The Red Lines Page

June 24, 2015

Coming out as an LGBT ally

Filed under: IBM — Peter A @ 10:44 pm
Tags: , ,

I posted a version of this in my work blog, and decided I’d like to share it more widely. The postings here on The Red Lines Page are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Once upon a time…

It’s the early 1990s. We’re three friends, early in our careers, unmarried, in our mid-twenties. On a Monday morning, we talk about our weekends. I’m dating a technical author. Paul has just returned from the Home Counties, where he’s spent time with his fiancée. Craig explains how he’s been out in Coventry with his partner.https://www.flickr.com/photos/23912576@N05/2942525739

Paul’s stories were the common currency of young employees in the office, and colleagues were at ease talking to him. Whereas some people in the office were disdainful or ill-mannered about Craig and his boyfriend. Craig didn’t care — he was an out gay man, and just as happy talking at work about his relationship as he was about programming or project management.

But that wasn’t the point. There were other gay men in the office who did not feel comfortable that people might know anything about their private life, and chose not to be out at work. It wasn’t that anyone was openly hostile; just that the business culture in the early Nineties was not so accepting. Simple things like the office rituals of congratulations on an engagement or marriage were something that applied to Paul, and not to Craig.

It wasn’t the big things that were discriminatory, but a succession of small things. Today, we’d call them “microaggressions” — brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults.

Twenty years later

More than 20 years later, society and the law have changed. Marriage equality and workplace legislation have both reflected and changed attitudes. The company where I work, IBM, continues to be in Stonewall’s Top Global Employers. We have an internal community for employees who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or who have family, friends or colleagues who are L, G, B or T.

And I am proud to say that two members of my organisation are the LGBT Location Champions for the major site where I work.

June is recognised around the world as LGBT Pride Month — and IBM is a keen participant. Everyday business activities, such as hiring, training, compensation, promotions, social and recreational activities, should be conducted without discrimination based on race, colour, religion, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, national origin, disability or age.

What about that technical author? Reader, I married her.

Now, although I met my wife through IBM, there is very little overlap today between my work and my home life. Despite blogging this, I’m usually fairly private, but that’s my choice — there’s nothing about my work environment that would make me uncomfortable being open about my non-work life. If I wish, I can talk about my family, and I have photos of them in my office. Whereas LGBT employees may still be uncomfortable being out at work. They may feel unwilling to personalise their work place, or spend energy being ambiguous in conversation about “my partner” and what “they” are doing. It’s important that we can all be our whole selves at work.

Straight Allies

I'm an LGBT allySo it’s not enough for a company just to say it has a policy, or that it follows the law. We all have a part to play in challenging those “microaggressions.” And I’ve personally seen how effective that is when individuals at work do that for my friends and colleagues who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

If you’re not LGBT, you can be a Straight Ally and have a transformative effect on the workplace experience of your colleagues, both gay and straight. Every LGBT person will make a personal and conscious decision about whether they will be open about their sexual orientation at work. And it’s not simply a case of coming out once. Gay people have to decide whether, and how, they come out every time they meet new colleagues, clients, suppliers or stakeholders. That decision is made easier, however, if they believe their managers and colleagues will support them.

You can find a super guide here about coming out as a Straight Ally. And there’s an interesting workplace guide from Stonewall that I’ve referred to when writing this blog. I’ll quote some more of it in the comments below.

So here I am, coming out as a Straight Ally. And not just for June. I expect I’ll need to come out again in the future when I meet new colleagues, clients, suppliers, and stakeholders. I hope you will, too.

January 15, 2015

Sparkle

Filed under: IBM — Peter A @ 10:43 pm

There’s a website where you can “ship glitter to your enemies.” Apparently it’s the socially acceptable alternative to putting a brown bag full of dog poo in someone’s porch and setting light to it. It’s funny at someone else’s expense. Though the personal expense is about ten Australian dollars. I’m not recommending it.glitter

In contrast, earlier this week, I received a Thank You card from a colleague who left the company. She had thoughtfully written this by hand, included some specific things rather than “thanks for everything”, and ensured it got to me after she had gone. We’d talked before she went, of course. But this was a most welcome and personal thought, and one I greatly appreciate.

The card isn’t very glittery. But it has some glitter on the lettering. I took it home in my work bag, and now there’s a slightly sparkly patina on the cover of my laptop computer. At my desk in the office, earlier today, I noted the cuff of my suit jacket had a faint flicker of silver. And each time I saw that, it made me smile.

Because it reminded me of the card. And then that recalled how I felt when I first opened the envelope. It’s really nice when someone catches you doing things right, and takes the time to tell you. Buying a card. Writing something specific. Ensuring it got delivered.

There wasn’t a lot of glitter on the card. It was just enough. And it’s made me think that there are times when, instead of taking positive things for granted — people, actions, comments — it’s worth making the effort to say thanks. This is me saying thanks for that to my colleague, and passing it on. You know who you are. You may have left the company, but your influence continues to be felt.

August 19, 2014

Continuity error

Filed under: Uncategorized — Peter A @ 7:43 am

Fresh outrage at continuity error in Downton Abbey publicity photo.

IMG_2746-0.JPG

July 12, 2014

Hursley FM competition

Filed under: Audios,Technology,Warship,writing — Peter A @ 9:24 pm

Peter A:

We have a winner! I will contact them shortly.

Originally posted on The Red Lines Page:

Script for WarshipAfter months of negotiation with my agent, I agreed terms with http://hursleyfm.comfor a podcast interview. Oh, all right then, they e-mailed me at work last Wednesday, and I said yes straight away.

On Friday, I made my way to their studio (spoilers: an office in Hursley D Block) and had a lovely chat with Dr Adrian, Jonny Mac, and Mr Jezzalinko. We discussed technology, my work at IBM, and my various bits of genre writing over the years. And, yes, they really are called that.

Hursley FM microphoneHursley FM is a podcast and community about technology, inspired by the people at the biggest software development laboratory in Europe. By a happy coincidence, it’s somewhere I’ve worked for nearly twenty years.

As you can see from my photo, the studio looks exactly like the podcast illustration.

It’s rare that my various worlds coincide like this. So to acknowledge that, and also encourage people to…

View original 139 more words

It’s just a machine

Filed under: Audios,Blake's 7,Mirror,writing — Peter A @ 7:45 pm

Orac and crew on the Liberator flight deckInterviewed by Big Finish about the scripts for their Blake’s 7 audios, Paul Darrow commented that sometimes we have Avon describing the computers as “he” rather than “it.” And because that wasn’t typical of the character, he asked for it to be changed. Which is true. A bit.

At the end of my story Mirror, Avon and Blake both refer to Orac as “he.”

Blake: Orac teleported me back to Liberator.

Avon: I know. He teleported me first remember?

I think that  having any character refer to Orac or Zen as “it” rather than “he” is much more emphatic, and therefore “making a point.”  Dialogue drives an audio script. When I’m writing mine, I try to avoid anything that sounds unnatural or awkward or contrived. But I also know that people (including Paul Darrow) think that Avon doesn’t tend to refer to Orac as “he.”

So my preference is to avoid having Avon use either “he” or “it” when referring to Orac, and thus just write around the decision about which to use. Sometimes it’s going to be awkward to have Avon repeatedly referring to Orac as “Orac” in a conversation with another character. And having him call Orac “it” is a bit emphatic, unless Avon’s making a point about the computer. And on those occasions, I don’t shy away from letting Avon say “he” — especially if it is cued by another character saying “he.”  In the example above, “Orac teleported me first, remember?” would sound odd after Blake’s line. And “It teleported me first, remember?” would be an unusual emphasis for the scene.

But is it true to the original TV series? We pride ourselves in the Big Finish writing team that we’re all huge fans of the show, and getting the characters and story continuity right is important to us. I read through all the original scripts of the audio series to review continuity references. So, does Avon really never call Orac “he” on the telly?

Well, here’s a scene from the story that first introduces the computer, the eponymous episode Orac.Orac title caption

Orac: Demonstrate as a command is insufficient.

Gan: What does he mean?

Avon: He means, like Zen, that he requires specific instructions.

Twice in one sentence! What is more, it’s not something that Avon subsequently “grows out of” because here he is doing it again as late as in Games in Season D:Games title caption

Avon: If Orac is going to get any information out of that machine, this is the way he’s going to do it.

Soolin: Who’s winning?

Orac: We’ve both made sacrifices.

Avon: He means that Gambit is.

Orac: A temporary advantage.

Avon: To an inferior computer?

Orac: Which merely disguises my long-term strategy.

Avon: Let’s forget your ego for the moment.

Throughout the TV series, Avon is more likely to engage in banter with Orac than with Zen, or to ponder his/its motivations. He even acknowledges, as we see in that scene from Games, that Orac has an ego. That makes Avon’s very first use of “he” in the episode Orac  even more interesting, because he says it in the phrase “like Zen, he…” which draws a comparison between the two of them, despite using “he” rather than “it.” And yet elsewhere in Season A, specifically in Cygnus Alpha and Duel, Avon is much more emphatic about Zen being an “it”, not a “he.” He states explicitly: “It’s just a machine.”

Conversely, we know characters like Gan and Vila refer to computers as “he” — whether Orac or Zen or Slave. And yet there is this interesting dialogue exchange in Shadow (Season B).Shadow title caption

Hanna: This is silly. It’s just a machine.

Vila: Of course it is. If it wasn’t so expensive I’d kick it to pieces.

Bek: Yes. If it didn’t bite.

Gan: Avon’ll fix it when he gets back.

The context is that they are discussing Orac in front of visitors, Hanna and Bek, who refer to Orac as “it” rather than “he” from the outset. The dialogue flows naturally, and logically, when Vila and Gan use “it.” And it works thematically, too,  distancing Orac from us and the crew in the context of his/its behaviour during the episode.

There we are, then. I think that there should be occasions in the audios when Avon chooses to call Orac “he” rather than “it.” That is the case for my scene in Mirror. And it also fits in consciously with a theme of the audio series. But to find out more about that, you should buy the CDs and listen to them.

Blake's 7: Mirror

June 14, 2014

Rainy Days in Cardiff

Filed under: Another Life,Grumbling,Novels,Torchwood — Peter A @ 11:03 am

Torchwood - Esős napok CardiffbanMy Torchwood novel Another Life was translated into Hungarian, and apparently published in 2010. I was pondering why I hadn’t seen a copy. I asked my publisher,  and they’re now puzzling about it, too.

I decided the best way to get a copy (and prove it exists) was to order it. From Hungary, obviously. The price looks a bit steep, until you see that it’s in Hungarian forints, and work out that 2,490 ft converts to about £6.50.

The Hungarian title is Torchwood – Esős napok Cardiffban. That translates back into English as Torchwood – Rainy Days in Cardiff. I hope that will prove to have been such an appealing title that the book has simply flown off the shelves in Csongrád and Bács-Kiskun. And I will not discover that my recent order has merely doubled sales in Eastern Europe.

audioTWnewIn related news: John Barrowman, who read the audio version of my novel, has become an MBE. This is splendid news. I’m not suggesting that my audio had any particular effect on his eligibility. Nor that it will unduly influence sales of the novel in Hungary – though anyone analysing the stats this week in Budapest may notice an unexpected uptick in overseas sales to the UK.

 

June 1, 2014

Hursley FM competition

Filed under: Audios,Blake's 7,drwho,Torchwood,Warship,writing — Peter A @ 8:41 pm

Script for WarshipAfter months of negotiation with my agent, I agreed terms with http://hursleyfm.com for a podcast interview. Oh, all right then, they e-mailed me at work last Wednesday, and I said yes straight away.

On Friday, I made my way to their studio (spoilers: an office in Hursley D Block) and had a lovely chat with Dr Adrian, Jonny Mac, and Mr Jezzalinko. We discussed technology, my work at IBM, and my various bits of genre writing over the years. And, yes, they really are called that.

Hursley FM microphoneHursley FM is a podcast and community about technology, inspired by the people at the biggest software development laboratory in Europe. By a happy coincidence, it’s somewhere I’ve worked for nearly twenty years.

As you can see from my photo, the studio looks exactly like the podcast illustration.

It’s rare that my various worlds coincide like this. So to acknowledge that, and also encourage people to tune in to the Hursley FM podcasts, here’s a competition. With a modest prize.

The prize is: a copy of the studio script for my audio drama Blake’s 7: Warship, signed by me. And maybe also signed by Dr Adrian, Jonny Mac, and Mr Jezzalinko, too.

The question is: in the podcast, we talk about the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, about how Tom Baker is one of my favourite Doctors, and also about the future of technical writing. What word (that I use in the podcast) connects those three things?

How to enter: e-mail me at the contact address on this website. At the end of this month, I’ll pick a winner from all correct entries. Tie-breaker, in the event I decide one’s needed, is that you complete the following sentence: Mr Jezzalinko could be a Doctor Who villain because…”

April 9, 2014

Reflections on Mirror

Filed under: Audios,Blake's 7,Mirror — Peter A @ 9:22 pm

My Blake’s 7 audio “Mirror” is published today. It’s the latest exciting episode in a full-cast audio series. You can hear a preview clip of it here.

I loved being part of a team of writers putting together this “Season B+” for Big Finish and B7 Media. I hope listeners are starting to spot the threads as each new episode comes out. I’ve particularly enjoyed the advance fan speculation about what’s in each story, based on titles, covers, cast lists, or the “blurbs” for each new instalment. But, just as with the original TV series, you can enjoy them as individual stories.

mirrorAs a bonus, each release also contains interviews with the cast and crew – and the interviews for “Mirror” features almost all of the regular cast. I was interviewed in the studio for this one, but my comments were left on the cutting room floor. At the time, I felt a bit coy or constrained about what to say because I wasn’t quite sure what I could reveal in advance.

There was one particular aspect of… let’s call it “nomenclature” that I did talk about, somewhat haltingly. Fortunately, there’s a Paul Darrow out-take in the interview track that sums it up in a delightful and much more succinct way than I did.

You can order “Mirror” from Big Finish here. I’d love to hear what you think of it. On reflection, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

March 9, 2014

I feel like a Newman

Filed under: Audios,drwho,Torchwood,writing — Peter A @ 2:02 pm

Big Finish has a customer survey running at the moment. It solicits opinions about all sorts of things, including which other spinoff series they could make. Participants get the chance to win a prize worth £250.

I like the idea of Torchwood audios, obviously. As I have prior history with that franchise, I would hope to be early in the queue for writing those – alphabetically speaking. Unless Dan Abnett isn’t busy at the time.

Mind you, it’s an outrage that Big Finish aren’t considering a spinoff series for An Adventure in Space and Time. I demand to hear further thrilling stories featuring Verity and Sydney (pictured here from their recent personal appearance at GallifreyOne). Steve Cole even photographed me discussing things with Sydney by the hotel pool.

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Everyone should write in to Big Finish! Pop pop pop over to their website immediately.

March 8, 2014

A handle on good design

Filed under: Articles,Grumbling,IBM — Peter A @ 7:51 pm

I recently reposted a photo on Twitter that I thought neatly encapsulated poor design.

Within a few days, this was retweeted hundreds of times. With the various modified and quoted versions of it, Terry Odell’s original photo has now been retweeted over a thousand times. It seems to have caught the imagination of many, and not just technical authors.

From http://uk.reuters.com/article/2009/09/11/uk-fortis-tesco-idUKTRE58A19Y20090911

Credit: Reuters

Subsequently, Alexis Hale politely pointed out that the sign was “literally a joke from the Wayside School series.” Nevertheless, I still claim it as an example (deliberate or otherwise) of when documentation makes things worse — and when better design could avoid the need for documentation in the first place. Because obviously technical writers are like those staff in Tesco wearing a badge saying…

“Here to help”

I was walking through the airport, and noticed a man carrying two heavy suitcases through the arrivals terminal after passport control. I could tell they were heavy from the way he was struggling, and they’d got those orange warning labels on them (an example of simple, effective design).

Ref: http://www.flickr.com/photos/45339499@N00/

Credit: Philipp Bock (youMayCallMeSheep)

As I watched him grip the handles to drag his baggage towards the taxi rank, I saw he had this fabulous-looking watch on his wrist. “Oh yeah,” he said, “it’s very clever. It tells the time in all the countries that I do business. It gives me access to my e-mail, shows me my calendar, warns me about forthcoming meetings. It’s got a built-in stills camera and a phone with a little video screen. It’s got functions for recharging via kinetic energy and solar power. It checks my pulse and skin temperature and warns me when I might be ill. It plays music from all the albums I’ve stored on my home server. So it’s OK, I suppose.”

“OK?” I told him. “It sounds fantastic! But if you don’t mind me saying, you don’t seem very happy with it.”

“Well,” he said, hefting the two heavy suitcases, “look at all this documentation you need to carry round for it.”

When I first told that gag, the iPhone and Galaxy Gear were still Star Trek technology of the future. But those of us who remember early digital watches can still recall thinking, “There are only a couple of buttons, so how difficult can it be?” And then struggling to set the alarm. And subsequently struggling to deactivate the alarm when it went off.

Minimal interface isn’t a guarantee of simplicity. But designing a product to be easy to use, rather than creating a lot of documentation, is what will succeed in the marketplace. Good design makes use obvious, and behaves the way you expect, and so you avoid providing documentation that’s not absolutely necessary.

The smarter you are about avoiding the need for documentation, the smarter the documentation is that you end up producing.

And yet, when my mum got a new watch from a famous, very reputable brand not so long ago, the instructions for setting the date told her this:

Do not set day/date between 8:30pm and 5:00 am as day/date change cycle is in progress.

It’s an admission of design failure if one of the functions of your product can’t be used properly for 8½ hours of the day.

Walk up and confuse

All too often, an interface you expect to be “walk up and use” ends up just confusing. When I talk to technical authors, it may seem heretical to assert that no-one really wants to read product documentation. Not even technical authors.  Who honestly wakes up and says, “You know what, today I really fancy reading an instruction manual. I’d like nothing better than to study how to install and configure some database software.” 

You pick up an instruction manual because you’ve got stuck attempting to do something, or don’t know where to start when trying to achieve some task. You want to find that out as quickly as possible, and go back to what you were doing. It’s all about the task and not the product, and it definitely isn’t about the manual. I don’t think “I’d like to use the iPhone interface this afternoon,” I think “I want to listen to that track by The Doors, and maybe buy it.” (Yes, I am that old.)

iPhone

My first iPhone

The iPhone is an aspiration for all consumer products: it’s almost literally walk-up-and-use. Like Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver – a multitude of uses, but the Doctor never has to fumble around for the instruction manual. On my iPhone, I can rapidly work out how scroll, open, close, cut, copy, paste etc. all work. And it’s only got a few buttons, and they do pretty basic things that can be simply explained.

Even more interesting, my experience is that most of the documentation for the “difficult” stuff is searchable online and not written by Apple.

 

Doors to manual

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/b/b4/Panel_door.jpg

Doors don’t do documentation (credit: wikimedia)

The simplest things can be overcomplicated by documentation. You wouldn’t expect to get all this specification information about how to use a door. As Don Norman pointed out in his excellent book The Design of Everyday Things, a  well-designed door is literally walk-up-and-use:

  • It will have appropriate affordances – plates that invite you to push, and handles that look like they need you to pull, which tell you all you need to know.
  • Just one word of documentation is too much, especially when those two words are look as similar as PUSH and PULL.
  • If you disagree with that, then ask yourself how much you want to read and work out if you’re trying to operate a fire door in an emergency.

And yet we still encounter poorly designed doors. What hope do we have for easy-to-use software if we can’t do doors?

Hursley doors

IBM has a renewed focus on Design Thinking that is transforming the way software and solutions are created. And although office doors aren’t something IBM designs and builds, I like to use the example of doors at IBM Hursley (installed in the 1980s) as how not to design simple things things simply.

These doors are one of the first things our visiting clients encounter when they arrive, and one of the last things they use before they leave. In comparison with them, the self-flushing cisterns and soap dispensers in our on-site toilets are a miracle of modern technology.

All IBM buildings are badge-controlled for security. There are two ways to enter IBM Hursley from our Main Reception. The first question is: which set of doors to choose?

ReceptionArrows

There is a pair of doors to either side of the welcome desk. The receptionist or your IBM host can tell you which pair to choose, I suppose – though some visitors are from other IBM sites, and they do not need to “sign in” or speak to the receptionists. (You should do, even if just to say hello – they’re lovely. Not everyone does, but people are strange.)

Perhaps you decide to try and to work it out for yourself.

Reception doors

   More doors

When you approach your chosen set of doors, you’ll find there is some documentation:

  • Policy rules about having to wear a badge, and having to use your ID card in the door’s badge reader.
  • An image on the badge reader showing you how to orient your magstripe.
  • A red PUSH printed into the upper part of a long metal handle that looks like it’s designed to pull.
  • But there are also two metal plates (which stop the door swinging beyond the frame) that look like push plates.
  • And finally, because the latch tends to stick and you therefore need to “rattle” the door a bit to disengage it, there’s a further sign in a different font that tells you to “PULL and then PUSH door” with a sad little coda that says “thank you.”

DoorCloseUpArrows

Now you’ve decided which order to read these signs in, and chosen which of the two doors to use. You may have a confusing moment if someone comes through one of the doors, because they’re designed as unique “in” and “out” doors, like those for a restaurant kitchen. And depending whether you choose the left pair or the right pair, the “in” door is different. 

Once you get through the door, you’ll find yourself in a through corridor – and realise that it didn’t matter which pair of doors you chose, because both sets lead in here.

Corridor

On your way out, you will probably remember that it doesn’t matter which doors you choose for leaving the building. Unless you forget, or you came into the building via a different route. There’s no clear indication that these doors lead to Reception and the exit. Perhaps you’ll recognise the distinctive furniture through the non-opaque parts of the door.

But even if you do remember, the way you get out through the same pair of doors is different from the way you get in. That’s because you don’t need badge access to get into Reception, and so the sequence is:

  • Press a button, and wait for the light to go green
  • Choose the correct door, rattle the handle, and then push.

The way out

It will reassure you to know that this design was not the handiwork of the IBM documentation teams responsible for products, nor were the doors designed by IBM. Now that they are installed, it’s admittedly a bit harder to redesign and replace the doors. And perhaps those of us who have worked at IBM Hursley for a while have simply got used to them.

But then perhaps we’d assume that people would get used to knowing how to use stairs. Which is where this blog post started. And that’s even before we take into account that not everyone finds it easy to use stairs. 

Ref: http://blog.globalstreetart.com/post/56326649910/for-some-people-stairs-are-mountains-a-very

Source: Global Street Art Blog

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