The stories that tell a story about my year writing stories

Being a journalist means I have the rare luxury of having a body of work I can point at and say “That is my year’s work”. 2013 was the first year in which all that work was online, which means it becomes easy to do a retrospective.

This is it.

It’s not exhaustive, nor is it a collection of stories that try to show my work in its best light. I wrote over 800 stories this year. Some broke news, sometimes important news. Others were re-writes of press releases or blog posts. This is the stuff I like and the stuff that tells the story of my year.

Let’s get into it, starting back in January when I felt that enthusiasm for Smart Watches seemed premature, so I asked around about them. The result was a few analysts telling me that smart watches are already out of time, which I think is worth recalling as these devices remain a very-hyped category of product. For what it is worth, an effort from Samsung flopped and the conversation drifted towards “wearable” computers, not just smart watches. Looking back over the year, maybe the story was prescient.

In February I attended the Kickstart Forum, a conference I’ve been to most years for the past seven or eight trips around the sun. It was on the Sunshine Coast but the sun didn’t: heavy rain dominated. Then-shadow-communications-minister Malcolm Turnbull gave a talk and in response to a question from yours truly thought bubbled that the UK model of making fibre-to-the-premises a user-pays option was an idea he admired and one that might work for Australia’s National Broadband Network. Lots of other people had the story, but I can smugly say I asked the question that produced the policy thought bubble. It later become policy, one of those nice moments when you can see your work having a real-world impact.

The back story is that the first half of my question was founded in ignorance and Turnbull mocked me. I mocked him right back, because I think his whole philosopher-prince act is a sham. But for a while it looked like I’d come up dry and made an ass of myself in in front of 50 rivals.

So a good moment, but only just.

I’m proud of this story because it came from a grass-roots, user-organised, VMware user group conference and resonated very strongly with readers. We did a shout-out to readers to share details of their own home labs and it generated many replies. The story detailing their efforts was also a big traffic-generator. I didn’t get as far as I wanted to in terms of linking to user communities this year, but probably made a decent start.

I discovered Professor Simon Chapman this year and quickly found myself admiring the man after listening to this podcast profile of him on Radio National. Chapman has fought against Big Tobacco for years and has now decided to debunk the anti wind farm lobby. In the podcast he explained that in Europe many wind turbines are initiated and owned by communities, so the noise is not an issue because people take pride in the facility. Here, a lucky farmer with a windy ridge-line gets money for nothing from an electricity company that puts wind turbines on their land and the neighbours feel so jealous. When campaigners come to town and talk about illness that wind farms create, they attribute various malaises to the turbines. Fascinating stuff! When his research explaining this idea emerged, I just had to write it up. Oh gosh, you ask, what about journalistic objectivity? Good question: but for my readers the idea that a lobby group can all-but invent a disease plays.

I learned a lot about Reddit this year after this story about Julian Assange’s electoral prospects unexpectedly generated a heap of traffic months after it was written. Reddit discovered it, lots of Redditors liked it and the traffic is history. I don’t chase Reddit popularity, but later in the year this story spent about 24 hours on its front page and delivered a deluge of traffic. When the big numbers roll in it is humbling to think just how much attention my work can sometimes gather. I’m going to spend a lot more time in Reddit in 2014 so I understand it better. Yes, there’s a commercial motive, but I also feel it behoves me to understand why so many people spend so much time in the Reddit community. I draw the line at 4chan – those folks seem mean. And the first story was, I thought, a decent attempt at explaining Australian elections to foreign readers.

In September I was saddened to learn that Frederik Pohl had died. Frederik who? Pohl was a science fiction author I greatly enjoyed and admired. I own about 20 of his novels. While very sad about his passing, I felt privileged to write this obituary. Moments like that when my personal life makes me better at my job are affirming. A similar moment came when I was able to write about a revival of TV show The Tomorrow People, which I adored as a child. I liked the show so much that when it went off air I wrote to the local TV station, which did not reply. I remember it as an innocence-dispelling moment: adults weren’t responding to to my passion and I could not understand why. I’m pretty sure Mum knew someone who worked there, pulled some strings and got someone to send me a reply: they’d run out and may or may not get around to showing more.

I haven’t watched the revived show – it looks dreadful.

I sometimes joke that journos don’t have friends, just contacts. Two of my friends turned contacts for this piece on what it feels like to be fifty and unemployed. My friends gave of their time and shared some private thoughts with me, a humbling experience that I think produced a decent and unusual piece of journalism. As a 45 year old in a very challenged industry, I think perhaps I was writing this one for myself just a little. I also know that my readers skew a bit grey-ish, so it is not as if I was indulging myself consciously!

Scarcely a week goes past in which I am not told about big data tools that can find searing insights about a business somewhere inside dozens of terabytes of data.

I love to burst a bubble, so when the folks who ran Obama For America’s IT shop came to town and said that their efforts relied on just a had a few gigabytes of data and used one question – “Do you support the President?”- as the key to their vote-winning efforts, I lapped it up. To hear the Obama guys say lots of personal data was not necessary to win an election was right up my alley. And news because it countered other trends.

I also banked some of their comments for an opinion piece considering enthusiasm for technology startups in Australia. For years I have felt that Australia’s cultural cringe has manifested itself in a desire to ape Silicon Valley’s methods of fostering new technology businesses, complete with fawning coverage of local startups. This piece took months to polish and I braced for an angry backlash, which didn’t come. Maybe no-one cared.

“My headline of the year: “Oh Mr Darcy! You’re PRESSING MY BUTTONS”. Here’s the story it belongs to.

In the late 1990s I seethed when Microsoft PR created a syndicated, soft, lame Q&A column for Bill Gates that newspapers around the world ran as if they had direct access to the great man. These days hardly anyone recalls that Microsoft rose to power on the back of some very sharp business practices. I haven’t forgotten, so even though it is hard not to praise Gates for his current activities when he appeared on local television and talked about multinational tax avoidance it was my job to record his opinion that there is no moral dimension to the issue. I relished the job.

A couple of little scoops that made me feel like I was Doing My Job As Required. This piece on HP considering a HANA-as-a-service was a global scoop and later proved correct too! EMC’s CTO came to town and used language that effectively demoted the company’s flagship product. I estimate this kind of thing interests about five thousand people around the world, but it’s nice to be able to target that kind of niche.

This story reports on one storage vendor (Pure) stating its intention to take on another (EMC). Dull stuff. So dull it was later cited in court as evidence that Pure is targeting EMC employees as part of a messy “you stole our people and they brought trade secrets with them” lawsuit. A nice feather in the cap.

In August and September I travelled a lot, firstly to Vietnam and came back with stories like this one about the servers powering Facebook</a>. The next week I was in San Francisco for VMworld and this story about an argument between Marc Andreessen and Pat Gelsinger which made Techmeme. Later in the year I was in Bangkok for an event at which HP CEO Meg Whitman revealed the company will get into 3D printing. That story made Techmeme too. I mention Techmeme because it is often held up as important to appear there, but the site gets things wrong: it ignored this real scoops on IBM shuttering its home-grown cloud in favour of one it acquired. Enough of the shop talk grumps: I’m very fortunate to travel so much.

Another amazing trip I took this year was from Darwin to Adelaide to observe the World Solar Challenge. I’d never driven through the dead heart before and learned oodles along the way, not least during my visit to Willowra, a remote aboriginal community.

I hope the story speaks for itself but if you’re a TLDR kind of person I went there to visit a newly-opened adult learning centre that has brought 10 public PCs to a remote community. I wasn’t expecting most of what I saw there, especially literacy as a barrier to internet use. Go on. Read it. It isn’t that long. If you like it, this is a companion piece and explains a visit I made with the family to a floating village in Cambodia where mobile phones have quickly become ubiquitous. We spent a night in the village and awoke to learn that our hosts had a caged crocodile!

The Cambodia trip also produced a piece for Lifehacker. We flew to Cambodia on long-haul budget airlines. Long story short, very cheap flights plus a third world destination made it possible to do 12 days in Asia for the price of 7 in Australia, with rather more unusual things to see and do along the way. I don’t know of the trip was a fin de siecle indulgence, a wonderful experience or both. I’m grateful to old friend Gus Kidman for letting me contribute to Lifehacker, a nice gestures from someone who’s technically a rival. It’s grand that the IT journalism community doesn’t get narky about this kind of thing.

If you’ve ever thought that journalists use black arts to nourish contacts, the next two stories will dispel that notion.

This piece about a big tool chest came after a visit to Bunnings (Australia’s B&Q/Home Depot Analog).

And this piece is a result of regularly watching a website and noticing something had changed.

It’s probably also the best piece of news journalism I wrote last year.

The back story: Australia has been working on a new schools curriculum covering digital technologies for the first time. It’s not revolutionary but is, I feel, an important recognition that if kids can wield computers – not just operate software – they get more out of them. Industry thinks likewise: it’s complained for years that it can’t hire people with the skills it wants, so was very happy to see the topic of computing addressed at a national level.

I tracked the curriculum for more than a year, used freedom of information to gain access to feedback that had been withheld from public view and, once I knew the final document was due, visited the relevant website daily. On one of those visits I noticed that release of the final curriculum had been delayed.

A flurry of email brought confirmation of the delay and the reason: Australia’s new government wanted to review the curriculum and bring in new experts to do so, despite the fact industry and other stakeholders have spent the last 18 months working on this one and were about to sign it off after several drafts.

I strongly suspect the review is politically motivated and that the government wants to look at some aspects of the history and English curriculum to get the lefty bits out. Teacher groups told me their members lack the skills to teach the new digital technologies curriculum. I fear those objections, and the fact that resources will be needed to address them, mean the digital technologies curriculum will be watered down, excluded on the basis of the curriculum already being crowded, or cut.

When that happens I expect the mainstream media will get interested in a story that, to date, has been a labour of love for me in my little trade journalism niche. And by labour of love I mean stories on this topic generate little traffic. It would be more commercial significant if I rewrote rumours about Apple.

Which seems as good a place as any to sign off. My job is fulfilling, takes me to extraordinary places and brings me into contact with fascinating people. I’m very fortunate and privileged in so many ways and I hope the stories show that I use that good fortune to do work that stands for something.

Happy New Year to you all. May it bring prosperity, health and peace.

Backpacking Reblog Week Two: Deep into the Pelopennese

Here’s what I wrote in my diary on the evening of January 16th, in Kalamata.

Today started off brilliantly. I slept predictably awfully, but got up feeling happy and strong. I breakfasted cheaply, got some dough, mailed some letters and set off for the site.
Along the way I trod on a rock and went arse over turkey. My left knee is grazed and a little swollen. Predictably, my right ankle is dudded. My Reeboks seem to be sweating, too.

I’m surprised by this diary entry, because I remember the fall I took that bright morning as being rather more serious. I had indeed slept badly, but cannot remember the breakfast or the money changing.

But I do recall walking towards the site of Olympia, which involved taking the main road out of town back the same way I had come. The road sweeps around to the left.

I walked on the shoulder and didn’t see the rock coming. I planted my right foot and went over. Splat.

I was carrying all my kit at the time. I’d bought a travel pack for the trip and at the time it was fashionable to include a zip-off day pack. I bought the pack months before I left and experimented with it a lot. I eventually decided the zip-off day pack was too small to be useful, so acquired another day pack. The zip-off pack became my toilet bag.

So as I walked towards Olympia I had on a rather full pack and a day pack on my front. I was buoyant and excited to visit the site, so between euphoria and a heavy load I can see why I fell.

The diary mentions a knee and a “buggered” ankle. My ankles troubled me all the way through my later teenage years. They just ached a bit, without ever really stopping me from doing anything. But this fall made the right one really hurt. I recall lots of swelling and to this day there is a small lump near that ankle that I’ve been told is a Ganglion (maybe a Ganglion Cyst) caused by the fact that when I fell my joint hyper-extended and some bits of my ankle’s innards got squirted out into a new location.

I remember limping about Olympia and deciding, as it stiffened and the pain dulled, that I would not seek medical attention. I imagined returning to Athens to find an English-speaking doctor and being told not to walk on the ankle. That wasn’t an outcome I was willing to accept, so I limped on in no real pain but worrying discomfort.

Olympia itself didn’t impress me. Some ruins retain a powerful sense of how the site was used or the minds of the makers. Olympia’s not one of those.

My diary mentions the temple of Olympian Zeus as impressive for the massive size of its masonry and laments the lack of signs describing the other ruins. My entry also notes that I decided not to visit the local museum as “After my spill, I just wanted out.”

Out was a town called Pyrgos whose only interest was that it lay on a train line. I hoped to reach Sparta, but settled for Kalamata. I remember dozing happily on the journey, which took me through flat country covered in Orange orchards. It was all very idyllic until some local kids threw oranges at the train, striking the windows and waking me suddenly and unpleasantly.

I’ve two regrets about Kalamata.

The first is that I was ignorant of its status as the home of the world’s finest olives. Had I known, I would have indulged.

The second involves a jacket I’d bought in Athens.

I left Australia without a winter jacket. I think I had decided that nothing suitable could be acquired in Sydney, given the difference between its climate and that of Europe in winter, so I planned to buy one in Athens. In 1992 Athens was not a good shopping destination. I eventually bought a padded cloth jacket which looked alright but was not very warm. I discovered that the hard way in Nafplion and Olympia. Neither were very cold, but I had not been very warm.

Kalamata, I discovered, was home to a Levis factory. Every kid I spotted had a nice jacket. I’d blown my dough on a dud in Athens :-(

The next day I decided to go to Sparta, via. Megalopolis. This modestly named town was founded by slaves after they threw off their Spartan oppressors. I wanted to visit it because it had been pointed out to me a in a classics lecture that its agora (town square and marketplace) was probably covered due to high rainfall. I remember the town having a broad, treeless square that I crossed feeling a little odd – there were local eyes on me. The site was unattended, guarded by just a gate and a single signpost.

The agora was barely distinguishable but the earthworks of the theatre were obvious. My diary notes with disappointment that only six rows of stone seating remained.

Various other buses, through loathsome Tripolis again, led to Sparta where budget hotels were closed for winter. My diary notes I had to pay 3000 drachmae a night – about twenty budget-blowing dollars – a night for a proper hotel.

I arrived in the evening and was quickly struck by Sparta’s beauty:

“As the bus arrived it was the very end of dusk. Only grays were left of the day’s light and clouds were scattered through the sky, some hanging over snow-capped mountains. In the dim light it became possible to seperate the mountains, the snow, the snowline and the shadows in the clouds.”

That’s the first piece writing in the diary I am proud of. The entry for Sparta also mentions finding a souvlaki bar run by Americans and says I hoped to interview them. Reading that reminded me of the fact that before I left, friends had won the election to edit the University of Technology student newspaper, Vertigo. But for my trip I would have been part of the team, although I had discussed sending back stories. Apparently my naive news values imagined the souvlaki guys could be a story! I didn’t pursue it – the idea of sending home stories never got going. The diary says I asked for an interview but was gently rebuffed. The next day I met another Spartan American, in the bakery where I bought what I recorded as “today’s bread” – an insight into my diet. The diary says “my journalistic nerves tingled, but I feel short on chutzpah right now.” I felt short for the rest of the trip, actually. Looking back, I cringe at my lack of application! I wonder if someone had written a story about the expat Americans of Sparta since or if the idea is and was madness.

For some reason I did not visit Sparta’s ruins next. Instead I went to a Byzantine ruin called Mystras about which I remember nothing (my diary says the views were great) before retiring to my hotel room and reading for three hours. “My ankle certainly felt better for the rest,” says my diary entry.

What was I reading?

Writing this reblog ha jogged my memory and I think it was Pausanias, a roman who wrote an extensive guide to greece.

The next day Sparta was stunning. The ruins are free. Main street drains out to the north into an olive grove littered with ruins. Sparta famously didn’t build monuments, so most of what’s left is Roman. The same lecturer who told me about Megalopolis told a story about the Spartan Cheese Festival which involved Spartan youth attempting to steel cheese under the gaze of whip-wielding elders. Originally a part of passage from youth to manhood, my lecturer explained that the Romans built a theatre for it and turned it into a tourist attraction. I saw the theatre!

Witnessing this kind of site was important to me back then – I liked to consolidate my study. Even though by 1922 I was on the cusp of finishing a degree in Communications, Classics was my academic love.

It seems I left Sparta after visiting the site bound for Monemvassia, a town notable for a colossal rock just offshore. The rock was of course fortified by various civilisations.

I recall the rock as dull – being winter it was mostly closed so I got in a quick walk through the old town built beneath the fortress. The highlight of the trip was a winding bus ride through ancient olive groves. I’m not hyping it up when I say ancient – these trees were obviously very, very old. I could see how they had grown in and around themselves over many years. I can picture those trees still today.

I think by this stage I realised that being off the beaten track in the Pelopennese in winter wasn’t very fruitful. So much was obviously closed. What was left wasn’t very interesting. Athens beckoned because:

“I hope to be able to spend a day in a laundrette, a day in a museum and a day or two at Delphi. After that, it looks like Crete.”

I remember feeling a little let down. The Pelopennese was the only part of the trip I had planned. It had gone well, but not super-well.

At least on my return to Athens I found better lodgings. “Festos” was a downtown budget hotel with dorm rooms and lots of young travellers. I wrote that it was “more expensive, but worth it for the vibe. The bar is good and it’s a good meeting place.”

I called home, read a newspaper to get the cricket score and met Dave and Veronica, a pair of honeymooning Americans who were also keen on visiting Delphi. I bet none of us imagined we’ sleep together the next night … as I will explain in my next post.

Backpacking Reblog Week One: Greece

In my last post I promised to write a prelude to this one. In preparation for that prelude I spent some time arranging for old photos to be scanned but ran out of time for writing, so here comes a double post with some background to the trip and the first week.

Why did I decide to go backpacking in the first half of 1992?

My diaries are silent on the topic, but I had one semester to go at university and felt it would be best to travel, graduate, then enter the post-university phase of my life in a new year with all that behind me.

I planned to travel alone – this was all about me and my agenda, not a buddy thing. And not a relationship thing either.

One reason for the trip was the fact I studied classics and ancient history at university and wanted to see some more ancient sites, but aside from that had very little motivation. It seemed like a good idea to take in the newly-visitable cities of Eastern Europe, for an eyewitness view, but I had no firm plans to do so. Beyond that my plans were flimsy. I knew I would land in Athens and leave from London six months later. I recall planning to visit the Peloponnese, a decision made poring through what I later learned to be the tame and unlearned pages of Let’s Go Greece. Beyond that I had no idea.

I did not intend to work – I had enough cash to last six months and liked the constraints of a fixed period of travel.

I wasn’t seeking love, or even romantic adventure. In some ways I was happy planning to be solitary wanderer. On a previous short trip, a few years earlier, I packed condoms and thought I might find it easy to find company on the backpacking circuit. I’ve never been much of a bar-goer. Not have I ever understood the appeal of nightclubs so they did not figure in my plans. I imagined reading in the evenings, or conversing in hostels.

Perhaps the intention to visit some out of the way cultural attractions set me on that path – I wanted to be a bit hardcore about the places I went, rather than following the party circuit.

That sets the scene nicely for my arrival in Athens and the first page in my diary.

Week One – Athens and Nafplion

I’d been to Athens before and knew that the official youth hostel was nasty, so booked a cheap hotel for my first night in town.

When I got to it, I realised that I had not made a budget for the trip. I had a thick wad of travellers cheques with me, concealed beneath my shirt in a money pouch I wore over one shoulder. The pouch’s thin cord went over my shoulder and across my chest. It hung against my ribs, sufficiently far below my armpit that it didn’t reek. Around my waist I had a small black leather bum bag with a zippered, inward-facing pocket. I wore the bum bag facing forward and threaded the waist strap through one of the belt loops of whichever one of the my three pairs of jeans I was wearing. I had a blue pair, a green pair and a black pair of Country Road jeans that were my concession to smart dressing. The zip of the inward facing pouch was invisible so I stored my wallet inside. There was no tell tale bulge in the bum bag to hint at the wallet’s presence, but in my right rear pocket I kept a small hardback notebook that did make a lump that looked like a wallet.

I felt that pickpockets would go for the notebook first. If a knife-wielding thief went for the bum bag they might be able to slice its belt, but it would snag in my jeans’ belt loop before they could escape with my wallet. The money pouch’s cord was visible around my neck, but was indistinguishable from a necklace. I felt well-protected, but added an extra layer of security in the form of a small nylon pouch that wove into the shoelaces on the black Reebok boots I bought for the trip. Many of my savings for the trip came from working behind the counter at the UTS Union University gym, which at the time hosted a sports clothing and equipment store. I spotted the shoes months before the trip, saved for them and had great hopes – they were waterproof, light, boasted all sorts of cushioning. I remember feeling they were a very important piece of equipment. The pouch contained an Australian $20 note, emergency cash I felt could buy me a meal and a phone call if all else failed. The shoe pouch also contained a list of all my important documents, and their serial numbers. It was my last line of defence

As I sat in the hotel, the name of which I did not record, I scrawled out the budget you can see below. I had no idea if it was a feasible budget, but was willing to give it a go.

The next page of the diary starts with these three paragraphs:

“After 40 hours with no sleep and about 30 minutes after a deadly bloody mary, the New World Order started to make sense.

There they were – about 2 or 3 hundred Austrians. Tall. Well Fed. And all just atrociously dressed. So this is the new Fleurope?

Anyway. Old Euro Money buying American technology from the Asians. In this case the Thais, who didn’t quite know exactly what they were doing, but sure tried hard anyway.”

I have an inkling of what I was trying to say here. In 1992 the term “New World Order” had a lot of currency, thanks to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Austrians had boarded my Thai Airlines flight in Bangkok, where I had been re-seated next to two Austrian passengers of similar dimensions to myself – 190 cm and broad shoulders (I swear that airlines have an algorithm to match large people and seat us next to one another to inflict mutual misery. The re-seating involved me being paged in the boarding lounge, an experience that scared me a bit. I’ve probably taken 100 flights since and it hasn’t happened again. I still don’t know why I was asked to move seats on that day).

I think what I was trying to say in that terrible opening was that there was some demonstration of a re-ordered world on display in the plane. Other than that the first entry is drivel even more embarrassing than the stuff above.

The January 10 entry sees me still in Athens and again attempting some analysis. I decided Athens looked like the third world and noted “bad tenements, no public works, small cars only and mopeds everywhere. Smog you can drink rounds it out.”

The entry mentions a Canadian called Ed Coombs, with whom I visited various bits of Athens. Just which bits I cannot recall – the diary is frustratingly silent and mentions only “the sites”.

Ed was my first companion of convenience. He was 30-ish, a short order chef, and full of stories of the almost-girlfriends he had waiting for him in two or three places around Europe. I recall finding those stories implausible but tantalising.

I’m pretty sure I visited the big bits of Athens – The Parthenon, Museum and Agora. I tried to appreciate the old town, which was tacky and only half-awake in winter.

My memory has dimmed and I cannot recall if this happened on this trip to Athens or a previous visit, but on one of the trips I ran foul of a bar which lured me in off the street for a beer, sat me down with an attractive woman I realised later was a prostitute and sold me very expensive beer. When the penny dropped, I backed out. Fast. And got slugged with a bill for about $100. Very early on this trip – this time the memory is crisp – I saw something moving quickly in my peripheral vision. I decided instantly it was a possible threat and gently pressed my arm onto my money pouch. That action, and a heightened awareness of things that just might deserve my attention, quickly became a habit. I was not on edge, but was a little more constantly alert to potential danger and aware that with all my money and travel documents on my body I was a little vulnerable.

Ed and I decided to visit Nafplion, a town nicely proximate to the acoustically perfect Theatre of Epidaurus and the site of Mycenae. The theatre came first and delivered – a whisper from the stage was clearly audible in the back row. Ed liked to recite Shakespeare and did so with gusto. We stayed in an apartment attached to a private home in the old section of Nafplion. We ate in a small cafe in town, dining on small flatbreads filled with souvlaki and hot chips, washed down with Amstel beer. There were other travellers in town and I surprised myself by picking a pair of Australian girls before they opened their mouths.

We arranged to meet them for dinner – Ed never missed an opportunity and I was happy to go along. They arrived with their boyfriends.

Nafplion sits beneath a colossal hill, atop which sits a venetian fortress. We decided to climb the staircase to the top. 900 stairs later, we kept going to a nearby beach called Tolo we’d seen on a map. A path that headed in the right direction quickly ended, leaving us in a thorn-strewn plateau with awesome views of the Aegean but no way home. Lost, we spotted a road, headed for it and trudged back into Nafplion. Souvlaki and beer fixed things up.

Ed wasn’t interested in Mycenae so I went alone and found a site that was as atmospheric as any I have ever visited. Mycenae’s Lion Gate is enormous, so much so that the method of it’s construction is a topic of archaeological controversy. The city’s walls are described as “cyclopic” architecture, a term I understand suggests that only a giant like the cyclops mentioned in Homer could have hefted the stones into place, given there’s little evidence of contemporary technology which could have handled these big slabs of stone which my diary says were more than three metres long.

However the giant sculpture of two lions was erected, the site was a very moody place. Walking among the ruins of a long-dead people and perceiving that they built their city in such a familiar configuration affected me strongly.

My diary mentions several of the famous tombs of Mycenae by name, complete with impressions of the materials used in each. That’s the level of classical geekery what was important to me back then.

The day after Mycenae, January 15th, Ed and I parted ways. I wanted to visit Olympia. He wasn’t interested, but our story wasn’t over. It will be months before I can reveal why.

I figured I could get a bus to Olympia from Tripolis. At the time, travel guides recommended stopping in Tripolis only if desperate, an assessment I agreed with after about ten minutes. A bus materialised after two hours, then took nearly five hours to wind its way through the mountainous heart of the Pelopennese. I found this a fascinating trip as it passed through tiny villages. I saw real, live, goatherds and a genuinely rustic way of life that surprised me. My diary mentions “a series of hills that could have been miniature mountains” and a “long, deep, steep valley.” The road was one narrow lane, the bus basic. I just used Google maps to plot a route from Tripolis to Olympia and reckon it follows the route I took that day.

I still marvel at the spontaneity of it all. I’m pretty sure I did not know if it was possible to get to Olympia via Tripolis. Had it not been possible, I don’t know what I would have done that day. I often feel this trip was the free-est time of my life. Days like this probably gave me that idea.

Here is my impression of Olympus:

“Olympus is a dump. Two streets deep either side of the main drag, it’s all hotels and junk shops with a few restaurants for good measure.”

Arriving in Olympus as evening drew in, I struggled to find accommodation and settled on a modest and unheated hotel in which I spent an uncomfortable night.

The diary mentions, for the first time, some forward planning. I suggest Sparta or Megalopolis as my next destinations.

But first I had to survive Olympia. I’ll explain that vivid verb next week.

A new blog project for 2012

In early 1992 I took six months off and went backpacking in Europe and the Middle East.
In early 2012, the 20th anniversary of that trip, I’m going to review my travel diaries, scan some of the photos I took and “re-blog” the experience in a (hopefully) weekly recount of the journey I made so long ago.
I’ve already started to read the diaries and I’m frustrated with the intentions of the younger me – I seem to have written with no particular reading experience in mind. As a and memoir or travelogue the diaries seem inadequate. Why was I so sloppy?
Revisiting the younger me is one of my definite aims this time, the better to understand the current me.
I have three other aims.
One is to digitise the diaries and photos, so they can be stored in durable form. In 1992 digital cameras were unavailable to consumers – even Apple’s QuickTake was two years away. This means I have a pile of fading photos. It’s worth noting, too, that in 1992 a roll of film was a significant investment for a backpacker so one did not take photos lightly. So there are not many to choose from. What there is deserves a review, a culling and the light of day fore the good ones.
Another aim is to create a hard cover book of the re-blog. I haven’t looked at the diaries or photos for most of the twenty years since they were created and would like a more accessible artefact. The likes of Blurb make that easy.
Thirdly, I want to recount the trip to my kids and wider family. In 1992 the Internet was not widely accessible and international phone calls were expensive. I set out alone and spent a few days with folks I met on the road, but conceived of the trip as a solo adventure. I called home occasionally and wrote letters every week. And I often had no idea what was going on in the wider world. I don’t think backpackers today have that isolation.
I didn’t think of it as isolation at the time. It was just the way things were that short twenty years ago.
I landed in Athens, my first port of call, on January 7th. I’ll write a prelude to that arrival soon explaining the reason for the trip and the preparation.

Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE: A review for Stephenson fans

Neal Stephenson’s novels are nearly always populated by very intelligent, intense and practical men who win recognition from a small group of peers who share similar technical expertise.

But beyond that group, these men struggle to find recognition, companionship, affection or influence, in part because they feel it is a compromise, or simply not worth the effort, to endure the company of those who lack their skills.

These characters are everywhere.

Snow Crash’s Hiro invented the Metaverse but lives in poverty, works a dead-end job and can’t talk to girls. Cryptonomicon’s Randy is in pretty much the same boat – an internet/Unix pioneer, he lives in a doomed relationship with a woman he does not love, his capacities ignored and potential unrealised. The same book’s elder Waterhouse is a genius, but is utterly unable to integrate with society. Anathem’s characters all rise from geekdom, are exposed briefly to, and dazzle, the rest of the world, but then retreat to build an uncompromised community of the mind. The Diamond Age’s Hackworth is a tolerated technician who fakes his way through polite society. The Baroque Cycle’s Waterhouse and Newton are proximate to power and influence, but only when they pursue useful vocations whose intricacies baffle others. The various Shaftoes in Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle are used by others for their martial prowess, but feel themselves outsiders.

Most of these characters also voice sentiment along the lines of “I’m a geek. I understand this stuff really well. If only you would let me explain you would understand too and then you’d see how right I am and how you could profit from what I know and understand.” That sentiment falls, largely, on deaf ears.

Stephenson’s essay, ‘In the beginning is the command line’ articulates this all beautifully in an exchange depicting a hacker trying to sell Linux on the desktop to someone who just wants to buy a nice computer. Stephenson likens Linux to a free tank competing against the Windows station wagon, the euro-sedan Mac and the fully functioning Batmobile (Be Inc. – remember those guys?) and offers this exchange:

Hacker with bullhorn: “Save your money! Accept one of our free tanks! It is invulnerable, and can drive across rocks and swamps at ninety miles an hour while getting a hundred miles to the gallon!”

Prospective station wagon buyer: “I know what you say is true…but…er…I don’t know how to maintain a tank!”

Bullhorn: “You don’t know how to maintain a station wagon either!”

Buyer: “But this dealership has mechanics on staff. If something goes wrong with my station wagon, I can take a day off work, bring it here, and pay them to work on it while I sit in the waiting room for hours, listening to elevator music.”

Bullhorn: “But if you accept one of our free tanks we will send volunteers to your house to fix it for free while you sleep!”

Buyer: “Stay away from my house, you freak!”

The sheer number of characters voicing similar emotions has me suspicious: I don’t think an author writes so many characters the same way unless the fictional inner dialogues mirror their own.

Which brings me to Stephenson’s new novel: REAMDE.

The main character is, of course, a geek. But Richard Forthrast broke out: his intense practicality paid off by allowing him to develop a tremendously successful multiplayer online role playing game called T’Rain. He’s rich, thanks in part to caring about very geeky things and understanding how to get geeks to apply their skills uesefull. He’s not really had to compromise his geekiness to succeed and he’s gone from being wielded to using his geekiness to direct others.

Online, he has the powers of a God.

Forthrast and his T’Rain character, Egdod, are the centre of a cracking yarn which unfolds in the real world and online. Stephenson can write tremendously kinetic plots and REAMDE has one, complete with intelligent, intense and practical men going about their business in ways that make dangerous situations navigable and survivable.

But unlike nearly all of Stephenson’s previous works, there is not a shred of metaphysics. As the action ripples across various bits of south-western Canada and north-western USA, China, the Philippines and even bits of Britain, the big bit of metaphysical exposition Stephenson readers are familiar with never materialises.

If you understand evil, good, fealty to family and the proclivities and behaviours of intelligent, intense and practical men, you have the metaphysics of REAMDE nailed. You won’t find a platonic mind-bender, Sumerian excursion or genetic data transmission network to delight or befuddle you and make you wonder about some grander metaphor woven into the plot.*

That’s not a bad thing – REAMDE is billed as a thriller and certainly roars along and thrills. You also get more than enough glimpses of its characters’ evolving inner landscapes, so you’ll never feel you have been thrust into an airport novel that just happens to be rather geeky. So while it moves with the speed of a Matthew Riley, it’s well beyond that kind of book in terms of characterisation, density of plot and worldliness.

Forthrast’s eventual realisation that his geekiness makes him both central and peripheral to his game’s success, for example, is a significant piece of introspection and means the book is more than just the sum of its gunfights, explosions and improbable airborne events.

A lot of people will like REAMDE, because it is clever and fun. And part of the fun is a gentle mocking of intelligent, intense and practical men, who for the first time I can recall in a Stephenson book are sometimes depicted as extremists.

I think that is important. Stephenson has been enormously successful – he’s sold lots and lots of books, topped best-seller charts and been hailed an important cultural figure. But he’s not to everyone’s taste: reading about very intelligent, intense and practical men is not everyone’s cup of tea.

He’s also prickly. Reports I have read of his public appearances suggest he is uncompromising. Check out this Radio National interview, for example. As soon as I heard it I felt his attitude was that the interviewer and listeners were ‘civilians’ – coddled non-geeks who’ll never experience the many unpleasant viscera of life at the front.

The presence of a very definite, very clear, ending in REAMDE is therefore interesting. Almost every character’s fate is neatly tied up, without a deus ex machina to grease the narrative wheels. That’s a considerable contrast to his other works, which some have been criticised for not ending well. Or at all.

It was widely reported that Stepheson got a big advance for REAMDE. The kind of advance that came with the understanding he would deliver a more accessible novel.

It all got me thinking that just as Richard Forthrast found a way to stay geeky but bring his values into the mainstream, Stephenson may feel he’s done the same.

By way of evidence I point to the fact that his novels up to and including Cryptonomicon managed to become more clever and more dense. But The Baroque Cycle was dense, obscure and confronting. Stephenson’s next act, Anathem, was also hard to approach. It was eventually very rewarding, but also very baffling – not many other novelists would offer readers a conclusion in which characters phase in and out of timelines in alternate universes and it becomes hard to understand which events happen when and where.

REAMDE’s accessibility and narrative neatness are such a swing away from his previous work, and also seem less ambitious. I therefore found myself wondering if Forthrast’s geeky success story might mirror Stephenson’s own.

Certainly, no-one will, if offered a copy of REAMDE, say “Stay away from my house, you freak!” Most will enjoy it and many will evangelise it.

But I feel Stephenson fans will find it hard to classify as better than a minor work.

Indeed, REAMDE feels like an intelligent, intense and practical man’s response to the challenge of writing an above-average but very accessible thriller. It succeeds. But the absence of metaphysics means it’s not a gateway drug to Stephenson’s dense, mind-bending best. As such, it may not deliver this very intelligent, intense and practical author the wider recognition and affection his characters crave.

 

*Some have suggested that the book is a giant videogame metaphor because characters fall into identifiable ‘classes’ have various degrees of competence (think levels) and acquire skills as the story unfolds. I think that’s reading too much into REAMDE, which can happily be interpreted as a story, not an extended metaphor.

An encounter with the Dutch wheelchair basketball team

My daughter has weekly ballet lessons at recreation centre that has three basketball courts.

Parents aren’t allowed to watch the ballet, so during lessons we repair to the downstairs cafe.

Last time I went, I could not help but notice the Dutch Wheelchair Basketball team practising on the courts. Their orange outfits make them conspicuous.

After practice, the team came into the cafe so I said hi to one of the players. Here’s what happened afterwards:

Me: Hi

Basketballer: Hi.

Me: Who are you playing here?

Basketballer: We’re here to play against Australia and South Africa.

Me: Aha! The old colony.

Basketballer: Two colonies.

Me: What do you mean?

Basketballer: You’ve heard of Arnhem Land?

Me: You can’t claim that as a colony: you named it and sailed away.

Basketballer: You’re right.

That dialog is from memory, but the Dutch guy’s English had no trouble keeping up with my questions. And his knowledge of history was top-rate.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a Dutchman 19 years ago, when I visited the obscure Minoan Palace of Phaistos as a backpacker.

I visited in winter, so tourist buses weren’t running. The bus I and a Dutch visitor named Oscar had hoped would come by was running late, and Phaistos is out-of-the-way enough and the season cold enough that there was no-one on site to help.

So we flagged down the first bus that passed to ask for information.

Oscar spoke English, Russian and Dutch to the driver, before German did the trick.

Afterwards, this dialog ensued:

Me: That was impressive Oscar. You just went through four languages.

Oscar: It was not good.

Me: WTF?

Oscar: I only speak four languages. In Holland smart students learn eight or nine. And in English my vocabulary is poor and my syntax is full of mistakes.

My jaw hit the floor.

At the end of this all I felt very smug about sending my kids to a school where learning a language is compulsory.

I’m sick of the Foxconn bullshit

In 1996, I was invited to visit a factory in the USA  which produced laptop computers for a colossal global technology brand.

The visit was conducted by a supervisor who walked us around the factory floor. At one point, within earshot of workers, he said words to this effect:

“These people don’t need any skills. In fact we want them to be just like robots. We just want them to do the same thing over and over all day. That’s why it is a minimum wage job. When we need new people we just hire them for as long as we need them. We can train them to do this in half an hour.”

That incident is a vivid memory 15 years later,  because of the extreme bluntness of the comments and the fact they were made within workers’ earshot.

Now let’s fast forward to late 2010 and the present, when it has become fashionable to write about – and then wring one’s hands about – working conditions at Chinese manufacturers in light of reports of suicides at Foxconn and followups like this one in Wired or this one in the SMH.

I have no problem with these stories premises, although the latter inhabits that grey zone between conventional journalism and techniques that see journalism almost but not quite admit it’s a secondary or tertiary source.

But what I am sick of is the moral relativism that comes when we analyse one company and ignore others, and consider one issue but ignore others.

My personal experience means I know that workers who assemble consumer electronics get a shit deal. Living in the USA on minimum wage as a casual and being told to your face by a supervisor that you have no valuable skills is not a good gig. Is it worse than life in the Foxconn campus? Is the forced overtime worse than the economic reality of being offered more hours as a casual knowing that you have no power to negotiate?

For me, there are parallels.

But where was the media when I was touring that factory? Why has it taken a “sexy” product to get this debate started? Why is  our collective sense of social justice aroused by one manufacturer and the company it serves?

Where’s the inquiry into the many, many other issues that accrete around our consumption of gadgets and the companies that make them? For what it is worth, the plant I observed is now owned by a Chinese concern. Why aren’t we reading about investigations of its practices?

I’m partly to blame. I could have  reported on what I saw. It was beyond my remit at the time but I could have found somewhere to run a story about the working conditions I observed.

I chose not to.

And lots of journalists and readers around the world are also choosing to ignore things that are probably at least as bad as what goes on a Foxconn.

We can all vicariously slough off  some guilt  by tut-tutting about these stories, but that won’t make a difference. And I suspect, as I also read reams of speculation about the next shiny gadgets, that we don’t really want to.

Big changes

I have a job.

That may not be a startling revelation unless you know that I have not had one for the last eight years, as I was self-employed.

The story of that time is simple: I had a young family, did not enjoy the profession I was working in, wanted to get back to journalism and wanted flexibility.

Freelance journalism was therefore a great way to make a living.

But in the last year or so I had started to take on large and complex freelance projects, like launching and editing magazines. I did this because I felt I had outgrown simple fee-for-service work in a “write a story and get paid for it, repeat until children fed and mortgage paid” mode.

I had also reached the conclusion that the kind of work I did could not scale beyond my own efforts: while I was the product, I could not hope to maintain cashflow and do much more than write and edit.

So when a job came along that offered me the chance to keep doing what I love – writing and editing – but also offered me a chance to work in a team and therefore have the chance to realise some other long-held ambitions, I took it.

It’s been a bit jarring, organisationally. I have to commute, 1.5 hours a day. Buying and eating large lunches from food courts is denting my budget and expanding my waistline. But I do get more time on my bicycle – I try to ride to the office whenever possible.

So … what do I do now?

My title is pretty fancy: I’m Managing Editor of CommStrat, a publishing and events company. I edit Government Technology Review plus My Business magazine and its new website. I also work with the editorial teams on our other publications, Council Manager, Roads and Public Works Engineering.

I’m also a contributor to SearchStorage ANZ. It’s my journalistic hobby. I am no longer the Editor of TechTarget ANZ.

What this means

These changes mean I have a new work email address.

It also means that my personal outpourings, like this blog and my Twitter stream will change a little. But not a lot. I decided long ago that I would never blend my personal output with work output without letting the audience know. So I used the code [plug] to let the world know when I was plugging a story instead of just being myself. It may also mean less personal stuff – I’m really, really, busy.

In the near future there’ll be a lot more of the [plug] as one of my new duties is editing the My Business website. I’m congisant that most of my followers did not sign up to get stories pushed at them, so will try hard to keep the usual stuff coming.

If you’re in PR or marketing, feel free to call for a chat to learn about the new role and what it means for the way we work together.

If you are a mate, I’m now much easier to catch up with.

If you’re a cyclist, let’s sit on each other’s wheels over the harbour bridge.

A tale of global stupid

I like The Strokes, so when I saw that I could pre-purchase the band’s new album for just $US7.99 I jumped at the chance.

The official Sony Music download site offering this service is US based and has made the album available on March 22nd.

So fancy my surprise when I learn that the album has already been released here in Australia. I can even buy it on iTunes.

Without waiting for the 22nd.

I’ve argued before that territorial copyright just ain’t working no more. Giving away distribution fiefdoms to subsidiaries or rights-holders in different nations makes little or no sense in an age when no matter where you disseminate information it can reach the whole planet.

But this incident takes the whole thing to  new dimension of stupid. We’re all used to the USA being the “master market” where stuff gets released first. Now territorial copyright is making even that assumption unreliable.

I just wanna buy the entertainment I wanna buy, when I wanna buy it?

Can someone get rid of all these arsehats who decide on the dates it suits THEM to release something ?

No flesh for lunch

I’ve made a New Year’s resolution: I will not eat flesh for lunch.

I’m an omnivore and I enjoy meat, but I’ve never been a big fruit and veg eater. I tend to be overweight.

Rather than go on a crash diet, feel all superior for a while and then backslide, I figured this year I should find a way to make long-term change to my eating habits.

Hence no flesh for lunch.

There are other reasons for the change.

I’m aware that meat is, by and by, not the friendliest product for/on earth. A lot of it is produced in nasty ways (a relative read Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Eating Animals and quickly gave up meat, this extract gives you the gist of it) through factory farming or unsustainable land use. I’m pretty sure that most of the meat I’d eat at lunchtime – cans of tuna, ham, salami, snippets of meat in food court meals, whatever it is that goes into pies, burgers and Subway sandwiches – probably falls into the worst categories of meat, given its low cost.

So this decision has a number of motivations. I think of it as a latte-leftie, guilty, fatty thing.

So far it’s proving a nice thought-starter. On Jan 1, driving home from a camping break, I discovered that McDonalds no longer has a meat-free offering. On Jan 3 I was taken out to lunch … at a steak house. That taught me there’ll be days I have to make exceptions.

But on other days I’ve had fun. An antipasto toasted sandwich is nicer than a tuna toasted sandwich. Today’s Haloumi, Olive and Tomato pizza was grand. Tzatziki and pita is delicious.

I’m looking forward to exploring new foods, re-emphasising fresh foods and perhaps being a little healthier along the way – if I can stay out of three-curries and rice for $8.00 indian joints.

Whenever I remember to do so, I’ll tweet my lunches with the hashtag #nofleshforlunch.