Hate is no joke

The story of when Salman Rushdie schooled me in authoritarian hate and intolerance.

One day, at 4pm on a Friday afternoon, around March 1996, I received a call at work from my mother. She had just heard on the radio that Salman Rushdie would be holding a public book signing in downtown Wellington on the following Monday afternoon. Invites were only open to members of the public who called some particular bookshop or publishing house phone number before 5pm today, and if I’d like the chance to go then I’d better act quick!

At that time I was a young, broke lab assistant. I worked up the courage and asked my boss for a couple of hours off work. When I called up to reserve my spot for the event, I was told that security would be tight. I would be allowed to bring one book with me to be signed, or else I could purchase a signed copy of his new book, The Moor’s Last Sigh.

I remember being excited that weekend. Salman Rushdie of course had been living in hiding since the Ayatollah (and Cat Stevens) had called for his assassination in 1989 after the publication of The Satanic Verses. Salman’s story had been sporadically covered in the media, with interesting tales of witness protection programmes, public sightings, and being hunted around the world by rogue assassins. It was clearly going to be a big deal—a personal historic moment for me—to get to see the man in person.

The big question for me was “which book do I bring?” Being an immature, naïve, self-absorbed twit at that time (I flatter myself that I have since grown up), I had an absurd and daring plan. A few years earlier I had picked up a beautiful old hardback English language copy of the Quran in a second-hand bookstore. If I brought this with me, could I maybe convince him to sign it? How cool would that be, to have my own personal copy of the Quran signed by Salman Rushdie himself! Would he go for that? Was it too bad taste? Would I be beaten up and ejected by his security detail?

In the end, I decided to bring along my copy of Midnight’s Children, which I had recently read (it won the Man Booker prize in 1981, and it’s a fantastic read). I turned up on the day, and after going through a metal detector and a bag search, I found myself in a small hotel conference room. Salman Rushdie was shorter than I expected. There were only about 30 or 40 people there. It turned out that the radio announcement on Friday afternoon had been a mistake—the message was really supposed to go out on Monday morning, so potential assassins had less time to plan. It turned out that this was his first public book signing, since the fatwa had been declared in 1989. It was calculated that New Zealand was sufficiently peaceful and far off the Ayatollah’s radar to give “appearing in public” a try at last.

Salman Rushdie was a wonderful speaker. I remember that he told stories about living in hiding, in different cities and countries around the world. He told a story about one time that he was living in London and his security detail had fit him out with a fake wig—people on the street saw through the disguise and pointed him out, laughing “Ha ha, there goes Salman Rushdie in a wig!” He spoke of how those people on the street were right, the situation was entirely absurd, to be living under fear of assassination by proclamation of a foreign leader.

But Salman Rushdie explained how it’s not such fun and games when your friends and colleagues start getting murdered. He told us about Hitoshi Igarashi, his Japanese translator, who had been stabbed and killed. He told us about Ettore Capriolo, his Italian translator, who was stabbed but lived. He told us about William Nygaard, his Norwegian publisher, who was shot three times and seriously injured. He told us about how an angry mob had burned down a hotel in Sivas, Turkey, killing 37 people, in an attempt to kill his Turkish translator. He told us how it was one thing to live with the extreme inconvenience of moving house every few days for years at a time, or having a personal 24 hour security detail, but it was another thing entirely to know that his friends and colleagues were in mortal danger without the same level of protection.

Salman Rushdie explained that his most vocal accusers had never even read The Satanic Verses, didn’t know what it was about, didn’t understand the major themes in his writing about cultural identity, fanaticism, forgiveness, living together in divided cultures… if only there was more listening and understanding then there might be less hate in the world.

Later on, when I stood before him getting my book signed, I was tongue-tied and humbled. I didn’t know what to say. I felt shame about the ignorant, offensive stunt that I had almost pulled. My heart grew three sizes that day.

Bigotry is no joke. Mob violence is no joke. Anti-immigrant hysteria is no joke. Sexual assault is no joke. Threats against the LGBTQ community are no joke. Openly talking about lynching members of the media or your killing political opponents is no joke. Donald Trump is no joke.

Hate is no joke.

Using text variables in Microsoft Word

Here’s another video that I created based on some tricks that I learned while taking a course in Advanced Microsoft Word. This one’s longer – nearly seven minutes long (I was aiming for six). I’m quite proud of figuring this out, I’ve been looking for a way to achieve this functionality for years now.

Like my previous video, I created this in Camtasia. Enjoy!

Putting diversity in the picture

Today I was putting together a presentation that I’m delivering tomorrow (at way too early in the morning – who schedules 7:30am meetings? wind turbine technicians, that’s who).

Anyway, I was poaching photos off the internet for my slides, and here was my shopping list:

  • Someone driving a car
  • Someone working on machinery while ticking things off on a clipboard
  • Someone pulling electronics to pieces or maybe doing electrical testing

Here’s the sort of screen which comes up in your search results if you search for “someone driving a car”:


My other search results were similar. Where the women at? I was scared to see what kind of misogynistic nonsense might turn up with a search like “woman driving a car”, but it turned out ok.


In the end I got the reasonable photo diversity I was looking for by just going a bit further with my search terms to get beyond the default “white guy” filter. The search terms that I used in the end went something like this:

  • “woman driving with a cup of coffee”
  • “working on machinery with a clipboard”
  • “woman electrical fault finding”

Putting a bit of diversity and inclusion into your content isn’t difficult, you just have to be aware that it’s something worth doing, and try to be aware of your own biases. Here’s that slide:


KiwiSaver and cluster bombs

A few days ago I saw an article which really threw me for a loop. It turns out that most New Zealand retirement savings schemes (“KiwiSaver” funds) have shareholdings in tobacco companies, and in companies that manufacture cluster bombs, land mines, or nuclear weapons. This article quoted an executive from my bank (ASB Bank) as saying that most kiwis weren’t too concerned with where their money was invested. I wrote a grumpy open letter in response, and here it is:

To: Jonathan Beale, ASB General Manager of Wealth, dated 18 August 2016
Cc: Barbara Chapman, ASB Chief Executive
Cc: Anusha Bradley, Radio NZ Journalist
Cc: James Shaw, Member of Parliament, Green Party co-Leader
Cc: social media

Dear Jonathan Beale,

I am writing this letter to you by hand to indicate how important an issue it is for me. I was shocked to learn in the news today that my ASB Kiwisaver scheme invests in companies that manufacture cluster bombs and anti-personnel mines. I was then appalled to read your claim, quoted in a Radio NZ report, that “most people with a Kiwisaver account are not too concerned about where their money was invested”.

I believe that most New Zealanders do care. I believe that banking executives who put profits before ethics, yourself apparently included, are on the wrong side of history.

As you are hopefully aware (if not, let me educate you) New Zealand is a signatory to the 1997 Ottawa Treaty which bans the use, stockpiling, or production of land mines. In addition, New Zealand hosted 122 nations for disarmament talks in 2008, which culminated in the “Wellington Cluster Bomb Declaration”, and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which we have also signed and adopted as law. This convention prohibits not only using or stockpiling cluster bombs, but also assisting (or financing!) their production or use. Don’t tell me that New Zealanders are unconcerned with funding the production of horrific, banned weapons!

I stopped in at an ASB branch to ask for details of how my ASB Kiwisaver money is being invested, and was told by a helpful staff member that internal communications from head office said “there’s no proof yet that ASB is caught up in this business” and “people at head office are looking into it”.

When I got back to my computer, it took me less than five minutes of internet research to discover:

  • The largest single component of my ASB ‘Balanced’ fund is invested in Vanguard International Shares Index Fund (VISIF)
  • Vanguard’s Product Disclosure Statement for this fund states “Vanguard does not take into account labour standards, environment, social or ethical considerations when selecting, retaining, or realising investments in the Fund”.
  • According to the most recent fund holding statement as of 31 July 2016, the VISIF fund includes:
    Cluster bomb manufacturers: General Dynamics ($15,667,107.09), Textron ($3,848,995.46),
    Land mine manufacturers: Northrup Grumman ($14,538,622.02),
    Nuclear weapons manufacturers: Fluor Corp ($2,847,499.19), Honeywell International ($32,400,518.43), Lockheed Martin ($26,638,317.26),
    Tobacco companies: Philip Morris ($59,768,837.18), Japan Tobacco ($16,457,325.01), British American Tobacco ($45,687,607.78)
    …and that’s just for starters!

Jonathan, you have been on the ASB Kiwisaver investment committee for two years. Would you rather claim that in all this time you never took five minutes to glance through Vanguard’s Product Disclosure Statement and Holdings Statements, or that you read them thoroughly and found no cause for concern? Even if you were oblivious to the names of companies which produce illegal, immoral weapons, surely you would have noticed Philip Morris within the top 30 shareholdings?

I presume that you received a large bonus after ASB’s recent record profits. On your LinkedIn profile you indicate that you have two children. I hope you are investing this bonus sensibly and ethically to give them a fighting chance in this world that you are helping to create. Or, you know, you could use your powers for good, and become an agent for positive change. While you make up your mind, I will look for another Kiwisaver provider with ethical investment options.

Kind regards,
Dr. Nathaniel Janke-Gilman

Two ways to compare documents in Microsoft Word

Check out this two-minute video I made, which demonstrates two handy features in Word: Compare Documents and View Side By Side.

This came out of a course I took recently, in Advanced Microsoft Word for Technical Writers. One of the assignments was to create a two-minute video, explaining a handy trick in Word (hence the above). I created this video in Camtasia.

That was a lot of fun… enjoy!

Professional Design, Amateur Design

I have just completed my third course in the SFU TComm certificate program; this one was about the Design and Production of Technical Publications.

Much like my previous courses in writing technical manuals and editing technical documents, this affirmed for me that:

  • This is a real, professional field.
  • There is a process to it, and an associated set of skills, all of which you can learn.
  • The expert practitioners out there have put in many years of practice to become experts in their trade (I have only scratched the surface).
  • If you just try to wing it, then you will end up making  an amateur hash-job of it.

There is tendency out there, in this “do more with less” world, to get rid of everyone except the “core people” and try to make do. Instead of hiring (or involving) a technical writer or designer, couldn’t you just hand the problem to the engineers and see if they can do the job in their spare time? Sorry, no.

Take a look at what happened when engineers, rather than restoration professionals, were brought in to restore a 1,000 year old fortress in Andalusia.

Or check out this interesting rant, by a designer, about the 2013 Yahoo logo redesign.

Interesting story – I sort of owe my job to that sort of thinking. The team that I’m in originally tried to produce its own documentation and IP by asking the technicians and engineers to simply write down what they were doing, as they were doing it. This didn’t work. Someone had the clarity to realize that they needed a technical writer, and it was decided that this role would sit within the engineering team. I was an engineer who was capable of writing, and I got the job. I remember being confused on my first day, when it came to putting in an order for business cards, because there was an (only half-joking) argument going on around me as to whether my job title should be “technical writer/engineer” or “engineer/technical writer”. My boss, you see, hoped that I would “figure out this documentation stuff” in maybe six months or so, and then transition from there into the “real work” of engineering. I have been working here for over 3.5 years, and I still keep hoping that I will hit the crest of the hill sometime soon…

Which leads me to the New Zealand flag redesign “process”, which has been widely criticized and roundly ridiculed, for good reason.

Pictured: Willful disregard for process

The New Zealand flag change process went something like this:

  1. Prime Minister John Key publicly announced, repeatedly, that he wanted New Zealand’s flag to change to something with a fern on it. To fit in with the fern designs that New Zealand’s sports teams use, and the new Fern Logo design that the Ministry for Economic Development commissioned to use to market New Zealand overseas.
  2. A “Flag Consideration Panel” was put together, consisting of advertising executives, former politicians, academics, board members, and sports people – but no designers or vexilologists. A former private secretary of the Minister for Economic Development was appointed as senior advisor to the panel.
  3. Members of the public were invited to submit designs, and 10,292 new flag designs were collected.
  4. The Flag Consideration Panel traveled the country, holding town hall meetings to hear what people’s views on what the country stands for. All of this effort seemingly went into a black hole.
  5. Advice from flag experts was ignored, even though the 2015 World Vexilology Conference was being held practically next-door in Sydney. The Panel did, however, commission four hours of advice from a Nike shoe designer.
  6. A long list of 40 flags was presented, with little indication of how the field had been narrowed, or why those designs were chosen in particular. One of the 40 flags was later retroactively removed due to copyright infringement.
  7. A few weeks later a short list of 4 flags was presented, with no indication of how the field had been narrowed, or why those designs were chosen in particular. Two of those flags were nearly identical, and happened to coincide with John Key’s favourite two designs (that he couldn’t decide between). A third flag was identical to the Economic Development Ministry’s Fern Logo. A fourth flag was almost universally hated and was immediately dubbed “hypnoflag”. All the designs were ferns – the fourth flag (a koru) represented an unfolding fern. The two designs which John Key didn’t want were both black and white.
  8. After huge outcry and various petitions, a fifth flag (favoured by the design community, and similar to a design that had previously won a flag design competition) was added to the short list.
  9. In a first referendum using preferential voting, one of John Key’s favourite flags came out as the winner. This surprised absolutely nobody, as the only design consideration which went into the whole process seemed to revolve around how to game the system to get John Key one of the flags he wanted.
  10. Now we are in the midst of a second postal referendum, asking New Zealanders to choose between the old and new flag designs.

If anything, the process was a marketing stunt, modeled on American Idol. The Flag Consideration Panel likes to brag about how many social media hits they have received, how many pageviews, hashtags and tweets. They call this “engagement”; I call it passive media consumption. At no point in this process was there any evidence of a two-way conversation. If the new flag gets voted in, then in time I will come to accept it – it appeals to lowest common denominator sentiment and is probably “ok enough”, though it will always represent missed opportunity.

What could have happened? Proven method for starters, which would probably have gone something like this:

  1. Public consultation
  2. Put together a design brief
  3. Let the designers do their job
Pictured: Missed opportunity

Update: it’s official, out with the new, in with the old.


Meanwhile, Toby Morris (the Pencilsword) came out with this opinion piece which summarizes the whole thing spectacularly well. Oh, and it turns out that I missed this fantastic comic which he wrote at the start of the whole affair.

Online learning: first impressions

Two months ago I took the first steps towards a new qualification by starting an online course. This was ‘Concepts and Practice of Technical Communication’, an 8 week long paper in the Simon Fraser University Technical Communication Certificate programme. The course basically boiled down to: (1) learn about all the various elements involved in the production of a technical manual, and (2) write your own technical manual on a topic of your choice, from scratch, with help from your classmates. Wow, what a ride.

I had never taken an online course before. In fact it had been… lemme think… at least 15 years since I was a student in a course lasting more than a week. Since then my professional development had always been along the lines of a one or two day (or occasionally week-long) workshop. Or maybe going to a conference. Or reading books in my spare time.

But here’s the thing: the folks in your HR or L&D department will tell you that about 90% of your real learning happens on the job. It’s hard to venture far outside the echo chamber of your own head by reading books, and you simply don’t learn very much from a two day course. This might be sufficient to keep you up to date with whatever’s changing in your field, but it’s not going to really teach you new skills.

I made it into the field of technical writing by way of a career in experimental physics, followed by a lot of proposal and report writing for the energy industry. I picked up a few good tricks, from other folks who themselves picked it up a few good tricks on the fly. Then one fateful day I found myself at a technical communication conference, with ‘Dr. Nat, technical writer’ on my name badge, being completely gazumped by all the Cool Ideas! that I’d never heard before! which were part of the standard toolset! of my very own profession (which I had never properly thought of as a profession prior to that point). Ye gads.

What I needed, in a big way, was not the Cliff Notes but the Full Story behind whatever it was that these people did for a living.

It took me a while to piece it together, but I couldn’t do it on my own. It would require lots of time and effort, through guided learning, with huge gobs of practice and critical feedback. After months of researching my options, I signed up for the Graduate Diploma in Information Design via distance learning from CPIT in Christchurch. My enrollment was accepted – then about a week later (before the course began) CPIT pulled the plug. (!?#!)

Happily, after that fiasco I realized that an online course in Technical Communication doesn’t have to be hosted locally. In fact, the best-looking option that I could find internationally was being run out of SFU in Vancouver, and they didn’t care what time zone you call home. Yay!

Eight weeks later, I finally handed in a manual nearly 30 pages long. I managed to wrangle a topic that was not only work-related, but which will contribute towards my bonus objectives for next June. Fantastic! But oh man, it was tough going.

Oh my god – for three straight weeks during the course, my partner was working evenings while I worked (nearly) full time, got the kids after school, fed them and put them to bed, then worked on my homework assignments until late. Somewhere in among there I had my annual two-day advanced turbine rescue refresher course which always scares me silly – it involves abseiling out of a 70 metre wind turbine, sometimes in a stretcher, sometimes (this is worse) strapping your friends into a stretcher and lowering them down 70 metres, knowing that their life depends on me getting my knots and carabiners right – followed by homework until late. My older son went into the hospital and had major spinal surgery; he was in hospital for over a week, with me working and driving back + forth and looking after my other son too – followed by homework until late. Don’t worry, it all went great and he’s now making great progress recovering at home with my partner and I doing physio – followed by homework until late.

But it’s been a blast. Because I was learning gobs of new stuff, and creating something, and the people in my workgroup were cool, and I knew that all of these hours of practice were all taking me further into the profession. I guess I managed to key into the insanity which enabled me somehow to write a 200 page PhD thesis from scratch so many years ago. But this time around I did a much better job of keeping a positive spin on things, and recognizing what was important and what wasn’t at any given momen. Like, for example, putting the course on pause all day so as to spend quality time with the kids, without short-changing them or losing my mind (mostly).

Which is great, because after living through the last couple of months, I now know that I can handle anything else that this TCom Certificate might throw at me. Bring it on!


Learn your lessons (or crash and burn)

(this article was first posted at eSocSci.org.nz)

On 31 October 2014, the world’s first commercial passenger space ship crashed, killing the co-pilot and seriously injuring the pilot. SpaceShipTwo (also known as ‘VSS Enterprise’) was undergoing tests after being reconfigured into what was intended to be the final state to take on passengers for suborbital joyrides to the edge of space. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its report into the crash on 28 July 2015, in which they determined a ‘root cause’ of the crash to be human error by the co-pilot, when he prematurely unlocked the tail-swivel mechanism while travelling at 0.8 Mach, a speed which was too slow for stability in that configuration.

It is a natural reaction to look where to appropriately assign blame after a major accident or incident, and we often hear that plane or train crashes happened because of pilot error. However if we dig a bit deeper we find a different story. SpaceShipTwo was designed to have simple controls – sticks and pedals rather than computers. The tail-swivel ‘feathering’ re-entry system was supposed to be a foolproof mechanical solution – the ship could reenter the atmosphere at any angle and right itself like a shuttlecock. But it relied on skilled operators making no mistakes, like unlocking the mechanism at 0.8 Mach instead of within the safe zone of 1.2 – 1.8 Mach. Manned spaceflight was being reinvented from scratch, with funding from none other than Richard Branson. However in doing so, all the old mistakes were simply being made all over again. The NTSB report notes that the design, safety assessment, and operation of the craft did not meet any of the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) guidelines for human factors (i.e. consideration of human error and the like). So perhaps it would make much more sense for us to blame the designers and company management rather than the pilot. For that matter, the FAA for some reason had granted special exemptions from those design requirements, and had given the blessing for the dangerous practises to continue.

Not long beforehand, Richard Branson had been taking photos with the crew of VSS (Virgin Space Ship) Enterprise and referring to them as part of the Virgin Galactic family. After the incident, Virgin press releases described the incident as involving Scaled Composites employees (Scaled Composites being the name of the subcontractor company that developed the ship and making it ready for commercial spaceflight operations).

But on another level, does it make sense for us to blame anyone? Industrial incidents are often the result of a large number of factors converging together in a complex system, leading to results that nobody wanted or expected. In that case who’s interests are being served by assigning blame to individuals, destroying reputations, possibly locking up one or two people while others are let off the hook to continue unsafe practices.

When workers or members of the public die in a tragic incident, there is sometimes a cry for vengeance. Journalists, politicians, or public prosecutors sometimes lead the call to find out whose fault it is, so they can be held accountable. However, the victims and their families almost always eventually come to the conclusion that what they really want is for lessons to be learned so that such an event never happens again (see Berlinger’s book ‘After Harm: Medical Error and the Ethics of Forgiveness, 2005). Generally speaking, people sue to ‘get the truth out’ more than to ‘punish those responsible’. Sometimes rogue operators do need to be shut down. Sometimes folks simply aren’t going to get the message or change their ways without being forced to do so. Sometimes the public needs to be protected from true psychopaths (or psychopathic corporations) who seem hell bent on repeating tragedy. Other times the players involved really did have the best intentions but simply did not know another way to operate, or did not appreciate the true risks. The ultimate goal should be for all players in industry to learn from the mistakes of the past so that they are not needlessly repeated.

Scaled Composites won the Ansari X-Prize with SpaceShipOne (SpaceShipTwo’s precursor), by putting together the first ever successful commercial suborbital spaceflight operation. They ushered in a new Second Age of Space, driven by the agile business rather than ponderous government. Space could be reached more easily, more cheaply, by throwing off the yoke of bureaucracy. Was there any need to operate under the crushing constraints of NASA space flight? Well, it turns out that (in some cases at least) the answer is: yes. Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic (re)discovered the hard way that there were good reasons for all of those FAA safety regulations and human factors requirements; they were put in place by incident investigators of the past, in the hope that ‘this never happens again’.

Today’s leading thinkers in safety and human error tell us, from evidence-based research, that what you really want is not a Blame Culture, nor a No-Blame Culture, but a ‘Just Culture’ which sits somewhere in between (see Sidney Dekker’s book ‘Just Culture’, 2012, and Erik Hollnagel’s book ‘Safety-I and Safety-II’, 2014). That’s a culture in which everyone takes accountability for their part in an incident by making amends, which means owning up to their responsibility and doing what they can to make things right. Blaming people and doling out punishment or retribution actually reduces accountability by forcing people into defensive or adversarial positions. Yes, you need to have systems in place to deal with the true psychopaths, but if you can get past that then true progress is made when everyone involved is willing to talk with each other and make the necessary changes to ensure that ‘this never happens again’.

With New Zealand’s new Health and Safety laws coming out soon, we are in a unique position to get things right. New Zealand’s experiment in the past of firing all the Department of Labour safety inspectors and applying an ideology that ‘business performs best when left well alone’ was a failure. It turned out (to nobody’s real surprise) that there needs to be a referee on the pitch reminding everyone to play by the rules. Along with a system that encourages people to discuss the hazards and best practices for dealing with that. There has to be some sort of system for people to refer to the body of knowledge collected from past incidents.

One aspect in the new legislation really bothers me. Penalties in the new Health and Safety At Work Act won’t discriminate between actual events (which injured or killed people) and near misses (or dangerous situations in which someone could have been killed or injured). This may sound reasonable on the face of it – after all, by paying attention to the near misses we could potentially avert far more incidents before they every occur. It’s true that a system isn’t safe just because there hasn’t yet been an incident. Win-win, surely?

Well, maybe. It all comes down to implementation. If WorkSafeNZ were to begin prosecuting people who report their own mistakes in good faith, then what do you think will happen to reporting? When people have good reason to believe that they or their company will be targeted for speaking up or pointing out unsafe practices, then the safety conversation shuts down. Quickly and totally. Again, this has been proven by trial and error in the past. A key element of the ‘Just Culture’ is: who gets to make the final call about who is responsible and where accountability lies? Does that arbiter have the trust of the community to make those decisions? If there is trust in the community then there will be positive feedback as more and more people join into the safety conversation. If, on the other hand, the WorkSafeNZ regulators come out with all guns blazing, issuing judgements and assigning blame before seeking any sort of community buy-in, then there will be no ongoing safety conversation and New Zealanders will suffer another generation of downward-spiralling safety statistics. In that case, the lessons of the past will continue to go unheard.

Some more references:

NTSB findings on the crash of SpaceShipTwo
New Zealand’s new Health and Safety At Work Act (see especially Part 2, Subpart 3, Sections 42-44 ‘Offences’)
• More info about Human Factors and Just Culture by Sidney Dekker