In my last post, I talked about my motivations for keeping this blog, one of which was improving my writing and helping myself get better at thinking about things more clearly. I also said that I want to get better at using it to start conversations.

In aid of that, then, is there anyone who’d be interested in participating in a writing exchange of sorts? The idea is that we exchange pieces of writing from time to time, then critique them with one another either in person, via Skype, chat, or whatever. Ideally, I’m looking for someone who’s open-minded, honest, is genuinely trying to improve their own writing, has diverse interests, and thinks they can be both firm and thoughtful in their critique.

I always find it easier to get motivated about things when I’m working with someone else, and I sometimes wonder if the essentially solitary aspect of writing is one of the reasons I sometimes find it so hard!

I guess I’m looking for ways that blog-keeping and writing can become more social.

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Posted in Personal | 4 Comments »

I started blogging back in 2001 with an account on LiveJournal. Most of what I wrote back then was just personal reflections, accounts of events in my life, and the occasional rant about my employers. I didn’t have any coherent reason for keeping a blog; it was just kinda cool and gave me a forum for venting. Most of those posts are no longer up, though I’ve still got them archived and may someday pull them out again and re-post the few insightful ones.

In late 2002, I stopped posting things on LJ. I don’t recall there being any particular reason; I think I just wasn’t sitting in front of a computer as often as I had been, and so never got around to posting. But then, in 2005, I went on a trip to Germany and Austria, and, with five hours waiting at Changi Airport in Singapore, revived my LJ as a place to post photos and talk about my travels. From then, I continued to post occasionally, though still with no particular mission in mind.

During 2006, after having finished writing my Masters thesis, I started to care more about writing. I don’t think the substance of what I was posting was any different but I began to think about the process of writing and articulate my reasons for doing so more clearly. I began to think about my blog (still on LJ) as not just an online journal for the interest and amusement of my friends, but as a place for me to try and write seriously.

Then, in 2007, I spent three months travelling around Europe. I didn’t write much, but I did read a lot and listen to a lot of podcasts, lectures, and the like. Doing this, I think I learned a lot about expression and the different sorts of voices out there talking about the things I’m interested in. I found that the ones I really appreciated were from those whose primary contribution was not the originality of their ideas, but their ability to synthesize the ideas into a coherent message, to reflect on the implications of those ideas, and to analyze and understand their weaknesses. I started to value conversational voices much more than expository voices.

Just after New Years in 2008, I sat on a hilltop near Christchurch in my car with my notebook open, trying to decide what things were important to me and that I wanted to spend my then copious spare time on. I decided that one of my goals for the year was to ‘get into the conversation’, to define my own voice with more clarity, to refine it, and then to start learning and interacting with others. The first step was to begin the move from LJ to my WordPress blog at

Now, as then, I have no particular message that I want to proselytize. I simply want to hold forth my opinion, presenting and synthesizing the ideas that I find interesting and compelling. I don’t want to be a preacher on a soapbox, trying to push a particular message; rather, I like the idea of a philosopher’s circle consisting of some number of learned yet respectful individuals sitting under a tree, or in a coffee shop, discussing, critiquing and pontificating on whatever seems interesting at the time.

Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to form such a circle, either virtually with my blog or in reality, with my friends. I made a few attempts with the ‘Brains and Coffee’ events I tried to organize in mid 2008, but with my departure, those ended. Certainly, what I learn from formulating my thoughts in order to put them down has helped me discuss things in social circumstances, but, as yet, I haven’t managed to create such a circle. I’m almost certainly just not doing the right things, though mostly because I’m just not sure what those things are.

Though probably the most flattering of my motivations and probably the most personally significant, there are several others:

  • Writing is therapeutic. It gives me an outlet to rant and think through things that are plaguing me. It lets me get things off my chest. This post is an example of that.
  • Writing forces me to clearly formulate my meaning. This helps me clarify my thoughts and arguments and gain more appreciation for things such that, hopefully, I understand them with more depth. This is mostly why I write reviews of games, for example.
  • Similarly, writing about an idea can sometimes helping me understand it in the first place. By working out how to explain something, I understand it better myself.
  • Sometimes, I still use my blog as a journal, posting about whatever is going on in my life, or showing off photos I’ve taken recently.
  • I’m human, so of course I use my blog as a means of social signalling. By this, I mean our sometimes subconscious attempt to use communication to affect people’s impressions of us and increase our social status in some way. This is the ‘look at me, look at me’ side of blogging where, by posting on a topic, I’m trying to demonstrate my knowledge and currency in that topic. This is, of course, perfectly natural and probably unavoidable, but has always seemed just a bit shameless to me. I just wish that recognizing this didn’t make me feel so damned self-conscious.
  • Finally, I write to get better at writing. I’m fairly certain that sometimes my writing is ponderous and boring, while at other times it’s really good. The problem is, I don’t know what I’m doing differently! So, I seek to improve my style through practice. I also want to be better at getting into the groove. Sometimes I can spend hours wandering around doing minor chores, planning to write, but it never comes out. I’ve slowly been discovering tricks that do make the process easier, but even today, I tried to write for several hours before eventually writing this, which wasn’t actually what I had intended to write in the first place.

I don’t know if they’re particularly novel or insightful, but the words in this blog are mine. I can’t remember who first said that ‘we stand on the shoulders of giants’. No ideas are wholly original, and there’s nothing actually wrong with that. Taking an idea, turning it around in your head and then re-presenting it to an audience in your own way and with your own perspective is a perfectly respectable activity. It’s nice to have original ideas, but if you only write things that you’re convinced are absolutely new, you’ll never write anything. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t strive for originality, that we should dismiss creativity, or that we should be at all satisfied with plagiarism. Rather, it just tries to emphasize humility in the writing process.

So, this is my blog, and my voice. The things I say will be varied and maybe not all of interest. But I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy keeping it.

For those reading this somewhere other than meme-hazard, that’s the blog I’m referring to

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Posted in Reflections | No Comments »

Don’t screw up the little things in life – they’re easy to achieve, and failure to do so can be expensive in time, effort, or stress.

In life, there’s lots of little things you can easily do that avoid expensive annoyance later on. Take keys, for example: failing to check that you have them when you walk out the door can lead to hours spent waiting for flatmates to come home or, alternatively, money spent hiring a locksmith. Failing to put keys in a logical place when you get home can lead to frantic searching when you’re about to go out, and might be followed by 20 minutes of time wasted waiting for the next bus, a day spent running late for meetings, and an hour or so of feeling stupid. They’re not all practical things, though; socially, the small efforts of thanking people, being civil to those whose company you don’t relish, or biting back that witty retort that you don’t really need to make can help avoid all sorts of arguments and hurt feelings later on.

I’m talking about things where the act itself is simple and easy, even trivial, and the benefit is huge. Things where the question of whether or not you should do them is obvious, and things that I, at least, frequently fail to do. Not because I don’t mean to do them, but because I just don’t have the memory or discipline. Or, alternatively, because I haven’t clearly realized that they’re a good idea. The things about which we always say ‘I should do that’, but never do.

These are the sorts of things for which it would be really nice to have some little voice in my ear reminding me to do them. Or, when it’s discipline, not memory, that’s lacking, something that helps me pay closer attention and maintain the presence of mind not to say the wrong thing.

Anyway. Today’s life lesson: A little thought about the little things can save a lot of effort, and that little thought is a little thing well worth doing.

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t actually been locked out of my house in the last month, but I have spent too much time of late trying to work out where I put my keys.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

I’ve been involved with the Orion’s Arm Universe Project for almost 9 years now, almost since its inception.

In that time, it’s grown from a mailing list of 10 or so to a thriving community with about 60 active contributors, a board of 10, over a thousand people signed up on the mailing list, and something over a million words of canon source material. Not to mention several side projects including an island, “Port Moravec“, in Second Life, an RPG under development, and an ezine called Voices: Future Tense.

What is Orion’s Arm, then? A few snippets from the Orion’s Arm Intro page might help..

Orion’s Arm is:
  • A collective hard science fiction world building endeavor
  • A space opera
  • A communal background for science fiction stories
  • A universe ready to be brought to life through illustration
  • A forum for cutting edge science
  • A roleplaying setting
  • A transhumanist projection of what the future might look like
  • A bunch of semi-sane sentients having fun together

Orion’s Arm is a work in progress, a space opera setting like no other. It spans the next ten thousand years of galactic history, from the near future interplanetary colonization to the far future where the galaxy is ruled by vast ascended intelligences. It incorporates hard science, the softer, social sciences, as well as mythological, archetypal themes as the gods of the collective psyche incarnate in unforseen new forms.

We’ve got two big developments underway at the moment:

The first is a new website. Despite the size of Orion’s Arm, the current website is entirely static HTML, which for those non-technically inclined people means that it can’t easily be updated en masse – there’s pages in there that haven’t been touched in five or six years. So, over the last two years, a team of us have been re-conditioning, re-organizing, and re-writing the entire site for re-release on a new website, currently in open beta at It’s still not quite finished, but we’re scheduled to launch the new site on July 20th, Tranquility Day, the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission’s landing on the moon.

The second is a book. Last year, we held a novella competition, and got a number of great submissions. The best three have been edited by the Orion’s Arm Editors, and are now in the final stages of being published. We’re really excited about this, and hope to publish more in the future. I’m not 100% sure where copies will be sold, but they’ll almost certainly be available through our website.

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Posted in Art & Photos, The Future | 1 Comment »

Came across this in an issue of IEEE Computer today. It’s a simple conceptual model from the 1960s by a guy called Bruce Tuckman of the stages small groups go through; groups such as committees, work groups, and project teams. The basic stages seem obvious, but, as with many models of human behaviour, the value comes from their being made explicit such that they can be recognized, acknowledged, and facilitated appropriately.

Here’s what the original article says (my emphasis):

Groups initially concern themselves with orientation accomplished primarily through testing. Such testing serves to identify the boundaries of both interpersonal and task behaviors. Coincident with testing in the interpersonal realm is the establishment of dependency relationships with leaders, other group members, or pre‑existing standards. It may be said that orientation, testing and dependence constitute the group process of forming.

The second point in the sequence is characterized by conflict and polarization around interpersonal issues, with concomitant emotional responding in the task sphere. These behaviors serve as resistance to group influence and task requirements and may be labeled as storming.

Resistance is overcome in the third stage in which in-group feeling and cohesiveness develop, new standards evolve, and new roles are adopted. In the task realm, intimate, personal opinions are expressed. Thus, we have the stage of norming.

Finally, the group attains the fourth and final stage in which interpersonal structure becomes the tool of task activities. Roles become flexible and functional, and group energy is channeled into the task. Structural issues have been resolved, and structure can now become supportive of task performance. This stage can be labeled as performing.

So, basically, small groups go through the following phases:

  • Forming – the group forms, and members break the ice and begin to get to know one another. Individuals develop the confidence necessary to function within the group.
  • Storming – group members begin to assert themselves through conflict as social roles are negotiated. They act to maintain their own individuality as well as determine their status within the group.
  • Norming – common vocabulary, assumptions, and goals are articulated, and the group begins to function together. Group identity forms.
  • Performing – the group becomes productive, trust becomes firmly established, and group energy is channeled primarily into the task at hand.

I don’t know about you, but these stages certainly feel familiar. I don’t think it’s useful to claim that these are distinct and clear stages, however. Rather, I think they’re best thought of as overlapping phases describing a ‘natural’ progression. With that in mind, then, here’s a bunch of ways you could use this model:

Firstly, with a model at hand, it’s easy to see when behaviour deviates from a ‘normal’ pattern. This isn’t intrinsically bad, but, if unexplained, may be indicative of certain problems within a group.

Secondly, individuals and subgroups might not necessarily move through this progression at a uniform rate – if part of the group is still stuck storming, it makes it hard for the rest of the group to begin norming. In such situtations, a skilled group leader might be able to gently nudge such individuals by, for example, allowing them other outlets to express themselves.

Thirdly, it seems like these stages aren’t just what normally occurs, but also what needs to occur for a group to function. It’s probably important to be aware of this when forming expectations of a group’s performance.

Fourthly, it’s always nice to have a vocabulary to describe things like this, particular given that the elements of group behaviour are normally quite implicit.

Edit: Lastly, it’s interesting to think about the emotional conflicts and outbursts that sometimes occur and realize that they’re actually just part of the process rather than some intrinsically negative distraction.

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Posted in Concepts, Mind & Society | No Comments »

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    May reflect personal bias.

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