For your safety


Scissors by dnnya17, on Flickr

I have two small children. I may have mentioned this fact before. The first one was relatively sedate as a small toddler (the age where desire outstrips experience in such a large amount it is only challenged when said child suddenly hits puberty and then it is with a much more narrow focus, shall we say), with only occasional attempts at running towards cars, or away in parks. The second one is, to me, a demonstration that only by massive numbers and sheer bloody luck has the human race survived. There is not a button he won’t press; chair/bookcase/fuck off concrete monolith he won’t climb; sharp edge left unchallenged. He is pretty much composed of 85% bruised tissue and 15% mischievous grin (thankfully still with all his teeth).
I know what the phrase ‘I’m doing this for your safety’ means, in a very real sense.

So, I’m kind of baffled by the odd sense of ‘For your safety’ applied in IDing me to buy scissors. For one, I feel that if there is any safety regard it is actually for everyone but me in allowing me to buy sharp blades. Secondly, and here’s the thing: this actually happened to me yesterday, I was buying three pairs of SAFETY SCISSORS given to small(ish) children to cut things out. To buy these weapons of mess construction (you’ve seen what small children do when cutting out, right?) you have to be 16 or over.

I am 30. Thirty. Three zero.

Fifteen years past the cut off point (no pun intended) and I’m stood in WH Smiths in Paddington station being ID’d for buying three pairs of safety scissors, and their corroborating partners three large Pritt sticks.

The irony was not lost on me: the sharpest things involved were the exchange of words between me and the assistant asking for ID because I ‘looked young’ (or she needed glasses that could pick out the harried-mother-of-two look that doesn’t wash out no matter what two bottles I take in the shower), while I just ignored her and continued to pay for the transaction on my company credit card (that fifteen year olds clearly get in cereal packets these days – although, I guess they might in Silicon Valley.) while she made vague threats about the Transport police making checks, presumably for people carrying rogue items of stationery in odd numbers.

And where I had never considered wounding anyone with any sharp instrument in my life, I was suddenly very tempted to find out what three blunt sets could do ‘for my safety’. One to bypass the assistant, one to hack down the stationery police and another to ensure my bid for freedom was unsullied by some have-a-go hero.

“I woulda done but she had bloody safety scissors. Have you seen what them fings do to origami cranes? No chance, guv. No chance.”

It isn’t a joke if it isn’t funny.

There are plenty of things I don’t find funny which other people do:

Michael McIntyre
The Mr. Bean movie.
My 4 year old’s Knock Knock jokes (example: Knock Knock / Who’s there? / Frog / Frog who? / Frog goes moo! Hahahahahahahahaaaa. By all accounts, he is the hit of Reception class 2).

That’s okay. That’s just opinion.

There are a couple of things I just don’t find funny at all. Sexism is one. Take Richard Keys and Andy Grey’s flippant ‘off-mic’ comment about no women understanding the offside rule. Not even, apparently, the woman selected to act as an assistant referee at a Premiership football match. I’m sure she was there because every single man in that stadium declined the opportunity so she was left to make the best of it, pitiful understanding of a basic rule of the sport and everything.

It’s unfunny as a comment, it’s even unfunnier as banter that wasn’t meant to be broadcast because surely then they have such a deep-seated understanding of each other that it was okay to make such a comment. Was it ironic? I think it’s closer to a statement about what it is ‘okay’ to say between men, one to another like, in a – let’s face it – very male-dominated sport.

Unfunnier still, though I’m sure she intended no particular humour, is the comment by former England women’s cricket captain Rachel Heyhoe-Flint who described it as “banter”.

“I know Richard and Andy very well indeed. These were tongue-in-cheek comments and we are blowing something enormously out of proportion here.”

Oh, really? What if they said that the white player had no chance of outrunning the black player because it is common knowledge and a big old joke that black people are so much better at sport than white people, ha ha ha. Isn’t that “banter” on the same derogatory level?

So, Rachel, and others of the school of ‘those cheeky scamps’, understand this: Just because you “know someone meant no harm” doesn’t mean harm wasn’t done. That it isn’t sexist. It is.

What about something closer to home? I’ve blogged briefly before here about the extraordinarily talented Sarah Parmenter (@sazzy, Twitter fiends!) who often speaks at the same, or similar conferences as me. She’s written before about the trials of being a one-woman business in a male-dominated industry and she handles it with grace and aplomb.
We have both come across back channel chatter that concentrate on the fact we have girl bits more than we have brains. But Sarah got to experience a whole new quality of idiocy the other day. At a conference after party, some random male attendee wandered up and said “no offence, but …” (always a quality opener – on a par with “Not being funny but …” or the bell ringer “I’m not a racist but …” ). Anyway, the glorious statement in full was:

No offence but I have trouble levelling with female speakers, you know?

(I especially like the casual insouciance as if Sarah would go ‘yeah! Shame on me!’)

I subsequently suggested that we might want to level him with a shovel but, all giggles and casual violence aside, WHAT?

WHAT. THE. FUCK?

In what world do we live in where a random guy can approach someone handpicked for their experience and excellence and have them pick out their height / race/ colour / weight / gender / shoe size. I’d find it offensive if someone called another person out on them not having the intellect or experience to cover a topic (though you’d be hard pushed to get Sarah on those, either) but at least there might be some relevant debate to be had there.

I especially love the fact that our random misogynist could hide under the +5 Invisibility Cloak of White Geek at Tech Conference, emboldened by his +3 Shield of Imbibed Pints, and his obvious assumption that his statement was one that wouldn’t readily identify him either. I’m sure if Sarah hadn’t been so shell-shocked to call him out on it, he’d have gone for the fallback (and see above) of ‘It’s just a joke. Just banter. I didn’t mean any harm.’

And this is what years and years of top-draw misogyny has lead us to:
In perfectly civilized situations, there are still men on the sidelines who feel free to take pop shots at the women they just aren’t as good at something as. And if women take offence at the comments, they’ve committed the far worst sin of ‘not taking a joke.’

It isn’t a joke if it isn’t funny.

(In the interests of transparency, I’ve just noticed a phrase in this was borrowed from a Lynne Truss article in ‘Making the Cat Laugh.’)

Puzzling

Puzzling by jhritz on flickr

I love a good puzzle adventure, me. Ace Attorney, now Ghost Trick from the same producer, Monkey Island, TellTale Games, Activision and Infocom’s stuff, Broken Sword (volume 2 rework now out in the iOS store, puzzle fans), Professor Layton and plenty of the IF community offerings (of which, another post later on)

I also like writing fiction.

Today, it struck me like a gong that I should, at some point in the future, bring these things together and make my own interactive fiction game.

I posseted the idea on Twitter. It was well received.

Inform7 has been downloaded. I’m going to take a look through the documentation and then make a nice notebook all ready for any ideas that might come my way. This is most definitely a treat project for Life After The Book.

A slow start.

omnioutliner screenshot

Crank handle by De Shark on flickr
(Photo by De Shark on flickr)

I need a crank handle at my desk. That and willpower. For now, tea and gritted determination has to suffice. I find it really hard to get up and going right now – not good when I have a book I want to write and content strategy to be doin’ – and I’m trying to work close to Pacific Standard Time at the moment to help out an American client so my body clock is all kinds of wrong right now, anyway. My small children, of course, are not on PST. They are barely on GMT. Last night they had me up and about for an hour at 4am. And so morning, even a very late starting one, is painful.

I’m tackling this in a two pronged attack. Prong one: I’m shifting about my diet and eating / exercising habits. I have always been quite principled about food but since having Thing 2, 18 months ago, I’ve found myself sliding into bad habits and relying on quick fixes. Not good. But I wanted to mention it, so you didn’t think that I was just going for 19 cups of coffee and a choux bun while writing. I know how much you all care deeply. Anyway, what I want to talk about here is prong 2.

Prong 2 in the ‘getting going despite being mere nanometers from a lovely, fluffy duvet’ is my golden rule to never start writing from a cold start or a blank page. Both are excellent bets for facing paralysis swiftly followed by a burning need to clean out the hallways closet or make meringues or whatever is your next ‘must do, sort of’ task.

Instead, I get paper and pen and write a list or brainstorm or draw silly diagrams of what it is I want to say, and through this I tend to find an anecdote to open a chapter on or a good comparison to make. This is a page from my notebook related to the book and a talk I did last summer (covering the same material)

image from inside my notebook

I type this up, play with it a bit and then go back to the planning. If it’s a big complicated thing, like, I dunno a book, I’ll open up omnioutliner and continue in there. Here’s the outliner file that eventually became the first Table of Contents.

omnioutliner screenshot

If it’s for a presentation, I often start finding visual hooks for each of my points and start compiling a folder and list of those. I write snippets as I go, slowly gathering them into a thing with a start, a middle and an end. This is my draft: a squalling, clumsy composition of competing ideas.

I no longer have nothing. I have the things I am going to write about so now I can take pleasure in finding the best way to describe these little serendipitous synapse connections of mine rather than struggle to have them at all. I like to to think of writing as a bit like when you came to write up a report at school of an experiment (maybe involving a potato and electricity). It’s where you come to lay out all the hard work your brain has been doing and show it off to its best advantage.

Today for work I have a bunch of page tables to create based off a new IA, but as it doesn’t require all of my brainwork to be doing that, a small portion of my little grey cells will be ticking over how best to introduce style guides to freelancers and explain why Kraft food need to go back to nursery school and learn what a ‘doing’ word is. Aiming to write a couple of thousand words on it by midnight. We’ll see how it goes.

I played this, part one: a handful of teeny tiny video games, reviewed.

I rather like video games, from big outrageous console shifting titles down to sprightly little indie numbers and most things inbetween. Here’s my last half-dozen or so – not all completed but played enough to get an idea of whether I’ll continue.

The Christmas hols saw me on a bit of an iOS/ iPhone game binge (but read on as many of these are ports or are ported to other platforms), with a bias towards mystery puzzle games.

I played Escape from Antrim, a locked room escape with two possible exits, and being a masochist I did both. That’s not to say I did both without help. Some of the puzzles are so obtuse I had to get some assistance and one in particular drove me a bit potty, simply because I had dislodged a vital item but not noticed.
One gripe is the complete lack of help (unless you count the many reviews of the game in the app store that are something like HOW DO I GET THE CAT TO THE SINK?, which I don’t.) Being, frankly, a harried and hurried mother of small people, a game will drive me potty if there is no hint system because more often than not I have had to put my phone/DS/controller down to answer the never ceasing holler ‘Mummy!’ and by the time I’ve come back I’ve forgotten what I was half way through. That aside, I am rather partial to a good room escape game (although none have yet bettered the interactive fiction award winner Violet) and many of the puzzles were ingenious. 3/5

Having played its predecessor I went on to play the sequel Escape from Antrim 2: Now Two Dozy Bastards Are Locked Up, or something of that ilk. The video game trope ‘Whiny helpless dumb blonde’ was in full effect in this sequel which led directly on from the first. In fact the heroic young man of the first game actually has to drop in to save aforementioned lobotomised cheerleader. What’s odd about this is that you, as her, have already cracked a fuckton of awkward puzzles before he shows up to tag team with you. A random observation: this game involves a lot of dropping of a bar of soap on the floor. This never stops being funny.
It has a few puzzles that use the iPhone accelerometer to hairtearing effect and one or two puzzles that seem very obtuse, cross over into a world of pain in their painstaking requirements for resolution and then lead only to more oddness once cracked. The tag teaming between characters should be a nice touch but, as I said, it mostly involves dropping soap or candy and once suggesting to one another that you poke an owl. Still, it was deftly clever in places and there is a storyline (slowly) building. There is no bonus extra exit yet, but I believe one will be out soon enough as a free upgrade. Actually the best bonus puzzles available now were spotting the cracking spelling mistakes and wondering who on Earth didn’t see them in development. 2.5/5

So the room escape mystery led me to look for other mystery games, and I pulled up two – vastly different, not least in quality.

First up James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club: Scarlet Something Or The Other Unmemorable. I’ve never read the books but I understand that they are good murder mysteries, with a group of female law enforcers and others solving the crime. There was a DS game and I believe this is the port.
There’s a pretty good yarn going about a murder on a boat of a Chinese descent newscaster, based in San Francisco with loose ties to Chinatown and the mafia. So far, so good. The opening scene has you do a bunch of hidden object seeking – find lots of little things hidden in a bigger scene, usually using pinch-zoom to investigate closer – and then some investigating the body to advance the story. The problem is that the controls are very finickity as to what you touch, especially in the investigation section, and the hidden object stuff is repetitive beyond belief. I did the same four locations over and over, until I practically knew where every object was without trying. Then I hit a showstopper of a bug which meant the game thought I had investigated everything on a corpse and jumped to that section but I didn’t have the right tools so I went round in a loop unable to continue. A quick look through some of the less-than-favourable views on the app store, of which there were many, suggested I wasn’t alone. Shame, as the story looked like it was going to be a good one. Maybe James Patterson did the coding as well as the story. I note an £11.95 version of this has appeared in the mac app store. Caveat emptor. 1/5

EA’s $.99 sale over Christmas prompted me to pick up Cause of Death, essentially a text adventure with pretty pictures attached revolving around an FBI agent and a San Francisco detective (games location researchers, get out more!) tracking down a serial killer. I wasn’t sure what to expect and I was pleasantly suprised. The game is divided in volumes (currently two) and chapters, with new content available to buy or free with ads.
It is well written, well-paced and genuinely creepy. Some of the logic is a bit ‘text adventure’ – as in there is no particular clue as to which is the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ path but even with the wrong paths you are rewarded with some fairly grisly death throe descriptions. The characterization, especially of even the minor characters, is good and the crime and facts surrounding it are well fleshed out for you to solve alongside the detectives. The beautiful but aloof investigator with a history and the handsome, maverick but troubled detective are pretty box standard but I’m not going to argue with a female FBI agent kicking ass and taking names in a lead role.
The story continues after volume one with a related story and I am enjoying volume two just as much. Well worth the meagre price and then some. 5/5

Wondering whether the Murder Club had murdered the hidden object or whether it was a bad lot altogether, I picked up a few more from the App store, namely Treasure Seekers, Amazon: Hidden Expedition and Crystal Portal 1. While all better than our Women’s Murder Club offering I can’t say I was taken with any of them. They all seemed to be introducing a dramatic storyline where there was none and similar standard of pickings. Things picked up when I found a recommendation for Time Geeks, a much more pixelly, retro and roundly entertaining affair (the Island referencing the entirety of Lost was amusing, even though I have barely watched an episode, as it played up to all the most reported events). Unlike other hidden object games, here you are seeking for one thing retroactively inserted into the same scene so there is much less boredom when going back to scenes for repeat levels. There are also minigames ranging from fun, (shooting soccer penalties) to daft, (creating your own bizarre scenes with what seemed to be miniature level builders) to daftly fun (shooting aliens on a monorail was especially memorable) and achievement levels for beating time limits. I think I now have every item collected in under 4 secs, which says something for its replay value and another for my recent insomnia. It’s hairpulling in places but you are always frustrated with yourself and not the game, which is the best recipe for a good puzzle game I always think. 10 levels, with around 10 objects at a time, plus the minigames means there’s plenty of fun to be had, not least from exploring the miniature pixel art scenes from sports stadium to Mayan palace. 4/5

Book look: masochist writer seeks vaguely achievable goal.

Mac keyboard

If there is one thing I have learned about writing that I can pass on with utter confidence that it will make all the difference, it is this:

Just fucking write something. Anything. And often.

I need reminding of this too.

a) because, like most writers, I find the sitting and writing is the hardest bit to commit to.

b) I have a book to get done. A book that I genuinely believe there is a need for. That I want to get out of me and into other people.

c) because every piece of polished writing begins life as a shitty first draft, so it can live in the interim as a sorta rubbish draft on my blog.

Now the thing with me is I am somewhat commitment phobic. It is something I have come to learn in my old age (okay, 30, whatever), somewhat strangely after marriage and two kids. I have a hard time committing and finishing and completing. Especially my own writing. (Other people’s stuff, if of at least a readable quality, no problem redrafting at all. Strange but true.)

I’ve said before that I believe deadlines exist because writers would never stop tweaking otherwise and I’m as bad as all of them.

So, I’m going to try to post here, daily (flight schedules and whatnot allowing) to keep myself accountable and tell anyone who’s interested about book progress, stuff I’m doing and consuming and whatnot, and basically keep my writing brain tuned up. I might skip weekends, we’ll see, but certainly aim for Monday-Friday.

I’ll be signing up to wordpress’s 2011 challenge just for the larks. Let’s see shall we?

Look ma! My book is announced!

Creating Web Content cover

Creating Web Content cover

It’s true, in a shade of fashionable honeysuckle pink and splash of Caslon , comes the announcement (and the initial cover design) for Five Simple Steps, A Practical Guide to Creating Web Content. by me, lovable furry Relly Annett-Baker. Visit the page on the FSS site for more details and expect it out soonish. Couple of months. Six tops. Nine max. Okay, before the end of 2011, promise.

I’ll get back to the draft right after I’ve finished this tea. Honest.

Words and pictures: a workshop for designers and developers

To beat the January blues I’m holding a workshop soon, through my lovely publishers Five Simple Steps. It’s in London on the afternoon of January the 26th.

It’s for designers and developers, especially freelancers, but anyone who wants to use content as part of their process for making a website. Even if you don’t do a lot of content creation at all, let alone write. Even if you’ve never had anything other than lorem ipsum to design with. Especially then, in fact. And it will be fun, enlightening and have chocolate biscuits because that’s what I aim for in all my workshops.

Now, here’s the thing. I know that your budget is limited. I know that there a billion other things you could be learning about. And obviously I’m biased when I say content is the best thing since sliced bread with jam on top. So, why should you come take this workshop with me?

The content of your sites and your client’s sites are letting you down. Mostly it isn’t even your fault! How unfair is that?

How often do you want to show others your work but then think ‘Oh, but the writing on the front page is awful’? Worse still, how often do poor forms or unclear instructions means clients come back wailing ‘fix it, fix it, no-one is buying!’ leaving you thinking ‘well, the problem isn’t the design!’.

Wouldn’t it be great if you had a workflow that tackled these things ahead of launch? Where you could get to a point where the actual content could inspire the design and not just get slotted around it? Where the stuff that fills the boxes isn’t being fed into the web-o-matic-a-tron thirty minutes prior to launch (and counting)?

YOU CAN! You absolutely can!

That is what this workshop is about – being inspired by content, having a handle on it, not dreading asking for it or having to write it yourself at the last minute.

Still, £175 (plus travel, plus time not working) is a lot for a freelancer. I know, I’ve been there. Only you know your daily rate and costs so I can’t rationalise how much your total expense would be.

BUT

To have a way of losing the stress-headache that ‘content’ or ‘copy’ induces?
To look at some well-crafted text and to design something beautiful from it?
To have fun with like-minded souls (and me!) and play creative games, look at some dreadful examples from around the web and giggle a bit, come away with contacts and confidence and a support group who have suffered at the hands of content before?

Priceless?
I don’t know. But definitely worth your investment.

How many support calls would stop from mighty microcopy in the right place? How many turgid about pages could become effervescent blends of words and pictures? How much to feel in control of a whole project?

So, please book while there a still a few spaces. I’d hate for you to miss out.

One Little Word 2011: Light.

So, like a ton of other people, I have gone through the process of choosing a word for 2011. I like this better than resolutions, which are too specific and easy to fail without bringing any good.

Last year, I didn’t have a word that stuck because I had too much going on to commit to something new and I didn’t really give it as much thought as I should have done to make it work. The year before I chose complete – and I had it put on a beautiful necklace which I worse almost everyday, and I considered hard what the word meant to me in relation to the goals I had for myself. This year my word is light.

Lighthearted.
Lighter in weight and frame.
Lighter in commitments.
Light around my environment.
Light at home.
Light as pixels and connections.
Light in photography.
Light in the outside world.
Light and life to all she brings.
Lights will guide you home and ignite your bones.
Light as beauty.
Light in spirit.

(Weirdly, I picked the same word as Ali Edwards (whom I first learned this concept from back in 2006) independently. I saw that she had chosen hers and it was just another sign that light was something I needed.)

So, I’ve bought another necklace with my word on from an Etsy seller. I’ve joined Ali’s class at Big Picture classes and bought up some supplies. I’m set to take on the year and its challenges. I am genuinely excited for 2011.

Let there be light.