RTFM – but what a beautiful manual to read

I got my start writing computer manuals. Wait. I got my start in BBC local radio. I got a lot of starts. I’m still starting. But one of them was that I was employed writing computer manuals. It’s called being a technical author and I’m afraid there was a big part of me that always heard that as only technically being an author.

There was a woman – sorry, I’ve forgotten her name, this was a very long time ago – who I felt was a kind of technical author groupie. It’s probably good that I’ve forgotten her name, then. But I don’t mean she threw her FiloFax at me, she wasn’t a groupie of mine, she was of the industry. I remember a group of us talking about our writing ambitions and she was really clear about hers: she wanted to be a technical author. Yes, I said, and then? No. Technical Author. That’s it.

I’m afraid I felt that was a pretty severe lack of ambition. But I think I was also wrong. Computer manuals to me were, yes, a way to help people use these preposterously complex tools but there was an element of me feeling they shouldn’t be that preposterously complex. One local government official phoned in to the office to say thanks: finally he understood how a particular key feature worked. Do you feel good when you get that call or not?


Hopefully for this woman and certainly for some technical authors, manuals have turned into something more. Something I think you would say is art.

When you invest seven figures in securing one of the most exotic, exclusive vehicles ever made, perhaps you just expect that the owner’s manual is going to be a work of art. I don’t know, I’ve never been in that position. Every owner’s manual I’ve ever had has ended up stuffed in a glovebox, pages greasy, creased, and torn.

With the McLaren F1, mishandling the owner’s manual would be a crime — doubly so after you hear the amount of thought and effort that went into it. Mark Roberts, the man who hand-sketched the artwork for the manual leading up to the supercar’s release over 20 years ago, describes the process in a video released by McLaren this week. “We were actively encouraged to make it more and more special,” he says.

This is the most beautiful owner’s manual you’ve ever seen – Chris Ziegler, The Verge (18 October 2014)

Read more about the video and the manual in full piece on The Verge.

Weekend read: hiding through razzle dazzle

You are reading the only sentence I may ever write about cars. That was it. Right there. You’re welcome to re-read it, but you’ve already got everything out of it about cars that I have ever or will know. It is for want of trying. But still, this fascinated me: new cars are being tested out in public and they are painted in the most astonishing crazy ways – in order to hide them:

It seems that the adoption of “dazzle” to hide car designs coincided with the explosion of consumer cameras, and more so with the ubiquity of smartphones. GM told me that the practice began in the late 1980s, but didn’t really explode until the 1990s. “In recent years with the rise of smartphones and mobile internet devices, the vehicle camouflaging technique has really escalated to a technique used for the entire lineup,” the company’s reps added.

So, how does it work? Dazzle camouflage sounds oxymoronic: Why would you cover something you want to disguise with vivid, contrast-heavy patterns? It’s actually one of the primary concepts of camo, found both in nature and manmade systems. Think of a white tiger with black stripes. Those stripes run perpendicular to the line of the lion’s limbs, and in this way, they break up the continuous form of the animal itself. Along the same lines, Army camouflage is designed to break up the lines of soldiers’ arms and legs.

How Automakers Use a WWI-Era Camo Technique to Disguise Prototype Cars – Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, Gizmodo (17 October 2014)

It’s a fascinating article that takes in the history of ships where camouflage was a bit more life-and-death than a car marker’s bottom line. Read the full piece.

Using your travel time

It’s been a long time since I drove very much at all. There was a time where, for several years, I would drive from Birmingham to London and back on a day at least once a week. But that would be a three-hour drive in the morning, leaving around 5am, and a four-hour drive back in the evening.

Plus I’d do eight to ten hours work in the middle.

So that was, what, help me count here: up to 17 hours away from my home office. And all but a ten-minute lunch break of it spent working.

When I got my first book contract, it obviously came with a deadline and I could not afford to lose 17 hours on a London day each week. I also obviously couldn’t afford to walk away from the eight to ten hours paid work, even if I hadn’t enjoyed it. This was Radio Times, easily one of my favourite writing jobs in my career.

But I could reclaim at least some of the travel time. If I gave up driving and instead went by trains or coaches – very often coaches because, wow, the price of trains that early in the morning – I could write. Not all the time. Once or twice on a train coming back I’d take a look at the crowd with me and feel wee bit uncertain about getting out a couple of thousand pounds of computer equipment. And sometimes I’d just be too tired.

Quick aside? The train from London Euston to Birmingham New Street goes via Birmingham International where there is the airport and the National Exhibition Centre. Amongst very many other things, the NEC hosts rock concerts. One night, I fell asleep on the train and woke up with my face pressed against the window.

And on the other side of the glass were a group of AC/DC fans pressing back and grinning at me.


I forget how long this went on for but it was probably three months. The book was published in November 2012 – it’s BFI TV Classics: The Beiderbecke Affair and I am deeply proud of it, I feel honoured that I got to be the one to write about that – so this would be late 2011, maybe early 2012.

But what I remember with total clarity was that when it was done, when I had delivered the first draft and could go back to driving, I had saved slightly over a thousand pounds in petrol.

Now, that’s not an accurate figure for saving because it doesn’t account for all the money I spent on trains and coaches. But it was a shock of a figure. Shock enough that to this day I refuse to let myself think about all the months of petrol I’d paid up to then. At least ten years with at least once such drive per week. You add it up, I feel ill.

It was also shock enough that I could not go back to doing it again.

So from that day on, I stuck to trains and coaches for my London work. I sold the car, even.

We still have a car: Angela has one and I use it when necessary or when we’re both going somewhere, I will usually be the one who drives us. Gives her a break from all the driving she does in her work.

Today it was necessary. I dropped Angela off at a place this morning, drove to a couple of jobs, then to a Theatre Cuppa gathering in the early evening and back. Then Angela was off to a production meeting for her theatre work (you cannot believe how proud I am that I can say that to you, I just find the very words delicious) and I was off to a Writers’ Guild committee meeting.

My meeting was quite short but it then took me an hour and a half to get home by bus. I’d driven 170 miles in about six hours today, the last 10 miles were a 90-minute series of bus rides. And those bus rides had more adventure in them. I got to see stand up rows between passengers and drivers, I somehow got to see one woman passenger flash another one even as I actually couldn’t quite see why. The flasher was not complimenting the flashee.

But I missed a lot because I was writing. I wrote nothing all day except some notes at the various places I drove to so I was behind. But on these buses, while keeping an eye on timetable information through my various iOS travel apps, I got to write.

I didn’t enjoy that it was 90 minutes, I didn’t enjoy the drizzle as I got off the last bus. But I got things done and so instead of feeling knackered and pointless tonight, I feel I’ve got on with something and that I secretly deserve to watch the first episode of Community, Season Two, which the finest of fine people has just loaned me.

There are 24 episodes in this season. That’s my productivity destroyed for the rest of the week.

Do self-driving cars come as standard or is it a KITT?

Re/code has an interesting view on Google’s self-driving cars, the invention we’ve wanted since Knight Rider began in 1982. And it’s the invention we are surely most wary of:

The Google self-driving car has come a long way. On a demo excursion through Google’s Mountain View campus and surrounding neighborhoods today, the white Lexus self-driving test vehicle I rode in was much less of a conservative driver than I anticipated.

Sure, it followed the rules of the road, but it also accelerated into the open lane in front of us and then nudged itself around a truck that was edging into our lane so we could drive ahead without pausing.

Maybe I was kidding myself, but from my vantage point in the back seat, I didn’t feel unsafe in the least. The car braked for jaywalkers, paused when it was coming around a curve and couldn’t see whether the light in front of us was green or red, and skittered when it worried that a bus might be turning into our lane.

Liz Gannes – Re/code (13 May 2014)

Gannes’s full feature is a balanced look at the pros and cons of driverless vehicles and of exactly where we are with them now.