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Archive for July, 2007

My television debut occurred at the age of 6, when I was poster boy for the local March of Dimes campaign. My only qualification was being at a speech therapist when no one who was deaf happened to be (my problem was a difficulty pronouncing a hard “k”, and the experience left me with a precise way of talking that many people mistake for an English accent). The experience brought only brief fame and no fortune, and was memorable mainly for the reaction a few weeks later, when my older brother looked up and exclaimed, “Bruce is on the television!” and my mother replied, “Well, tell him to get off it.”

My only other experience with TV was as an extra in a crowd scene for a locally shot movie with my wife and sister-in-law. At the time, it was an easy if tedious $80, and I never did learn if we were visible in any shots. In fact, now that I think, I can’t even remember the name of the movie.

One way or the other, though, I’m about to increase my TV experience. Next week, I’m scheduled to appear on the Lab with Leo cable show to talk about the GNU/Linux desktop for five or six minutes. The reccomendation came through Free Geek Vancouver, one of whose coordinators is scheduled to appear on another couple of segments.

Like many people, I have the idea that I appear overweight and gauche on film. And I know that I often talk too fast or mutter. I could get away with these tendencies when teaching but I suspect that idiosyncrancies are less forgiving on TV. I would very much like to solicit the opinion of someone with some experience on TV, but I’m not on speaking terms any more with the only person who might be worth consulting.

Instead, I’m on my own, doing my best to approach my adult debut in the spirit of adventure, not in the least self-important, but curious about the experience.

Already, it’s proving interesting. The show has a list of colors not to wear: No blacks and browns, because they blend into the set, no white shirt because either my torso or face will suffer from the contrast. No shorts, either, because the show might be shown in winter time, and would look out of season if I did. The color restrictions alone has me mentally thumbing through my closet in a way that I rarely do.

I also have to write in advance an outline of what I am going to discuss, along with any biographical information or any web sites that might illustrate my stint.

Visions of failure nibble at the edges of my self confidence, but I keep telling myself: one way or the other, it’s going to be an interesting experience. But “interesting” is such a neutral word: Proving a natural and coming across as an idiot could both be described with it. Unsurprisingly, I find myself apprehensive and anticipatory at the same time.

So why go through with it? All I can do is answer in the time-honored way, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I wonder if I’ll feel the same way after the spot is shot?

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So you think you want the life of a freelance writer? Maybe after you hear about my monthly ups and downs, you’ll think again.

Currently, I am under obligation to provide 16 articles – about 22,000 words – each month about GNU/Linux and free software. I may also do a number of other paying articles on other subject, depending on what other contracts I have going at any given moment. Unless I am working on a breaking story, most of this work doesn’t have to be submitted at a more particular time than by the end of the month.

I start each month by sending out invoices. Invoices are the part of my work that I enjoy the least, but are also the whole point of my efforts, so I grumble and force myself to send them out. Then, overcome by the effort and aware that a whole month stretches ahead of me, I am likely to take a few days to slack off. I may do a little research for possible stories, but, more likely, I run the errands that have been piling up for the last couple of weeks, and work on other projects.

By the end of the first week of the month, I start to get nervous and produce a few articles. Come the second week, I am producing steadily, but anxiety is riding me like a nightmare as I count the remaining number of articles I have to finish by the end of the month.

In the third week, the anxiety leaves me hag-ridden. “You’re not going to make it!” a mocking little voice seemingly just above my head starts saying over and over. At night, I have dreams of inadequacy and lie awake staring up at the dark as the little voice continues its chorus. “You’re not going to make it!”

In the day, motionless and cramped in front of the computer. I start scanning the Internet for possible story leads – any leads – and making the rounds of my contacts. I start writing furiously, sometimes even managing to submit two stories in one day.

It’s not, you might say, the ideal time to confront me with the unexpected, or ask me a favor. At this point in a month, I truly emerge as a geek — and by that I don’t mean a computer programmer, but a grubby refugee from a circus capable of biting chickens’ heads off for a living.

At times, too, in the middle of the month, I wonder if being a circus geek wouldn’t be a less stressful way to make a living. At least the job would get me out of the house and meeting people face-to-face.

By the fourth week, I can see the end in sight, but I hardly dare to hope that I will make my quotas. In fact, I’m a great believer in flop sweat, and have a half-superstitious belief that if I think I can make it, I won’t. But I plug away steadily, seriously over-dosed on writing, and then, miracle of miracles, it happens: I finish, usually with a day or two to spare. Sometimes, I even manage to finish ahead of times in months that have 30 days, or even in the cruelty that is February, with its punishing three days short of a normal month’s length. And, a day or two aside, I rarely have to pull any especially long hours to reach quota.

Part of me is chagrined by this work flow. In school and university, I always had assignments done well ahead of deadline. Common sense tells me that I should dust of those old habits, and write to a schedule, four stories each week, banged out in regular order.

Yet somehow it doesn’t seem to work that way. After my rollercoastering month, I usually need to rest for a few days at the start of a new month, and so the whole sorry cycle gets perpetuated. Maybe the stark, raving terror of deadlines is a great motivator, but it sure doesn’t make for peace of mind.

And you want to know the really sorry part of this schedule? The fact is, I set it myself. I don’t pretend that I am indispensable to any of the editors for whom I write regularly. I’m told that I write well and on-time, and generally need minimal correction – virtues that all editors appreciate – but, should I suddenly disappear or miss quota one month (and sooner or later, I’m bound to), my editors would survive the catastrophe far better than I would the shame of it.

You see, the trouble with being a freelancer – or a consulting editor, if you want to pretty up my position – is that you’re your own boss. And if you have the personality to be a freelancer, you also have the personality to be the most demanding and obnoxious boss for whom you’ve ever had to work.

So pity the poor freelancers. Not only are we under the worst bosses imaginable, but the only escape is back to the nine-to-five jobs we escaped. And nothing, not even our abusive management, is worth such a desperate move.

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Except when buying books, I have tried to avoid reflex consumerism since I was a young teen. I don’t want to be a Luddite (as a computer journalist, I could hardly be that), because, while I sometimes admire the independence of such people, I also think they take a neurotic pleasure in denying themselves. Yet, at the same time, I don’t want to buy the latest appliance or follow the latest fad unless doing so fits my long-term needs. In trying to avoid these extremes, I have become somewhat paradoxical, on the one hand having up to date computer equipment, and, on the other hand, having chosen to live without some of the things that most people take for granted, like microwaves, credit cards, and cell phones. The paradox leads to a very different outlook on life — a slower and less harried one.

To me, a microwave simply duplicates what’s already in the kitchen — and doesn’t function as well as a standard issue oven and stove. It’s nearly impossible to prepare a sauce in one, or anything except non-gourmet meals, because it eliminates most of a hands-on approach to cooking. For this reason, they encourage the use of prepared foods, which add to household expenses.

Their most common use seems to be to heat coffee quickly, a use that hardly justifies the counter space they occupy. So, why bother with them? I don’t stand waiting for water to boil for my peppermint tea — I busy myself with something else — which means that I don’t need the extra few seconds that a microwave promises.

Nor have I ever carried a credit card. Why should I? Living with debt makes me uneasy, and I’m no longer an adolescent who demands instant gratification. Saving beforehand, I appreciate a new car, a new house or a trip more than I would if I were paying for them for months or years after I had them. Sometimes, while I’m saving, I have second thoughts, and realize that I don’t need the high ticket items that I thought I did. At other times, I can enjoy the anticipation of waiting for gratification.

This approach confounds bank employees, who insist that I should take out a card to build a line of credit. “But I don’t care about credit,” I say. “But you should,” they reply. “You never know when you need it.” “But I’ve arranged my life so I don’t need it,” I reply — and so it goes, in an endless Abbott and Costello routine in which neither side understands the others. The bank employees are dumbfounded at the idea of a life without credit, while I have no patience with the idea that you have to increase your levels of anxiety just so you can momentarily act like an infant.

The only real drawback to life without credit is that I consistently over-estimate the income of others. What seems like a wealthier lifestyle than mine is often just a similar income with credit.

(By contrast, I approve wholeheartedly of debit cards. They’re pay as you go — a concept of which I heartily approve — and much more convenient than carrying large amounts of cash, so I’m quite prepared to pay processing fees for using one)

In the same way, I was probably one of the few people in North America who had no interest in the iPhone as the pre-release hype built to the release date. Whether I work in an office as I once did or at home as I do now, I am always within a few meters of a land line. When I am on an errand or on my own time away from my place of work, very few people ever have business with me that can’t wait for an hour or two — and, when they do, it’s extremely rare. I have no wish to have those interminable monologs that sound like a homework assignment at announcers’ school.You know — the ones in which cell phone owners describe the mundane details of their daily activities: “I’m standing in front of the frozen peas now. Is it cold! And there are all sorts of different types of frozen peas here…” Personally, if I was that interested in public performance, I’d have become a mime.

The few times that I do need a phone, I can usually find a pay phone (although not so much recently, since public planners are starting to assume that everyone has a cell phone). At other times, not being connected 24-7 means that I actually have a few hours most days that are mine. The result is that I’m a much calmer person, because I suffer fewer interruptions.

The truth is, very few of us need a cell phone. Those who do — for instance, those whose work day takes them to many different locations in the day and who would otherwise be impossible to contact — are welcome to them. But, for the rest of us, cell phones are a self-indulgence that have little practical use, and serve only to add to the problem of high-tech waste piling up at the landfill, or being exported overseas to endanger the citizens of developing countries who try to recycle them.

Personal coaches and motivational speakers like to talk about taking control of your life and building the sort of life you want. However, I wish a few of them would apply such glittering generalities to our culture’s love affair with technology and fashion. Navigating between going along with the crowd and a perverse self-denial is tenuous and difficult effort, and it doesn’t actually succeed. However, unless you can get ride of the artificial needs foisted upon you, how can you hope to realize the needs you actually have? You’ll only get sidetracked and wind up vaguely unhappy.

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As a communications and marketing consultant, I worked with over forty companies in eight years. They ranged from multi-nationals like IBM and Intel to startups and single-person operations, and from the reputable (if bureaucratic) to the fly-by-night. Three times, I was stiffed – – fortunately, for small amounts. Often, I was frustrated by lack of challenge or mismanagement that I was sure I could put right if I were in charge (and once or twice, I might have been right). But only once have I quit a job after three days of work, and that position remains, indisputably, the worst job I have ever taken.

Even my first job as a busboy, which I quit after the manager accused me of spilling water on a customer when I had been in the kitchen all shift can’t compare. As for the summer between university semesters that I spent drilling holes in wooden rods, I may never have learned what either holes or rods were for, but that was only for three months, and enduring acute boredom isn’t too bad when you earn union wages.

I took my all-time worst job in the weeks after I left Stormix Technologies, where I had my first experience as management (and awful I was, but that’s another story). I had quit in the sudden realization that the company could fold any time (and six months later it did), and repented my rashness at leisure. When a woman I knew from a consulting agency I sometimes worked through told me that she was now doing human resources at a company, I jumped at the opportunity to start at her new company. Never mind that it was a return to technical-writing after playing at management; it was a job.

The company was involved in online gaming, my acquaintance told me, leading me to believe that it was developing a world for role playing. Never mind that gaming seemed frivolous after working with free software; I told myself to be realistic and take the opportunity that was offered.

The first morning, I learned that my acquaintance had misrepresented the company to me. It was not involved role playing, but in developing casino games. In fact, the company had been the recent victim of a police raid for its activities, and had just changed its name. Otherwise, I would have recognized the name, because, in those days, I kept close track on all the high-tech companies in my area. I was dismayed, but I knew enough about the police to know that a raid didn’t necessarily mean any wrongdoing, so I fought down my misgivings.

The second day, I noticed a door that opened into a room larger than any I had seen in the office. It had well over a dozen desks — not workstations. If all those desks were occupied, it represented over a third of the company, yet no one was there.

“That used to be for our lawyers,” the guy at the next workstation told me when I asked about the room. “But they all moved to the Caymans after the raid.”

My dismay deepened. A company with almost as many lawyers as coders could only be a patent shark or one with serious legal difficulties, especially since they were all in the Caymans now. In fact, the company’s head office had relocated to the Caymans, where online gambling is legal in a way that it isn’t in the United States and Canada.

My resolve to be realistic slipped another notch or two.

I went home and spent a fitful night trying to bat my conscience down. Did I want to be part of such a company? I resolved to wait a week before making a decision. But, from the way I dragged myself from the SkyTrain and lingered in the nearest Starbucks on the third day, I knew that I was half-out the door already.

The final blow descended when my manager gave me a tour of the rest of the office.. It was on several levels of an old building in Gastown, and I had only seen one level of it so far.

The tour ended in the kitchen. “If you see the light on next door,” the manager said, pointing to a small red-tinged bulb above the door frame, “Keep quiet. They’re filming.”

“Filming?”

“It’s what used to be our adult movie division. They’re a separate company now, but we still share the kitchen space.”

As he spoke, I noticed some long bathrobes draped over the chairs around the table.

Back at my desk. I tried to focus on my work, but I couldn’t. I was never much for gambling or adult movies (which, more often than not, are actually adolescent), but I’m not a prude, either. I’d always taken a more or less feminist of pornography as exploitation, but did I have a right to judge people who were shooting -rated movies of their own free will? In the past, I had met all sorts of people that wouldn’t exactly fit in to the average suburb, so why was I so depressed by the situation I found myself in?

I thought of a photo that had circulated in the local newspapers when the company had been raided, showing the company’s employees standing around on the sidewalk. I could be one of them, I realized.

Stopping all pretense of work, I decided that part of the problem was that, while I might tolerate the company’s business past and present, I didn’t want to be active in it. But an even larger source of my discomfort was the conviction that I had been duped. If the company misrepresented itself to attract employees, what else might it do in the name of business? I thought I had enough evidence to make a reliable guess.

Anyway, the only thing worse than being manipulated would be an attempt to deny the fact. My situation was too depressing for words.

At 11:30, I marched into the manager’s office and told him that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and had been too optimistic to think that I could work regular hours. He was sympathetic, and even told me to come back if I got better, but there was not much chance of that.

A month later, I received a check for the days I had worked. I referred to the cheque as “my avails of vice,” and briefly considered not cashing it. By then, I had started at my highest-paid and most interesting job to date, and I didn’t need the money. But, in the end, I told myself that I had earned it, and rationalized that I deserved some compensation for what I had been through.

I still don’t know whether that line of thought was a copout. But I was glad to be out of that job before it made a gap in my resume that I would have to explain. And, in the end, I benefited from my decision to quit, because it raised me in the estimation of my in-laws. Yet, brief as the experience was, I’ll never forget the mixture of anger and chagrin with which I descended into the seamy side of high-tech.

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When I was six or seven, I was fascinated by the promise of stores. They seemed full of undefined but definite wonder, capable of containing anything. Their potential seemed unlimited, but, the reality always fell short of my imagination. Even the magic shop at Disneyland only sold tricks rather than brass lamps with their very own genie or antique bedroom furniture that was a gateway to a world of adventure. Nowadays, I don’t expect such wonders to be near at hand, except very occasionally in a well-stocked book or music store – which is why the Granville Island market is always a pleasant surprise.

It would be easy to dismiss Granville Island as a nothing more than an extended ploy to separate yuppies from their bank accounts as painlessly as possible. And maybe if I visited with any regularity, I would come to see the market that way. But, visiting only once or twice a year, I can preserve my view of it as a bazaar of potential delights.

Part of my enjoyment is the setting – a chaos of comings and goings in which pedestrians stroll unimpeded and cars give way on the irregularly angled streets. Stores come and go in the unlikelilest places, so I could almost believe that they magically shifted locales. On the docks, water taxis are continually disembarking people from other parts of False Creek. In the outdoor sitting areas, seagulls wander with psychotic gleams in their eyes, secure in their knowledge that they have the right to any food they recognize as such.

And every fifteen minutes or so, the buskers (many of them surprisingly good) move on to a location. Rumor has it that, twenty years ago, their numbers would include Loreena McKennitt when she was in town. Now, they include many of the mainstays of the local folk scene, as well as the occasional musician. Some years, too, the Fringe Festival has had small plays performed in various corners. Something is always happening or about to happen at the market – or, at least, it seems that way.

Some of the market tables include crafts, but the main appeal of the market is its selection of food. I’m far from being a foodie, despite the half dozen or so special menus I sometimes prepare, but, more than any other public market in the greater Vancouver area, Granville Island comes close to fulfilling my imaginative expectations.

Besides the fresh produce, the market vendors sell an endless variety of food, ranging from the raw to the prepared. Wild salmon (no one in BC would admit to selling farmed salmon), crepes, locally blended coffees, dolmathes, cassava chips, smoked almonds, flax rolls, maple syrup toffee, tzatziki, pinots and zifandels – I can’t begin to list the types of food offered with anything like completeness.

Pastas, breads, and chocolate desserts are especially well-represented, but, no matter what your palate or ethnic preferences, you have a good chance of finding it somewhere on Granville Island. If you have the patience, you could assemble a ready-made meal that cost the same but was far more varied than anything you could find in the nearby restaurants. Alternatively, a well-dressed homeless person who kept their poise could feed well by going around to all the booths and taking the proferred samples as they talked seriously to the clerks about the various offerings. Just wending your way through the aisles is enough to turn you gluttonous.

Usually, I get away with only spending twenty dollars or so, but I could easily spend thirty times that if I indulged in every impulse that came my way at Granville Island. Not that I haven’t had many unexpected and delightful gourmet meals after a wander through the market, but it is the array of exotic possibilities, not actually possessing them that fascinate me. Mostly, I am content to look, sample sparingly, and buy little. The experience, which is free, is worth more to me than anything I could buy, no matter how it melted on the tongue or lingered on the palette.

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Yesterday, I went to the Chapters store at Granville and Broadway in the early evening. When I got there, the staff were preparing for the midnight launch of the new Harry Potter book. Watching them, I soon found myself changing my mind about all the Harry-hype.

Having read fantasy ever since I discovered it in the sixth grade I’ve always been cool to the popularity of the Harry Potter series. I’ve read all the books, but I’ve only been moderately impressed. J. K. Rowling shows flashes of invention and whimsy, but her books are far from the best children’s fantasy for those in the know. Personally, I’d rate dozens of children’s writers above Rowling – Joan Aiken, Lloyd Alexander, J. R. R. Tolkien, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. LeGuin, Garth Nix, and Philip Pullman, just for starters. Her voice is too uncertain, her characters too stereotyped, and her books too much in need of editing (especially after they became popular) for her to equal writers like the ones I’ve mentioned. Her main innovation is to blend fantasy with the school story to create a sub-genre that is simultaneously new and familiar.

I’d put the series in the middle of the pack: neither outstandingly bad nor – for all the hype – outstandingly original or any sort of literary gem, not even one in the rough.

But if I haven’t been enthusiastic about the books, the promotion has thrilled me even less. For one thing, it seems unnecessary. Why bother to hype a book that you know is going to sell several million copies? Spend the money on some worthy midlist writer, and the publisher could have two bestsellers rather than the one.

More importantly, I had dismissed the midnight book launches and parties as simply another attempt by people to inject a little excitement and meaning into their lives. The attempt seems healthier to me than following a sports team, or seeing terrorists under the bed, but, in the end, the launchings of Rowling’s books have always struck me as being much the same sort of group event, carefully manipulated to allow people an emotional release – a modern update of bread and circuses, really.

But that was before I saw the preparations for the event. The store had put a castle and dragon painted on brown paper around the entrance, and most of the staff was dressed for the occasion. Some were in black, witchy costumes. One woman managed a severity that made her a perfect Severus Snapes – or would have, except that she kept grinning. A man was wearing a top hat and tails with a long blue and white scarf that seemed to owe as much to Doctor Who as Harry Potter. Another woman was wearing wings and a straw hat and layers of loose brown cloth, apparently meant to be a house elf or at least some supernatural being. Still another woman had a brightly colored snake pained on her face that ran from her right cheek across her temple and down to her left temple.

These people and more were rushing around setting up tables and putting out stacks of Rowling’s previous books and the Harry Potter action figures. Given the wages of the average book store clerk, you might have expected them to be complaining about the extra work and the longer hours.

Yet that’s not what they were doing. Instead, they were laughing and chatting animatedly as they worked, pausing to show their costumes off to each other.

That’s when I had a Scrooge-like conversion. If all the promotional events could give so much pleasure to those organizing them (let alone the children for whom all the effort was for), they couldn’t be all bad.

Yes, the object of this attention seemed unfairly singled out from among her betters, and the promotions seem needless, and the motives behind them cynical. Yet, all too obviously, they were a welcome break in routine, and a chance those involved usually didn’t have to exercise their creativity. From the unpromising origins of the launch, they had managed to make something approaching a holiday.

That’s why, for all my misgivings, I don’t really have the heart to criticize. Anything that brings such gifts to people can’t be all bad. So, while I’m not buying a Christmas goose and hurrying off to Bob Cratchit’s house loaded with gifts for the family, I am looking at all the activity with a far more benevolent eye than a couple of days ago.

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I wish I could say that I take public transit for environmental reasons. Environmentalism is trendy, and I could earn cheap social points by being green. Unfortunately, I can’t claim so much credit. The truth is, I prefer public transit because it gives me a block of time to read. When I’m not reading, the bus or the Skytrain is a perfect place for both thinking and people-watching.

Somewhere on each trip, I almost always use the time on transit simply to think. While I’m on transit, I may be purposeful, but, unlike in a car, I’m not responsible for that purpose. I can sit back, and let my mind wander. without guilt. Moreover, I’m doing it in an unfamiliar environment, with other unfamiliar ones passing rapidly by me outside, and unfamiliar environments often lead to new thoughts. Ride a bus for half an hour, I sometimes think, and I can often find a solution to any problem that’s on my mind.

Flying is even better, because it’s stranger and longer, but transit has the advantage of being cheaper and more accessible. Once or twice, I’ve even ridden a block or two past my stop, just because I was in the middle of thinking through an especially knotty problem and didn’t want to interrupt the process.

If I have a laptop with me, I can input my thoughts, so long as I’ve kept the battery charged. However, closing down a laptop can make me miss my stop if I’m not careful, and caring an open computer through a crowd is a good way to break it.

More often, I simply carry a notebook. The only disadvantage is that my handwriting has degenerated through marking student papers until it looks like an obscure style of cuneiform written in the dark. Nor does the motion of the bus or Skytrain car help. Later, I often can’t transcribe what I’ve written except for a few words here and there. Most, I frankly have to guess at through context.

At other times, I unabashedly gawk at the human parade around me. Generally-speaking, the people who ride transit do not represent a random distribution of the population. As a sample, they’re skewed to the teenaged and the old, the poor and the ethnic (by which I mean, anyone from a culture that isn’t obsessed with the idea of a personal vehicle). These populations are apt to be more colorful than the average suburb or city dweller: the young because they are asserting themselves, the old because they don’t care about fashion, the poor because they can afford to care, and the ethnic because they have their own sense of style.

If you want to hear the latest concerns among teenagers, or get a sense of different speech patterns, all you have to do is ride and eavesdrop shamelessly. What I hear can be embarrassing, like the time I heard a man pleading with his lover not to break up with him via a cell-phone, but it will be a genuine slice of life of the kind that would make short story writers drool. From people discussing their plans for the weekend, giving Twitter-like updates on their cell phones to families swarming with young children and cyclists still dusty from their ride, you can find a bit of everything on transit.

And these are just the ordinary riders. If you could the genuine eccentrics, the bikers who have lost their driver’s licenses and the homeless who sometimes ride for free in the downtown core, then the people-watching never palls. The one drawback is that you don’t always see the end of the drama. I still wonder, sometimes, whether the shoplifter I saw wearing half a dozen shirts and carrying their clothes-hangers was ever noticed by the transit police, or how well the busker with his thirty-second balloon show did. Nor do I know just who the man strumming a guitar for the driver was the other night, although from the way people acted, he might be someone moderately famous.

People-watching never completely palls. If nothing else, it’s a basic precaution for riding. Without being paranoid, it only seems sensible to be aware of those around you on transit, especially at night. However, the one rule you need to remember is: “Don’t make eye contact.”
Not that is, if you want to avoid being dragged unwillingly into a conversation. The eccentrics on the bus are often lonely, and even meeting their eyes for a moment can encourage them to tell you their life story in real time or in repetitive, rambling detail.

Of course, transit isn’t always smooth riding. If I’m foolish enough to travel during rush hour, I can learn more about other people’s personal hygiene and smoking habits than I ever wanted to know. Mostly, though, riding transit is so rich in people and thoughts that being in a private car seems an impoverished experience by comparison.

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