Archive for November, 2007

Ordinarily, I don’t refer to commercial products when I blog. Still less do I ridicule people who appear earnest and are apparently engaged in a labor of love. However, in the case of Analogon Book, whose publicity reached me at Linux.com, I have to make an exception on both accounts.

Analogon Book was invented by Byron and Jorita Lockwood, a couple whom, from their picture, seem as middle-aged and middle-American as they come. Let them explain the origin of their brain-child in their own words. When they discovered computers:

The biggest complaint we had was managing the different logons and passwords. Byron does a lot of research online and used scraps of paper to manage his logons and passwords. Jorita would come along and throw them away!

During an argument over Jorita throwing away the scraps of paper she yelled out “why doesn’t someone create a book to write these down in.”

We thought it was good idea then and we still do! We looked in stores to see if this had been marketed, We could not find a book to meet this specific need, and never found the item.

So we created AnaLogon book!

Yes, that’s right: It’s a book where you can write down your passwords.

At this point, if you are not sitting back in dumbfounded amazement or giggling helplessly, let me explain a few basics about passwords and computer security.

Contrary to the Lockwood’s apparent belief, passwords are not just a nuisance. They’re intended to ensure your privacy and to prevent the vicious-minded from stealing information like your credit card numbers.

For this reason, one thing you should never do is write down your passwords, except perhaps on a piece of paper in your safety deposit box, so that your heirs can access your files when you’re dead.

You should certainly not write them down anywhere near the computer. Most computer break-ins are not remote, but committed by people with physical access to the computer. If you keep your passwords in a clearly labeled book, you might as well send out invitations to likely crackers to have your computer raided.

What makes this quote and product so sad and so blackly humorous at the same time is that the Lockwoods never seemed to have researched what they were doing. Instead, they plunged ahead with their business plan – apparently with people who are equally ignorant – and developed their web site, in all its exclamation-point studded glory. Apparently, they never once dreamed as they babbled about the convenience of their brain-wave, that what they are really doing is selling an invitation to thieves.

That’s why, when I see them saying such things as, “Get one for yourself, your spouse, student, parents, and friends” or recommend the book as a gift to a teacher (especially a computer teacher, a diabolical voice inside me whispers), I find it hard to keep a straight face.

And when their site talks about their product as a solution to hard drive crashes as though they have never heard of backups, or as useful for infrequently visited sites as though they have never found the password manager in their web browser, my initial perception is reinforced once again. These good people simply have no idea.

At first, the consensus of those on the Linux.com IRC channel was that the Analogon Book must be a joke. In fact, I wrote to the publicist to ask, and was assured it was seriously meant. Nor, in the weeks since, have I seen any of the distributors treat it as a joke. Thirty years of the personal computer, and a product like this can still not only be conceived, but brought to market without any second thoughts.

But at this point, it would be cruel to explain things to the Lockwoods, I think, shaking my head sadly — and then, I’m ashamed to say, I think of the website’s solemn description of how the product works, and I’m giggling again, and hating myself for doing so.

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Do gender differences exist?

Many people wouldn’t dream of asking this question. From puberty, if not before, the main source of most people’s identity seems to be whether they’re male or female – not just in sexual matters, but in every aspect of their lives. So, I realize that, in asking this question, I haven’t a prayer of getting out alive.

So what makes me the exception who does ask? Maybe it’s the fact that I went to school with a number of intelligent girls, or that I further confused the already confused time of puberty by reading feminist writers. Or possibly, having been dismissed as slow simply because I had a speech impediment in the first six years of my life has left me with an innate dislike of being labeled myself or of labelling others.

Possibly, too, my mental tendencies play a role. I know from other circumstances that my ability to recognize patterns is far better at detecting similarities than differences is involved. Nor is there much doubt that I’m often a contrarian, particularly where popular wisdom involved. But I’d like to think that being observant has something to do with the matter, too.

Oh, I know that men and women behave and speak differently. I’m not denying that. But how do we know that these differences aren’t only the result of circumstances?

Because we know, says the chorus of popular wisdom. The truth is, gender differences are an explanatory principle in modern industrial culture, just like gravity. When someone’s told that an object falls due to gravity, few ever go on to ask about the mechanisms of gravity. In the same way, once you invoke gender differences you no longer have to probe for deeper reasons for someone’s behavior: she gossips because she’s a woman, he likes sport because he’s a man.

The difference is, we have reliable proof of gravity and how it functions. But do we have equally reliable proof of gender differences? Differences in male and female brains have been charted, but I’ve yet to hear these differences related to mental differences, any more than scientists have explained the importance in the design differences in avian and mammalian brains.

We also have thousands of studies that purport to prove differences between male and female – or, at least, reports of such studies in the media – but most of us, including me, hear only their results. We don’t know that these studies were validly designed to eliminate the possibility of bias in their results or their interpretation, so how do we know that they are pointing to real differences? or that the weak correlations and tentative conclusions haven’t been exaggerated by sensation-minded, scientifically weak reporters?

(Because we know, says the chorus).

In any other area, this sort of sloppy thinking would soon get rejected. When the primate language studies of the 1970s showed too much bias, it took the tightly-designed studies of Irene Pepperberg and years of working with Alex, the African Gray who was her main subject, to make the study of animal language acquisition respectable. But nobody minds having their deepest beliefs reinforced, so dubious gender studies go unchallenged.

In fact, I’ve yet to hear of a single study that began by questioning whether gender differences exist. Probably, such a study would have trouble being funded. Instead, they all seem to start with the goal of articulating gender differences, assuming from the start that they’ll find some.

Personally, I’ve never been able to answer the question with any certainty. The idea that you can generalize about roughly half the population makes little sense – unless, of course, the generalizations are so high level or so qualified as to be useless. Not that this bit of logic makes any difference to any of the thousands of self-appointed experts who chatter away about male and female differences in the popular media.

All I know is that, in seven years of university instruction, I had the chance to see thousands of young male and female minds developing. I saw plenty of differences in attitude and perception in individuals. Sometimes, I observed cultural differences. But not once did I see any pattern that suggests differences attributable to gender. Behavioral differences, yes. Intellectual differences, no.

It’s not as though I’m completely disposed to say there are no differences. I simply wonder how so many other people can speak so knowledgeably and comfortable about what seem to me are exaggerations at best.

However, socially, I’m careful to keep this heresy to myself. Inwardly, I may wince when my fellow men try to drag me into a discussion of hockey, or a woman talks about how all her female friends are addicted to chocolate, but, outwardly, I’ve learned to keep my composure. I play the anthropologist trying to ingratiate his way into a strange tribe, and remain non-committal until I can change the subject.

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One of the hardest things about writing on free software is the expectations placed on me. Because the cause is good, many people expect me to write as a loyal partisan. And in one sense, I am: If I didn’t feel the topic was important, I wouldn’t write about it. However, I am not so partisan as to praise where I see problems in either software or people. Nor do I always feel an obligation to take sides when I explain a multi-side issue, or when the general reaction from typical readers is so obvious that to do would be to belabor the obvious. To me, these practices are part of my efforts to approach journalism with professionalism. However, judging from the comments I sometimes receive, they often enrage readers, especially those expecting a confirmation of their views.

Understand, I’m not naive. I know that complete objectivity is as impossible as a centaur. But I’m idealistic enough to think that, except when I’m writing an obvious commentary, the articles I write as a journalist are more useful to people when I’m not writing as an advocate. Rather, I try to write in an effort to express the truth as I see it. I’m sure that I fail many times, either because I don’t have all the facts or because I feel too strongly on a subject.

However, as George Orwell said about himself, I believe that, unlike the vast majority of people, I have the ability to face unpleasant truths – facts that I might dislike personally, but have to acknowledge simply because they are there (I lie very poorly to myself). And, since my first or second year at university, I’ve been aware that I have the unusual knack of empathizing with a viewpoint even while I disagree with it. With these tendencies, I believe that, if I make the effort, I can provide a broader perspective than most people – and that a broader perspective, if not the truth, is generally more truthful than a limited one.

Moreover, I believe that these are precisely the tendencies that a journalist needs to be useful to readers. Nobody can write uncritically about any cause without, sooner or later, lying for the sake of the cause and losing their integrity. For all I admire the ethics and hard work of many people in the free software community, even those I admire most sometimes express an ill-considered or an ignorant opinion. Some act short-sightedly. Very occasionally, a few act immorally, or at least for personal gain rather than the good of the community. And, whenever someone does any of these things, it’s my job to report the fact. To do otherwise would be against my principles, and a mediocre carrying out of my job.

This honesty is especially important in the computer industry. Many mainstream computer publications are notorious for avoiding criticism of the companies who buy advertising from them. Such publications are worthless to their readers, and a betrayal of the trust placed in them. I’m lucky enough to work for publications that don’t work that way, so I can report the bad along with the good.

However, to some of the audience, that’s not enough, especially on a controversial subject. They read to have their views enforced, and, if I don’t happen to serve their need, they accuse me of bias. Often, they need to cherry-pick their evidence to build the case against me, and usually they seize on the fact that I reported a viewpoint contrary to theirs without denouncing it. Often anonymous, they attack me in the strongest worded terms, sometimes explaining in exhaustive detail the error of my way in what usually amounts to a clumsy belaboring of the obvious.

Occasionally, one will demand the right to a rebuttal from the editors.
So far, I have yet to see any of them actually write the rebuttal, but I suspect that, if they did, it would probably be unpublishable without considerable revision. Polemic is a difficult art, and has a tendency to descend into trite comments and over-used expressions in the hands of novices.

(Which is another reason that I don’t write opinion pieces too often. They’re difficult to write well, and I don’t think I’m particularly skilled at them. And, anyway, a successful polemic is more about rhetorical tricks and memorable turns of phrases than about facts and explanation. It’s a play more on emotion than logic, and for that reason always seems a bit of a cheap trick. I’m not nearly as interested in manipulating readers as informing them.)

But what always tickles me about such accusations is that they frequently come in pairs. Many times, after writing on a controversial subject, I’ve been denounced as biased from both sides – sometimes on the basis of the same paragraph or sentence.

I suppose these twinned accusations could be a sign of sloppy writing on my part. However, I prefer to view them as a sign that the problem lies more in the readers than in me. If both sides find something to disparage in one of my articles, then I can’t help thinking that I’ve had some success with covering the topic comprehensively.

Of course, all these thoughts could be nothing more than an explication of my personal myths – the stories I tell myself to keep me going. The image of the investigative reporter who risks everything to get the truth out is still a very powerful myth, and one that I not only buy but apparently have a lifelong subscription to.

But, contrary to popular usage, a myth is not the same as a lie. And, in this case, I like to think that, even if I am partly deceiving myself, my work is still better for my acceptance of the myth.

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When I first became a journalist, I couldn’t imagine writing the seventeen or eighteen stories per month that I do now. With effort, I could manage just under half that. But, over the last few years, I’ve refined my work habits. I’ve also developed such a strong sense for possible stories that the problem is less finding topics than choosing which ones are most newsworthy and personally interesting. However, the change is not due to me alone. A good deal of my ability to cope with my present work load comes from the network of contacts I’ve developed.

I learned about the important of contact networks when I was a communications and marketing consultant, and about four-fifths of my income came from them. But it was only this month that I realized how large my network as a journalist has become. This month, five of my published stories so far have been from leads given me by other people. By the end of the week, that number will rise to seven. I’ve also had another four or five leads that I may very well follow next month, and several more that I appreciate, but probably won’t use for one reason or the other.

Some of these contacts are the normal accumulation in the address book of my mail browser, and from my participation on Facebook and Linkedin. Others are the result of deliberately requesting leads in a story about marketing free software projects that I did last year with Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier. A few are from people I’ve come to know in the free software community around Vancouver.

However, the largest proportion comes from strangers who have either enjoyed one of my articles (I know because they write and say so when they make their suggestion) or people whom I’ve interviewed in the past. While I suppose that hearing from past interviewees could be taken as a sign that I’m too accommodating and not critical enough, naturally I prefer to think that my efforts to report fairly and ensure that my editing of quotes doesn’t remove the sense or the context. I’ve yet to get the sense that any of the past interviewees think of me as a fan-boy who will write articles slanted the way they’d prefer.

Instead, I take these leads as a sign that I’m at least intermittently doing my job properly. So, to all those feeding me tips, my thanks for your help. I can’t always use your story ideas, but you make writing easier, more varied and – most important of all – more interesting for everyone.

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I’m almost getting afraid to look at a newspaper or any other traditional print media. Every time I do, some writer or other seems to be belittling an Internet phenomena such as blogging, Facebook, or Second Life. These days, such complaints seems a requirement of being a middle-aged writer, especially if you have literary aspirations. But, if so, this is one middle-aged, literary-minded writer who is sitting out the trend.

The Globe and Mail seems especially prone to this belittling. Recently, its columnists have given us the shocking revelations that most bloggers are amateurs, that Facebook friendships are shallow, and that, when people are interacting through their avatars on Second Life, they’re really at their keyboards pressing keys. Where a decade ago, traditional media seemed to have a tireless fascination with computer viruses, now they can’t stop criticizing the social aspects of the Internet.

I suppose that these writers are only playing to their audiences. After all, newspaper readers tend to be over forty, and Internet trends are generally picked up those under thirty-five. I guess that, when you’re not supposed to understand things, putting them down makes you feel better if you’re a certain kind of person.

Also, of course, many columnists, especially those who aspire to be among the literati, see the rise of the Internet as eroding both their audiences and their chances of making a living. So, very likely, there’s not only incomprehension but a primal dose of fear behind the criticism that deserves sympathy.

At first glance, I should sympathize with them. I’m in their age group, share something of their aspirations, and I’m cool to much of the social networking that has sprung up in recent years. Yet somehow, I don’t.

For one thing, having been on the Internet several years longer than anybody else, I learned long ago that communities exist for almost everyone. If you don’t care for Facebook, you can find another site where you’re comfortable. If you dislike IRC, you can find a mail forum. If you can’t find a blog that is insightful and meaningful, you probably haven’t been looking around enough, but surely the Pepys’ Diary page will satisfy the most intellectual and literary-minded person out there. So I suspect that many of those complaining are still unfamiliar enough with the technology that they don’t really know all that’s via the Internet.

Moreover, although I ignore large chunks of the Internet, my only regret is that it hadn’t developed ten or fifteen years earlier so that I could have been a young adult when it became popular.

Despite, my age, the Internet has been the making of me. It’s helped to make the fantasy and science fiction milieu that I discovered as a boy become mainstream– and if that means people are watching pseudo-profundities like Battlestar Galactica, it also means that a few are watching movies Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Beowulf and moving on to discover the stories and novels that really fuel the fields. It’s given me a cause worth focusing on in free software, and a job as an online journalist that already has been one of the longest lasting of my life, and that still doesn’t bore me. Without the Internet, I just wouldn’t be the person I am today.

Nor, I suspect, would I like that alternate-universe me very much.

Having absorbed the toleration that underlies much of the Internet, I can’t help feeling that criticizing other people’s browsing habits shows a lack of manners and graciousness that is grounds for shame rather self-righteousness. But, in my case, it would show a lack of gratitude as well.

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A couple of years ago, getting a negative or irrelevant comment about an article could leave me moping for a couple of days. But familiarity has hardened me, and today the nastier comments about my commentary, “It’s Time to Get Over Microsoft” left me not only unmoved, but observing the different types of negative comments with something like dispassion.

I’m not talking here about comments that point out a typo or a fact of which I’m unaware. As much as I might like to be omniscient, I’m not. I make mistakes, and some of them slip past my editors as well. Nor can I reasonably expect to know everything about a subject – although if an obvious fact has escaped me, I may berate myself for sloppy research. But, as I like to say, the only thing worse than make such mistakes is not correcting them, and I have enough professional pride to appreciate being told when I’m wrong, even if I’m inwardly wincing.

Nor am I talking about readers who simply disagree with me. If my initial expression of my views doesn’t convince people, I’m more or less content to agree to differ. Or, sometimes, I can have an interesting exchange with someone who thinks differently in which I learn perspectives I hadn’t considered. Such exchanges are part of the benefit of writing online, and, mostly, I’m glad for them, even if I sometimes to have to cut them short so I can get some work done.

Anyway, at times (and today was one of them), I’m expressing my views in a language calculated to provoke a response, so I can hardly be upset if I get one.

Rather, the ones that confound me are those that seem only tangentially connected to what I wrote. These fall into several categories:

  • Insults: Comments about my alleged stupidity, sexual orientation, politics, choice of topic or lack of objectivity – I’ve heard them all since I’ve become a journalist. Apparently, some people believe that insults somehow refute a viewpoint. The truth is, they are so inappropriate that I can’t take them seriously. That includes the ad hominem attacks of people who believe themselves experts on grammar; I admit that I can make mistakes through carelessness, but after seven years as a university instructor and writing hundreds of professional works, I almost always know more about grammar than my readers. In fact, often the self-appointed grammar police are wrong.
  • Tours through my life: Borrowed from the American fantasist and essayist Harlan Ellison, this phrase refers to people who think that they can psychoanalyze me through what I write (inevitably, finding me in grievous need of therapy). I have been diagnosed, for example, as being single and as a newcomer to the free software comment, largely because the commenter disagreed with me. Such comments generally reveal far more about them and their assumptions than about me or anything I write.
  • General comments: A surprising number of times, people seem to read just enough to learn the topic of an article, then sound off on some point that’s only related to the article if you squint for a long time. Their main interest seems to be an opportunity to sound off. Well, glad to be a public service, I guess. But wouldn’t a blog be a better place?
  • Missing points that aren’t missing: Even though I do miss some aspects of a topic (or omit them for lack of space), some readers like to find fault because they’ve missed a point that is expressed perfectly clearly in the article. Since the ones they say are missing are often at the end of the article, I suspect that they haven’t finished the article. At the very least, they are skimming.
  • A comment taken out of context: Hostile readers seem to have a special talent for responding to isolated phrases and ignoring the sentences around them in order to accuse me of fantastically wrong or misguided opinions. I seem to be unusually vulnerable to these uncontextual accounts, probably because I have the habit of expressing one possible viewpoint, then correcting or elaborating on it. However, if I wait an hour or so, another reader usually points out the mistake, so no great matter.
  • Complaints about what the article isn’t about: Some readers apparently enjoy finding fault with the choice of topic. For instance, when I write about OpenOffice.org, one or two readers are bound to write that LaTeX does whatever I am writing about much better — never mind that I’m not writing about LaTeX.

All these types of comments have become so familiar to me in the last few years that they have lost almost all their power to wound. Most of them seem so remote from what I was saying as to be irrelevant. However, as someone who spent about half his time as a university instructor trying to teach first year students how to frame arguments, at times these types of comments make me despair.

More often, though, my main response is simpler still: I wish they would show some indication that they had read what I was saying.

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“I wish people would come to work with enthusiasm,” the CEO said to me, looking up from his copy of From Good to Great. “I really wish they showed some passion.” His voice was a mixture of puzzlement, longing, and frustration that could only come from a man wondering why the rest of the world wasn’t more like him.

The statement shouldn’t have caught me as unprepared as it did. As a communications consultant, I didn’t even show on the organizational chart, but I’d noted before that executives often feel free to confide in a consultant in a way they’d never consider with an employee. Besides, we were sharing an office until the company could take over more space on the same floor, and it was a hot Friday afternoon, a time when even the most gung-ho company officer takes off his jacket and feels conversational.

All the same, the statement left me dumbfounded for a minute. What I wanted to say was, “You mean you really don’t know?” But I settled for something non-committal and corporate about teams taking time to build. After all, consultants may have more freedom than employees, but wise ones learn to temper that freedom with discretion.

Besides, the fact he could express the wish — and the puzzlement behind it — made all too clear that he didn’t know how much he was responsible for the lack of enthusiasm.

You see, the CEO in question had been recruited by the board of directors to make the company profitable. And he had done everything he could from a business end to achieve that goal, finding new markets and products, and developing business intelligence about the company’s industry and local business. However, what he had forgot was his responsibility for morale.

Frankly, it couldn’t have been worse.

The CEO had come in six months ago, and quickly proceeded to cut a third of the staff. About a month ago, he had done the same again, and anyone who could read a balance sheet and his worried glance could tell that another staff reduction was due in the future.

All these cuts made sense from a bottom line perspective, but they left employees uncertain. The stress was even greater because he had closed a branch office after promising to keep it open, and fired everyone who wasn’t willing to relocate to headquarters.

Moreover, even at headquarters, he had laid off people with no regard to their roles within the company. As a result, the survivors were not only wondering when the axe would fall on them, but having to cope with a sudden loss of a lot of unwritten knowledge because key people were gone. In other words, not only was morale so low that the photocopy machine was starting to jam from the rush of resumes, but the company had become less functional because of the cuts.

Then, just to make matters worse, having just read Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, Lou Gerstner’s biography of his days at IBM, the CEO was inspired to hold retreats for those he designated key personnel. These chosen few were given free copies of various best-selling business books, and invited to spend a day or two at a resort discussing the contents.

But what might have worked in a mega-corporation like IBM, where a few absences across the country would barely be noticed, only served in the CEO’s small company to make make three-quarters of the company feel under-privileged and insulted. Several of the elite didn’t feel especially honored, either, since what they really wanted to do was get on with their work.

And, after all this, what did the CEO do at Christmas? Cancel the company party, and, on Christmas Eve, leave at 11AM without telling the staff they could do the same (most left anyway by 1PM).

Looking back, I’m pleased at my restraint when the CEO wished for a dedicated work force. He wasn’t a stupid man, yet he had no idea that he couldn’t have ground morale into the dirt more effectively if he had been deliberately tried to do so. Busy satisfying the board that he was containing costs, he forgot that, if he wanted dedication and respect, he also needed to show some loyalty and support for his employees. And, really, considering all his long hours trying to turn the company around, I couldn’t tell him what was wrong or the aspects of business that he was neglecting without mortally insulting him.

The company still exists, but it’s only a remnant of what it was in my time. Despite a couple of modestly profitable quarters, it continues to show regular losses, and the same CEO still heads it. I’ve never revisited, but I sometimes wonder if he’s ever figured out what puzzled him, or simply bemoans the difficulty in attracting loyal personnel.

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