Jun 282007

Here’s a review of Antonia Fraser‘s The Wives of Henry VIII (there also seems to be an updated version, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Women in History)), which the bookclub picked, partially because I’d read it before and thought it was interesting, partially because most of the bookclub members knew a little about that period but not much and wanted to learn more, and partially because one bookclub member will read anything and everything about the Tudors. Everyone enjoyed the book, but with some caveats.

To go with it, I read Alison Weir‘s Henry VIII: The King and His Court. Reading both books at much the same time was good, I found they complemented each other and helped me understand more of what was going on.

The Henry VIII book mostly concentrates on the King himself, what he was like as a young man (incredibly gifted, handsome, and strong, if the records are all to be believed), how the court functioned, what all the people around the King were meant to do, how much things cost, what the fashions of the time were. It then goes into the King’s life, and how, to quote Alison Weir, Henry began his reign in a mediaeval kingdom, he ended it in a modern state. I found the first part of the book to be the most interesting, perhaps because I got rather lost with all the people who kept changing names as they were promoted and demoted, and the King himself became less sympathetic as he became more dictatorial and averse to being crossed.

The Wives book (and Alison Weir has also written one on that subject, which I haven’t read) concentrates on the wives themselves, their personalities and their histories. Antonia Fraser, unlike Alison Weir, generally uses the same name to describe the same person through the book, which makes following along who did what when much easier. I also found her family trees to be of more use. She brings up a lot of interesting points about the expectations placed on women in those times, that people genuinely believed that Henry ruled by divine right (which makes it easier to understand some of what happened), and that Henry towards the end of his life was driven by the need for a male heir (ironically) and saw his daughters, just like his sister, as pawns to be used to prop up his kingdom by means of alliances. Even though Henry saw that his own marriages should also be useful (politically and religiously), he had a great talent for convincing himself that God wanted him to do what he wanted to do anyway and thus he could always convince himself that the woman who currently attracted him was the one he had to marry.

It’s interesting to note the differences in the books. Alison Weir is obviously a fan of Catherine of Aragon, and doesn’t much like Anne Boleyn. Antonia Fraser is sympathetic to Catherine, but seems to admire Anne, despite her sharp tongue and lack of discretion. They both sympathize with Henry’s predicament, though not with how he chose to solve it.

The main problem with both books is that there is a lot of detail, and they mostly seem to be aimed at an audience that already knows something of the era and the people involved. So those of us who didn’t study history at school in England are at a bit of a disadvantage. Overall, however, both books are worth reading, you might just need to have some reference material at hand (or be prepared to skim a bit in the long confusing passages).

Jun 272007

Most years I get to speak at the XML Summer School put on by CSW in late July in Oxford, England. Last year I didn’t go since I’d just had a baby 6 weeks before and the family succeeded in talking me out of it. This year I’m going again. It should be a lot of fun; the idea of the school is to get a bunch of experts as teachers who go along with the attendees to all the social events, so the attendees can ask questions while everyone is in the pub or wandering around the Old Bodleian Library. Questions while punting are best not directed at the punter, of course, and the rest of us are usually too busy laughing anyway.

With sessions on web services (including identity and security), content and knowledge with XML, XSLT, XSL-FO and XQuery, Teach Yourself Ontology (that one’s new this year!), Building XML Applications, and XML in Healthcare, there’s lots to choose from. I’ll have to choose which days I attend carefully, there’s always too much going on.

I’m speaking in the Trends and Transients track (which I chair each year, even when I’m not there) with Jeni Tennison and Dan Connolly; I’m talking about Web 2.0 while they’re talking XML Processing and Microformats respectively. I even got my presentation deck finished, and only a couple of days late! For the last session of the day, I get the other track chairs to spend five minutes telling us what they think are this year’s hyped or under-appreciated technologies, followed by a panel session of all the day’s speakers. There is always some controversy around people’s opinions, even of these supposedly dry technical subjects. For a sample, check out the YouTube video of Bob DuCharme’s talk (rant?) last year (the video and sound quality’s not great, but adequate).

CSW is offering a special deal this year, speakers get a special code that people can use for a discount on registration. So if you are thinking of attending, email me for the code, either at my Sun email address or my Textuality email address. Unless you’ve already got a code from one of the other speakers of course…

Jun 272007

One of the better pieces on identity and privacy that I’ve read recently, and well worth everyone reading, whether you do anything much with identity management or not, is from David Weinberger. Identity management in an unequal world discusses how when signing up for things is easier, people can take advantage of that to ask us to sign up more often, to give more information than we really need to. I’ve been well trained at Sun to ask now why anyone needs the information they’re asking for. Can’t they do with less information? What are they going to do with it? These are the basic questions everyone needs to ask every time some web site or shop asks for personal information of any sort, basically why do they want it and why do I need to give it? If more people ask the reason why, maybe fewer companies will be needlessly intrusive.

Jun 262007

To the anonymous reader of my blog who bought books on Amazon using my associates link, thank you! Not so much for the few cents it brought me but for the fact that it means you thought enough of what I wrote to check out the books and spend your own money to get a couple of them. I appreciate the faith you’ve shown in my opinion (bolstered, one hopes, by the opinions of the other reviewers).

Jun 242007

When I was chairing the XML Conference, one of the things I tried very hard to convince speakers to do was to write up their talks as proceedings, and not just use slides. The main reason for that was that 6 months after giving a talk, oftentimes the speakers can’t figure out what they meant with those slides, let alone people trying to make sense of them on their own. A written paper is much better at giving people the information they’re looking for.

So I was interested to see that Presentation Zen recently wrote on the same topic. As the author says:

PowerPoint is not the cause of bad business presentations, but laziness and poor writing skills may be. The point is not to place more text within tiny slides intended for images and visual displays of data. The point is to first (usually) create a well-written, detailed document. Do business people still know how to write?

Recently I’ve started trying a different way of creating slide decks. I pull together a few slides with pictures or bullets, then write a document with grammatical English, picturing myself actually giving the talk, writing what I plan to say. This leads to additions and changes in the slides, and makes them more into the supporting visuals that I think they should be. In the ideal case, I’d have time after the actual presentation to edit the written-out talk to reflect what I really did say and publish that together with the slides. I realise that the slides on their own often aren’t much use to anyone who wasn’t at the talk, or 6 months afterwards for anyone who was; that’s not always a problem depending on the audience and the actual purpose of the talk.

I do know of people who put a lot of work into making their slide decks suitable for teaching purposes on their own without supporting documents; those people who are good at that often use extensive speaker’s notes. And they’re usually also good at writing those full-length papers. Which leads me to suspect that there is something to the slide-deck style that is appealing – maybe it’s the sense that you get the important information in the bullets? Maybe it’s responding to people’s laziness in reading?

Jun 232007

If you’re looking for something to cheer up a grey day, leave you shaking your head about some people’s behaviour, and generally entertain you, try this story about a DVD-renting outfit’s exchanges with a lawyer. So far I’ve only read a few of the sections, but they’re priceless (a lawyer who copies the other side on private emails to his client, makes inadvisable bets, and then challenges the other side to a fist-fight). Much better than most TV programmes, proving once again the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction. [Update: And then I read the last posting in the series, and thought about that other old adage “There but for the grace of God go I”… and Boing-Boing removed the original link.]

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