Burnout in Free Software Communities

Free software, by its nature, attracts self-driven people who like to be involved in diverse and challenging projects. I know, I am one of those people. I work with those people, I hang out with those people. But there’s a danger, when you’re a self-driven, motivated person, of over-committing to too many projects, and burning out.

Free software projects are places where burnout can happen, moreso than other places. The bazaar style model is fertile ground for burnout. There are always new projects starting up, always exciting things going on. New projects always need volunteers and, with a limited number of contributors available, it’s unlikely that a project will turn down someone who has the requisite skills and who is enthusiastic. This is particularly a danger when a contributor first comes to the project. You want to make a big impact, are super-excited, and think that the best way to become enmeshed in the community is to do everything. Continue reading →


Fighting against cliché

I’ve been doing some writing exercises to get myself going in the morning. I’m trying to write without too much direction, just to see what happens. Standard fare for writing teachers is the “first line” prompt. The aim of this exercise is to provide a first line that the writer then follows on from. I found a first line generator that generates first lines such as the following:

It would only be a fling – she wasn’t about to break up the happy home

She clung on to the piece of driftwood, praying for daylight

He knew he must keep very still while he waited

His voice had never sounded so cold

The aim of the writing exercise is to take the first line and just start writing. However, the first thing that come to mind are clichés – the first an affair, the second something like Castaway, the next someone hiding from pursuers, the final one a breakup. But, in the attempt to write about something not cliché I find myself getting into an unending cliché loop.

What’s wrong with cliché?

A cliché is a “is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.”

Our minds are filled with clichés – we say them every day, we live them. I’m a cliché – I married my much older philosophy lecturer (see: Little Women). We say things like “the end of the day,” or “to be honest.” And, you know, clichés do have their place – they’re a shorthand way of getting across something that is culturally understood. I might want to convey that someone really is a stuffy old academic who wants to be cool by putting them in a jacket with elbow patches. I might signal a millennial by the constant pinging of their smartphone.

But in order to make something that isn’t just a rehash of shallow ideas that pervade society, it’s necessary to fight with cliché.

Clichés today

There has never been more clichés than there are today. The world is filled with image and clichés of every single kind. One cannot turn on the television without being faced with a cliché: show formats that are all the same, presenters that are carbon copies of one another, advertisements that have perfected appealing to the clichés inside us. Just going on Twitter you can see the proliferation of hashtags, mannerisms, and turns of phrase that circulate.

Fighting with Cliché

Our brains are packed full of clichés. When I to a page it is already filled with them. How do I avoid rehashing them? How to I write something that gets at the thing itself, without all the built-up shit? That’s what I haven’t figured out yet, and those first line exercises made me think of it this morning. I was going through each first line, as soon as I’d read it I’d have an idea and then think “ugh”.

Some thoughts I had on how to deal with it:
– write through the cliché and see what happens at the other side. There might be something of value, or it might be shit, or maybe the cliché will become something else
– don’t do writing exercises like that
– note down ideas on a list and if they are cliché strike them out

I am aware that all of this thinking ignores the fact that a writing exercise is what it says it is – an exercise, a way of exercising my writing, and I should probably just treat it as such. Maybe tomorrow.

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Speaking about WordPress and Philosophy at WCEU

This Saturday I’ll be speaking at WordCamp Europe. It is particularly exciting for me because last year I was one of the organisers and this year I get to see it from the other side (i.e. less stress, more sleep, more socialising!). It’s also my first WordCamp in Europe since WordCamp London last November (which I was organising so didn’t really get to enjoy all that much!). It’s wonderful to be back in this part of the world. I missed Europe. I missed cobbled streets and the way the light spreads across crumbling old cities.

Many of the presentations I’ve been doing of late have been focused on the work that I’m doing on WordPress’ history. For WordCamp Europe I decided to talk about some of the ideas behind WordPress and how they came to be on WordPress’ philosophies page. I’ve been working on this aspect at the minute so it fit well with what I was going. The more I dug, however, the deeper I went and I found it hard to stop. My old training as a philosophy graduate kicked in and quickly I was writing about Philosophy instead of philosophies.

This makes my presentation doubley exciting for me, and also doubley nervewracking. If someone had told me two years ago that I would do a presentation at a WordCamp about philosophy, I would have thought it was ridiculous. And it probably is still ridiculous, but I’m doing it anyway.

So if you want to hear what Duns Scotus, Michel Foucault, and Isaiah Berlin have in common with WordPress, come to my presentation this Saturday at 11:30am to find out.

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In need of a good joke

I am in need of a joke. I have just one. I need another. D and I go out with friends, to dinner or for a drink. D thinks that he’s very funny so will crack a few jokes. Then other people tell their jokes. Then the most hilarious thing of all – D announces that I only have one joke, and that I always tell it and that I haven’t got any more.

“Tell us a joke,” he says.

“No,” I say.

“She’s only got one,” he says, giggling.

“So?” I say.

“Tell us it.”


“I’ll tell it,” he says, then of course can’t remember it, his head being stuff so full of his own jokes. “I only know the punchline. You tell it.”

And then I do tell it.

The joke is this:
What do you call a square testicle?
A cubicle

This, I think, is very funny. It makes most people laugh. D, however, has heard it many, many times. He forgets that the lot of a married person is to hear one’s spouse repeat the same stories and jokes ad nauseum until death do us part. He forgets how many times I’ve heard him tell the story about his brother and the lazy cats, or about how he nearly died scuba diving (he didn’t nearly die), or the number of times he’s retold the winning joke from the Edinburgh festival (“I decided to sell my Hoover… well it was just collecting dust.”)

The problem with my joke is that it’s not really mine. A friend told me it a few years ago and I thought it was funny and it stuck in my head. I like the wordplay, the way that the words rhyme with each other. I like the three-syllable sound of the words. I like the image of a square testicle.

But I need a new one, or I need some new friends. Probably a new joke is easier to come by. The problem with jokes is that half of them are racist, mysoginistic, or filthy, making them inappropriate for telling to people who you don’t know all that well (I’m probably already on shakey grounds with my testicle joke, but a least it’s more fit for public conception than 50% of D’s). About another quarter of them are totally lame. The type of jokes our eleven-year old niece tells us, in which she gets the telling totally wrong, giggling like a harpee as she tries to construct a joke in a sort of Burroughs cut-up technique fashion. Or jokes from a joke book that must have been passed down through a hundred generations.

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”



“Knock knock.”

“I’ve heard this one before.”

“I hate you.” Screams. Storms off.

I have done some searching for my new joke. I need one that is short. I have a terrible memory and I fear mangling a joke to be received by stoney silence while D giggles (he does that a lot).

Here are some that I’ve come across:

What has teeth but no mouth?
A comb.
More of a riddle than a joke.

How do you know that carrots are good for your eyesight?
Have you ever seen a rabbit with glasses?

Why did the man put condoms on his ears during sex?
He didn’t want to get hearing aids.
Good imagery but not very funny.

Why did the cat go to the hospital?
To have a CAT scan done.

The thing about the square testicle joke is that it’s pretty much perfect. It contains so much:

  • a play on words
  • rhyme
  • slightly riské but not over the top therefore suitable for most company
  • conjurs up an excellent mental image

However, my telling of it is ruined by D giggling and pronouncing to the world how hilarious it is that I, his wife, have only one joke. It’s not simply that I have only one joke, but that I am the joke. I, in my one-jokeness, have become a prop in D’s box of funnies that he trots out for anyone who will listen.

And so, has anyone got a new one for me?

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Caye Caulker, May – June 2014

We recently spent 6 weeks in Caye Caulker, Belize. A lot of time was spent diving, even more was spent trying to get the book I’m writing finished. But there was time to take some photos.

So much truth

I didn’t know Rebecca Meyer, or at least not in person. I don’t even know Eric Meyer, though his name has come up here and there during the research I’m doing. I happened to be on his blog to read something he wrote years ago. I clicked onto his home page and stumbled on a blog post with the title The Truth.

It’s startling to be arrested by so much truth, just when doing something so prosaic. I was stunned. I couldn’t go back to work. I wanted to know why this was happening. I cried. I felt a deep, empty, ache. I wanted to email him, this person I don’t know, to say how sorry I am, or leave a comment on his blog, but whatever I thought to say felt so empty and inconsequential in the face of what was happening.

I’ve become so accustomed to the web’s bite-size pieces of enjoyment, information absorption, reams of content that I glide over the surface of. Even in the news media, there are so many images of suffering that they become ubiquitous. But reading Eric’s blog over the past few months, words on this screen have taken on so much power, the internet given a new depth and dimension. To be here, reading that, while it’s actually going on to a family. In a very raw way, I’ve been put in touch with real sadness and suffering, reminded how lucky I am for my life and the life of my loved ones, brought closer to the pain of all those families who have lost someone so young. Tragedy is just a breath away from any of us. I’ve never read anything online that has made me feel so much. I am filled with sadness, heartbroken.

These words are not enough. I just wanted to write something, anything, to let Eric and his family know that people across the world, that I, grieve with them.

Please consider making a donation Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House or the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

Ups and downs diving New Zealand

When D asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, the answer was simple – diving! We decided to head north from Wellington, to do a 2 day liveaboard in the Poor Knights Islands, off the North-East Coast of New Zealand.  New Zealand tourist guides are fond of pointing out that the Poor Knights were one of Jacques Cousteau’s favourite sites, so I was pretty excited to dive in its clear waters, and see the abundant marine life.

8am, we went to the harbour to find our boat, the MV Mazurka, a small liveaboard with room for about 8 people. The plan was to go out for two days and do 7 dives around the Poor Knights.

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MV Mazurka, run by Ocean Blue

We were first to arrive at the boat. The sun was shining and it looked like we had a glorious day ahead of us. I was hopping about, babbling about how excited I was. We’d been there for five minutes when a man came down the pier. He introduced himself as Kevin. He looked sheepish. He explained that there was a bit of a problem: two and a half meter swells that would make any extended trip out to the islands a misery, especially an overnight stay that would involve rolling around all night in a small cabin. Given both D and I’s propensity to sea sickness, we decided, reluctantly, to call it off.

Instead, we went out on a day boat. The swells weren’t going to pick up for a few hours so at least we’d be able to get out to see the Poor Knights and do some diving. Kevin brought us to another boat at the marina, this one owned by Yukon Dive. They had room for us and within a few hours we were on our way to the Poor Knights.

The sea was rough. I’d taken extra tablets to prevent the relentless nausea that is sea sickness. There’s nothing worse than being sick on a boat, when you know that getting off the boat is the only cure and there’s no chance of escaping until you reach dry land. So far, I’ve used healthy doses of dramamine to avoid sea sickness. The downside of dramamine is that it gives you cottonmouth and can make you feel stoned. Here’s a picture of D after two dramamine tablets:


D high on dramamine at Nopparat Thara pier, Thailand

I’ve been experimenting with other tablets: I took meclizine on our previous liveaboard, which worked fine. On this trip, however, I should have taken the dramamine.  Huge swells rocked the boat, and every pair of eyes was fixed on the horizon. We couldn’t, however, get to the Poor Knights quick enough – the dark outcropping on the horizon, past the rolling swells, inched closer; every minute of the 45 minute journey crawled by, and I began to be thankful that we weren’t on a liveaboard.

The Poor Knights are beautiful. They’re a group of uninhabited islands 50 miles off the coast of New Zealand. On a normal visit, you’d see arches and caves and striking rock formations. On our visit, the arches were hidden by the waves that crashed through every hole as the ocean beat against the island. All we wanted to do was to dive in and get beneath the swells to the calm blue underneath.

It was my first dive trip to cold water – this meant wriggling my way into a 7mm full length wet suit. This is hard enough, but harder still when the boat is rocking from side to side, and it’s hard to stand up straight. Still, we got in, suited up, and jumped in. It’s a shock to hit the water for the first time, unlike the warm waters in Thailand. But it wasn’t as cold as I expected, and I was surprised at how little the temperature bothered me.

What is affected by water temperature is buoyancy. In Thailand we dove in 5mm short wetsuits, which don’t have much of an impact in buoyancy. In New Zealand the wet suits are 7mm thick. At the surface you’re extra buoyant so you need more weight to get down, but as you descend the water pressure compresses the wet suit and all that extra weight makes you sink like a stone.

As our first dive in cold water, we did a quick buoyancy check to make sure we were weighted correctly. Everything was fine so we descended. Except I couldn’t go down. I was bobbing around at the surface, and I struggled to go anywhere. Our divemaster grabbed my fin and tried to pull me down, but I kept flipping over. It’s  disorientating to try to descend through the water only to find yourself continuously flipping over. It wasn’t helped by the swells that were pulling me up and down, and by now I’d started to feel nauseous. Most of all it was frustrating. I’d left Thailand feeling happy with my buoyancy, able to jump in the sea and keep a good profile. But now I felt like I did on my very first dive – completely unable to control myself.

Eventually, my divemaster put another weight on me and I was able, with difficulty, to descend. We dove along a wall, sheltered from the current, at a dive site called the Canyon. It was dotted with long stalks of seaweed that swayed with the rise and fall with the sea. D and Rachael (our divemaster) spent the dive looking around the wall for its inhabitants, scorpionfish, white eyed moray eels, and nudibranches. I spent the dive trying to keep myself from flipping on to my back. Every time I moved I felt like I was spinning around. I tightened my BCD, and tried to hold myself straight.

By the time we decided to ascend I was exhausted. We did our safety stop at 5 meters, the swell pulling us up and down. Denjoyed it, but I was struggling to keep myself from going upside down. All I wanted to do was surface. But when I did, my body gave in to the swell and I was hit with overwhelming nausea.

I fought my way out of my wet suit and sat on the dive deck feeling sorry for myself and looking miserable. I was convinced that a) I’d forgotten how to dive, and b) I couldn’t cope with the buoyancy changes in cold water. On top of that, the swell had picked up even further and the boat was rolling from side to side. Each roll brought a new wave of nausea and I was sure that soon I’d be hanging over the side of the boat, emptying my breakfast of bacon and eggs into the sea. I dreaded having to wriggle into my cold wetsuit, put on my BCD, and jump in the water to turn summersaults once more.

Instead, I quietly disappeared to the cabin at the back of the boat, put on some warm clothes, curled up, and went to sleep. A mixture of drowsiness from the sea sickness tablets and the rocking of the boat meant that it was one of the best sleeps of my life. I woke up feeling infinitely better, to hear the rest of the divers returning from their dive. D was elated and apologetic. He’d spent the dive hanging out with a giant stingray.

As D packed up his gear, the skipper said he’d removed my weights from my equipment, but that one of my integrated weight pockets was missing. The flipping over, the inability to descend, finally made sense. I must have dropped my weight pocket just after doing the buoyancy test, leaving me 4kg lighter than I needed to be. This had made me too buoyant to descend, and had also been the cause of my flipping over – too much weight on one side. I was sad that I’d not noticed earlier, but relieved that the problem had been one of weighting, not that I’d forgotten how to dive. It had been my first dive with an integrated BCD and I just hadn’t thought to check my weight pockets. Lesson learned.

The trip back was rougher than the way out, waves crashed over the top of the boat, and the angry sea battered us. It was a relief to get back to dry land. Despite feeling relieved, I still felt despondent and wasn’t sure I wanted to dive for a while. Still the next day was my birthday and I had been determined to spend it diving. Some of the other divers on the boat suggested that we go to the Bay of Islands, to a dive outfit there that has its own rig and cheap accommodation. I made D telephone them, because I didn’t even have the energy to talk about diving. I knew, however, that the best way to cure my reluctance to go diving again was to get back in the water.

Around the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Around the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

I’m glad that I did. We had two wonderful dives with Northland Dive. First, we dove the Canterbury Wreck, which beats all of the wrecks I’ve dove before. Sunk seven years ago, by Shane and Julia who run Northland Dive, the 113 meter Frigate is in beautiful condition. At 30 meters, it stands upright, so we were able to dive through the helicopter hanger, along covered walkways, and we could even enter the bridge. The visibility was perfect, and we could use our torches to peer inside portholes and cracks in the ship to see fish packed inside. The second dive was at a 40m long tunnel, Big Eyes Lair. We dropped in the water and swam around through the clear blue to the back entrance of the cave, where we entered one at a time. The cave gradually ascended. Torchlight shone on the walls, lighting up scorpion fish and the big eyes that give the lair their name. Sunlight streamed through the exit, bright blue at the end of the darkness.

I loved both dives, I even loved jumping in to the bracing cold water, but best of all I’d penetrated a wreck, and swam down a tunnel, and my buoyancy had been perfect. If we end up living somewhere were the water’s cold, I shouldn’t have any problems diving it.


Photo credit Northland Dive


First use of the word “wordpress”

Serendipity struck today. Sunday afternoon spent lounging on the sofa reading books. D started chuckling and motioned for me to come over to look inside his copy of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce:

A bone, a pebble, a ramskin; chip them, chap them, cut them up allways; leave them to terracook in the muttheringpot: and Gutenmorg with his cromagnom charter, tintingfast and great primer must once for omniboss step rubrickredd out of the wordpress else is there no virtue more in alcohoran. For that (the rapt one warns) is what papyr is meed of, made of, hides and hints and misses in prints. (p. 20)

wordpress! James Joyce! It came as a total surprise, although perhaps shouldn’t since Joyce was an auteur when it came to messing with words. Here it is in situ:


What is Joyce talking about? There’s a great analysis of it here. He seems to be referring to the intoxication of language, an overabundance of words; how language has developed over time (from cro-magnon man to Gutenberg (who created the first printing press from a wine press)) to become drunk with meaning and sense. “wordpress” is this clamour of words from which sense and nonsense springs.

Finnegan’s Wake is often cited as being the source for the word “quark“, which Murray Gell-Mann took from the line “three quarks for Muster Mark!” While Christine Tremoulet didn’t have Joyce in mind when she came up with the name, it’s fantastic to find this different meaning to the word, one that links our publishing platform to the printing press, one of history’s literary cornerstones, and to language itself. It’ll make a lovely footnote for the book.