute at 3:00am. Fights, drag races, shouting, vomiting...you name it it happens.
So what I want explained to me is this: the law in this State says that it is illegal to serve a person who is intoxicated. In fact I think it might be illegal to be on a licensed premises if you are intoxicated. So the people who are gob-smackingly drunk, falling over, vomiting, fighting, screaming drunk - somebody has served them alcohol to get like that. I'm not talking one or two people. I'm talking lots of people every weekend. So why aren't the licensing laws being properly enforced? The fines for non-compliance are big, you can lose your license and you can be shutdown for periods of time - like a suspension. So why aren't these laws being enforced?
I know that this isn't a solution to our drinking issues, that needs cultural change. What I do know is that if you can't get a drink when you shouldn't then you are less likely to be roaming the streets drunk and you are less likely to engage in acts of violence, public domestic disputes, vomiting... That makes it less likely that we will have the problems we currently have. So as far as blitzes are concerned what about having a real blitz on licensees? Let's take the law seriously and stop serving people who have had too much. Let's get the drinkers out of the premises and on their way home before they have too much. That way we might all get some peace.
Happy Christmas!!

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Days of Christmas - Number 2 - DDDC

That's right, today I want DDDC! Of course you know what that means. Oh you don't, OK, it means Dynamic DITA Delivery of Content.
Think about these, features of web content:
  • It's fragmentary. Meaning most web content is brief and about a single thing. The best web content is fragmentary. The more verbose it gets the worse it generally gets;
  • It's atomic. Again most web content is the smallest thing you can say about something;
  • It demands re-usability. Think about it, the News on your homepage is probably the same news that you want on your News page, along with other stuff. The company address is likely to be used in multiple places;
  • Content is presentation free. When we create web content we leave it to the stylesheet and the browser to sort out how it appears on the screen;
  • Web content is rapidly changing and version sensitive. New and fresh is the catch-cry where web content is concerned. But we also want to be able to manage versions and roll back when necessary;
  • Think of others...and tell me about them.
Now let's think about DITA content:
  • DITA topics are fragmentary and atomic. Just the same as web content really - a single idea, the simplest thing you can say about that idea;
  • DITA content is designed for re-usability. Each topic is designed to be plugged in with others and re-used;
  • DITA content is presentation free but semantically laden. It's ideal to apply a stylesheet to and to deliver according to the needs of the site. The elements allow for fine-grained presentation detail;
  • DITA content is easy to change and most shops use some sort of version management system.
So my argument is that DITA is ideal for the web. I know that you can use the Open Toolkit to process to HTML. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about render at runtime. So here's what a DDDC solution will deliver:
  1. A simple set of tools that allow me to reference topics and maps and to plug them into a WYSIWIG style page designer;
  2. A very simple, I repeat very simple, but powerful template/stylesheet system. Preferably GUI driven;
  3. Connectors to a file system based DITA collection, to a version control system and to my favourite CCMS, XDocs;
  4. Lightweight, probably in Java, did I say lightweight?
The principles here are that we don't need an in-line editor, you've already got all you need with your existing DITA editor; we don't need version control - you have that with your existing tools; we don't need a database - you already have a repository with your current system, be it file system, version control system or your CCMS.
We want to offload everything that we can from the DDDC system. It has a set of simple jobs which are about placing existing content, applying stylesheets and serving the whole lot to the web. If you want to change a topic you do so in your DITA editor, and the result appears on the web. The address changes for your Hong Kong office, well you just change the DITA topic. If you don't like a new version then you use your DITA version control system to roll back and the rolled back version appears on the web.
Simplicity above all else is what's needed here. I'd far rather use a simple set of DITA authoring tools and a light weight DDDC engine than some of the big, ugly monolithic Web CMSs that are out there now. They just seem to get bigger, more complex and often buggier.
So tell me what you think. Anyone for an open source project? I'm serious about that. I'll do the BRS for a start.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Days of Christmas - Number 1

Now I know that this isn't actually correct for the twelve days; and I know that Christmas isn't for everyone. But it is for many of us Downunder and the days are near enough.

I'm going to try and do one of these a day, to talk about some of the things I'd like and some of the things that have been sad/bad/shameful in 2009.
For the first day of Christmas the thing I'd like most is a decent agreement in Copenhagen. You can be a sceptic if you like, you can say that the climate isn't changing, you can say it's a natural cycle, it's not done by man, yadah yadah. Here's my point: Carbon costs money - whether it's coal or oil or gas or even wood. Carbon costs and so the less of it we use the better off the world is going to be. "What about the producers" you say? Same as anything really, markets change, demand changes. But I'm not that concerned. Our population is growing so even if we decrease per capita usage total demand will stay stable or increase. In any event it's a non-renewable resource in the main and so when it's gone it's gone. I'd rather not have that happen any time soon. So in default of climate change, reducing carbon usage and therefore emissions is IMHO a good thing.
I happen to believe that the ocean levels are rising and the place is warming however. Whichever case you take, the bottom line is that we have to make some tough decisions. The likes of Barnaby Joyce, Nick Minchin, Tony Abbott et al are simply trying to create a "spoiled brat" argument. "I want to keep being profligate with my resource use and you aren't going to stop me". Playground stuff. "Well we're not doing it unless he does it". Playground stuff again. We need to turn the tide, we need to change a couple of centuries or so of behaviour. We need to start somewhere and someone needs to start. It might as well be us. And please don't get on to that rubbish about jobs, terms of trade etc. I'd far rather see modifications to "free trade" designed to protect the resource-sensible and penalise the resource-stupid.
The most important thing here however is that we have to empower developing nations to come along with us. I'd rather that was with a combination of structural changes and money, rather than straight money.
So why don't we make a start as Australians and stop being the biggest per capita producer of carbon emissions in the world? That's a bit frightening isn't it? Not bad old China or the US but good old Australia.
That's what I want for Christmas a sensible commitment from as many countries as we can get to stop our profligate use of resources and get on with starting change.
Just for the record this 1970s greenie finds himself stunned that he's beginning to think that nuclear power might be a way to go.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Telstra Enables iPhone Tethering

OK, for all you patient Telstra iPhone users get on with it and upgrade to carrier settings 5.1. Do it right now because you will get tethering.
More after I've tested it but the tethering button is there in Settings>General>Network
16:58 EST
Back after a few minutes and all I can say is well done Telstra and Apple. Tethering rocks!!
I don't know what the maximum speed we are supposed to get is, but it's certainly faster than the Telstra pre-paid USB dongles. I'm not even going to say "about time", I'm just happy it's here.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Australia Post #fail

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Australia Post and Telstra both used to be the same organisation. Maybe it's because these Australian icons are big, fat, happy and could do with a heap more competition. Whatever the case, Telstra's closest rival in the poor service stakes is Australia Post.
Take this for an example: I ordered some replacement parts, back in September. They were sent to me via Australian Air Express - an Australia Post offshoot. They were marked for delivery on 21-9-09. But they were never delivered. Not a word, dead silence, nowhere to be found.
Today 30-11-09 I received a card through my door telling me that it was a "Final Notice" to collect the package from the Fitzroy South Post Office. It may be a final notice, but it's also a first and only notice. The parcel has been sitting at Fitzroy South Post Office since 21-9-09. Today they decide to tell me about it.
So when you see those stupid ads something about "Australia Post - we deliver", you need to understand that there's a word missing. The word is "don't" Australia Post don't deliver. At least not for over 2 months.
Also please take a lot of care in interpreting both the "Air" and the "Express" in Australian Air Express. There's nothing express about two months.
If this were a one-off occurrence I suppose I might not have written this. But it is not. I get mail delivered for every address under the sun - just not mine. Collingwood Post Office can take up to a month to get around to putting a letter in my PO Box.
Parcels are never delivered, the driver simply drives up to the door, doesn't knock and just puts a card through the door - I've watched them do it!!
Do something about finding some customer service and try to learn how to deliver stuff Australia Post. At the moment you don't do either thing.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Formatting Doesn't Matter

Tools like Word and FrameMaker, InDesign...they're great. You can tweak and twiddle with the formatting to your heart's content. You can make the content look just like you want it to, down to the smallest little thing.
But here's the rub: It doesn't matter a damn. The reason you are creating this content is to communicate with others. The people you are trying to communicate with don't give a damn about all the tweaking and twiddling that you've done. They simply want something that's clear and simple to understand. So you spend a very high proportion of your content time fiddling with formatting - for no good reason whatsoever.
Before you come chasing after me and telling me I'm wrong, I know that what I've just said doesn't apply to marketing and advertising material. If you are going to put an ad in a colour magazine, then yes you should tweak it to within an inch of its life.
That kind of content however only accounts for a very small proportion of the content that companies create. By far the largest proportion of the content is what could generally be called "technical documentation". My contention is that formatting - beyond the most basic - only matters to one person: That person is you. It doesn't matter to the consumers of that content. The consumers of that content don't care about all the time that you spend tweaking that content. They only care that the content is clear and simple to understand.
I heard an alarming statistic recently: A company had a documentation process where the engineers wrote the documents in Word and then the writers came along and edited it and tweaked it until it looked right. How long do you think it took to create each page of documentation? Eight hours! Eight long hours.
That company changed to a process where the engineers input the content into an XML editor and then the writers edited it for sense. The content was output to publication through a standardised process. The new documentation approach took 1 hour per page of content.
That is a huge difference. It is a huge saving for any company, particularly when companies report that documentation costs around 6% of revenue.
I think there is a lifecycle with writers. At some point in their career they become obsessed with presentation. They love the tools that deliver that presentation to them. Whole departments become obsessed with presentation, and indeed whole companies can become equally obsessed with the "company look and feel". Fine if you are delivering a web site. Forget it for the rest.
Later writers and companies move beyond the attraction of presentation and begin to realise that most of their content is functional content. Functional content is just that: content with a function. If it fulfils that function and does it well, then that's what you are after.
That's why companies move to DITA, S1000D and other similar standards. Because they realise that they cannot afford to be fulfilling the fantasies of their staff who are obsessed with presentation. Presentation without relative benefit.
That doesn't mean that you cannot deliver presentation using XML standards. It does mean that the design and codification of presentation is a Write Once and Once Only process, just like with content preparation. Then you just run it when you need it.
The worst possible situation is to move to one of the XML documentation approaches and to try and drag your presentation fetishes with you. Then you really are taking it too far!
So for all those people who cannot free themselves from the tyranny of presentation my message is to Just Do It. I promise you'll feel better.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The next killer iPhone App

I'm going to tell you about the next killer iPhone app. It hasn't got a name yet because nobody's written it. At least not that I know of. So this is more like the Business Requirements Spec.
I'm getting sick of managing the flow of stuff that comes into my iPhone. There are 7 email accounts - yes I need them all. Then there's some Twitter accounts in Tweetie 2 (great app but let's not get distracted). Next there's the Messages app where the texts come in, and the phone app for missed calls, and Pocket Weather(AU) for the weather, and Skype for chats, and a few instant messaging accounts, plus NewsStand (I love it).
So my problem is that I can (and do) spend a lot of time flicking from one app to another to see who's sent me what. It's particularly frustrating when driving with Google Maps or the very excellent aSmart HUD 3D+ - bad name but great app and you hear a buzz from the phone.
So all you iPhone devs out there here are the four things that this new app has to do. I'll give you the specs and you go off and develop it please. I will help you beta test it BTW.
So four things you have to do:
  1. Aggregate incoming communications from all those sources and a few more;
  2. Display incomings as a ticker tape, on-screen, wherever I am in the iPhone, even when it's locked and only when you are needed. I also want you to do portrait or landscape automatically and I want to be able to say top, bottom, left vertical or right vertical in your settings;
  3. When I touch one of the incomings you have to take me to the relevant app and message;
  4. When I'm finished with that message you should deliver me back to wherever I was before I touched it;
See not hard at all is it? Can I have that before Christmas please? I promise you'll make a lot of money from this killer app.
No charge for preparing the BRS by the way - you can have that for free -;)
And if by chance this already exists can somebody please, please, please tell me its name?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Big T - Part Two

I was so frustrated at Telstra/Bigpond's non-action when I posted last time on this, that I tweeted the link to @Telstra. Quite quickly I got a response back on Twitter asking me to go to a web page and link in to the support mechanism.
This has been the highlight of the saga. A guy called Mark has stuck with me and been able to escalate stuff and get action. So before I go any further I'd like to say that Mark has done a great job and that Telstra/Bigpond need a few more of him.
Mark went away and explored the problem and came back and said - Tuesday 17 at around 1pm you should have a static IP. OK, it's a wait but what else can we do?
On Tuesday morning Bigpond was down for maintenance - OK now I see what's happening. The problem was that when it came back up I visited and could see immediately that the Additional Services functionality wasn't working still. Mark, true to his word, came back at 1:00pm and said "sorry the fix didn't work". However he had escalated the problem and had high hopes of an outcome. Waiting, waiting, then on Friday 20th at around midday a tweet from @BigpondTeam and an email from Mark alerted me to the fact that finally, nearly 3 weeks after applying, I had a static IP.
The advice was to go to a page link, look at the FAQ instructions and activate the static IP that way. Off I went...you beauty, at last.
So the link told me to change my username from @bigpond.com to @static.bigpond. So I did that and the link went down and stayed down...
Back to Mark who escalated to the product owner and got the same advice, so I tried some more. Still the link stayed down. If I went back to the original logon it came up and it had the static IP, but if I followed Telstra's advice it went down and stayed down.
At Mark's request I went to tech support. The less said about that the better. I was very civil - they're just part of a broken system - but again they didn't get the issue and chased red herrings. Every time...Finally during a lengthy call I came back from rebooting the modem, again, to find that the tech support person had simply vanished from the line.
Back to Mark again and a request to do a chat session with tech support and reset my password - whatever turns you on, so I did that but to no avail.
Finally I suggested to Mark that the FAQ is wrong, it appears that you don't need to change the logon, the static IP just tags you and stays with you. He wasn't sure but said he'd check it out. We wished each other a good weekend and so ended the week.
This is where @lbanister came in. He knew what Telstra didn't know: for the last couple of years you haven't had to change your log in for a static IP - it just comes along and stays along. @lbanister had been waiting longer than I had for his static IP and got it at about the same time. Thanks for your help mate.
So one final strike for Telstra/Bigpond: They still don't know their systems. People like Mark are the only reason you keep using this company, because there is no other good reason. The rest of Bigpond has lousy service and product knowledge. How is it that the product owner doesn't know what customers need to do to activate his/her product? If you are the product owner for static IP this is a great big fail and you need the sack: first principle is know your product and you clearly don't and you don't appear to care. How else could you let a situation like this occur?
So coming to you this morning from my shiny new static IP and much thanks to Mark...
BTW it is raining, and I mean seriously raining, in Melbourne this morning. Melbourne airport reports over 50mm of rain since 9:00am yesterday - not even 24 hours and it is pissing down still. Just what we need after the heat of the last couple of weeks. Just what the reservoirs need as well.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Coastwise

Tuesday was a beautiful day, nice and sunny, hot and with a ESE breeze to keep us cool. My daughter and I decided to go down to the coast and cruise about to see the sights. That also involved navigating around a CTA step - 1500-5000.
The first leg was at 2,500 and it was a little bumpy, nothing major but just enough to let you know that summer is here. Our first turning point was a bit of an inconsequential hill. From there we went direct Torquay and then coastwise towards the Rip. It was the perfect flight for a perfect day.
The sight of the water however made my daughter speculate about flying to Tasmania. Now there's an old saying that computer games are for those who don't have the imagination to fly a tail dragger. Well all I can say is that thoughts of flying Bass Strait in a single engine light aircraft are for those who have never experienced up close, cold and wet.
I've made that trip a few times on small sailing vessels. Once we got caught in a SE gale and spent 8 hours hove to and wondering whether the next ship would run us down. It's not pleasant. We do it for fun but who knows why?
Soon enough it was time to turn and head for home. The return trip was just as good, we hit the airstrip straight off - how's that for navigation we said.
The icing on the cake was that the thermals got my daughter late on final and into the flare. She didn't make a perfect landing like she usually does. There is a god!
How is it that a little flight like that gives you so much pleasure?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

DITA in the real world

First, in case you've missed it, a little background about DITA. It stands for Darwin Information Typing Architecture. It came out of IBM and has a strong theoretical and practical background. If you look back a few days in the blog you'll find some more background.
Initially DITA was seen as stuff for geeks. If you used DITA you must have been a geek. One of the great things about DITA is the Open Toolkit. It does all the heavy lifting for you, donated by IBM but open source and regularly and aggressively maintained and updated. Without the toolkit, in my view, there would be no DITA. The toolkit has allowed vendors to build tools around it, allowed users to generate output and generally turned DITA into a practical and usable technology.
Right now is an interesting time for DITA however. It has substantial uptake but, and it's a big but, it isn't by any means mainstream. I think there are two misapprehensions that are holding back adoption. I don't think these misapprehensions go away but I think they are easily managed. In short the misapprehensions are:
  1. You have to be a geek to use DITA. You have to be able to write ANT scripts and get your hands dirty;
  2. Nobody can author DITA content without a heap of training. Why can't they just let you use Word?
There's no doubt in my mind that DITA is ready for the mainstream, neither is there any doubt that there are substantial organisatonal benefits to using DITA. I'd go so far as to say that every organisation of more than 50 employees can mount a business case for DITA. Many smaller organisations can as well, particularly specialist organisations.
There are also some un-explored or at best under-explored use cases. The most compelling for me is proposal management. Most proposals generated by services organisations are replete with content that has been used in the organisation before. Most proposals would contain at least 60% of content that appears in other recent proposals. Examples include service descriptions, staff CVs, capability statements, solution outlines, descriptions of technologies, case studies, references, legal disclaimers...
Bid time is always busy and prone to errors, staff are trying to manage, often massive, proposals and copying and pasting material from everywhere. Formatting goes awry, the wrong content is copied, outdated content finds its way in and close to deadline time things get messy.
A further concern is that much of the material is written by high value staff. When you find those staff writing again from scratch, or perhaps worse pulling material from their own private archives rather than the organisational repository you know that your costs and quality are under siege.
A study I commissioned at a large services organisation showed that there were a number of major benefits to using DITA in the bid/proposal area:
  1. In excess of 60% of material in any proposal/tender could be treated as WOOO content - write once, once only. Put that another way - in excess of 60% of bid writing costs are wasted!
  2. Bid and marketing staff are continually under pressure from sales staff to prepare mini proposals, one offs and unsolicited proposals. Many of these requests can be turned into "roll your own" opportunities. If sales staff are given the tools to access the repository, select the required topics, order them and then produce them in a Word document then you have serious improvements in efficiency. What's more you lower the cost of responding to clients who say "what have you got to offer in this area?". It become cost effective to respond.
  3. Architects and other high value technical staff can focus on value added activities and fee earning rather than re-hashing the same content multiple times;
  4. Sales staff can generate "print on demand" services brochures and can tailor these brochures to the particular situation it is intended for.
  5. Quality control, approvals and version management are suddenly achievable and easily so.
  6. Bid staff have the capacity to manage greater numbers of bids, their job satisfaction is improved through reduced pressure, improved outcomes and a focus on adding value rather than scrabbling through content.
  7. Oh and the legal team can roll their own too by storing their clauses in the system.
Wouldn't it be nice? When can we do that? The answer is that the tools are available right now and this system can be implemented for a software license cost of under USD$20,000 and a services cost of less than that. That's a DITA solution, CCMS, proposal wizard, authoring software...the lot.
You'd pay for that in 3 months in even a modest sized organisation.
But let's get back to the main issue. How do you mainstream DITA? The simple answer is that you don't have to be a geek. What's more, authoring in any of the current crop of tools - XMetal, Oxygen, XMLmind, Framemaker...is easy and what's more it's a relief! Once you are free of Word you'll wonder why you didn't do this before. The DITA DTD is not that complex and for little money you can specialise it just for your organisation.
The biggest single step though is the adoption of a CCMS that manages the content and the production of the outputs. This takes all the worry about links, searching, running the transforms and more away. That single step abstracts you from the geeky heart of DITA and makes it no more difficult than using Sharepoint, for instance.
Our little company is there already - CCMS, single sourcing, multiple outputs, massive content re-use.
The next killer DITA app? The one that, to my knowledge, doesn't yet exist? That's easy. When I have a Web Content Management system that reads from my DITA repository then DITA will have made a further massive step.
I'm talking about getting an outcome similar to what I can get with eZ Publish, Joomla, Drupal et al. At the moment I can generate HTML from DITA. What I want is a system that dynamically renders DITA topics to the web. I want a GUI that lets me place topics on a page - by reference and then renders those topics to the web. If I change the topic, I want that change to be dynamically rendered on the web.
In fact this isn't a Web Content Management system. Rather it's a Website Management System. The content is managed elsewhere. I simply want a GUI templating/content placement engine.
Nobody, to my knowledge, does that now and that includes Alfresco and Hippo.
There's the DITA challenge. But before that let's start implementing DITA more broadly, it's easy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Big T

This is the company that you love to hate if you are an Aussie. The problem is that they're big and therefore they make a good target. I don't make a habit of targeting them but this time they have brought it on themselves.
Telstra Bigpond have an additional service where you can request (for $10 a month) a static IP address for your home ADSL. That means that instead of getting whatever IP address they want to give you - and it changes from time to time - you get a single stable IP address. If you want to be found it's useful.
So you go to the bigpond.com site, log in and go to:
My Bigpond>AdditionalServices>Connecting & Roaming>Request Static IP.
Now there's the first thing. How the devil do you find that? Certainly customer service didn't know where it was.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I couldn't find it so I called customer service and they eventually found it and requested a static IP and said "you'll get an email within an hour with the IP address and log on details". Well that was last Monday and still no email, still no IP address.
In the meantime I have been back to customer service and tech support more than seven times - I've lost count. Either I or customer service have applied for this IP address at least 6 times. Still no IP address. In that time it's become evident that:
  1. The staff don't know the intricacies of the website they are supposed to support. And by the way it's the buggiest piece of stuff you are ever likely to use. A great big buggy problem;
  2. The staff don't know the process for getting new products either from them or from the website;
  3. The tech support staff - somewhere offshore - are convinced that it's a problem with my email (supplied by them)...but can't explain if that is the case why I haven't got a static IP yet;
  4. One part of Telstra doesn't talk to the other part of Telstra and tell them what's going on (that in fact the system is broken). That took me a week to find out;
  5. Most staff don't know the rules for applying for a static IP and are convinced that the rules are different to what they are;
  6. None of the staff appears to care that - it's finally revealed - the system for getting a static IP has been broken for at least a month and probably more;
  7. Nobody knows why it's broken, what's being done to fix it or when it might be fixed. At least not anybody I can talk to;
So today I called, yet again, and a customer support guy said "oh you need the domains team, they can get you a static IP quick smart. Here's their email". My little heart leapt! I fired off an email. Only to get an automated response from the general Bigpond tech support system saying that they might, just might, get back to me in the next couple of days. In effect the customer service guy had fobbed me off.
So here's one entirely alienated customer. I haven't told you about the other Telstra saga from last week - I can't bring myself to that one. It's clear though that the single biggest issue at Telstra, and in this case at Bigpond, is that nobody cares enough to bother. Some of the staff are super nice and very helpful but the system is such that they don't know what they need to know and they can't find out. They are just mushrooms in the system.
The buck has to stop with management. They need a severe wake-up if they think this constitutes customer service and customer satisfaction. I'm trying to buy something from them. How hard can that be?
Just while we are at it I can't help but talk about tech support. I suspect I know precisely where offshore their Bigpond tech support is. If I'm right then it's Telstra's biggest mistake. I've worked there and the culture, education system and management approaches all conspire to create a rigidity, lack of imagination, lack of creativity and lack of flexibility that has no place in a tech support environment. Every dealing I've had with Bigpond's offshore tech support has been, in a word, shitful. They have an absolute ability to get the wrong end of the stick, and a pig headed unwillingness to see other alternatives. They just keep reading the script and going down dead alleyways. It is a problem that I've never had with any other tech support apparatus.
Finally Bigpond, where are the line filters that you say you sent me 6 weeks ago? Which void are they lurking in?
Wake up Bigpond management, wake up.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Zen of DITA

Why Zen? Because part of the key to success with DITA is letting go, freeing yourself. Most of us these days are "children of the word processor". We are used to formatting our documents as we create them. Formatting is an integral part of our document production process. What's more, many of us don't even use the style sheets and other tools which help us to control our formatting.
That's OK when you're writing a letter or a short document. Quickly however as version management becomes an issue - both from document changes and to support purpose variation - the process of keeping control of the document gets right out of hand. Then as documents get larger and more people have a hand in those documents the situation becomes worse. Finally, usually just at deadline time, we run up against some formatting foible and sit there cursing. Often as not our version management lets us down and the wrong version sees the light of day.
This is just the point where the three disciplines of DITA become important:
  • Separate content creation from content presentation;
  • Be minimalist in creation of content;
  • Follow the DTD;
It's similar to why some of us like using a text editor for writing - some of us even use vi. The mere fact that there are no presentational tools available means that we are free to concentrate on what we are writing, to the exclusion of all else. We don't have to worry about format - that problem comes somewhere else in the production chain. With DITA presentation is linked to purpose and purpose is provided for at run time - at the point we produce a publication, a set of HTML files, a PDF, a Word doc or whatever else.
That's another part of the separation. Not only is the presentation layer separated from creation layer, it's also abstracted from the user. It can't be casually tweaked at run time. It relies on whatever parameters have been set in the processing tool. This means that no longer are we able to or required to worry about presentation at run time. Those decisions have already been made and implemented.
This is of course anathema to some organisations and some people. They have become so used to, indeed so addicted to tweaking and fine tuning that they are both unable and unwilling to move beyond that process. For those who are able to free themselves DITA provides outstanding utility.
When Frame released conditional text it was a boon for many of us. Now for the first time it was practical to re-purpose a document, a single document, for multiple uses. It proved, however, to be clumsy to implement and manage. DITA takes a giant leap forward. Maps and conditional processing again allow the ultimate in content re-use and re-purposing. Key to this is the granularity of the content. Monolithic Word documents gave way to FrameMaker books and these in turn have given way to DITA topics. Cut and paste between monolithic documents is not a practical re-use strategy. Indeed it's simply courting disaster. You will stuff up and it isn't sustainable.
By adopting a minimalist approach to content we achieve two important outcomes: First we have to think about what we are writing and how it will be used. Topics become well tuned informational and instructional gems. Secondly we are purposing that granular content for re-use. By its very nature the level of granularity we achieve in constructing topics makes those topics ideal for re-purposing.
When we came to analyse whether DITA could be used for aviation documentation our first step was an analysis of what we needed and what we had. It quickly became apparent that DITA was absolutely ideal. Checklists fit naturally into tasks and whole documents simply chunked themselves into sensible topics. In fact it was surprising to see a whole complex Pilot Operating Handbook turn itself into a pile of topics - with very little heavy lifting on our part. Perhaps only one topic in the whole POH extended to more than a page. Most were significantly less. Issues of difference between aircraft types resolved themselves with conditional processing. Indeed there's far more the same between types than there is different.
The DTD, Schema, call it what you like, can seem like a straight jacket. You wrestle with an editor which simply won't allow you to mess with the structure of the document. It can seem like an unbearable straight jacket, constraining your every move. Or it can feel like an incredible weight off y our shoulders. We no longer have to concern ourselves with presentation and now we don't have to worry about the flow of the topic - the DTD mandates what comes next. For us the initial concern was whether the names of the elements would match our needs. It was a non-concern. Where they don't exactly match there is always a sensible mapping. So the DTD becomes a part of our freedom. It means we have one less set of decisions to make.
So that brings us full circle. DITA is capable of managing the most complex document structures and enabling the most complex publishing missions. It achieves this by dealing at a level of remarkable simplicity, by being highly granular and by ensuring that each chunk of information is simple and manageable. So simplicity and zen-like freedom in fact delivers a highly capable document production system.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Let them in, let them in!!

Why don't the government and the opposition both stop with the "immigration debate"? They are both competing to look more stupid than the other.
I'm specifically talking about refugees here. Why do the representatives of each side of politics have to compete with each other to look sterner, more pompous and "tougher" than each other on this subject? There is no way to win this guys. There are NO winners, not the government, not the opposition, not the Australian people and certainly not the refugees. There is NO prize for the "toughest" rhetoric. Ahh, but there's an election to win you say. Sorry guys you are not in touch.
The people are on to the fact that neither side has decent policy here, neither side is acting in a measured, sensible and humane fashion. Each side is just eyeing off the other like a couple of curs in a fight. Trying to work out when the other side will flinch and when they can make a rush on them.
Just get over it and get to work on some basic principles:
  1. Genuine refugees are good for this country. Yes they carry an initial burden, but meeting that burden is part of our obligation as a developed country and as humans;
  2. Yes we should work with our northern neighbours to try and manage the flow. No that doesn't mean sending the Oceanic Viking back to Indonesia, at who knows what cost, and then an embarrassing stand-off. That's stupid;
  3. Minimalist processing: Are they who they say they are? Have they done anything seriously naughty in the past? Are they healthy? And let's get sensible about that last one. This isn't about whether or not they should be denied refugee status because they have something wrong with them. You can expect refugees to have a lower health status than other immigrants. This is about identifying which people need additional health support;
  4. Identify what support individuals and families will need in the community and plan for its delivery;
  5. Rapidly transition refugees into society. The sooner these people are out in society the sooner they can contribute. Billing them for their own detention is simply bullshit. You detained them, you pay. Instead we should be focusing on very short detention timeframes and spending the money thus saved to kick start the new lives for these people. In this way everyone is a winner.
I acknowledge that at the moment there is an overwhelming demand for refugee status and that Australia can't take everyone. My view though is that if you get on a boat and take the risks then you are made of the stuff that we're looking for.
To satisfy yourself on this point just go for a walk down the main street in Footscray or down Victoria Street, Richmond. The hard-grafting small business owners might not have been Vietnamese boat people but many of them are there because of the boat people. That wave of arrivals has been overwhelmingly good for this country. In just the same way as a new wave of Tamil arrivals or arrivals from Afghanistan or elsewhere will be good for this country.
And Kevin Rudd: If you were really serious about slowing the rate of arrivals then you would seriously engage with the Sri Lankan government. It's very likely that you and other world leaders are standing idly by as a very large number of Sri Lankan Tamils are subject to yet a further round of genocide. At best this genocide is through neglect of the people herded into camps by the government. At worst it is an active campaign. We cannot accurately know because the Sri Lankan government has isolated those camps and refuses to allow outside observers in. It is the role of other governments to pressure the Sri Lankan government to live up to its international obligations.
The biggest single thing you could do Kevin, to slow the flood of refugees from Sri Lanka, is to get outside observers into those camps. The next thing would be to get some real humanitarian aid into those camps.
Stop posturing about refugees and act.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Privileges of Parenthood

It's interesting how you learn things about yourself. Don't tell anyone, but I've just worked out that I have some control freak tendencies. Only in certain areas mind you.
It was a beautiful day yesterday, not too hot - probably low 20s, and only a little veil of high cirrus in places. My daughter and I were set to go off flying for a couple of hours. The idea being that she would be PIC (that's pilot speak for Pilot in Command) for one leg and I would be PIC for the next. She did the flight plan and the walk around and the first leg was hers. I found myself sitting in the right hand seat fidgeting and squirming. She is a very good pilot, it wasn't about that, it's just that...well I don't know what it was really. I suspect I just like to be in charge!
We had a lovely flight north to YBDG, did a couple of practice go-arounds, and landed. But not before I'd been sharply told to hold my peace in the circuit - thank you!
We had a comfort stop and I did the walk around before setting off. She-in-the-right-seat is a very good map reader and navigator. She wasn't in the least bit impressed with my course holding or my attention to navigation. I felt like I was flying in the LH seat for the first time and that I had a crusty old QANTAS captain in the right hand seat. I was urged to return to my course a couple of times and generally had a strong sense that I wasn't performing to impress.
I finally did manage to find the destination - I don't know how, given all my failings, and then I stuffed it up and had to do a go around! The second time around I managed to get the aircraft somewhere near the ground. That of course meant that I had to land it - another thing which, in the opinion of the RH seat, I am sorely deficient at doing. However this time I pulled off a gentle touch down which literally caused raised eyebrows from the other seat.
Perhaps my skills are improving and one day she will be satisfied!
Seriously though this is really enjoyable flying. We each have pretty high expectations of ourselves and of each other. Flying together pushes each of us to perform better and to push for ever better standards.
This isn't about showing off to each other - far from it. In fact it's about learning from each other and striving to operate safely and to a high standard. It's one of the privileges of fatherhood that I thoroughly enjoy.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

DITA - Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle

In any business you will typically have a set of documents that use common content. This always causes problems. What tends to happen is that content is copied and pasted into multiple documents and as it changes and as the number of documents multiply it becomes harder and harder to keep it up to date.
The nice idea would be to keep that content in a database and only update it at the source and then use it wherever you need it. That's been the holy grail for years, and if you were a large company then you probably had the money and the expertise to do that. The ASX, for instance, had a system like that for some of their publications back in the early 90s. Good but highly technical and very expensive.
Enter DITA. DITA is the Darwin Information Typing Architecture - go and Google it for some background. In short DITA uses XML format documents to create topics - short chunks of information - and uses ditamaps to combine those topics into publications. But there's a whole lot more there than that.
DITA can be output in a number of formats - do you want to use your XML topics to generate a website? DITA can do that. Do you want to use the same content to create a PDF document? DITA can do that. Eclipse Help? Use DITA.
You can use open source tools to run your whole DITA solution - there is a thing called the DITA Open Toolkit that does all the processing and you can use "free" XML editors to create content.
That's OK until you want to have content available over the web or to collaborate on content. Then you need a more complex solution.
That's where XDocs comes in. It is a content management system designed for DITA. It stores content, manages links and generates content output. It's a Java application, runs in Tomcat and uses MySQL as the database. So there's plenty of open source kit in the background.
XDocs runs on Windows, Linux and I just did the first Mac OS X install on Snow Leopard over the last few days.
Why do I use it? Imagine a Pilot Operating Handbook for your favourite aircraft and imagine the downwind checklist. Now imagine the POH for another similar aircraft and the downwind checklist. They're likely to be the same. Why would you write them 2, 3, 4 or more times to keep versions of POHs up to date. In our case the aircraft manufacturer "owns" the content and we manage the publications. Trying to keep multiple POHs up to date using MS Word or something similar is just not possible. Not if you want to stay sane.
Instead we have a library of topics which range from the procedure used to do a weight and balance (the same for all aircraft types) to the CG limits for the aircraft (different for each type). We generate them at runtime into the POH for the appropriate aircraft type. XDocs allow us to utilise publishing profiles so that we can exclude content which meets certain criteria. This allows us to put content into a map but to exclude some of that content for a particular aircraft type. Each aircraft gets a hard copy POH, a CD and we also serve the same content up on a Knowledge Base website that is part of the XDocs product. Very sweet and smooth. If we change content in just one place it changes for each of the uses that it is put to.
XDocs has a number of parts. The server runs in Tomcat and uses MySQL to store content. There is a Java client application that again runs on the three platforms. It allows you to access and manage your content repository, which by the way can also include other types of documents, images or other digital assets. Then there is the editor that is called from the client application. In our case we use XMLMind but you could also use XMetal - XDocs has integrations for either.
In addition there is a content management portal that is accessible via a web browser that allows you to access the repository and to generate content - if you want to build a PDF on the fly at a customer site then the portal allows you to do that. Finally there's the Knowledge Base which allows you to serve a map as a website.
But here's the punchline: XDocs, which is developed and sold by Bluestream, is cost effective for small business and yet scalable for growth. As well it's simple to configure and manage. This is a great product.
So whilst we may not be as big or complex as Airbus Industrie we are using similar technology to manage our documentation. In their case the same content chunks are used for printed publications, EFBs...you name it the content is re-used for it.
If you are interested in DITA and its background then simply hit Google, you'll be surprised how much is out there. If you want to chase down the theoretical background then search for John Carroll and minimalism, you get to stuff like this. It is very relevant to aviation documentation and learning.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mornings

My significant other isn't an early waker, so that's always meant that I have a solitary half hour or so first thing in the morning. I used to jump up and do my email and maybe some work on the laptop. But that's all changed.
Now I reach over and pull the phone off charge and start a bit of a morning ritual. First cab off the rank is my email. Who's said what to whom overnight? Any issues that need to be dealt with? What sort of continuing conversation is going on in the Apple Support forums about the Mail.app?
Then it's off to Pocket Weather (AU) to see what the forecast is and also to look at the weather radar to see what's coming. If I'm planning on flying I jump over to NAIPS for iPhone and get a briefing of wherever it is I'm intending to be flying. I've done that the last 4 Tuesdays in fact and each time we've ultimately ended up not flying due wx. My daughter and I have been hanging out to go off on a Tuesday jaunt somewhere, taking alternate sectors as PIC. Hopefully next week!
The news is next. The ABC's iPhone app is simple and works well. I'm addicted to the Justin news section on their website. The iPhone app dishes it up in an easy to read format. Then I might look at the AP app from Associated Press or the very classy Time app. Time have managed to shoehorn a weekly magazine format and the classic "Time look" into an iPhone app. It looks and works really great. Final stop in the news round is TUAW - The Unofficial Apple Weblog. This is a site that really does what it says it does. The volume of content is good, it's in bite size snippets, it has an opinion and the app works well enough. If you want commentary on Apple, iPhone, apps or anything related this is not a bad place to go.
Next stop is Tweetie2 (have you tried this new version of Tweetie - yes it costs but boy it's good). I like to see who has said what outrageous thing about what overnight. It's the good thing about living downunder: people are working for your enjoyment whilst you sleep -;)
The final stop is Appigo Todo and the Calendar app. This is where I find out what's on my list for the day and what appointments I have.
In half an hour I feel like I'm informed and in touch. Ready to start the day.
Then it's time to get up and make the coffee for my loved one.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bach Organ Works Marathon

Just a quick note for people in Melbourne. There's a very special event going on right now at the Melbourne Town Hall. Calvin Bowman is playing all of Bach's Organ works (except those of spurious attribution) in one sitting.
The event started at 8:00am today and is expected to finish sometime after midnight tonight. The last work will be the Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

video

That video is pretty rough and ready - the iPhone struggled with the contrast levels in the hall. However, it gives you some idea! The console for the organ has been set up on the floor of the auditorium in a pool of light. It gives a unique insight into the way a big organ is played. You can watch as he pulls the pre-sets, uses the different manuals and plays the base pedals. It's particularly interesting when he plays a long passage on the base pedals with both hands on his knees!
The atmosphere in the hall is great. Around 600 people at any one time by my estimate and a respectful hush. At each break people leave and others arrive so that there is a constant turnover of people. I think everyone there understands what a supreme effort this must be. I imagine that Calvin will be very sore and tired tomorrow.
This event is part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival and its free. So get on down there!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

#beatcancer

I suppose you imagine that being diagnosed with cancer comes with drum rolls and drama.
It doesn't. It's much more low key and prosaic than that. I came home from flying one weekend, my wife said "what's that on your backside?" It looked like a bruise, the size of a 50 cent coin.
For a while I thought nothing of it; then I went to the doctor. It's just a bit of eczema he said, here's some cream. But it didn't go. Then I headed off to see a specialist: It's nothing he said - quite unpleasantly in fact.
January had moved to April and still this thing was getting bigger. I had a friend with a cutaneous B-cell lymphoma and that had alerted me to the possibility. I asked to be referred to another specialist. He looked at the lesion and I said "what do you think it is?" He said "I'm suspicious that it's cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, we'll do a biopsy." I said "I think you're right" - he looked startled!
The biopsy was low key, lay on your face and have someone stick two holes in your backside and then stitch them. The result was of course positive. August - 8 months, not bad.
So begins the process of living with cancer, and hopefully dying with it not from it. I'm one of the lucky ones. Usually this disease takes 15 years to diagnose and because it's well advanced you die from it. Ask Paul Eddington.
In my case I found it very early, I had a high index of suspicion and I persisted until I got a diagnosis - one way or another. That makes my outlook good. But I wake up every morning knowing that this thing that has me might decide that today is the day to go berserk. Some days it does and you fight back. Some days, weeks, even months it stays quietly in its lair.
There aren't any drum rolls though and it isn't a drama. Somebody just tells you quietly that you have cancer and that there is no cure. Another day at the office...
The more we know the more likely that we are to live until we die (of something else -;)).
For more information on Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma go here.