Month: August 2008

Thoughts on job tracking and invoicing

I’ve been looking for a good job-tracking and invoicing program for a long time. I’ve looked at just about everything, and nothing suits my particular needs. My needs are a little different—almost none of my work is billed by time but piecework instead (support for this kind of thing is often an afterthought) and I need support for multiple currencies (this is rare).

I’ve tried using Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet app. Spreadsheets in general have one big thing in their favor: they impose no assumptions on you. The flipside of that is that you have to build everything from scratch. There are a few aspects of job tracking where you’d prefer for your program to have made those assumptions for you. A bigger problem I had with Numbers in particular is that it corrupted my job log spreadsheet, which is a colossal PITA. A more philosophical problem is that spreadsheets are basically flat-file databases, and a proper job tracker really needs a relational database behind it.

Watching Gwen figure her work on a letterpress printing project was a lesson in how very different the job-tracking requirements for two solo freelancers can be. Ideally, one app would have the flexibility to meet these different needs. I’ve been giving the subject some thought, and what follows is my attempt to crystallize them.

National Fire Performance League: Beware

About a week ago, Sage got in touch with me to ask if I’d heard anything about some “national fire performance championship.” I had not.

I started looking around. It seems that they have a profile and group on MurdochSpace, likewise a profile and group on Tribe. They have no independent website that I can find. There are no personal names associated with any of these accounts that I can find, but the person behind them appears to be in either Austin or Marble Falls.

They posted the same canned message to numerous groups on Tribe. There are a few red flags in it. Any post that starts out “This is an automated reply” does not show a lot of care. They are trying to interest DJs to perform (presumably for free) on the promise that “professional scouts” will be there; trying to interest judges with all the skills apparently needed to run this event; they warn that “space is limited to 2500 people at the event” (2500 is the maximum size of an event before you get into a much stricter level of official oversight) and the breathless “RSVP ASAP.” Plus the price, which is kind of high: They’re charging $30/person/night for spectators, and $40/person/night for performers. Compare that to the campground’s fees of $12/person/night. Of course, you also get a year’s membership in the (nonexistent) National Fire Performance League for the price of admission.

This event is apparently going to be taking place in about a month (Sept 26–28), just down the road from me at a private campground in New Braunfels, and I hadn’t heard about it. I started asking other firedancers. There are a lot of firedancers in central Texas, and we’re a pretty tight-knit group. Although a lot of people had heard about the event, nobody knew who was behind it. That is a very big red flag. It would be impossible to mount a successful firedancing event in central Texas that would welcome 2500 people without one of my firedancing friends being somehow involved, or at least knowing someone who was. I don’t claim to be the hub of central-Texas firedancing, but I am reasonably well-connected. And organizing an event with 2500 people requires a lot of hands. Burning Flipside has been around for 10 years and has grown to be about 2500 people. There are at least 100 people showing up for planning meetings months in advance; there are probably at least 500 people who contribute their labor at the event and just before it. Admittedly, Flipside is heavy on the infrastructure, but even if this event had one-tenth the staffing, that would suggest ten people meeting months in advance and fifty people who planned on being involved at the event (and those people would need to be lined up by now)—and fifty workers is probably well below a practical minimum for an event of 2500. In any case, I am confident that I would know someone who would know one of those fifty. Flipside brings me to another point: that they are (apparently) organizing this without drawing on the depth of talent and experience the burner community has in exactly this kind of event. The campground, as I understand it, is 50 acres, and is probably too small for 2500 people.

A couple of people mentioned that they had tried to get additional information from the organizers, to no avail. Indeed, the organizers seem to have made it a point to be anonymous and uncommunicative. Especially in a tight-knit community, that invites distrust. A couple years ago, a guy named Tedward, a stalwart of the firedancing community, mooted the idea of a fire-performance competition. He raised the idea on Tribe and discussed it there at some length. It was a very controversial idea, but to his credit, he attempted to work out the form of the event though public consensus. His event never took place because a sponsor backed out. Even if we allowed for the sake of argument that the organizers could run this event safely and efficiently (which I do not), we would still be left with an event that reflects only interests of a small group of organizers, not the broader fire community.

Today, I spoke to the Comal County fire marshall. He had not heard about this event. He pointed out that as long as it’s outdoors, there’s not much he can do to regulate it beyond requiring that the grass be mowed. But it still concerns me. It would be very easy for an event with this many people and fire being the central attraction to go wrong. Fire performance always occupies a gray zone with the authorities. We can try to get on their good side, we can hope to escape attention, or we can wind up on their bad side. An event as big as this purports to be would not escape attention in Comal County, so it would only make sense to get on their good side as a precautionary measure. If it went very wrong, it could have serious repercussions for fire performers throughout the state or even the country. A number of people, myself included, are concerned that this is either a scam, or (more likely) being run by people who don’t know what they’re doing. In either case, that ups the odds of something going wrong. I don’t want to see anyone get burned, literally or figuratively.

I have left a message with the campground operators to see if I can get some information from them.

In the end, I think we may be saved by their incompetence. They haven’t done much to create interest in the event, and what little they’ve created has been mostly negative, as far as I can tell. So I’d be surprised if they get 250 people. Even with more competent organizing, it would be difficult to launch an event like this and get 2500 people to show up in its first year.

Update: I just spoke briefly with someone in the campground’s business office. She didn’t really know much about the event. The event organizers have not reserved the entire campground, or any section of it—they’ll just be sharing the space with regular campground visitors. So I’m not sure how the organizers will limit attendance to only those people who have paid for their event. The campground has about 200 campsites for overnighters, but sees up to 3000 people during the day.

Another Update: Please see my follow-up post.

All Today’s Parties

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote that science fiction is not predictive, it is descriptive. I think she’s half-right: sometimes it is predictive.

William Gibson has been writing science fiction long enough that he can now write stories containing some of the predictive elements from his earlier works, and present them as descriptive elements in contemporary fiction. I just finished reading Spook Country, and I get the distinct impression he’s having fun with this.

It has some of his favorite character types—defrocked military men, art traders, hugely wealthy pawn-pushers, loners living outside their home countries.

It has specific concepts and technologies, slightly altered to fit present-day circumstances:

From Virtual Light:

He had his feet up on the back of the front passenger seat and the little red lights around the edges of his sneakers were spelling out the lyrics to some song.

From Spook Country:

“You can’t see an image unless the wheels are turning. The system senses the wheel’s position and fires the LEDs it needs, to invoke an image in persistence of vision”

In the future world Neuromancer, ICE stood for Intrusion Countermeasure Electronics, software to prevent hackers from gaining access to computers. In the contemporary world of Spook Country, ICE is a different kind of gatekeeper: Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The “locative art” helmets in Spook Country, while I’m not aware of any such item available as an off-the-shelf product, would be technically feasible today. And they recapitulate the augmented-reality goggles that were the MacGuffin in Virtual Light.

The most delicious update of all, in Spook Country:

“See-bare-espace,” Odile pronounced, gnomically, “it is everting.”
“Turns itself inside out,” offered Alberto, by way of clarification. “Cyberspace.”

Here Gibson gets to take a word he coined in Neuromancer, which was adopted wholeheartedly into the English language, and re-uses it here unironically. I have to wonder if he was consciously looking for an opportunity to work it in, or if it just flowed out naturally—as if he had re-learned the word as everyone else uses it—and then he rocked back and thought “How about that!”

Perhaps Gibson’s favorite character type—appearing in one form or another in Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, All Tomorrow’s Parties, and Pattern Recognition—is the idiot-savant bricoleur. That character makes no appearance in Spook Country. Perhaps the part is played by Gibson himself, cutting pieces out of his old books and reassembling them into something new.

Tunnelling towards the truth

tunnelling spelling trouble

Check out the two screenshots crops above. Observe that in each, one instance of the word has been flagged as misspelled, and the other has not.

I ran into this problem while working on a translation job. The client had instructed me to overtype an existing Japanese document in order to preserve the formatting. After nosing around for a minute, I discovered that the upper line was marked as US English, and the lower line was marked as UK English (I prefer the UK spelling in this case). Not sure how those language settings got into a Japanese document.