Archive for September, 2007

In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, I read yet another article suggesting that if you work from home, you should dress for important calls as though you were at the office. The idea is that this bit of role-playing will help you to focus on the business at hand and act more professionally.

Well, whatever works. I suppose. But I know that such role-playing doesn’t help me one bit.

Whenever I try such a suggestion, instead of being focused, I’m distracted by the falsity of what I’m doing. Like pretending to agree when I have reservations, or to be in a good mood when I want to dig a hole and fling myself in, dressing for a phone call feels forced and pointless to me. Such efforts do me more harm than good, because I keep thinking I’m being a phony instead of concentrating on the business at hand.

As a result, after trying to play dressup once or twice, I quickly gave up bothering. Now, I happily take calls in my usually working attire: a T-shirt, shorts, and bare feet. A sentence or two into a call, I’m too busy thinking about the issue at hand to waste any worry on what I’m wearing.

Business experts who echo each other on this subject (I’d say “parrot” except that, as the owner of four, I know that they don’t say things mindlessly) would probably say no good could come of my casualness. Yet I think the record speaks for itself. In my casual but sublime outfit, I’ve successfully negotiated the price of a series of ads. I’ve arranged bundling deals for commercial software. I’ve aced job interviews. I’ve successfully interviewed leaders of the free software movement, as well as countless managers and CEOs of national and international corporations. Not one of these people — who must amount to several hundred people over the past eight years — has ever complained that I was anything less than professional and competent.

Under the circumstances, I fail to see why I should spend time ironing a shirt and pants or knotting a tie before a professional call. I could better use my pre-time call making notes of the points I want to cover, or drinking a cup of peppermint tea to help calm myself as I think about strategies.

It would be another story, of course, if I were doing a visual teleconference. But I think that, although the technology for such conferences is now more or less ready, there’s a reason why the idea has never caught on since I first saw a demo as a four year-old-child: few people really want such a thing. Given a choice, most of us, I think, prefer dressing or sitting comfortably while we talk on the phone to whatever minor advantages being seen might confer. Not worrying about such trivialities as our clothes help us to concentrate on what really matters in our telecommuting calls.

That’s not to say that some people might not find dressing up for a call is helpful. I’ve seen too much to believe that everybody responds the same way, so I expect there are people who find that putting on a suit and tie or a pair of nylons helps them when they take business calls from home.

Yet, at the same time, don’t feel that dressing up is compulsory, or a piece of magic that will automatically work for you. In some cases, the effort may only be a distraction.

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Tomorrow, the last computer in the house with a floppy drive goes to Free Geek for recycling. An era in computing is officially over for me.

Actually, the era was over several years ago. Even four years ago, when I bought my last computer, I thought twice about bothering with a floppy drive. Nor do I think that I’ve use the drive any time in the last two years, nor even more than once or twice in the year before that. I’d already converted to flash drives, and only the free-spending, why-not attitude that comes when you’re making a large purchase made me get a floppy drive in the first place, on the remote chance that I might need it.

I didn’t, really. When I looked through the nearly two decades’ worth of floppies that I’d accumulated, I found all of them working — unsurprisingly, since I take good care of my storage media. But I hadn’t used them for anything except a quick means of transferring files with older computers for eight or nine years, and they had nothing that I couldn’t do without.

Back when I got my first computer, getting three and a half inch floppies had seemed like a cutting edge idea. Even the person from whom I bought thought that five and a quarter floppies would be more sensible. But I figured that disks that were not only smaller and more rugged but boasted twice the capacity — a whole 720k! — was the wave of the future.

I was right, of course, and smug about it. At first, I did have difficulties when buying programs (this was back when free software consisted of emacs and not much else). At least once, I carried disks to Kwantlen College where I was a sessional instructor, so I could take advantage of the different size drives in my office to copy programs into a format that my computer at home could use. Yet, before I’d had the computer a year, the larger sized floppies started to disappear.

Then for years, floppies were my main source of backup. I remember how strange it seemed when floppies started coming in black, and then even colors. And, while at first the differences in quality between name brands like Sony and cheaper brands were obvious, it soon disappeared.

After a few years, too, 720k no longer seemed as large. In rapid succession, I switched to syquest drives, then CDs. Eventually, I moved to DVDs and an external hard drive for backup. The prices started falling on floppies, and so did the amount of shelf space they took up. The last time I happened to notice, floppies were selling ten for six dollars. Yet I remember a time when thirty dollars seemed a good price for a name brand collection of ten.

In a way, I suppose the fact that you can buy floppies at all is a testimony to the force of habit. Even my smallest flashdrive has over three hundred times the capacity of a standard floppy — the 1.44 megabytes ones having never really caught on. They’ve been yesterday’s technology for a lot of yesterdays.

I don’t get nostalgic for hardware, although it’s a good piece of historical trivia for fiction to recall that a single floppy was once considered the storage necessary for the average popular novel. Even when I name our cars, it’s more a joke than any sign of affection. Still, the end of my personal floppy era is another milestone in the passage of time, just as the moment when I realized that the IBM Selectric that I bought with a small inheritance from my grandfather was obsolete.

Come to think of it, I still have that squirreled away on the top shelf of the closet in the spare room. My reasoning, I think, was that I’d have a backup if the computer failed. Of course, exactly how I thought an electric typewriter would be of any use when I couldn’t use a computer is a mystery, considering that most of those circumstances would involve a loss of power. So, I suppose the next bit of housecleaning is to haul that piece of scrap iron away.

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“It was a compliment,’ said Merry Brandybuck,’and so, of course, not true.”
– J. R. R. Tokien, The Lord of the Rings

When I use the exercise bike at the rec center, I mostly keep to myself. After years of running by myself, I just don’t think of exercising as a social occasion. So, I was surprised yesterday when a man in his early twenties approached me as I staggered off the bike and said, “Can I tell you something?”

“Sure,” I said warily, supposing he was about to criticize my technique. In my experience, everyone in the weight room is an expert, and few are reluctant to give you the benefit of their advice.

“You’re a warrior, man!” Then, as I was wondering whether I had heard him right, he said, “I see you running when I go to work. Then, at the end of the day, I see you here on the bike, working your guts out. You’re a warrior, a real warrior!”

I muttered something about just trying to get away from the computer after twelve hours, and sat down at a weight machine, bemused and – if I’m going to be honest – slightly pleased.

When I’m praised (or abused, for that matter), it’s usually for my writing. Most people don’t notice me physically, because I’m heavy-set for my height. I don’t look fit even when I am, and regardless of the fact that I’ve exercised daily since I was in elementary school. So, to be praised for my endurance (which I suppose was what he was saying) is unexpected. Yet, because I’m proud of my endurance, my vanity is tickled to have it acknowledged.

At the same time, I feel uneasy that it was noticed at all. Like many people who are observers, I’m mildly disconcerted to realize that someone has been observing me. I’m not altogether sure that I like it. It’s a bit of role-reversal that I didn’t expect.

Moreover, so far as a warrior-like appearance goes, I’m not exactly a rival to Ghengis Khan, or even someone civilized like Xenophon. Years of reading and keyboard work have taken their toll, and, if random people were asked to describe my face, chances are that many of them would use the word “mild.” Don’t get me wrong – I feel passionately about many causes and people, and I probably have more than my share of self-righteousness. But most of that doesn’t show on my face.

Finding a minute part of me inclined to preen at the compliment, I told myself that I wasn’t one of those middle-aged business executives that need to imagine themselves a samurai warrior to find some meaning in their lives.

Later, it would occur to me both how rare compliments are between hetrosexual men, and how I still don’t know how to receive a compliment from anyone with any dignity or grace.

But, at the time, I could only think:

A warrior?


Yeah, right.

Shaking my head, I bent to my repetitions with the weight machine.

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When crossing the moors,
never mind the witch;
be wary of the king’s men.

The gingerbread on her house
is only architectural excess
not culinary, the consequences
of gnawing no more than splinters.
Her worst eccentricities are earnest ramblings
on herbs to her old cat
and a lack of belief in bathing.
At times, she cheats at cards.

If you go by road
you fall in with the tollkeeper first.
He swaggers with his helm and two-handed sword,
says he is a gentleman, and lowers himself
if he hurries to help you.
All day he props over
hot pastries and ale
and his indigestion
(and hence his temper)
is not of the best.
He taxes you once for the king, he says,
and twice for himself;
the third time is for practice.

He keeps six hounds
hungry and well-lashed
and loosed at night
to take toll of another kind.
Bluff past him with your blade or bow,
and he semaphores, they say,
to bandits in the swamp.
The bandits, like the dogs,
strike only faces and hands
and after the dead’s clothes
are sold to second-hand merchants.

In his village
(where they do not travel
and are fond of fashion)
he passes for an honest man.

If you go overland, the foresters
lounge in the bracken.
Dour in dun hoods, they
preserve the forest and wild pigs for the king’s pleasure
(which he takes elsewhere)
and for their own
forbid crofters any firewood except
branches fallen from the bracken.

They arrive at the crofters’
doors near dinner
with dogs they say can sniff out
purloined hams and pork chops.
Their hands fall like a pedophile’s
on the shoulders of crofter children.
“The law is your friend,” they say,
“Tell us where your mother
cuts firewood.”

In the lonely places on the moor
they saunter in from the shadows
and mistrust travellers at random.
Sometimes, they plant
sausages or pig’s feet
in the packs of those
grown querulous at their questions.
Such wayfarers, they say,
become careless in their custody,
falling face first in the fire.

But in nearby villages, the burghers
(honest men, all of them)
say you must not believe
the bitter ones with broken fingers.
They declare the foresters upstanding men,
their only fault (and that occasional)
over-dedication to duty.

The coachman of the royal mail
empties your purse for passage, then
flings you off with the luggage
in his flight from trouble or fancy.

The army whose members
maneuver on the moor says
you can always lose your virginity somewhere.

Better the wild dogs and night-walkers,
the barrow guest and the quaint
cannibalisms of the turf cutters or
the one who walks behind.
Better take a stone from
the strange-arched ruins or
whistle at
the third milestone at midsummer.
Play riddles with
the watchers in the reeds or
thank the hanging man.
Let your voice reply
to the women who sing at twilight
before you trust
in your city polish and manners
the customs of the king’s men.

When crossing the moors,
never mind the witch;
be wary of the king’s men.

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My review of the latest release of Ubuntu was picked up by Slashdot this week, releasing a flood of criticism.

Although the article praised Ubuntu, it was also one of the first to mention some of its shortcomings, so it probably provoked more reaction than the average review. Much of the criticism was by people who didn’t know as much about a subject as they think they do, and even more was by people who had either misread the article or not read it at all. But the comments I thought most interesting were those who criticized me for suggesting that in some cases Ubuntu made things too simple, and didn’t provide any means for people to learn more about what they were doing. Didn’t I realize, the commenters asked, that the average person just wanted to get things done? That few people wanted to learn more about their computers?

Well, maybe. But as a former teacher, I can’t help thinking that people deserve the chance to learn if they want. More – if you know more than somebody, as Ubuntu’s developers obviously do, you have an obligation to give them the opportunity. To do otherwise is to dismiss the average person as willfully ignorant. Possibly, I’m naive, but I’m not quite ready to regard others that way.

Anyway, which came first: operating systems like Windows that prevent people from learning about their computers, or users who were fixated on accomplishing immediate tasks? If computer users are task-oriented, at least some of the time, the reason could be that they’re conditioned to be so. Perhaps they’ve learned from Windows that prying into the inner workings of their computer is awkward and difficult. We don’t really know how many users will want to learn more, given the opportunity.

Nor will we, until we design graphical interfaces that give users the chance to learn when they want to. Contrary to one or two commenters, I’m not suggesting that every user will always want to do things the hard way and use the command line – I don’t always want to myself, although I gladly do so when typing commands is the most efficient way to do the task at hand.

But where did so many people get the assumption that there’s such a contradiction between ease of use and complexity, that choosing one means that you forgo the other? It’s mostly a matter of tidying advanced features into a separate tab, or perhaps a pane that opens to reveal features that a basic user doesn’t want.

However, when so many people believe in the contradiction, we’re not likely to see graphical interfaces that are as useful to demanding users as basic ones.

Even more importantly, I suggest that giving users the chance to educate themselves is a corollary of free software principles. If free software is only going to empower users theoretically, then it might as well not do so at all. To help that empowerment along, free software has to provide the opportunity for users to learn, even though few may take the opportunity. Yet, so long as the chance exists that any users want the opportunity, it needs to be offered.

Moreover, I believe that, given the chance, many people will eventually embrace that opportunity. The first time that they use a free software interface, they may be focusing mainly on adjusting to so much that’s new.

However, eventually, many of them will learn that they can do things their own way and take more control. And eventually, surrounded by such choice, many may take advantage of it. If they don’t know the choices are available because their desktop has been simplified until the choices are obscured, then the developers are doing them a dis-service.

Some might say that simplification is needed to attract people to GNU/Linux. Personally, though, I doubt that exactly the same thing they can get on Windows is likely to attract anyone. If free operating systems are going to get a larger market share, then it will most likely be by providing a new perspective on computing. I like to think that new perspective should be attempting to accommodate everyone, not just beginners.

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After I sent off an article this afternoon, I worked out at the rec center, then limped across the street to meet Trish at the local pasta joint. While I was waiting, a male neighbor came in with his female house guest and sat on the patio. From our table, we couldn’t see them, but I admit that both of us took a couple of strictly unnecessary trips to the washroom so we could watch what was happening (although it was true that I needed to wash after my workout, and those Gorgonzola chips were greasy to eat with my fingers). Our neighbor was hell-bent on seduction, and, cynically, we wanted to observe his plans going awry.

Admittedly, I never was an expert at seduction, and being an old-married has blunted whatever poor skills I once had (or so I assume; trying them out would be inadvisable, even if I wanted to). Yet even I could figure out that a restaurant more famous among university students for the price and size of its portions than the quality of its food is a poor start to an amorous evening. Naturally, too, the portions have more than a dash of garlic – and we all know how garlic makes you want to cozy up with someone new.

Then there was the fact that his guest was from a much warmer climate, and the temperature drops off sharply in the fall evenings in the temperate zone. If the house guest was interested in anything outside of dinner, it wasn’t the neighbor. From our brief glimpses, it was burrowing deeper into the ski jacket she had had the foresight to bring.

All in all, she looked massively unimpressed.

While she looked reservedly polite, our neighbor ploughed on. Each time we saw, he was leaning forward and talking with more animation. Each time, she was leaning back further in her chair, looking as though she was doing nothing except enduring until she could go and get warm.

That, I think, would be the worst part for anyone with powers of observation. She wasn’t being rude to him. Nor was she enough of a participant in events to suggest that they move to a table inside where she could at least enjoy her meal. She was humoring him – and nothing is worse for any ego, amorous or otherwise, than being humored. A person who responds to you can be enjoyable company, regardless of what happens, and one who reacts unfavorably can — at least in theory — be won around. But what can be more deflating than someone who doesn’t care enough to react one way or the other?

We left before they did, so I don’t know how the little drama ended. However, if my guess is anything like correct, I think I’ll avoid our neighbor for the next few days. He’s apt to be feeling a little surly.

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In casual conversation a couple of days ago, I heard that Alex, the African Gray studied by Irene Pepperberg, was found dead in his lab last week. I’ve been reading about Alex for over twenty years, so the news struck me hard, both because of what he represented and my memory of what my life might been.

The summary of Pepperberg’s work with Alex is that he was the emotional equivalent of a two year old human child and the intellectual equal of a five year old one. To parrot owners, that is not surprising news – we’ve known for a long time that, when you look at a parrot, someone looks back at you, just as with a raven or crow (In fact, I’ve always found it interesting that parrots dominate the southern hemisphere and the corvidae the northern. Where they overlap, they tend to forage at different times at day, as if they have figured out the best way to minimize confrontations). But what Pepperberg is doing is establishing the intelligence of parrots scientifically, closing the door to doubt in a way that the anecdotal evidence of pet owners never could.

Alex’s obituary in the New York Times a few days ago called him a genius parrot. However, we don’t know that. Alex may have been a genius, but he could have been a normal African Gray, or even a dull one. We don’t know yet. However, perhaps Pepperberg’s work with other Grays will establish that over the next couple of decades.

However, just as important as establishing Alex’s intelligence is how Pepperberg did it. Remember the language studies with gorillas and chimpanzees thirty years ago? They were partially discredited because of poor experiment design and obvious anthropomorphizing. No doubt in response to such problems, Pepperberg designed Alex’s tests to be tougher than those done with primates, and in such a way as to minimize the bias of the experimenters. Yet, despite these tighter controls, Alex proved his intelligence.

Another interesting part of the Alex studies was Pepperberg’s use of a second trainer besides the one conducting the experiment who acted as a rival for the parrot to imitate. This teaching method proved far more effective than simple rewards, probably because it transformed learning into a social activity by giving Alex someone to emulate and compete against. The method could have a major effect on learning theory, if educators would only take notice of it.

For all these reasons, Alex deserves to be remembered as an important figure in science. Yet now that he is dead, what I remember is how nearly I came to doing similar work. I graduated from university with a double major in English and Communications, and, when I decided to start graduate school, I seriously considered doing similar studies with another parrot species. I even went so far as to write Pepperberg a letter about my plans, to which she was kind enough to reply. But the Communications Department at Simon Fraser University only admitted grad students in the Fall Semester, and I was starting in January, so I went into the English Department instead.

Thinking back, I can’t help thinking that of how different my life would have been if I had started my own parrot studies. Almost certainly, I would have missed the worst trauma of my life. And probably, I would have made the pilgrimage to see Alex up close at least once.

It’s too late for that now, and I’ll always regret it. By all I’ve seen, Alex was as exasperating a bundle of beak and feathers as any Gray I’ve ever met.
Having lost a parrot a few years ago, I can easily imagine how Pepperberg must feel. Losing a dog or a cat is hard enough, but losing a parrot is closer to losing a person. She always did her best to be professional with him while doing her studies, but you didn’t have to look very carefully to see that she adored Alex. I’m sure for her that the loss was not just professional, but personal as well.

Still, I envy her even in her loss. In these pre-spaceflight days, how many of us can say that we conversed daily with an alien species?

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