On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger


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Facebook, Dynamite, Uber, Bombs, and You.

This is the transcript of a talk I gave at WriteTheDocs Australia, in Melbourne, on 15 November, 2018. A video is also available, see the Videos page for a link.


This little story starts with the American son of German migrants, Herman Hollerith. He was born in 1860, got a degree in engineering, and then went to work in the US Census Bureau in 1879. At that time, the census was just a headcount, they didn’t collect any real data on the population, simply because they didn’t have the ability to process that information. As it was, they only ran a census every ten years, and it took them several years to process all the information. This meant that the big concern of the department is that before too long it was going to take them longer than ten years to do the calculation, meaning the next census would have started before the last one was complete. 

These days, we call that overwhelming technical debt.

So young Master Hollerith was a bit of a bright spark, says “there ought to be a machine for doing the purely mechanical work of tabulating” and set out to build one. By 1884, he had a prototype, and the US Census Bureau used the machines for the 1890 census.

Herman Hollerith, Bright Spark.

The data is first encoded on the punch card with the pantograph, then operators would load the card into the tabulator. Pins would drop down onto the card, and where there was a hole the pin would drop through and land in some mercury, which completed an electrical circuit, and advanced one of the dials on the machine. So each dial on the machine represents one character trait: age, gender, state, etc. Then the operator would record the data, remove the card and put it into a sorter drawer. Then they could reset the tabulator, ready for the next one. According to the US Census history site, operators could process 80 cards a minute this way.

Because Hollerith was a bit of a smarty pants, he didn’t sell the machines to the government, he leased them, and after a bit he managed to lease them to all sorts of government departments, all around the world, which was good to keep the money flowing in in between censuses. To handle this, he created a company called, creatively, the The Hollerith Electric Tabulating System.

Over the next few years, Hollerith’s company found other companies that were making “machines” like employee punch clocks and weighing systems, and they merged into a partnership called the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR). That company then became International Business Machines in 1924, and the companies were finally all merged in 1933.

Anyway, there is a whole other talk on IBM corporate history, but the short version is that Thomas J Watson became IBM chairman in a ridiculously dodgy deal in about 1914 WHILE HE WAS IN JAIL, and remained so until he died in 1956. Because the guy was so dodgy, he didn’t like writing things down. I mention that, because it becomes important later in the story.

IBM Dehomag Hollerith D11 Tabulator

These are some early IBM machines made by the German IBM subsidiary called Dehomag. These machines were called the Dehomag Hollerith D11 tabulator and sorter. They were originally used primarily in banks to process account transactions, calculate interest, and – most interesting to the government of the day – cross reference bank account numbers to census data.

This was in about 1935.

IBM Dehomag Hollerith D11 Sorter

You know when you see pictures of people who have been in the concentration camps, and they have a number tattooed on their arm? Those numbers connected the human being to the punch card for a Hollerith machine. So here’s a fact: In Holland, they had extensive Hollerith machine infrastructure in the years before the war, and 73% of Dutch Jews were killed by the end of it. In France, they had very little Hollerith infrastructure, and what they had was disorganised. Only 25% of French Jews were killed by the end of the war. In short, without this technology, the Holocaust would still have happened, but it wouldn’t have been so well organised, so well planned, and so well executed.

Of course, I’m sure you all know about the Nuremberg Trials that happened after the war ended. We remember those for the Nazis who got sentenced for war crimes in the main trial, but there were 12 more trials between 1946 and 1949, which covered 177 people: physicians, judges, military personnel, civil servants and also industrialists.

Gustav Krupp and his friend Adolf Hitler

People like Gustav Krupp, who provided Panzer Tanks to the Nazis. Interestingly, it didn’t slow that company down much: you probably know them as ThyssenKrupp now. They make elevators. Anyway, so you would expect that senior officials in IBM would have ended up before the Nuremberg trials, too, but jokes on you!

The Nuremberg Trials were pretty unique, in that they had to be conducted in four languages, more or less simultaneously, which had never been done before. Guess who provided the computing power for that? Got it in one! Interestingly, for completely unrelated reasons, I was in Nuremberg a couple of months ago, and took the opportunity to go to the Documentation Center and Nazi Party Rally Grounds. It was a fascinating tour, but much to my dismay, IBM was not mentioned once.

Hopefully what you’ve picked up so far is that Hollerith was a brilliant young man who solved a very difficult problem. It’s not his fault that the technology he developed was used by Hitler to murder people. It’s also not his fault that not only was no one held responsible for that, but also that we seem to have collectively forgotten about it. The point I’d like to make, here, is that throughout history technology has been used in some pretty horrible ways. So let’s look at some more historical “oh no” moments …

Alfred Nobel, Repentant “Merchant of Death”

Alfred Nobel, you might recognise his name. He was the guy who invented dynamite, but he also owned a large weapons manufacturing plant. Anyway, Alfred’s brother died in Cannes, and a French newspaper got confused and wrote an obituary for Alfred instead. It was pretty nasty stuff, titled “The merchant of death is dead”, and this wonderful line: “Dr. Alfred Nobel … became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before”. So Alfred read this, had what is technically known as an oh no moment, and completely secretly went on to establish the Nobel prize with his personal fortune. Hilariously, he decided not to tell anyone about it, so they all got a nice surprise after he died for real, and they read his will.

Otto Hahn got the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944 for working out Nuclear Fission. The prize really should have been given to him along with his two colleagues Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann, but the other two had had to leave Germany in a bit of a hurry a few years earlier. Later on, of course, that technology was used to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the entire world had an oh no moment. Now we have ethics committees in Chemistry.

Eugenics was the practice of sterilising portions of the population in order to stop them breeding. Hitler was obviously a big fan, but before WWII it was a bit of a big deal in the US. 33 US states had sterilisation programs in place against mentally ill people, disabled people, alcoholics, people living in poverty, and people deemed to be promiscuous. Some reports say around 65,000 Americans were legally sterilised during the first half of the 20th century. That was a bit of an oh no moment for Biology. The World Health Organisation (WHO) was created in 1948, as the first specialised agency of the UN. It’s mission was multi-faceted, but I’ll draw your attention to this bit: “to address the underlying social and economic determinants of health through policies and programmes that enhance health equity and integrate pro-poor, gender-responsive, and human rights-based approaches”. 

Basically, don’t let our government kill you and tell you it’s good for  your health.

In a similar vein, some great drug failures like Thalidomide made the idea of having better oversight on medicines seem like a good idea. Thalidomide was sold over the counter from 1957, and was recommended to pregnant women for relieving the symptoms of morning sickness, unfortunately it created horrific birth defects. Only 40% of children born with defects survived, and those who didn’t were missing limbs. oh no. Court cases were brought against the manufacturer all over the world, including a class action in Australia as recently as 2012. The US Food and Drug Administration was created in 1927, but the thalidomide cases significantly strengthened its abilities, and a whole bunch of other laws around the world were introduced to address drug testing around the world.

We didn’t let too many bridges collapse before we decided that civil engineering could use some regulation. In America, the National Society of Professional Engineers was established in 1932, which adopted a formal code of ethics in 1964.

And it only took one plane flying into a building to establish that maybe letting people take box cutters on planes was less than sensible.

Hopefully you can see where I’m going here.

People very rarely come up with new ideas, new inventions, amazing new discoveries, with the intention of killing or hurting people. It’s the unintended consequences that cause the problems. But it’s also those unintended consequences – the “oh no” moments – that lead to improvements in the way we handle things. We end up with better laws, better regulations, and our society improves as a result.

Ethics committees and government oversight departments and legal rulings don’t stop bad things happening. But they can certainly help prevent them, and at least they give us some kind of recourse if the worst happens.

Now, I want you to consider these two cases: Volkswagen was caught out having written software code that allowed their cars to cheat emissions tests.

Uber also developed software (called ‘greyball’) which allowed them to cheat law enforcement officials trying to crack down on ride-sharing.

The difference is that Volkswagen software engineers went to jail, and Uber software engineers didn’t. Why? Because one is a car company, and one is a software company.

Startups especially like to use the phrase “move fast and break stuff”. In IT, we talk about “innovation” a lot, and “thinking outside the box”. I’m sure we all know a project manager who has encouraged us to “challenge paradigms” or “think different”. This is all great, and I’m not suggesting we should stop building new things, or thinking up interesting ways to tackle problems! But what happens when we step back from what we’ve created, and go … oh. No.

Really, in my opinion, IT should have its oh no moment when IBM provided the computing power that made the Holocaust possible, but not only did it go unpunished, we’ve largely forgotten about it over the intervening 80 years or so. So there’s never really been a public reckoning. So now we’ve looked at some examples of oh no moments leading to real change, let’s look at some aspects of IT innovation that haven’t …

The development of the world wide web in the 90s was obviously very optimistic, and I’m not sure we can blame anyone for failing to see 4Chan coming. But we can probably blame some of the social media sites for failing to see the dens of iniquity they have become, and we can certainly blame most of them for failing to do anything about it once it happened. Twitter’s response to the incredible amount of white supremacism has been at best ineffective and, at worse, non-existent.

I find self-driving cars a particularly thorny problem. On the one hand, there are huge benefits to the technology. Consider the implications not only on the environment and on the convenience it can add to our lives, but the added mobility and independence it would give people with disabilities means that this technology could add so much to our lives and to our society. But we haven’t fully thought through the impacts yet. Most of the accidents related to self-driving features so far have been because humans became too reliant on the tech, doing stupid stuff like watching movies, reading, or napping, instead of acting as a last-resort safeguard. What happens when we rely on the tech so much that we stop looking before we cross the road, because we “just know” the cars will stop for us? I have self-driving features in my car, and it makes stupid mistakes ALL THE TIME. The tech is not advanced enough for us to rely on it – driving is, after all, a life or death proposition every time you get on the road. But I also don’t think it should be hidden away until it’s perfect, because how else do you learn what “perfect” is? This is a tricky one.

I looked into the killer robots thing a few months ago, and that’s another tricky one, because the technology being developed for fully-automatic weapons systems, is also used for things like the afore-mentioned self-driving cars, aeroplane technology, medicine and surgery applications, and even peace-keeping operations, like dropping aid packages into war zones. In this case in South Korea, a university went into partnership with an arms manufacturer to develop autonomous weapons, and what ended up stopping them was a bunch of universities signing an open letter (which was initiated by an Australian academic, incidentally), threatening to boycott the university involved. The South Korean government wasn’t intending to step in, the UN didn’t step in. Without an ethics organisation, what other recourse is there to stop things? As it is, we don’t really know that the research has been stopped. The chancellor of the university wrote a lovely letter saying that, but the weapons organisation funding it could be quite happily moving along, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they had waved large amounts of money at academics to bring them into the project. That’s all speculation of course, but that’s really my point: there’s no oversight, no regulations, no repercussions, but there is a hell of a lot of money.

Here’s one more for you, that was reported in the Economist a couple of months ago, and has been picking up pace in the mainstream media recently: Xinjiang is a province in north-west China, largely occupied by the Uighur people. So, the Uighur are the largest Muslim group in China. In Hotan, the capital of Xinjiang, there is a police station every 300m or so. If you don’t think that already sounds like a police state, wait for this bit: every citizen has an identity card, and at checkpoints around the province, police will scan people’s cards, take photographs and fingerprints, perform an iris scan, and are told to unlock and hand over any smartphones, which are put into a cradle and the data downloaded to be analysed later on. That’s not just for people they’re suspicious of, they’re for everybody. There are four or five checkpoints every kilometre, with citizens moving through them many times a day. The roads are lined with poles holding cameras which watch pedestrians, but also perform pattern matching between number plates on cars, and the faces of the people driving. And if you’re Uighur and you have done even a relatively minor infraction then you get sent to one of hundreds of thousands of “re-education” camps in the province, which don’t officially exist. No one really knows how many people are locked up, but the estimate in the Economist article was 140,000 people in Hotan alone. The ABC in recent reporting says 2 million. So, locking up minority groups for no reason is by no means a new thing, but the way technology is being put to use in this case certainly is. I bet the people who invented facial recognition have had several oh no moments thanks, at least in part, to China.

In that same vein, you might also have heard of Palantir. They’re the company that use Minority Report-style predictions about crime in an area. It was originally developed for the Pentagon to identify terrorists in Iraq, but that technology has now been imported to downtown Los Angeles, where it’s being used to lock up brown people *before* they commit a crime. So it’s not just China.

So, while the increasing mainstream media awareness of personal data and the nefarious purposes we can put it to has been heartening recently, I’m not sure that Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are enough to be considered an oh no moment that will actually change anything in our industry, but I think it might be starting.

So, what does all this have to do with documentation?

You might be aware that, after quality assurance, the group that finds the most bugs in software is the documentation team. We are often put in the position of poking at products we don’t yet fully understand, in order to work out how to use them. It is the writer’s job to come at products like a clueless user, poke things, bend them, use them in ways they haven’t been designed.

I say we should expand that thinking just a tiny bit: how could I use this product to do harm? How could I use it to discover things about people I really shouldn’t be discovering? Can I use this social product to stalk my ex? What about someone who said something nasty about me online, can they find out anything important about me? Can I use this platform, this API, this plugin, this app, this feature to do something that, as reasonable moral human beings, we feel a little uncomfortable about? It’s also important to think about using it in conjunction with other tech. Recognising someone’s face is one thing, but when you combine that with GPS locations, government databases, and purchase history, you have a completely different problem. And also an answer to why I stopped using supermarket loyalty cards. Only last week I received an email confirming my booking for a hotel I hadn’t heard of. Curious, I clicked the link to ‘edit my booking’ and discovered that, while I couldn’t see the whole credit card number, I could have adjusted the dates of the booking, upgraded the room, or purchased additional services. All because someone mistyped their email in a form.

If I can give you one piece of advice, it’s don’t read your marketing department’s hype. Or if you do, don’t believe it. Nuclear fission has saved millions of lives through cancer treatment, provided light and power to billions, and made surgery and even vegetables safe through irradiation, that’s what the marketing department want you to know. But it also made nuclear war a real possible threat, and the marketing department is unlikely to mention it.

So, question things. Raise bugs. 

Talk about it with your development team, and your manager. Until software engineering has a real, honest to god, oh no moment, and an ethics board with actual legal teeth is born, you — the tech writer — are at the forefront between technology that helps, and technology that can hurt.

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OMG my ACL! Two weeks post-op update

Well, here we are, two weeks out from surgery! There’s a lot to go through here, so I’ve broken it up a bit.

Day of surgery

The day went pretty smoothly, I had a quick coffee before 7am, and was fasting from then on. I headed over to the hospital at 10 and checked myself in. First thing was to change into a gorgeous hospital gown, with a compression stocking on my good leg, and delightful paper knickers and booties. You’ll forgive me for failing to instagram this, I hope!

From there, I had a consultation with a nurse to do my paperwork to check me in, the anaesthetist came to run me through what was going to happen, and the drugs I would have to take home with me, and I also had a quick chat to the pharmacist to go through the medication I was on already and whether or not I needed to change anything (I didn’t, so that was easy).

After all that, they laid me down in pre-op, the anaesthetist gave me the first injection, which made my head swim but I was still with it (although feeling pretty happy), they wheeled me into the operating theatre, and that was about the last thing I remember.

In recovery, there was a nurse waiting for me as I came around. I recall trying to work out if my leg hurt but couldn’t actually figure it out (drugs are great, aren’t they?). I was shivering uncontrollably, despite warm blankets, and very thirsty, though. The nurse gave me some water, and at some point I got moved to my room, where I fell back to sleep. It was about 7pm when I came around properly and could have something like a conversation (well, it seemed like a conversation from my perspective. Could have been meaningless gibberish and the nurses were too polite to mention it, though). At that point, I was conscious of my leg feeling uncomfortable, but it wasn’t really painful. I was given dinner which I didn’t really eat, and taught how to use the pain button.

I basically just dozed in short periods from there right through until morning, with interruptions due to nurses checking my blood pressure or giving me tablets, trying to find a more comfortable position, and one terribly exciting trip to the toilet which involved far too many people and an awful lot of equipment. My knee had a huge bandage around it, and my leg was encased in a splint. They did put an ice machine on my knee at one point but I couldn’t feel any cold through the bandages so they took it away. The most comfortable position was on my back with the head of the bed raised (really, it was the only position, I wasn’t very mobile at all).

Day after surgery

In the morning, rattling from all the pills I’d taken, I lolled in bed and read a book while a parade of people came past to see me. The physio gave me stretches to do in bed (quad activation, and ankle pumps for the calf muscle), then came back with crutches and we had a little lesson on partial weight bearing crutching, including stairs. The surgeon came to see me and told me he’d done not one but two meniscus repairs (lucky me!) and that everything went well and I was to come see him in two weeks to get the bandages off, the pharmacist came to talk me through my drugs, and then the nurses took my IV out (goodbye pain button!), bustled me off for a shower and to get dressed, and not long after lunch discharged me into the care of my Mum. I was going home!

Mum brought my car around to the front entrance, while an orderly took me out in a wheelchair (via the chemist to pick up my showbag). We put the front seat of my car all the way back, and I was able to sit down on the seat, swing my good leg in first, then use my hands to swing my injured leg in. At this point, I had zero ability to carry the weight of my lower leg in my knee, so using my hands to move my leg was essential.

Now, I know you all want to know what was in my showbag!

  • Palexia (Tapentadol): This one knocked me out something fierce. As soon as it was in my bloodstream, I was completely unable to stay awake. I took this one at night for a couple of days, which helped me to get some sleep in the first few days home.
  • Endone (Oxycodin): This one was actually a little scary for me. I took it once without the Palexia and found that I was lying in bed completely unable to move, but not asleep, and not without pain. I didn’t take it again after that.
  • Clexane: An anti-coagulant. This was an injection I had to take once a day for ten days to prevent blood clots. I got special instruction from the nurse on how to do it, and it wasn’t too difficult, except for the fact that after you’ve removed the needle it was sore for a couple of minutes and it was really hard not to rub the site. It also left pretty horrific bruises, but on the upside: no clot!
  • Paracetamol Osteo: My new favourite drug. It’s just like regular Panadol, but has a higher level of paracetamol (so no more than two every six hours!). The benefit of this over ordinary Panadol, aside from having more paracetamol, is that it has the regular stuff on the inside, with a coating of rapid acting, so it works fast, and keeps working. It helps to smooth out the up-and-down effect of regular paracematol. The extra added bonus is you can buy it over the counter at the chemist, and it’s super cheap.
  • Anti-nausea drugs, which I didn’t take because I didn’t have any nausea
  • Anti-constipation drugs: I took a Macrogol powder once a day, along with some Benefiber once a day (I had been taking Benefiber for the couple of days prior to the surgery as well, just to try and keep everything in good working order), but didn’t take the tablets in the end.

At home

Once I got home, my Mum put me to bed, brought me food occasionally, and otherwise left me alone to nap in front of the telly for about 48 hours. I watched the clock pretty carefully to make sure I was taking all my drugs at the right time, I got up to go the toilet (very gingerly) when I needed to, and otherwise tried not to worry about things. I kept my legs out in front of me in bed, propped my back and shoulders up on all the pillows to keep as comfy as possible, and tried not to move around too much. I found that I needed to keep the bottom corner of the doona flipped back off my foot, as it put pressure on my knee, and I didn’t really bother elevating it as it was mostly just uncomfortable to do so. I didn’t feel like eating much of anything at all, and I really didn’t want anything with a lot of carbs or spice (which is completely unlike me). I ate mostly salad, with a little grilled chicken, and drank lots and lots of water for those first few days.

The first week

Overall, the first few days were pretty miserable, but once the pain dropped and I could get rid of the heavier duty painkillers and move around a little more, things became much easier. I was down to Panadol only by Day 3 (although I was always very ready for my next dose as soon as six hours was up). Mum went home on Day 5, and by then I could get up out of bed and sit on the couch or a chair with my lower leg propped up on a beanbag and some pillows for at least short periods of time.

The second week

It was around the beginning of the second week that I started getting excruciating pain in my calf muscle. I spent most of the day (and night!) just pumping my foot up and down trying to relieve the cramping. Around Day 8 I made it a mission to make sure I was getting out of bed and moving around at least a little bit every hour, which helped during the day, but at night the cramps were keeping me awake. Pacing up and down your bedroom floor on crutches at 2am is not fun. On the upside, I wasn’t noticing any pain in my knee any more. I briefly wondered if it was a blood clot, but when I opened up my splint to massage the knots out of my calf, I noticed a small grey bruise (unlike the yellow bruises which had coloured my shin since the operation) right above the most painful part of my calf muscle, it was also not swollen or hot. I started to suspect the splint was to blame, and not a clot.

I drove for the first time on Day 9 (yay for hurting my left leg, living in Australia, and driving an auto!). I can go very short distances (less than 10-15 minutes before my knee starts getting sore) and I need to make sure I can open my door all the way so that I can get in and out (so no close parking!), but it’s enough to be able to drive down to the shops and get milk, or drop my daughter off, or go to doctor/physio appointments.

I saw my surgeon on Day 10 (and not a day too soon!), who agreed that the splint was probably causing the calf pain, but sent me for an ultrasound anyway just to be sure. He also removed my dressing to expose my gruesome wounds (which I have also failed to photograph. You’re welcome), put me into a compression stocking for swelling, and sent me off to get a new ROM brace.

The ultrasound confirmed no clot (yay!) and the new brace immediately helped relieve the pain. The splint had a foam strip that runs down the back of the leg, and the calf pain was occurring at the precise end of that strip. I gave it to the physio who fitted my new brace for me and asked her to please burn it. I suspect she thought I was joking. I wasn’t.

What next?

At the moment, I’m not taking any pain relief during the day at all, except for icing it twice a day for at least half an hour. I take paracetamol before bed (and usually wake up almost exactly six hours later for a second dose). I’m wearing the ROM brace during the day (set at 0-90°, which will remain for six weeks, this is a condition of the meniscus repair. I’m really only able to move about 0-40° right now, but physio will help with that), and a splint from my original injury that doesn’t have that nasty foam strip in it overnight for comfort, with a compression stocking for swelling. I can sleep on my left side, with the injured leg straight out, and my other leg in front of it, but can’t sleep on my right side in the same position (with a pillow under my injured knee) for very long before it hurts, although this is improving. Dr Davies tells me this is because he moved around a lot of stuff on the right side of my knee, so it’s more tender there. My appetite is not quite back to normal, but it’s definitely improving. I start physio tomorrow and will keep going once or twice a week until I’m off crutches at least. I’m moving around well now, and even managed to cook a meal for dinner last night, so everything is starting to go back to normal, except I still make a cup of tea in a thermos so I can carry it to wherever I want to sit! Only four weeks on crutches to go …

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OMG, my ACL! Pre-surgery update

In the last month, with the aid of lots of physio (and, more recently, hydrotherapy) I’ve managed to get my knee to the level of movement that my surgeon wants (130°! Whee!), I’m getting around without using the brace or my cane at all, and so I’m all booked in to have the surgery on Monday. So this week has been all about preparations. Here’s what I’ve organised:

    Some assistance at home for the next week. In other words, Mum’s coming to visit! (Note that I’ll be setting up the couch for her before I go into surgery, because there’s no way I’ll be doing it after)
    Freezer meals. I’ve got about a week’s worth of cooked meals in the freezer, ready to be reheated.
    Groceries and general stocking up. While home delivery is great (and I’m sure I’ll use it), I don’t want to be running out of toilet paper in the first few days!
    A breakfast tray so I can easily eat, or use my laptop in bed, or on the sun lounger on the deck. I’ve also moved a laptop charger next to my bed.
    And it might seem weird, but just general tidying up. Making sure there’s nothing to trip on, for starters, but also because I don’t want to be staring at the filthy floor in a week, wishing I’d vacuumed.

Other than that, it’s all the medical things. I’ve fielded at least three calls just today from various specialists and the hospital, checking on medications, time to arrive, and general information about the surgery. I’ll confess, I’m a little nervous, but I’ll be so glad to have this done and finally be on the road to recovery!

Read on …

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OMG, my ACL! One month update

Some good news, I’m getting around without any walking aides (although I keep my cane close by, I’ve started referring to it as my ‘moral support’ because I really don’t need it any more). While I’m at home I’m also walking around without my brace on, too, trying to strengthen muscles in my leg and knee. With help from my wonderful physio Greg, I’ve got movement between about 2° and 100°. The visible swelling has more or less completely gone, although it’s still swollen inside, which is why it’s still so hard (and painful!) to bend and straighten it.

But, my surgeon wants more! So, surgery has been put off for now, and the physio continues until I can get to around 130°. Dr. Davies tells me this is will greatly help my recovery, and will mitigate the risk of the joint freezing after surgery (which would require more surgery, and I’d rather not do that!). So life is more or less back to normal, although I’m still being quite careful about where and how far I walk, I can get around pretty easily again now, which is a great relief!

Read on …

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Gemdale Travel Money Laundering Job Scam

Came home to an interesting email on Friday:

My first thought was that Seek shouldn’t be passing my details on to anyone, but as I dug further it got more and more interesting. Here’s the job description:

I don’t know about you, but “process payments between our clients and our company” sounds an awful lot like money laundering to me. No reputable company needs to transfer money through some random person’s bank account.

This is a slick operation, and it was pretty clear to me that this “Gemdale Travel” was operating outside of Seek’s terms of service, so I called Seek to let them know. The customer service operator was brilliant, and explained that Gemdale have been dogging them for some time. They obviously have no connection to the legitimate business Seek undertakes, and this is a sophisticated scam. Gemdale appear on the surface to be quite legitimate, until you scratch.

Most job scams tend to be of a more simple sort, where they extort money out of victims for expenses, but a job never materialises. This is another level, not so much a job scam, as a pure and simple method to find people to launder money for them. The victim could potentially sign up for this gig, do the job, and never know that they’ve been complicit in a crime until the police show up.

Be careful out there, lovelies.

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OMG, my ACL! Second week

I saw my GP again on Tuesday morning (12 days after the injury), and we decided that going to a private surgeon at this point would be a good idea. Waiting times for ACL surgery through the public system can apparently be six months or more, and I was eager to get back on my feet. By this point, I could fully weight bear on my bad leg, and had ditched the crutches for my trusty cane (which I bought years ago when I hurt my calf muscle, and was quite pleased to be able to put back into service). My knee was still swollen, although it was going down ever so slowly, and I still had zero stability in the knee, although that’s not terribly surprising.

I was referred through to QCOS at the Wesley, and I secured an appointment with Dr. Davies on Thursday (14 days after injury). By the time I saw Dr Davies, I was hobbling quite effectively on my peg leg (remember, my brace was still locked straight at this point), and could do a few steps in a straight line without relying on my cane.

The first thing Dr. Davies did was look at my MRI and explain the injury to me. He showed me where the meniscus was torn, and where my ACL wasn’t. For my part, I did my best not to throw up on his desk. He then examined my knee, pushing and poking to work out how much give there was in the joint (spoiler: too much), and asked me to bend my leg as far as possible. At that point, I could get to a very uncomfortable 50° or so. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but it’s almost dry, like there’s no lubrication in my knee, and there’s a lot of pressure on the joint when I bend it.

Dr. Davies then unlocked my brace to 60°, prescribed me to see my physio twice a week, and booked me in for surgery for 19 June. I had four weeks to build my leg muscles back up, and get full range of motion. This, I will note at this point, was in direct contravention of what the physios at the hospital told me. Dr. Davies was polite about them, but I won’t be. They gave me bad advice, and set my recovery back by at least a week by telling me not to move my leg, or to keep working on range of motion. Additionally, locking your knee straight puts pressure on the ligaments that are trying to heal (they are at rest at around 30°), so it’s counter productive. If you get told this, seek an opinion from another physio.

So at this point, two weeks after the injury, I finally had a plan for getting on my feet again! Four weeks until surgery, six weeks rehab afterwards, nine to twelve months before I was fully back to normal. It seemed like forever.

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OMG, my ACL! The first week

I sat around and felt miserable for a couple of days over the weekend, then went to the GP on Monday, and got the MRI done on the Tuesday (four days after the injury). This was my first MRI ever, and I have to admit I was not prepared for the clunking and beeping that machine makes. All the noises sounded, to me anyway, like alarms going off, and I kept on expecting someone to come charging in and pull me out because the machine was malfunctioning. Needless to say, they didn’t, and that’s normal operating procedure. Who knew?

My GP called me with results on Thursday evening. It was not good news: a torn ACL, sprained just about everything else, and a torn meniscus. Surgery was looking to be a distinct possibility. At this point, I could partially weight bear on the bad leg, probably around 50%. I’d been taking Panadol (paracetamol) for a few days, and still was before bed to help me get to sleep, but otherwise wasn’t in much pain at all. My knee was still very swollen, though, and I really needed to wear the splint 24/7, without it my leg felt … well … *floppy*.

Friday was my followup appointment at the hospital (eight days after the injury). Sadly, I didn’t get to see the same physio, instead I saw two others, who surprised me by telling me that I didn’t need to see a physio before the surgery, and sent me down to get a new brace, but that it would be fixed in a straight position until after surgery. This contradicted what I’d read online, but I trusted them, since they were the professionals (and since I have a healthy skepticism of anything I read online). They gave me a referral to a surgeon, and once I had my fancy new exoskeleton brace, I was on my way again.

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OMG, my ACL! The day of the injury

So the story begins early on a Thursday morning, at a boxing class run by my trainer, B. I was doing a set of split box jumps on a fitness step with three risers (like these ones). On the seventh rep, my left foot landed on the ground, and presumably twisted, my knee went pop, and I went down with a yell. Interestingly, there was no immediate swelling or bruising, but I was in excruciating pain, so I think from the perspective of everyone else it probably looked like I was complaining about not much. Well, I showed them! They got me lying down with a rolled towel under my bad knee and an ice pack after I started going into shock, while an ambulance was called. When the ambos arrived, they gave me a green whistle (Methoxyflurane. Incidentally, I learned that this is an Australian invention We’re a smart bunch here in Aus, aren’t we?!) which pretty much took care of the pain, and had the upside of making me fairly entertaining on the way to the hospital.

When we got to hospital (RBWH) I was seen pretty quickly by a doctor and a physio, and had an xray to rule out a fracture. The standard way, I’ve learned, to diagnose an ACL tear is to grab the lower leg and push against the knee to see how much sideways movement there is (if this is making you cringe just thinking about it, then you can probably guess how I felt about it at the time). The physio tried this with me but I tensed up so much (“guarding” was the term he used in his report) that he was unable to diagnose me at the time. Eventually, he said he thought I’d probably done my ACL but he couldn’t tell, gave me a knee splint and some crutches, a referral to my GP for an MRI, and a followup appointment for a week’s time.

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So that happened …

As many regular readers will know, I’m a bit of a gym junkie. And if you’ve ever tried to book a meeting with me early on a Thursday morning, you’ll know that that is when I do Boxing. Every week, without fail. And so it was a couple of weeks ago. Towards the end of a 45 minute session, I was most of the way through a set of split box jumps, when my knee went pop, and I fell to the ground. To cut a long story short, I ended up with a completely torn ACL, minor sprain of the PCL and ACL, and a meniscus tear. Basically, I did a good job (in blog posts like this, I’ve learned, here is where they often put a gory picture of the inside of a knee, which I’ve taken to quickly scrolling past, so I’ll leave googling for that image as an exercise for the reader).

Normally I don’t write about this kind of thing, but as I’ve been laid up I’ve been doing a bit of googling about knee injuries and the surgery that goes with them. It’s a very common sports/gym injury, and there’s lots of info there, but not a lot from an Australian perspective, so I thought I’d spend some time chronicling my experiences, and hopefully it’ll help someone out.

Day 1
The first week
The second week
One month update

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Leadership is not management: Carrots and sticks in an open source community

This article was originally written for http://superuser.openstack.org/articles/leadership-open-source-community/


Leading a community group, it turns out, is completely different to being a manager. I learned this the hard way; I made mistakes, started (and continued) arguments, and sometimes, when faced with a large hole, simply continued to dig.

In late 2014 I had been working on OpenStack documentation for about a year. We were preparing the Kilo release, when the current project team lead (PTL) asked if I would be willing to put my name forward as a candidate for Liberty PTL. In early 2015, I was elected unopposed to lead the documentation team for the Liberty release, and all of a sudden I realised: I had no idea how to run a community group.

At this point, I had managed docs teams of various sizes, across many timezones, for five years. I had a business management degree and an MBA to my name, had run my own business, seen a tech startup fail and a new corporate docs team flourish. I felt as though I understood what being a manager was all about. And I guess I did. But I didn’t know what being a PTL was all about. All of a sudden, I had a team where I couldn’t name each individual, couldn’t rely on any one person to come to work on any given day, couldn’t delegate tasks with any authority and couldn’t compensate team members for good work. The only tool I had in my arsenal to get work done was my own ability to convince people that they should.

If you’ve spent time as a manager in a corporate environment, you’ll be used to keeping secrets, actively managing your employees’ careers, and pretending you know the answers to things (especially if you don’t). This is entirely the wrong way to go about managing a community, and if your team decides you’re treating them like that, they will probably only give you a couple of chances before they eat you alive1. If you get it right (even if it’s on the second go-round), the opportunities for growth and satisfaction are unbeatable. Not to mention the sense of achievement!

My first release as a PTL was basically me stumbling around in the dark and poking at the things I encountered. I relied heavily on the expertise of the existing members of the group to work out what needed to be done, and I gradually started to learn that the key to getting things done was not just to talk and delegate, but to listen and collaborate. I had to not only tell people what to do, but also convince them that it was a good idea, help them to see it through, and pick up the pieces if they didn’t. You will end up stumbling around in front of your team a lot in open source. Here’s how to make it work for you:

Rewarding the good, punishing the bad

The phrase ‘carrots and sticks’ is often used to describe the process of rewarding good behaviour (carrots)2 while punishing bad behavior (sticks)3. Rewards are everywhere in today’s corporations. From monetary incentives (bonuses, share schemes, gift cards and shopping vouchers), to various team activities (lunches, dinners, paintball, barista courses, and all manner of competitive activities), these awards are designed to make all your colleagues envy and despise you. Not to mention all those little branded tchotchkes (a stress ball in every imaginable shape!) we all seem to accumulate. There are so many carrots given out, that not getting any can often be a form of stick.

Of course, this is the first and most obvious thing you will notice missing when you start managing a community rather than a team in an organisation. You don’t get to pay them. You don’t get to give bonuses. And the tchotchkes are harder to find and more jealously guarded.

The first thing you have to do is work out what you have got. Got access to stickers, t-shirts, or other branded merchandise? Give them out! What about privileges (and no, giving someone more responsibility is not a privilege, so don’t count things like granting core access)? Things like discounted tickets or travel to conferences, access to company-sponsored events like code sprints or meetups, or things like the ability to vote on leadership positions can all be considered perks of being part of a community.

There are also other, less obvious, things that you can do to motivate people: always be willing to call out great work (or even mediocre work, especially if it came from someone surprising) in a public way, but keep any criticism private. Thank people, a lot, for everything. Make sure when people email you asking questions you add other people into the conversation, with a note like “this person is an expert on this topic, and I’d love to hear their opinion”. Flattery and thankfulness are some of the best tools you have to motivate people on your team, and they’re entirely free. Just try and keep your ego in check and let other people take credit wherever possible.   

Performance measurement as a behaviour management tool

One of the more popular performance measurement methods is referred to as a nine box, or a talent matrix4. The idea of ranking employees can be quite distasteful, so it’s important to remember that it’s not about ranking staff against each other, but against themselves and their own past performance. You should be able to see each employee move from the lower left to the top right of the matrix as they improve in their role. Once they hit the top right box, you must be ready to promote them, at which point they drop to the centre of the matrix, and start the journey up and to the right again. Of course, the opposite is also true: if an employee starts to track down and to the left, you need to be having some serious discussions about the role that the person is in, whether or not they’re having personal issues, or whether they’re the right fit for your team, or your company. The point is, there’s something of a science to this when you’re in a corporate environment.

That science becomes much more of a dark art when you’re leading a community. For starters, though, you need to remember that it’s not really your responsibility. Most of the people in the your community already have a job, and a career path, and a manager who (hopefully) cares about those things. And that person isn’t you. Also, those things are (and should be) fairly opaque to you, it’s really none of your business. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about your team’s performance within the constraints of your group. Most communities have levels of responsibility within them. From leading sub-teams, to being involved in testing, sitting on advisory boards, or becoming core contributors with greater levels of trust and expectation, right up to leading the group itself, you need to be aware of the aspirations of your community members, and ensure you’re letting people know the options available to them should they wish to progress. An extra added complication is where these two things intersect. You never know if a team member is getting pressure from their corporate manager to achieve a certain role within your community, or what value (if any) companies might place on metrics, roles, or positions of trust within your community. You can’t always rely on team members to tell you what they’re trying to achieve, either, sometimes they make you guess.

The best way to ensure you’re helping individuals succeed in their performance goals is to make sure you understand what those goals are. This isn’t always easy and you can’t necessarily assume that all team members want to progress, either. This is even more true in communities than in companies, since a promotion often means more responsibility without any increase in benefits (you’re not paying them, after all). The best way to do this is to ask people, and the best way to get a good answer is to do in private. Don’t be afraid, as a community leader, to reach out to people directly, saying something along the lines of ‘hey, I noticed you’re doing great work, and wanted to have a chat to you about the kinds of things you’re interested in working on, and how I can help you achieve your goals within our community.’ You won’t always get all the answers you might want, in the detail you might need to really help them, but at least you’ll have a better idea than just assuming everyone wants to become a team leader some day.

The performance art of trust

Perhaps more important than rewarding staff, or accurately recording their performance improvements, is proving that you trust them. A little trust goes a long way and can positively impact loyalty, morale and retention. As a manager, there are many occasions where you are privy to information you can’t share with staff: financial or company performance information, restructures, or even layoffs. The thing is, your team members are probably pretty smart and they probably know that this is a thing. You need to reassure them that as soon as you can tell them, you will. But there’s more to it than that; there’s something I like to call the performance art of trust, which is more about telling them when you don’t know something than when you do. If someone asks you a question, and you don’t know the answer, don’t make things up! Just come right out and say it: “I don’t know.” You might find it helpful to practice, because it’s not easy to do when you’re trying to be all manager-y and stuff. In fact, most of your training to become a manager has probably been about pretending you know the answers when you don’t, which is exactly the wrong way to go about it.

Of course, as a community leader, you almost never have access to information before anyone else, so you may be wondering why this is relevant. It’s because the principles of honesty and trust are just as important, if not more so, in community situations than they are in a workplace. Community members will work with you if they want to work with you, and they won’t work with you if you’re a twit. The best way to look like you’re someone worth working with is if you appear open, honest, communicative, trustworthy, and reasonable.

One of the hallmarks of many open-source communities is the somewhat impassioned email communications5 that occur. Flamewars on mailing lists are a feature6 of open source communities and they happen out in public. Treat them as performance art, where your audience is focused on one thing: is this person someone I trust to lead this group?

It’s easy to come out of a flamewar looking like a buffoon, so here’s a couple of tips:

    • Always read the email you’re replying to thoroughly, several times, and try to understand the sender’s point of view. Work out what the question is (if there isn’t a question, then don’t send a reply).
    • Start your reply by thanking the sender: for bringing up a point you hadn’t considered, for asking questions, or even just for taking the time to put their thoughts into words. This forces you to assume good intent.
    • Answer the question, AND ONLY THE QUESTION. Give reasons for your answer, using dot points if necessary, but don’t bring other issues into it, and certainly don’t launch into personal attacks. Be prepared to question your own beliefs about things (you don’t have to change your mind, but you need to be open to other perspectives).
    • Ask a question of your own: Do they think this is reasonable? Can they think of something you might have missed? Do they have further comments?
    • Don’t hit send yet. Leave it as long as possible; at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight. This not only gives you time to calm down a little, but it also slows down the exchange on the mailing list, which will hopefully remove some heat.
    • Before you hit send, proofread, and take out all the emotional language. Work out if you can consolidate some points, reorganise the content to be clearer, or take out irrelevant information. Be as concise and to-the-point as possible.
  • If the thread has been dragging on and there’s no progress, take it offline. Admit that perhaps you don’t fully understand their viewpoint and offer a video or phone call, even if it’s an early morning or late night for you. Be the bigger person, take the hit. People are always much nicer on the phone, and if nothing else, it stops the flamewar.

To conclude, communities are definitely more forgiving than corporations, so you’ll probably get away with stumbling around a little bit before you find your feet. However, they’re also run almost entirely on trust and goodwill and you can erode that really quickly and sometimes without noticing. Be honest when you don’t know something, own up to your mistakes, never shift blame (even if you really didn’t do it), and always lift your team members up. If you can nail those things, then you’ll find a way through, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll become a better manager in the process as well.  


1. OK, maybe not actually eat you, but they won’t like you for it. Not even a little bit.?
2. Why anyone would continue a good behavior for a carrot reward, unless they were a bunny, is beyond me (I prefer chocolate biscuits, personally), but it’s as good a shorthand as any to describe this process.?
3. Please don’t actually beat anyone with a stick. It’s poor form.?
4. The nine box performance matrix is usually attributed to McKinsey, who invented it in the 1970s for GE. If you’ve done any classes at business school, you’ve probably done a course on it. For the purposes of this article, however, it is simply a method of plotting team members on a graph from lowest performing in the lower left, to highest performing in the upper right. Most nine box models plot performance on the x-axis, and behaviour on the y-axis, but there are many variations.?
5. Some would call them ‘flamewars’.?
6. Some would call them a ‘bug’.?

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