What are shut-ins?

A couple of people have asked, in comments and in emails, what are ’shut-ins’, such as the ones featured in Pink Saphires and Blue Diamonds.

According to the Missouri Conservationist:

Shut-ins are geologic features that are formed as streams erode away relatively soft limestone and dolomite, until they encounter deeper igneous rock, which is much harder to erode.

Streams and rivers running through igneous rock can cut only deep, narrow channels and are given little opportunity to form meanders as most streams do. As a given volume of water passes though these shut-ins, the water’s velocity increases, creating the rushing, bubbling effect that makes the scene at Amidon so appealing.

The only reference to shut-ins I could find are to those in Missouri, leading me to believe these may be a purely Missouri phenomena.

I have been to, and photographed both the Johnson Shut-Ins and the recently described Castor. Both are wonderful places, but the Castor is the one that’s stolen my heart.


Technical writing and thankless tasks

I think that both Dana Blankenhorn and Marius Coomans will be good for open source, as they both question the concept without worry of offending the legions of open source fans, and seemingly without any axe to grind.

Dana recently questioned the lack of documentation and support associated with open source projects. In particular documentation, writing:

Documentation, I thought, is the Achilles Heel for open source.

It’s baked into the process. Great coders volunteer to write great code, but documentation is a go-to-market process, and when you’re giving stuff away that’s not part of the strategy.

His statement isn’t without merit; when you access many free, open source applications, the first thing you read is something to the effect that “this is free, so don’t expect support”. There’s some justification to this philosophy; it becomes a warning to users that the software they’re using is free; however, they’ll have to hunt around for support on their own, because there’s no one paying the bills for either documentation or support.

Marius agrees with Dana, but takes it a step further. In response to my push to have users be more responsive to those who provide both documentation and support for open source tools, he writes, in comments at his shared weblog:

Shelley, when was the last time you rang the phone company to thank them when you successfully placed a call? Documentation will never be appreciated because most of us only use it as a last alternative, when all else fails. Being a writer is a thankless job, so are garbagemen, car mechanics and loss adjusters. Live with it.


Having focused much of my time this last decade in technical writing, either for books or articles, tips, how-tos, and yes, documentation, I can agree with Marius, in that it seems to be a thankless task, at times. But there’s also something else implicit in his statement, whether it was intended or not: that it isn’t necessarily all writing that is thankless; it’s primarily technical writing that is thankless.

That leads me to wonder: is technical writing, or more specifically writing about technology, valued less than other writing? In other words, if we place the poet, the journalist, the writer of romance or the pundit on one scale, and the writer about technology on the other, will the scales tilt away from the technical writer, every time?

Critters Diversity

The lion walks tonight

Today I took Zoe to the vet for her six months checkup, both for her rare seizures and her slightly enlarged thyroid gland. The doctor and I talked about putting Zoe on Phenol Barbital, a small risk anti-seizure drug for cats. However, roommate and I are hesitant to start her on a lifetime medicine when her seizures are about one every two years.

We spent a fairly long time chatting, which unfortunately made the doctor late for her next appointment. In the office afterwards, paying the bill, a large, heavyset man stormed out of one of the waiting rooms into the reception area, complaining bitterly about having to wait 20 minutes for the doctor.

After he stormed away, I apologized to the receptionist and she said not to worry about it; that his behavior wasn’t uncommon with men, especially middle aged men, as the place is very female centric and this brings out the male need to assert their dominant status.

I hadn’t noticed before, but the cat clinic does have a strongly feminine environment. All the doctors and assistants and other office workers are women, and the décor has a very feminine, feline feel to it–not to mention that all the cats that wonder around the office are also female.

All except the newest addition to the office — an eight week old orange tabby kitten that jumped up on the receptionist’s keyboard when she was making out my bill (”Well, your bill is now 362.00 dollars”); and then jumped up on the counter and immediately planted it’s tiny paws on my chest, gazing at me with eyes gold and round and very intense.

Entranced, I stroked and coo’d, which he seemed to take as encouragement, for it launched itself down from the counter to the floor (me catching it halfway, because that was a heck of a jump), and he immediately went over to Zoe’s carrier and started batting at her with his paws through the wire.

Zoe was hunkered down in the corner in misery, as she always is when at the vet’s and ignored him at first. But he was having none of this and after about a minute, she was nose to nose with him, each softly batting at each her, she as charmed by this wonderful little character, as I was.

I asked the receptionist who the new kitten was, and she said he was another abandoned kitten, dropped off at the office. The clinic won’t turn any cat away, and after making sure they’re healthy and nicely social, the workers manage to always find a home for the orphans. It took every ounce of self-control — every ounce! — not to pop up with, “I’ll take him!”

The receptionist turned back to the bill, dropping the eight blood tests that the kitten had added with his dance on the keyboard, while I watched the kitten gambol about the room. Suddenly, we hear a door slam, and heavy footsteps stomping down the corridor.

It’s the Big Man again, and he enters the room, drawing his breath to start huffing and puffing about his importance and how his time is valuable. However, the kitten spots him from across the room, makes a mad dash straight for him, and then with a flying leap, plants his tiny little kitten claws into the mans polyester pants, and starts climbing his leg, for all its little worth.

The man was startled, and sputtered out in surprise, looking down at this little kitten hanging off his leg, looking up at him. After just a moment of man and kitten staring at each other, the kitten jumps down from his leg, and glaring equally at me and the receptionist, the man storms off without saying a word. The kitten watches after him a moment, and then starts its mad dash around the room again.

The receptionist and I look at each other, both trying not to laugh; a resolve I couldn’t maintain when she turned back to the bill, casually tossing out about, “…knowing who’s the dominant male in the place is now, don’t we?”

Technology Weblogging

Why Wordform needs active users

Wordform is not being developed in isolation, specifically because I hope to capture input from people who could be considered the potential users of the product. It is more fun to go ‘Ta Da!’ and have the application all finished, to ooohs and ahhhs; but an inherent problem with this is that each of us brings our own interpretation of what is an oooh, and what is an ahhh.

A better approach, then, is to communicate as you develop (rather than after), keep your mind open, and solicit feedback as much as possible. And for this, I need active users — people who are willing to step up and say what they want, and how they want it.

For instance, when Marius points out the polished interface to the textarea within Blogger, saying that this is more meaningful than the Quicktags within WordPress, we can quickly show him a screenshot of the prototype for the Wordform edit page, currently in development. This is using the beta of HTMLArea, which is a very rich text editor currently being tested with Mozilla-based browsers, such as Firefox. It, as with Blogger, will work with IE and any of the Mozilla browsers. Unfortunately, it won’t work with Safari; but then, neither will Blogger.

The PHP program will test browser and insert quicktags, HTML tags, for browsers that can’t work with these rich text editors. However, Blogger’s switching back and forth between WYSIWYG and HTML tags, is a very nice feature. Luckily it’s already included as a feature within HTMLArea — just click the button labeled “<>” to toggle between HTML source and WYSIWYG.

As a sidenote, the new Comment Edit window in Wordform will also have a rich text editor, but I’m removing the HTML capability (HTMLArea is completely customizable). Why? So that I can ensure that tags are properly closed and that nothing harmful is added, while giving commenters a very rich editing experience.

Oh, and HTMLArea has plugins that will allow me to add in spellcheckers and various other nifty goodies. Don’t you just love open source?


Mindless spot on eternal lack of sunshine

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I am not one to do movie reviews. I rarely write on a movie I see, and when I do, it’s usually favorably. But I feel compelled to write about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, primarily because I disliked this movie so much.

I found my reaction to be somewhat disconcerting, too, because it seems to be such a universally beloved movie. I don’t think I’ve read one unfavorable review of this movie, either by webloggers, in comments at Amazon and other online sites, or by professional critics. However, I disliked the characters from the first five minutes, and my loathing for them only increased as the movie progressed.

This movie is “urban angst” taken to an almost pure artistic form. It’s like walking through a showing at an art gallery consisting primarily of photos taken of reflections from car door handles.

The premise behind the movie is that the lead characters are so shattered by their breakup that they have all memories of each other wiped out (or start to have them wiped out), so they won’t have to suffer the pain of loss. Yet the lead character, played by Jim Carrey, finds that he can’t let go of his former love (played by Kate Winslet), and tries to hide memories of her here and there, to protect them. The concept is extremly novel and the execution intelligent and creative. But it failed with me.

I’ve found through personal and difficult experience that the loss of love and the bitter and hollow disappointment that can come from such, is a rich, and even beautiful experience, albeit best when viewed from a distance. It is just this loss of love, or love unmet that forms the inspiration for much of our art. I have a hard time understanding how a person would want to eliminate even one second of this experience, no matter how painful.

Of course, Carrey’s character finds this out as the erasure is taking place, and this begins the real journey featured in the movie. But by then, the necessary connection I felt you needed to have with his character before this journey takes place just wasn’t there, at least not for me. He irritated me. His girlfriend irritated me. Even the lady in the waiting room crying into her hankie irritated me.

The filming was clever and ingenious, but I sometimes think that this movie was a case of a director wanting to try different techniques, and then finding a story that would connect the dots, so to speak. Maybe if I had accepted it as such when I watched it, I would have at least appreciated the dots, if not the journey between them