Wordstar 2000, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and the moulding of a young mind

I came across this interesting article about how some people still use Wordstar as a word processor. The two main points are that Wordstar is designed to be used entirely without moving your hands off the keyboard, and that Wordstar behaves more like the act of writing a document longhand than typing or retyping something in a page-based model. It delves into some really esoteric features, but the majority of the features the author mentioned were things that I remembered fondly.

Wordstar 2000 was my first word processor, and it was the foundation that made it easier for me to grasp semantic markup like HTML when I met it later. If you wanted to bold something, you did it without switching mental contexts, you just typed a command that would make things bold until you turned it off again. There wasn’t a mouse (the “2000” was aspirational, not descriptive). There wasn’t much of a visible menu, there was just you and the black screen and the blinking green cursor. That idea of inline formatting stayed with me.

There’s a linguistic theory called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that says the way we think is influenced by our language. Our linguistic pathways make it harder or easier for us to think in a certain way. I think that’s certainly true of software that we encounter at formative stages. For me, Wordstar taught me to separate the content of my writing from the formatting of the output. Now we call that writing with semantic markup or sometimes just semantic writing (which is a deplorably broad, fuzzy phrase). My formative computing and writing happened at the same time, at the end of the typewriter era (I learned to type on a typewriter) and the dawn of the visual web. I think it gives me a distinctive quirk to the way I think of text, and writing, and all the intersections thereof.

Sarah Mei recently posted that even if Ruby did not survive as an intact language, it would influence a generation of people who think about code, the way Smalltalk influenced the generation who started originating the ideas for Agile. I loved that idea, and it made me think of the ways that academia has to trace lines of influence and inheritance of ideas. I started out as an English lit major, and we are super into “the marxist reading of Frankenstein” and who Mary Shelley had read and would be influenced by, and so on. It’s a habit we don’t have as much in technology, I think. We tend to treat ideas we adopt and raise as if they were entirely our own, and we either deliberately or accidentally strip them of context and heritage. 
I think about that tendency when I rewrite something, and when I leave a project. Because I do work-for-hire writing, there is almost no expectation of attribution. I come in, take whatever text there is, rework it to serve the needs that I can see or have been told of, and then move on. But in some hypothetical state where software could track all my works, I wonder if you could see the places where I learned task-based writing, where I played with and mostly-discarded DITA, where I was working from story cards or working from interfaces. Academics keep track of all the things they write for publication. I have LinkedIn because I literally have no idea who I’ve worked for without a reminder.

The thing about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that I find extra fascinating is that if you really and truly learn an additional language, you can remap or add onto your thought paths, identify colors that don’t exist in the original language*, construct ideas that just don’t work in your original language, all sorts of magical thinking. Learning an entire human language is daunting, but any language we learn, any concept we internalize can rewire us to an extent. I have probably…. 8 distinct registers for writing, and each of them is deliberately learned and curated. Every time I add a new one, I can see places that it would have been handy to think this way on past assignments.

What does all that have to do with my first word-processor? It makes me honor how different pieces of software “think”, what their paradigm is, and how I can write in a way that keeps that intact. For example, this week I learned something vital about YAML files ( I think). I was having a terrible time getting an indented TOC to work, and the error message was just this side of useless. I took a break to do some sewing, and reminded myself that the curves have to match on the sewing line, not the edge of the fabric, the edge of the fabric is not important. When I came back to the accursed YAML file, I figured out that the indentation is not based on how many spaces you are in from the line start, but that your indentation marker is directly below the first letter of its container. That changes the whole paradigm. The program is not counting spaces, it’s counting the first meaningful character on a line. If I get this into my head well enough, the next time I meet something like that, I will know to check my assumptions on which part needs to match.

What about you? What languages have shaped how you think and work? What paradigms do you use every day?
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* I used to think that the men I knew didn’t care enough about colors to identify them correctly, and were therefore being lazy to say “blue” for both “teal” and “cobalt”. Then I realized that a) some of them are colorblind and may not even know it b) they are discouraged from or never taught the extensive color names that are practical and useful for someone who dresses as a woman. If you tell me a sweater is plum and it shows up eggplant, I’m annoyed, because those are different colors to me, and I was planning on one of them. 

It makes me wonder how many things I’m lazy about identifying because I don’t care or I’m socialized not to make the effort. Like, um, baseball positions or birds or knots. I can learn them if I care, but I don’t right now, so it’s all “small brown bird” and “knot around things”.

Linguistic relativity in colors

5 Years Behind the Mic

5 years ago, I kicked off the conference-speaking section of my career, with this classic hit:

So many things about this! Like, uh, I’ve dyed my hair and learned to take my lanyard off and stopped using FrameMaker and Prezi. But also, this core theory is the basis of so many of my talks now.

  1. Users are angry about reading docs
  2. Users are searching for answers
  3. Fix the common problems first

I expected to be a little embarrassed at watching baby!speaker Heidi, but I’m really not. I’ve polished some things, improved some processes, refined some ideas, but at the core, there’s nothing to be embarassed about here.

I thought about what 5 things I would tell that speaker, besides she’s awesome for taking this leap.

  1. Your content is conference value. Don’t feel ashamed of asking conferences to pay.
  2. When someone compliments your talk, say thank you, don’t argue. Engage them.
  3. Never apologize at the beginning of a talk.
  4. Long introductions mean you can get less content in. Tighten them up to almost nothing.
  5. You run long. Write your talks to be shorter than the window.

In the last 5 years, I’ve gotten to three continents, dozens of cities. I’ve made so many conference friends that there is almost nowhere I speak that I don’t know at least one other person. Conference speaking is almost the entirety of my lead generation for independent consulting. It has quite literally changed my life, expanded my career, and given me a globe-spanning network.

Results may vary — I think I got into it at an opportune time, and I now have enough of a portfolio that I’ve gotten a couple invitations instead of straight CFP applications. But I still think it’s an amazing way to expand your career, your cicle, your industry experience, your education, and your ability to take taxis in strange cities.

Bring some value. Spend time on your talk. Go to the whole conference. Watch other speakers. Learn new things. Google jokes that everyone but you laughed at. Learn to sleep on planes. Invest in good antacids and excellent luggage. Your talks will never be perfect, but you can keep trying.

I believe in you.

Lady Conference Speaker: Slides

Once you get a conference talk selected, you’ll want to put together the talk. There are speakers who can give entire talks without any visual aids, but most of the rest of us count on having some pictures to look at and prompt us. There are entire books written on slides – I liked Presentation Zen and Slide:ology. I can’t replicate everything all the books have to say, but I can tell you what I’ve found useful.

As you make more presentations, you’ll find your own style and voice. Be sure to watch what other speakers are doing and borrow the best of what you see. Some people do very rapid slides, and will have as many as 90 slides in a 25 minute presentation. Some people like to linger on a few key images. Some people use words, and some people avoid them entirely. You’re going to find your voice, but in the meantime, here are some things that would have helped me to know when I started out.

Tools

Slide software falls into two categories: WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) or visual design, and compiled, or coded design. The first category is things like PowerPoint, Keynote, and Google Slides. The second category is more like building an HTML page, where you specify elements in Markdown or another language. These are RevealJS, RemarkJS, Deckset, GitPitch, and others.

I only use the first kind of slide software, but people who use coded design tools appreciate the reliability and customizing options of writing their own slides from scratch. My preferred tool is Google Slides because I can work across all the platforms I write on, I can easily send the link to an organizer, and I don’t have to worry about compatibility. In the last year, Google Slides fixed two major problems I had – you can now present offline, and you can use a Bluetooth presentation remote to advance your slides.

You’re going to want to get a presentation remote. They can be had for about $20, but you can get a really nice one for about $50. It depends on how much you want to invest in your speaking future. Practice using it  to understand the range and direction that you can get away with. Having a remote means that you can get out from behind the podium and it gives you something to do with at least one of your hands.

I travel with and present from an iPad, which is more convenient for me than a full-sized laptop. I got an HDMI adapter, and that is a pretty standard expectation at this point. If a conference is using something other than HDMI, they’ll probably let you know. My entire presentation kit fits in the tiny hand-size case for my presentation remote (clicker).

Standard elements

I have some elements that appear on all of my slides:

  • Twitter handle
  • Talk name
  • Conference
  • Hashtag

That may be more information than most people need, but I have a reason for all of them.

I think the Twitter handle is most important. Very few people will remember the introduction slide well enough for them to accurately quote you 20 slides later when you say something they want to talk about. Putting it on all or almost all your slides means that if a picture gets taken, people can come find you if they want more information.

The talk name also helps people identify a picture of the slide, and sometimes it helps me remember which talk I’m in, since I sometimes re-use images. It’s especially helpful for times that I have changed the name of the talk.

Including the conference name is something I do because I re-work my slides for each conference. I don’t entirely rewrite them, but I do add and subtract slides to change the audience, the time, the technology emphasis. Adding the conference name also shows the conference and the attendees that I am thinking about them specifically. I also save each presentation separately, for my records on how talks historically evolve.

The hashtag is less essential, but I like to have it available so people can use it and I can unify my talks around it.

I like to put all these elements in one place so that I can change them easily – in this example, it runs along the bottom of all the slides in this presentation.


I also have fairly extensive speaker notes for all of my presentations – not because I read them, but because it makes the slides more useful whet they are distributed without video. That’s a personal preference, but remember that everything in the speaker notes will be visible if you distribute the deck, so you may want to be careful about what you say.

Images

Don’t steal other people’s intellectual property.

Can I say it more clearly than that? Don’t use pictures without permission.

Conference talks are absolutely your intellectual property, and you’d be rightfully irritated if someone was on the conference circuit slavishly copying your talks, so don’t do it to photographers and visual artists.

Luckily, it’s actually pretty easy to be a responsible person about this when you assemble a presentation. Images come from three legitimate sources:

  • Pictures you took yourself
  • Pictures that you paid for (Getty, stock photo providers)
  • Pictures that are licensed for re-use that you handle properly

Taking your own pictures is sometimes fun, and you can do a lot of interesting things with just your camera phone. With reasonable lighting, you can get snapshots that will look OK at conference screen size.

Buying the rights to pictures is expensive, but if you work for or are representing a large organization, they may already have a license that you can use. You can also find some relatively low-cost stock photograph suppliers, but if you’re a 60-slides kind of speaker, it’s still a lot of money.

The thing I do most often is use images that are licensed for re-use, and make sure I attribute them properly, either on the slide itself or at the end of the presentation.  I mostly use the advanced Google image search. In fact, if you are in Google Slides and you say you want to insert an image and then search for it, you will get a search tuned for images that are licensed “Commercial Reuse with Modification”. Knock yourself out, just remember to attribute them properly. I have other ways to search for licensed-for-reuse images in the Resources section.

Code examples

Not all technical talks have code. I promise that’s allowed, and I have never had code in one of my talks and yet they still let me up on stage and give me a mic.

If you do use code in a talk, here are some tips you might find useful:

  • Make the font bigger. No bigger than that. Are the characters the size of your head? Maybe big enough.
  • Use syntax highlighting. It reduces cognitive load at lets people focus on what you’re trying to say.
  • If you’re talking about a particular section, make it bright and the other parts a bit greyed out. Or leave them out all together. After all, you’re not going to teach anyone to code from a stage, you’re just showing them that a thing is possible. They’ll look it up later.
  • Murphy’s Law loves a livecoder. Although some people are virtuousic typists, lots of us get clumsy when we’re nervous. Instead of livecoding, consider taking a series of screenshots and stepping through them as slides. That way the wifi is not an issue, the remote servers are not an issue, and you reduce several variables.

Videos, sound, and other weird things

It may work. From my observation, your odds are 50/50 of getting a video with sound to work with the A/V system, especially if you surprise the technician. Do you really want to unclip your mic and hold it up to your laptop speakers awkwardly? I didn’t think so.

The medium most likely to work in a presentation is an animated gif, which is nice as far as it goes, but you need to make sure it doesn’t just…run…continously….behind you, because dang, those things are hypnotic. I have made this mistake myself, but nothing is as hypnotic as the slide I saw that was just a video of a massive domino layout, with spirals and collapsing towers, and…. yeah. It was a great illustration of the point, which was about how nothing works perfectly, but then we were all watching the looping dominoes, looking for the parts where the connections failed. Great illustration, but it completely distracted the entire audience. It’s possible to set gifs to only loop once or twice, and I strongly recommend you do that for your presentations.

Other weird things that sometimes work and sometimes just make the speaker more nervous or the audience less attentive:

  • Selfies with the audience
  • Physical humor
  • Open coffee mugs, beer steins, or anything that can dump itself on your laptop
  • Asking for audience response if you haven’t prepared them.

Resources

My new favorite resource for slide templates: Slides Carnival

A good roundup of CC0 and public domain image sites: WPTavern image resources

And of course, almost everything on Wikipedia has a reuse license, and if you go to the image page, you can get different sizes and a handy little attribution slug.

Museums, such as The British Museum and libraries, such as The New York Public Library are also working very hard to digitize and publish their collections.

A large WWII cargo ship about to slide down the dock

It’s easy to find pictures you can use, such as this great launch photo of a Liberty Ship.

 To sum up

There is no one Right Way to create presentation slides. It’s very dependent on personality and topic. I once saw a great talk that had hand-drawn slides, and one that had 8-bit art. It worked for those speakers and pulled the talk together in a memorable way. But the way you do it will come to be your style, so feel free to experiment while you’re learning. Just don’t stop learning!

Remember that slides are not the whole presentation – your topic and delivery are a huge part of it, too. Provide essential information on every slide. Do your best to be ethical in your use of intellectual property. Be careful of things that may fail and fluster you on stage. Go have fun!

Post on Opensource.com: How to nail a tech writer job inteview

I was excited to write another post for opensource.com:

How to nail a tech writer job interview

It’s an extension of a twitter rant I went on a bit ago, about how important it is to know certain things about interviewing as a technical writer, but no one is teaching them, from what I can tell.

  • What kind of samples should you offer?
  • What is ethical to use as a sample?
  • What is a reasonable (and unreasonable) writing test?
  • How do you talk about team projects or work for hire?

I’m already in discussions with the team about a follow-up, based on my New Sheriff In Town talk. That one will cover how to walk into a new position and figure out what to write first.

If you’re interested in more content on interviewing, Carol Smith and I are putting the finishing touches on a workshop about all the not-code parts of a technical interview. You’ll be able to read more about that in The Recompiler soon, and of course, I’ll post about it here.