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Nostradamus the technical writer

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2002. Nostradamus the technical writer.

Sue Gallagher, a longtime technical writer, once posed the following riddle: "How are science fiction writers like technical writers?” The answer, of course, is that both professions write about things we imagine will happen in the future, but that often don’t—as anyone who’s documented software or hardware for a startup company can confirm. With the new millennium arriving at the end of 2001, I find my thoughts turning to a different form of science fiction: eschatology, the art of predicting the future. It occurs to me that the role of technical writer as prognosticator has a proud history, and one that dates back to the days of Nostradamus the Prophet, one of the most famous eschatologists.

Nostradamus a technical writer? Surely I jest?

Nope. There are so many parallels it’s a wonder nobody ever commented on this similarity before. For example, lacking clear or definitive product specifications (in Michel de Nostradame’s case, for the future) or access to the designer (okay... the Designer), he still managed to phrase things so clearly—yet so obscurely—that his user manuals for the coming years could be cheerfully interpreted in any way that worked for the reader. Would that we could be consistently that good in our usual work!

As well, Michel wrote in French, thereby encountering the same localization problems many of us now face, including the risk of losing something in translation. A few choice examples:

All this being said, the skeptic might suggest that Nostradamus was really practicing escatology, not eschatology, and that this simple typo is more than a coincidence. Considerable credibility is given to this hypothesis by the fact that writers were considerably sloppier about spelling in the good ol' days before spell checkers, so perhaps Nostradamus was really writing for Intercom’s Witful Thinking column and his irony simply escaped the notice of his contemporaries. Me? I’m too skeptical to think he was serious. As the bank manager robbed by a tarot-reading employee was later heard to complain, “I shoulda known: never trust an eschatologist to be your fortune's teller.”

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