Writing, Not Writing, Thinking About Writing

Jimmy and Grandad 2.0I have quite a complicated set of criteria for writing what I write on this blog.

My first criteria is value. Is what I am writing of some value to someone. It might just be of value to me – helping me to construct a set of thoughts. If I’m trying to construct these thoughts then perhaps others are too. It might be something I’ve found that I think others would like to know about and it might be a set of opinions that I want to express.

That’s the positive side, but I also have a set of criteria for things that I avoid writing about:

  • I won’t write about something that I am currently being directly paid to work on. I’m never going to write about a customer’s project. That’s not the purpose of this blog and would potentially ruin my relationship with my client.
  • I won’t write about something that is “mainstream” and by that I mean that I am not going to write about something in blogs like lifehacker of ReadWriteWeb. They are paid to do a good job of covering their information, anything I say is just adding to the noise. If I have an opinion to relay I may say something, but I’m more likely to do that as a comment.
  • I won’t write about individuals. The internet is far to severe a place for me to write about someone.
  • I won’t write about my employer, I’m not paid to blog and I don’t have a mandate from them to blog. It’s a personal activity, so I’m making personal comment.

All of these criteria leave me with a lot of grey areas; where it’s grey I’ll always err on the side of caution and not write.

I also won’t aggregate into my blog all of the other stuff that I contribute to on the web – del.icio.us it visible as is twitter, but I’m not going to copy them in as posts. The same with flickr, and facebook. If people want to connect with those streams then they can do so by the appropriate mechanism. The other reason why I don’t do this that I’m just duplicating the number of times many people see the same piece of information. I’m considering turning off notifications of my blog updates in twitter for this very reason; I regularly read the same piece of information twice which annoys me, and probably annoys others too.

I write lots of stuff and only some of it appears here. This probably makes my online persona difficult to pin down, but it’s only ever going to a part of who I am. I think that I need to do a better job of showing people where I’m contributing, but I don’t think that aggregating it all together into a single stream is the way to do it.

A spend a good deal of time pondering whether I have the balance right; I’m still not sure.

Count Your Blessings #135 – An elevated view

Crossthwaite ViewsThe buildings where my church meets is situated on a triangular plot of land on the edge of Preston.

On one side there is a local road with houses on the other side. On another are the backs of houses. On the third is a main road, East Way, beyond this main road, a few hundred yards away, is the M55 motorway which is elevated above the level of Easy Way. Up there on it’s embankment it obscuring the view of everything beyond.

All in all it doesn’t make for the most inspiring of views. It’s fine if you want to know how many people have been to the Pleasure Beach in Blackpool and are now stuck in the queue trying to get onto the M6. Other than that it’s an ordinary urban view on the edge of a city.

But all of this tarmac and concrete hides a secret.

The church buildings have, until recently, all been on ground level. From down there the secret is completely hidden behind the M55.

A recent set of extension has added a new, two story, part to the side of the building facing north and the M55 embankment. One of the things that the architect wanted to create in this new part of the building was a light and airy space. There are big windows on both the ground and first floor, it’s facing north so they needed to let in as much light as possible.

(A quick aside. If you are not from the UK, you perhaps think that the first floor is on the ground, but here in the UK we call the floor on the ground the “ground floor”. The floor immediately above ground level we call the “first floor”, not the “second floor”, OK?)

Up on the first floor these big windows open up the secret. The elevated position reveal what is hidden beyond. It’s not visible every day, the weather conditions have to be right, but that just adds to the mystery.

Recently I was in a meeting on the first floor and was sat facing the window. It was a crisp clear day, cold, but fine. It was a morning meeting and we started in the dark. As time progressed I looked out of the window to see the sun rising in the sky lighting up the snow capped mountains of the Lake District beyond.

The Lake District was recently voted Britain’s greatest natural wonder. I’m not sure about that, but they are quite impressive all the same, and they are only 30 miles, or so, away.

You wouldn’t know they were there from the ground, up on the first floor the view is glorious. It’s an elevation of only a few feet, but it makes all of the difference.

In the Bible Jesus used to go off and climb mountains when he wanted to be alone with his father. I always thought that this was so that he could be closer to God, because I thought of God as “up there”. Recently I’ve wondered whether he went up into the mountain so he could get a better perspective down, not up.

God, of course, is everywhere and you don’t need to climb high so he can hear you, but looking down on a situation certainly gives you a different view. It gives you a longer view. It gives you a broader view. It gives you an unobstructed view.

(The picture isn’t one taken from the window, it’s one I took while in Keswick on a quiet day, special days)

Over-specification

Jimmy and Grandad 2.0One of my tools is a Logitech Cordless Presenter. I really like this device. It enables me to stand and present and to ignore the laptop and keep the engagement on me. This device has nine buttons – and is over-specified.

For some people it might be perfectly specified, but for me it is over-specified. Let me tell you why.

Yesterday I travelled to the south of England via a customers corporate jet (yes, I know that sounds very fancy, but it isn’t believe me). Even though this is effectively a private flight it still has to abide by all of the rules and regulations that a commercial flight would, the same restricted material, the same security checks, the same hand luggage restrictions. That’s where the problem comes in, the Logitech Cordless Presenter has a laser pointer, and lasers are not allowed in hand luggage.

I’m sure that a laser point is really useful to some people – but I never use one. The type of presentation that I give doesn’t require such a thing (to be honest I’m not a fan of people who do).

As I join the flight reasonably early in the morning the location of the Presenter is not high on my list of priorities. A couple of times now, most recently yesterday, I have had my bag checked on the far side of security and had to relinquish the Presenter to security. It sits in my bag for those occasions when I want to use it.

Even though it’s only nine buttons, this one button makes the Presenter over-specified.

The keyboard in front of me has lots of buttons on it. I know which ones I use because they are clean and shinny, there are an awful lot that are dull and dusty. Why on earth would I want a “Shopping” button? The keyboard is over-specified.

I’ve recently started using TweetDeck for Twitter. It’s a really nice twitter client. Today I updated to a new version and got, in return, a few more buttons. I’m highly unlikely to ever use these buttons. TweetDeck had the capabilities I required, it now has some capabilities I don’t. TweetDeck is in danger of becoming over-specified.

Over-specification is a huge problem in IT. People ask for more and more features which have less and less value. If they were high value it’s likely people would have thought of them early in the lifecycle – the further along the road you get the less likely it is that you are adding something of really significant value.

What’s even worse though, is that the new features become diversionary, particularly in the development cycle. I’m currently working on a number of large programmes where we are in danger of focussing on the peripheral requirements and not the core capabilities. People will get something new and shiny, but not something that makes a real difference to how they work.

Someone once told me a story about a spider that lived up in the eaves of a garage.

One day the spider noticed that there were lots of nice juicy bugs down on the ground, so he decided to lower himself down. He started by building a simple web to see how he got on. This web was a very successful web and the spider decided to extend a little further to see whether he could be even more successful.

Bit-by-bit he extended to form a whole complex of webs that kept him supplied with more bugs than he could have ever imagined.

One day he was walking around his vast abode when he noticed this rather scruffily and dusty looking strand leading up into the eaves above. Seeing all of the webs around him he decided that he no longer needed this connection with his past. He climbed up onto the webs and rid himself of this piece of history with a single snip.

No sooner had he snipped than the web below him started to collapse, trapping his feet. Further down he sank deeper into the web. Before he knew it he was completely engulfed, with no way out. There he lay until he starved to death.

The spider took his focus off his foundations, we must be careful that we don;t do the same.

Architect: Engineer + Artist

Jimmy and Grandad 2.0My job title includes the words “solution architect”, words are interesting things. Words have been used by people to communicate things for thousands of years, and yet we still spend just as much time defining words as we have ever done.

I’ve also noticed that words have a life. They have a meaning for a particular time, that meaning then becomes mainstream, its meaning gets diluted, so people move onto a new word.

So what do these two words in my job title mean?

Let’s start with “architect”. Someone said to me the other day that they regarded an architects is an engineer + an artist. I liked that, it simply summed up a lot of my own feelings.

An architect is someone who has an idea that needs to be brought to fruition, but it can’t just be engineered through technical reasoning, it needs to have some creativity to it, it needs to be beautiful, functional, emotional, efficient, elegant and practical. It also needs to fit the budget and deliver on the requirements.

Art + Engineering

My father is an engineer, my mother is an artist, perhaps that’s how I got here.

I think I’ll leave the “solution” word for another day.

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Count Your Blessings #134 – A child’s perspective

Skiddaw in the SnowOver the last couple of days parts of the UK (perhaps even most of the UK) has had an unusual amount of snow. I say “parts of the UK” because we’ve hardly had anything, but we have had some.

On the morning of the first fall I was first up so took a quick peep between the curtains to see whether anything had arrived overnight. There was a good deal of white, but nothing too deep.

I thought about going for a walk but decided to turn on the radio instead. I was greeted by what can only be described as a tirade of bad news – all because of this stuff called snow.

What made this seeming disaster all the more reportable was that it had occurred primarily in the south, and specifically in London. This is very unusual, and as such they are completely unprepared for the effects of a mass invasion of ice crystals, poor dears.

The roads were blocked, the railways were cancelled, the underground was running a reduced service (not sure how snow affects an underground train?), businesses weren’t able to open, schools were closed for the day, bad news, bad news, bad news.

I was just starting to get sucked into feeling the reporters definite impatience at the disruption of it all when Emily walked into the room. As I had done, she opened the curtains, looked outside, and stated as only a young pre-teenage girl can, “cool”.

Emily wasn’t just stating a fact about the temperature outside. In that one word she broke through all of the doom and gloom being fired at me from the radio and reminded me that snow is FUN. A child’s perspective.

We can get so adult about things like snow, focussing on the inconvenience of it all, when really we should be celebrating the opportunity to do something different for a change.

Jesus had some things to say about children:

One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him.

When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.

Mark 10

Jesus wasn’t just saying that children were important to him – which they are. He was also saying that we should have their perspective.

Adults can get so stuck in their ways – children see everything as an opportunity.

(I’m not sure how much longer I will be able to describe Emily as a child, but I think I can get away with it for now)

Count Your Blessings #133 – A hat for my head

Walla CragThere’s no getting around the fact that I’m getting older, and getting older brings with it some consequences.

One of the consequences for me has been the migration of hair follicles from the top of my head into my nose and ear cavity. This bring two problems, one of which I won’t discuss today, but the second one is that my head now needs something to keep it warm in the cold, and cool in the heat.

Once upon a time I had hair that was an ample cover for my head, and even ventured down onto my shoulders, but those days are no more.

The simple addition of a piece of cloth on my balding pate makes all the difference, and I’m grateful for it.

“That is why, no matter how desperate the predicament is, I am always very much in earnest about clutching my cane, straightening my derby hat and fixing my tie, even though I have just landed on my head.”

Charlie Chaplin