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The Opening Sentence: Brilliant Disguise

This is the fourth post in my new project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here, check out previous posts here and share any thoughts/ideas/criticisms below. Today I’m practising descriptions, in a way.

Edith looked like a chicken. When we say that, we usually mean that someone has a neck that is so wrinkled and red you could present it as a restaurant garnish and no-one would bat an eyelid. That wasn’t the case with Edith Jones. Her neck was smooth enough, if marred with a few freckles and a strange hairy mole at the back left. But that wasn’t something you saw on poultry terribly often.

Perhaps it was Edith’s nose, which had a sharp angle that called a beak to mind if you caught her in silhouette. And perhaps it was the beady expression in her pinched black pupils, staring out at the world with a bird-like mix of caution and blank incomprehension. She seemed vaguely aware that a threat loomed in the world, but not alert enough to sense the axe swinging through the air and preparing to slice her head off and watch the blood spurt while her legs danced brainlessly.

You couldn’t blame it on the hair. Brown and curly, it looked much less like a hen than an old English sheepdog, greasy and unwashed and unthreatening. Yet the impression didn’t stick; Edith’s face lacked the air of supplication or simple happiness such a hound would provide. That expression called out the chicken again, unsure enough of the world to be unsure if the outstretched hand would actually offer grain.

At six feet tall, Edith’s height might have called to mind an ostrich. But she lacked the elegance and alterness, and there was nothing in her pinched frame to suggest the buttocks of a plains-dwelling bird. She rarely wore pink.

And so it was the chicken that prevailed. Ultimately, we will have to blame the voice. When Edith spoke, it was the cluck of the fowl-yard; easy enough to hear, but nothing that anyone would pay attention to. If someone had bothered to pay attention, perhaps she would have stayed at home on January 13, and Frank Temor would not now be counting corpses in a school playground.

The Opening Sentence: Airport Dialogue

This is the third post in my new project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here, check out previous posts here and share any thoughts/ideas/criticisms below. As with yesterday’s example, the opening line is a real fragment of conversation I overheard.

“Don’t drop it. There’s a PlayStation in there, for fuck’s sake.”

“I didn’t drop it. It just fell over.”

“Well, why can’t you hold onto it? The queue isn’t that long.”

“Fuck that. I don’t know why we have to bring it anyway.”

“Because I’m not paying the hotel thirty bucks a day just so I can play games.”

“Because you never get to do that, do you? It’s a bloody holiday. Why do we have to drag the fucking console along?”

“Because there is no way that I am watching Indonesian TV. No fucking way.”

“You’ll be lucky if it arrives in one piece. Those baggage handlers always treat luggage like shit.”

“It’s well-padded.”

“Well, if it’s well-padded, it shouldn’t matter if I drop it, should it?”

“Whatever. Do you want me to carry it instead?”

“No way. You can carry the other suitcase. That weighs a ton.”

“Well, that’s hardly my fault is it? I’m not the one packing a PlayStation for a beach trip.”

“Well, hold on to it ya mong.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you, ya cunt.”

It was going to be a good holiday.

The Opening Sentence: Platform 3

This is the second post in my new project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here and share any thoughts/brickbats below.

The voice boomed across Platform 3. “Would London Transport Police please come to the Piccadilly Line platforms to remove a beggar?”

I knew that was the opportunity I needed. The station was already crowded with commuters on their weary way home, but everyone stepped away from where the resting figure, huddled in a blanket, was cursing huskily under his breath, a handwritten cardboard sign in front of him. He wouldn’t move until the police arrived, and that would take a few moments, even if they used the staff exits and avoided some of the corridors teeming with passengers.

I was standing directly behind Rebecca Blake. I was sure she hadn’t seen me. Even if she noticed me in passing, the scarf around my neck and the beanie on my head made my features hard to discern .And she had only met me briefly that one time, when I guided her into Leonard Johnson’s office. Numbers were her passion; it seemed unlikely she would have much of a memory for faces.

Even so, I waited on the platform until the police finally arrived to remove the beggar. The crowd was forced even closer together as the three coppers (two male, one female) leaned in and reminded the poor wretch that he had to leave. This was my chance. As everyone squeezed in tighter, I slipped the device into Rebecca Blake’s handbag.

She didn’t notice. She might not have realised even without the distraction, but I couldn’t see the point in taking the risk. By now the beggar had reluctantly agreed to move on, and a train was pulling in, bound for Heathrow. Rebecca Blake boarded, along with most of the crowd. I hung back. Let everyone think I was waiting for a service to Uxbridge. I loitered for a few seconds, then headed for the escalators.

Bruce met me in a pub a block away from the station. Our guess had been correct; once the police had escorted him out of the Tube station, they weren’t interested in taking matters further. The distraction had worked. But we’d have to wait three days to find out if the rest of the plan was as successful. If everything worked, Rebecca Blake would be dead.

The Opening Sentence: Hallowed

This is the first post in my new project The Opening Sentence — read all about it here and share any thoughts/brickbats below.

Sunday School seemed old-fashioned. Ryan vaguely knew that. It wasn’t properly modern. Modern was important. His father was always saying so. “Old-fashioned rubbish!” Rob Tarrant would mutter, switching channels on the television set. The family was never allowed to watch old-fashioned rubbish. But Ryan still had to go to Sunday School.

Ryan’s mother and father did not attend the church service while the children were receiving their Sunday education, unlike most of the other parents. His father would drop him off when the class began and was waiting outside for him when he emerged. Ryan assumed he went back home. The church was only two minutes’ drive away from their house in Brown Street. Ryan imagined his father read the newspaper.

Sometimes his mother would drop him off, but not often. There was usually housework to be done and a Sunday dinner to prepare, tasks which didn’t brook interruption. Ryan vaguely thought Sunday dinner was old-fashioned too, but he liked roast lamb so he didn’t say anything about it. Gravy matters when you are eight years old.

He didn’t like Sunday School as much but he had been sent along since he was five. He hadn’t thought to protest when he went to ordinary school and he didn’t think to protest on Sundays either. It was old-fashioned and boring, but Ryan was not the kind of boy who minded anything much. At least not until Mr Jenkins came along.

What Ryan always remembered and feared was the sound of Mr Jenkins’ keys. You could hear them jangling in his pocket even before he entered the church hall where the lessons were held. Mrs Jenkins was the teacher. Mr Jenkins came to collect her at the end of each lesson.

Unlike Ryan’s father, Mr Jenkins only came to accompany his wife back to the main church building. And unlike Ryan’s father, he didn’t wait outside. No matter how early he was, no matter what the class were doing, he came inside, the solid door slamming shut hard as he entered and setting the lock rattling.

Mrs Jenkins didn’t seem to notice. If anyone else came into the hall during lessons, she would react, chastising or greeting as the occasion demanded. “You’re late, Maria.” (This to a perennially tardy girl with badly-organised plaits.) “Sorry, Mrs Prentice, we’ll only be another five minutes.” (This to the head of the Church social committee, anxious to remove the pupils and prepare for other activities.)

But Mr Jenkins simply walked in, and the verse reading or singing or colouring in continued. Apparently no-one else was supposed to notice either. And that was why Ryan found it impossible to tell anyone why he was so afraid.

Introducing my new project: The Opening Sentence

This blog has been sorely neglected over the last six months: just four posts since January 2012. I blame my full-time job as editor of Lifehacker Australia. I love the work but it’s a lot of words to craft each day, and what energy I might have once had for blogging often ends up as either narky posts on my Twitter feed or in Lifehacker posts which might once have easily run here.

I’m not saying random pop culture and travel stuff won’t continue to appear on the blog if I suddenly get the urge, but I’m going to test a different approach over the next few weeks. Ever since first taking part in NaNoWriMo in 2010, I’ve been keen on writing fiction. (You can read the opening chapter of my 2010 effort and the pitch for my 2011 project right here on the blog.)

I already have a plan for my 2012 NaNoWriMo creation, but I figure my writing muscles need more regular exercise before November. I remember Helen Garner arguing at the Sydney Writer’s Festival a few years ago that doing some form of creative writing every day was excellent discipline, even if you didn’t end up using it. I write thousands of words of journalism every day, but my skills in fiction writing aren’t developed to the same level. So I need to practise outside the context of a planned 50,000+ word work.

Hence The Opening Sentence. In my fiction ideas list, I have dozens of half-sketched concepts and possible opening lines for stories. I’m going to grab a different one of these each day and spend at least 15 minutes developing it. If I’m enthused and want to write for a bit longer, I can, but whatever the length and the quality, I will publish the result right here on this blog.

How long will this last? Either until I run out of opening sentences, an idea grabs me so strongly that I decide to keep working on it, or I collapse with exhaustion. I hope it’s not the last, as that will be dispiriting. Comments, as always, will be welcome.

Who won at the 2012 Lizzies?

Last night saw the 10th Annual Microsoft IT Journalism Awards, invariably known as the Lizzies, which acknowledge the best technology publications and writers in Australia. I was a nominee in five categories, and Lifehacker was up for two awards. I was thrilled hugely that Lifehacker won Best Website against some very tough competition, and that I scored a Highly Commended (HC) in Best Technical Writer. It was also a huge night for my fabulous Allure colleagues. Elly Hart won Best Reviewer, Kotaku won Best Gaming Coverage, and Tracey Lien won Best Gaming Journalist and Best Journalist.

Here’s a list of the winners on the night. (Corrections welcome: this is based on notes scrawled with my IKEA pencil in a noisy, alcohol-filled room.) Publisher-wise, the big scorers on the night were my own employers, Allure Media (5 winners and 1 highly commended); Fairfax (4 winners and 2 highly commended); CBS (3 winners and 3 highly commended); and News Ltd (2 winners).

Best Technology Industry Journalist: David Ramli, AFR (HC: Paul Smith, AFR)

Best Columnist: John Davidson, AFR (HC: Adam Turner, freelancer)

Best Consumer Technology Journalist: Jennifer Dudley-Nicolson, News (HC: Asher Moses, SMH; Nick Ross, ABC)

Best Personal Technology Coverage: CNET

Best Reviewer: Elly Hart, Gizmodo (HC: Darren Yates, PC User)

Best Technology Magazine: PC & Tech Authority (HC: Choice Computer, Game Informer)

Best Business Technology Journalist: Fran Foo, AustralianIT (HC: David Braue, freelancer)

Best Business Technology Coverage: Communications Day (HC: Information Age)

Best New Journalist: Jessica Gardner, BRW (HC: Josh Taylor, ZDNet; Andrew McMillen, Freelancer)

Best Website: Lifehacker (HC: CNet)

Best Technical Journalist: Chris Duckett, Tech Republic (HC: Angus Kidman, Lifehacker)

Best Video Program: 5 Inch Floppy (HC: Good Game)

Best Audio Program: Risky Business (HC: Your Tech Life)

Best Gaming Journalist: Tracey Lien, Kotaku (HC: Laura Parker, Gamespot)

Best Gaming Coverage: Kotaku (HC: 5 Inch Floppy, IGN)

Best Media Relations: Jenny Crowcroft (HC: Renato Catalan, Snezana Stojanovska)

Best News Journalist: Andrew Colley, AustralianIT

Best News Coverage: SMH

Best Journalist: Tracey Lien, Kotaku

Best Publication: CNET

Redefining cloud computing as a vegetable

One of the sessions today at the Kickstart Media Forum was about cloud computing, and journalists had the opportunity to question vendors in the space about trends and issues. But I’m mean and weird, so instead I asked them: If cloud computing was a vegetable, what vegetable would it be?

Remarkably, they all answered. Here’s what they said.

Reuben Bennett, Riverbed national sales manager: “I’d go with potato because it can be dull or uninteresting or it can be dressed up and be very satisfying.”

Duncan Bennet, VMware vice president and managing director: “I’d say fruit salad, lots of stuff mixed up in it, but that’s not a vegetable.”

Damien Murphy, Riverbed systems engineer: Riverbed: “Something that’s a little over-hyped or misunderstood; I’d go with Brussels sprouts.”

Peter James, Ninefold managing director: “It’s got to be fast and powerful and simple and scalable, so I’m thinking broccoli.”

Carl Terrantroy, CA Technologies CTO: “If it was a fruit, it would be easier. I have to do something I like, so I’ll go a baked potato.”

Suhas Kelkar, BMC chief technology officer APC: “It’s the same old vegetable, maybe a carrot, but it’s organically produced.”

Oscar Trimboli, Microsoft Office Lead: “Can it be a fruit? Broccoli, because it’s an amazing self-healing system.”

Gary Mitchell, BMC Australia MD: “Does it have to be a vegetable? Can it be a marshmallow? It’s light and fluffy and it can be satisfying, but if you have too much and you’re not ready it can be a problem.”

So what have we learned? Apparently cloud computing is easier to compare to a fruit. Apparently broccoli is scalable and self-healing. And apparently, people will answer pointless questions if you nag them enough.

The Internet proves my grandfather was a hoon

I love random Google searches sometimes. I did a search on Malcolm Esau (my grandfather, second husband of my paternal grandmother if you want to be pedantic) and found this extract from the Advertiser of Tuesday October 22 1940:

Frankly, this comes as no surprise. My grandfather Malcolm often boasted about how he learned to drive (on a farm property) before the age of ten, and later in life he joyously embraced an alleged South Australian loophole which said that laws regarding compulsory seat belts did not apply to those over seventy.

It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that he was shocked/digusted by my own inability to drive. In 1987, he attempted to teach me to manipulate a car, and the result was appalling to everyone involved. He was a charter example of the kind of person for whom driving is entirely instinctual and who as a result cannot pass that knowledge on to anyone else. But despite that and his in-no-way-latent racism, I always enjoyed his company.

Random searching also reveals that Malcolm was the best man at a wedding in September 1941. There are a stack of related social and birth notices I need to dig into properly.

Pedant note: I’m not obsessive about blood; people in my family are family. As far as I’m concerned, I had five grandfathers (Fin, Bill, Malcolm, Jack and Eric) and four grandmothers (Bobby, Elvira, Freddie, Joyce), and I’m very grateful for all of them. Since the post is about him, here’s a picture of Malcolm in December 1986:

Footpath fails and teenage kicks: Shopping in Dearborn

I’m not surprised that there are no footpaths near my hotel in Detroit. This is a city still clinging, however improbably, to the notion that manufacturing cars is the only road to economic salvation. Why encourage people to walk?

Actually, this is not an uncommon phenomenon in the US: finding yourself in a hotel where there’s essentially no way of leaving unless you’re in a vehicle. Add in the fact that I’m in Dearborn, near Ford’s Detroit HQ — every second building is the Henry Ford something-or-other, and I’m here to check out Ford’s design facilities — and I should perhaps be grateful the roads aren’t fenced off with barbed wire.

Not being able to walk isn’t an issue in my favourite US cities (San Francisco, Boston, New York, even Vegas), but you can’t keep going back to the same old places. Even though my principle aim today in visiting the Fairlane Town Center is something I’ve done several times before: heading to Macy’s and buying some cheap-by-Australian-standards Levis.

So while the mall is right opposite my hotel in Dearborn, no-one seems to have considered that visitors might want to stroll on over and spend some money. I have to wander through a half-empty car park, up a grass verge, across a four-lane road and through another two empty car parks to get to the stores. The traffic on a Sunday makes this feasible, but I suspect it would be impossible during rush hour.

The mall itself is bleak and largely empty, which I attribute partly to the early hour and partly to the depressed state of US retail in general and the Detroit economy in particular. The cheapest Levis turn out to be in JCPenney rather than Macy’s, but with that chore done there’s nothing that keeps me wanting to shop.

But at least I’m allowed to shop whenever I want. While grabbing some lunch in the food court (cheaper than hotel room service), I’m struck by the huge sign and leaflets promoting the ‘Adult Supervision Policy’ at the mall:

This actually turns out to be an anti-teenager policy: if you’re under 18, you’re not allowed in the mall after 5pm at night unless you’re accompanied by an adult. Apparently, before this policy was put in, the place was filled with gangs of marauding teenagers and sales suffered. What I’m wondering is: how did the teenagers who didn’t have cars ever get here in the first place?

Gough Road: My 2011 #NaNoWriMo novel is done!

For the second year running, I’ve taken part in and finished the NaNoWriMo challenge — writing a completed novel of at least 50,000 words between November 1 and November 30. I didn’t finish quite as early this year and I wrote a little bit less, but I’m really pleased with the result. For those of you who are curious, here’s the blurb:

Gough Road
Lonely people live between 40 and 44 Gough Road. At 40a Ricki Smith is a nymphomaniac with an unpleasant mother. Simon and Stephanie Benning compulsively renovate 40b while dreaming of a life outside London. Mike Gage in 44a is an Australian bank executive obsessed with a railway line that was never built. Karim Napur watches immigrant workers come and go from the crowded flat at 44b, while Sandra Bellfall’s house at 42 is getting emptier all the time. But which of them will be the first to die?

And yes, I’m still exploring options for what to do with last year’s novel. I re-read it recently and enjoyed it, which is good. Now I should let other people do that.