The failure chain

October 31, 2011

During a recent trip to Europe, the airlines (two of them) turned a minor problem into a cascading mess of travel delays.

Fog over London's Grand Union Canal

First, I should note that they did — eventually — accomplish their mission of delivering me safely from point A to point B. My actual travel, however, bore no resemblance to the planned itinerary.

Scheduled itinerary: RDU-LHR-FRA, arriving 1:20 p.m. local time
Actual itinerary: RDU-LGW-AMS-FRA, arriving 8:00 p.m. local time

The initial leg from RDU to London was uneventful until the captain announced that we couldn’t land at Heathrow because of fog and we were low on fuel, so we diverted to London-Gatwick, which is about 40 miles from Heathrow.

Now, fog at LHR is not exactly a stunning surprise, and we landed at Gatwick fairly close to our original scheduled arrival into Heathrow, so in assessing blame, I think 50 percent goes to the fog and 50 percent goes to whoever allocated fuel to our aircraft.

At Gatwick, we were told that we couldn’t disembark for a variety of reasons, including security, lack of American Airlines personnel (they no longer fly into Gatwick), and the assumption that we’d be able to hop over to Heathrow shortly when the fog cleared.

Four hours later…

The captain announced that he was required to allow people who wanted to disembark to get off the plane under EU regulations. But no checked luggage would be unloaded. All luggage would continue on to LHR eventually.

Note that the travel time, by bus, from Gatwick to Heathrow is about 45 minutes…maybe less on a Sunday morning.

Anyway, a few people came to the front to get off the plane. Sometime after the 4-hour announcement and before the arrival of the buses to take us from the plane parked in the boonies of Gatwick, we were told that actually, everyone had to get off if anyone got off. So, “this flight is terminated.”

The promised buses eventually appeared and dumped us into a terminal. There were no agents or support staff from American (remember, we’ve been sitting on the tarmac for 4 hours and they do have staff at LHR, 45 minutes away). There was also nobody there from British Airways, which, as the oneworld partner, seems like an obvious choice to help out travelers.

I had to clear immigration: “Purpose of your visit?” “Um…trying to get to Frankfurt?” The friendly immigration officer gave me directions to the other terminal (they dumped us in the South Terminal…all British Airways staff is in the North Terminal). You know you are in deep trouble when the immigration officer is trying to help you out.

Fortunately, I have actually transited Gatwick before, but I don’t know about my fellow passengers. I also didn’t have any checked bags…I have no idea whether and when the checked bags made it off our aircraft.

Onward to the North Terminal, where the British Airways agent informed me that I had missed my LHR-FRA flight (I knew that) and that there were no seats on any later flights until 8 p.m. that evening. As an alternative, she offered to send me via Amsterdam to Frankfurt, arriving at about 8 p.m. She looked surprised when I accepted.

Much typing later (cue ominous music), I had a boarding pass for a BA flight to Amsterdam and then (unpleasant surprise), a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt from Amsterdam.

What’s wrong with Lufthansa? Nothing, except that when you travel, your airline status matters. I am a somewhat frequent flyer with AA, so they treat me sort of well. BA is an AA partner, and the status doesn’t really carry over, but it helps a tiny bit. On Lufthansa, I am the traveling equivalent of dog poop.

Anyway, the remaining flights were on-time, although AMS was full of unpleasant surprises…security had issues with my contact lens solution (too big), my electronics (too many), and my alarm clock (square and electronic). I refrained from pointing out that their problem was an *underwear* bomber, not an iPad bomber.

After a tribute of contact lens solution to appease security, I made my way to my Lufthansa connection and discovered another problem — intra-European flights have much stricter carry-on limits than trans-Atlantic flights. Thus, my carefully packed, legal-sized carry-on was mercilessly ripped away from me and checked.

Oh, and I was assigned a middle seat.

That said, it was after all Lufthansa, so I figured my luggage would probably show up, and it did.

Having finally arrived at my hotel after about 22 hours of travel (should have been 15ish), I thought I had survived the worst that the airlines could throw at me. (cue more ominous music)

For details about the actual purpose of the trip and how it went, refer to my professional blog (

Scheduled itinerary: FRA-LHR-RDU, arriving 2:45 p.m. local time
Actual itinerary: FRA-DFW-RDU, arriving 8:55 p.m. local time

Last year, I learned that when you have an AA codeshare on BA, there are two flight numbers. There’s the BA flight number, which doesn’t necessarily appear anywhere on your ticket, and there’s the AA flight number, which does appear on your ticket but doesn’t work to check in at the BA kiosks.

I arrive at FRA airport at around 6 a.m. and attempt to check in for the FRA-LHR hop using the BA flight number. The kiosk rejects me, so I go to talk to the ticket agents.

Much typing and whispering ensues. Then they ask me for the boarding passes from my outbound flights. More typing and discussion. They call American. They tell me to go get myself some coffee and check back in 15 minutes. And no, you won’t be making your 7:25 a.m. flight to London.

Remember the ominous music during the rebooking on the outbound leg? The BA agent who rebooked me LGW-AMS-FRA should have used the existing LHR-FRA segment. Apparently, what happened was that LHR-FRA-LHR-RDU was replaced with LGW-AMS-FRA, thus leaving me with no ticket valid for the return.

It’s a measure of airline travel standards that I was pleased about the fact that they didn’t attempt to blame me for this problem or try to get me to buy another ticket.

So, fog led to diversion, which led to delay, which led to rebooking, which led to a mistake, which led to a mess on the return.

Between BA and AA, they eventually straightened out the problem and got me on the FRA-DFW flight, which is 11 hours and of course overshoots my East Coast destination by a lot.

I sent a note to AA expressing my displeasure with the overall journey but have had no response after a week.

UPDATE (November 10, 2011): AA responded and credited my account with a reasonable pile of bonus miles, which is exactly what I expected they would do. I hope that they will also look at the structural issues.

Checkerboard shawl

September 18, 2011

Here is a simple knitting pattern that uses only knit and purl to create a lovely checkerboard design.

Yarn: worsted (I used Cascade Superwash)

Yardage: 500–600 yards, according to the nice lady at the yarn store

Needle size: 8

Cast on 69 stitches (or any multiple of 10 plus 9).

Each checkerboard is a 5×5 square of stitches.

For chart below, empty cells are knit on odd rows and purled on even rows. Cells with dots are purled on odd rows and knit on even rows.

Graphic version of pattern.

Knit four rows of garter stitch as a border.

Row 1: k2 (for border), (p5, k5) six times, p5, k2 (for border).

Row 2: k2 (border), (k5, p5) six times, k5, k2 (border).

Row 3: Repeat row 1.

Row 4: Repeat row 2.

Row 5: Repeat row 1

Row 6: Repeat row 1 again.

Row 7: Repeat row 2

Row 8: Repeat row 1

Row 9: Repeat row 2.

Row 10: Repeat row 1.

Row 11: Repeat row 1 again.

Continue with the pattern, alternating rows, except for every fifth row, where you repeat the preceding row in order to switch side.

When the shawl is an appropriate length, finish off your last set of five. Knit four rows of gartner switch. Bind off.

Block as appropriate to make your squares…square.

I’m still working on this first version and will post updates and corrections as I find them.

Go Back to the Kitchen

June 29, 2011

Robert Hoekman recent wrote a nasty little blog post called “That’s Enough, Whitney Hess.” And no, I’m not linking to it. It’s easy enough to find.

The general gist is that Whitney is getting more attention/press/visibility than she deserves. Who decides? Apparently, Hoekman does.

His diatribe is part of a typical pattern where successful women, especially successful young women, are demeaned, insulted, and generally harassed in an effort to reduce their influence and/or success.

You may recall that Kathy Sierra is, unfortunately, the poster child for these types of issues.

When young men overachieve, we celebrate them. In fact, the entire Silicon Valley myth is built on the idea of overachieving young men. When was the last time you heard someone say that Mark Zuckerberg really doesn’t deserve all the attention he’s getting and, anyway, there are much more talented people out there and he should just shut up and go away?

Laughable? Yes. But this is exactly what women face.

So, Whitney, I am sorry your success is drawing nasty personal attacks. Unfortunately, I am fairly certain that it won’t be the last time.

Now, to the “substance” of Mr. Hoekman’s argument, which is that some so-called thought leaders are getting more attention than they deserve because they are not very innovative or even very good at what they do.

The accuracy of his argument is irrelevant because influence is not something that industry leaders get to bestow or withhold. I can only assume that Hoekman thinks he’s better than Hess and should be getting more attention. With his article, he’s probably achieving the goal of “more attention,” but I suspect not in a way that he’s going to like.

The fact that Hess has been able to build a career and land a ton of speaking engagements speaks for itself. Instead of trying to silence her, Hoekman should probably see if he can figure out what she’s doing right and what he’s doing wrong.

Chicken tortilla soup

April 9, 2011

Avocado- Day 31/365

Nothing terribly creative here, but I do think that the use of chipotle makes a difference. It lends a smoky taste rather than heat.

The ingredient list is long, but this soup comes together quickly.

1/2 cup rice
1 quart chicken broth
2 boneless chicken breasts
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 dried chipotle pepper
1/4 tsp cumin
1 chayote squash, cut into bite-size pieces
1 carrot, sliced into coins
2 tbsp cilantro, chopped
1 avocado, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 lime, cut into wedges

Cook rice in a small pot. While it is cooking, start the soup.

Put broth, chicken, garlic, onion, tomato, chipotle, and cumin in a large soup pot and bring to a simmer. Cook for 30 minutes or so until the chicken is cooked through.

Remove chicken from the pot and set aside to cool.

Add squash, carrots, and cilantro to the soup. Simmer until vegetables are tender.

Meanwhile, shred cooled chicken with a fork.

When vegetables are done, add cooked rice and shredded chicken to the pot. Season with salt and pepper.

Top with avocado and serve with lime wedges.

Roasted Asparagus with Dill and Goat Cheese

April 4, 2011

Asparagus I’m finally getting spring vegetables from my local farm subscription. This week, there was asparagus and fresh dill. I poked through various recipes for inspiration, but couldn’t find what I was looking for, so I made it up.

Roasted Asparagus with Dill and Goat Cheese

1 bunch asparagus
1 bunch fresh dill
1 oz goat cheese
olive oil
red wine vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Snap off asparagus ends and place asparagus on a baking sheet in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with some chopped dill. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Roast in oven for 10-15 minutes to desired doneness, turning as needed.

Meanwhile, make a red wine vinaigrette and add fresh dill to taste.

When asparagus is done, remove from oven, and cut in half. Toss warm asparagus with vinaigrette and chunks of goat cheese. Serve.

Advancing the profession: a call to action

April 1, 2011

The mission of STC is to advance technical communication. STC is failing in that mission, so now I ask every tech comm professional to step up and, individually, do what you can to advance the profession outside of STC.

I reviewed my STC-related tech comm profession work:

  • XML Strategist. A quarterly column in STC Intercom.
  • Track manager, STC Summit

On April 1*, I sent this email to Liz Pohland, the STC editor:

With regret, I have to discontinue the XML Strategist column in Intercom. It’s been a pleasure working with you on this, and I hope we have an opportunity to work together in a different context.

Recent events have me reconsidering my involvement with STC. I will continue my efforts to “advance the profession” with blogging and other writing.



* Note: Unfortunate date. Not a joke.

As my Intercom articles already appear on Scriptorium’s blog, I don’t think that dropping them from Intercom will have any practical effect on contributions to the profession.

I am taking no action on the STC Summit. I will fulfill my track manager duties at the Summit to ensure that attendees have the best possible experience. Anything else would be unfair to the people who have already registered.

My participation at the national/international level will end after the Summit. I am very concerned for my friends in STC leadership, but I have been unable to improve the situation as a member/volunteer/participant.

It’s worth noting the many, many local events that deserve our support. Just this week, we have the Spectrum 2011 conference hosted by the Rochester, NY, chapter. My home chapter, STC Carolina, is hosting a workshop on APIs – SDKs: Breaking Into and Succeeding in a Specialty Market in mid-April with Ed Marshall of Marshall Documentation Consulting in Massachusetts.

A variety of informal social networks are also springing up. I encourage you to participate. Let’s make sure that the profession can advance even if the formal organization can’t help us.

How will you contribute to advancing the profession?

The Culture of No

March 30, 2011

It’s a brand new day, so it must be time for another STC debacle.

For those of you just catching up, read these:

The comments about this situation on Twitter are also…edifying.

Lots of not-very-friendly responses

I’ve already done my share of piling on. STC has not distinguished itself in the category of public relations in the last 24 hours.

Unfortunately, this is only the latest in a series of missteps. Some of you may remember the messy business with the STC UK chapter. I’ll spare you the gory details.

Let’s look at a smaller example of poor strategic thinking, communication, and general leadership; a post last week on STC’s blog about the disaster in Japan and how STC cannot help:

For many of us who belong to a professional community such as STC, the line can be blurred between the mission of the organization—to advance the profession and help members advance their careers—and the reason many of us belong to STC—for the personal and professional relationships. At times of crisis in locations around the world, we want to reach out and help. But STC cannot be the mechanism for that help. While STC is a charitable organization, the IRS granted this tax-exempt status only for the specific purposes of the “promotion of the profession of technical communication.” STC is not a charitable organization for humanitarian disaster relief. Therefore STC (and STC communities) cannot collect funds on behalf of another group and funnel them. In fact, to do so could jeopardize STC’s tax-exempt status.

Earthquake, tsunami, disaster…”tax-exempt status.” Please. Is this really the most important thing that the STC president had to say that week? There is, in fact, a tech comm organization in Japan, the Japan Technical Communication Assocation. Would it be possible to reach out to that organization? How about just giving individual STC members some ways to reach out to individuals in Japan?

Another example of the dysfunctional organizational culture is the user feedback site implemented on top of the new web site. Back in November 2010, we have a guest post on the STC blog from Mikah Sellers, a Project Phonix team member:

As the new websites come online, it will be essential to implement a process and suite of tools that enable the Society to continuously capture member feedback on the user experience to learn what features and functionality are providing the most value, and what needs to be improved in order to deliver the desired value.

Sounds harmless enough. Actually, it sounds good. And, in fact, STC rolled out a link to a feedback site called GetSatisfaction. Members promptly went there and provided detailed feedback on the web site. But that feedback is not being implemented or even, in many cases, acknowledged. As a result, there is now a sense among contributors that providing feedback is pointless.

I believe that STC, institutionally, has a culture of No. “No” is the first and often only answer to member questions and problems. (A nonanswer of dead silence is perhaps even more common.) Communication with the membership is broken. The irony of an organization devoted to advancing technical communication that is notably terrible at business communication is hard to miss.

STC must change the organizational culture, and it must do it fast. The organization needs the following:

  • A pattern of making and meeting commitments
  • An improved relationship with the members
  • A willingness to admit mistakes

None of this will be easy or fun. I hope that the current leadership has what it takes. The signs over the last day are not promising.

STC’s mission is to advance technical communication. Here’s what I want:

  • A vibrant online community where technical communicators can exchange information and learn from each other
  • A job board that allows employers to post tech comm jobs and employees to find tech comm jobs
  • A database of tech comm service providers that allows potential customers to find tech comm specialists
  • A public relations/media effort to increase the general public’s understanding of technical communication
  • A well-executed strategy for outreach to non-U.S. technical communicators. For examples of how to do this, see tekom.

Currently, I’d grade STC on these as follows:

  • Online community: F or maybe Incomplete. Promised for the past two years but not not yet in existence.
  • Job board: D-. Exists but is not useful.
  • Tech comm service providers: D-. Exists but is not useful.
  • Public relations: F. Not happening.
  • Strategy for non-U.S. tech comm: D. Recognized as a priority but I don’t see much happening.

Seriously, people. If STC were a college student, he would be sent home to take a semester off. We do not have that luxury. Instead, the organization is making ridiculous excuses for missing deadlines.

The culture of No must go.

Quite a yarn

March 8, 2010

I ordered some excellent yarn for a new project. Which was then delayed “up to 2-3 weeks,” so I decided to start a different project.
Two weeks turned out to be three days, so now I have a half-started blanket, and a bag of yummy new yarn for the project I’ve been planning. What to do??

If you’re on ravelry, you can see the delayed project here and the started alternate project here.

Granola bar FAIL

March 8, 2010

I found this fine, non-fail recipe for homemade granola bars and decided to try it. So I picked up some lovely dried cranberries and bittersweet chocolate chips (mmmmm, tasty).

Then, I got out the other ingredients from my pantry — brown sugar, rolled oats. Hmmm, that box feels awfully light.

And I discovered that I had about a quarter-cup of rolled oats. That expired in 2008.


Fast-forward to two weeks later, and we are going to try again…this time I discover that I don’t have wheat germ. And don’t want to use whole-wheat flour. Left out the wheat germ, increased the flour and the rolled oats slightly to compensate.

The result smelled good, but:

2x FAIL.

What is wrong with these granola bars? I’m going to need a list:

  • When I tried to poke them in the pan for doneness, I hit a chocolate chip instead of the granola area. You know what happens when you stick your finger into hot melted chocolate? It HURTS. Then, you stick your finger in your mouth to get the chocolate off and burn your mouth. So now I have a burned finger and a burned lip.
  • I tried to cut the granola bars up, but the binding didn’t quite work, so I have quite a bit of deconstructed granola bar. Hmmm…what do you call it when you have granola ingredients not in a bar…maybe…”granola”? Lesson: Follow the recipe, which says to cut them up when they are “warm”. Not hot, warm. (I was still mad about the burned finger and wanted to take my revenge with a knife.)
  • Taste. Oh, the taste. Did I mention that I baked the granola bars at the same time as a lovely batch of non-fail brownies? I neglected to increase cooking time to compensate for multiple pans in the oven, and so my granola “bars” have a slight raw flour taste. Which is not good. Also, I think I didn’t use enough sweetener, so in addition to the raw-flour note, there’s also an unsweetened oats feature. This may work for horses, but not for me. Neigh, not at all.

Lessons learned:

  • Avoid melted chocolate chips in the oven.
  • Do not “wing it” when assembling ingredients on a new recipe. The major reason that this recipe fell apart is probably that I was eyeballing the ingredients instead of measuring them. “What could possibly go wrong, other than a second-degree burn?” I thought blithely.
  • When in doubt, add more sugar.
  • When in doubt, follow instructions closely.
  • “Wing it” is for recipes you know well, and maybe hockey.

Book publishing options

March 5, 2010

My presentation from Durham Academy’s Academy Nights, March 4, 2010.