Archive for November, 2007

Like many people who spend their working hours with computers, I’m often asked by friends and neighbors for help. I’m an ex-teacher, and I volunteer at the free clinics held weekly by Free Geek Vancouver, so I don’t mind; teaching is close to a reflex with me. But one thing I do mind – very much – is when I ask the person I’m helping for some information about their computers or what caused the problem and they reply, “I don’t know. I’m just a techno-peasant” or say that they leave such technical matters to their pre-teens.

What irks me is not just the little giggle or the helpless shrug that accompanies such statements, regardless of whether a man or a woman is making themt. Nor is it the fact that the term is at least twenty years out of date. Instead, it’s the fact that the people who make these responses seem more proud than ashamed of their ignorance.

Why anyone would choose to boast about their ignorance is beyond me. Of course, nobody can be an all-round expert. Moreover, if you don’t mentally bark your shins against your own ignorance from time to time, you’re probably leading too shallow a life. But why boast about your shortcomings? Personally, I consider the fact that I am not fluent in another language, and know little about wines or central European history to be defects, and hope to correct them some day. Meanwhile, if I have to admit to my ignorance, I do so shamefacedly, and quickly change the subject.

As for computer skills, surely computers have been around so long that an average middle class North American should know their way around a computer. I don’t expect them to be able to write a “Hello, world” script if threatened at gun point, but how could they help not learning some basic system administration and hardware care?

I mean, I’m an English major with no formal background in computing whatsoever. If I can learn enough to write about computers, then surely most people can learn basic maintenance. After thirty years of the personal computer, defragging a hard drive or plugging in the cords to your computer should be as much a part of everybody’s basic skill set as cooking a meal or changing the oil in their car. Yet, as I continually find when asked for help, most people still haven’t learned these skills.

What’s worse, the implication of these reactions is that those who make them have no intention of correcting their ignorance. It doesn’t seem to be a reflection of class, an implication that they’re too important to bother themselves with details, as though they’re a high-powered CEO and I’m the janitor. Rather, it’s as if, having reached some landmark of adulthood – turning 21, perhaps, or receiving their master’s degree – they’ve decided they’ve done all the learning they need for this life time, and nobody can trick them into doing any more.

As someone who’s always believed in learning, this attitude horrifies me. So far as I’m concerned, the only time you stop learning is when you die. The idea that anyone would want to anticipate this end to learning is hard for me to understand. If nothing else, what are they going to do with the next fifty or sixty years?

Just as importantly, this refusal to learn undermines the whole idea of teaching. To me, the point of teaching is give students the skills they need to function on their own. But when people describe themselves as techno-peasants, what they’re telling me is that they have no intention of learning to function independently. They’re calling me in, not to help them learn to cope for themselves, but as a convenience that allows them to keep from learning.

And, considering they’re asking me to do the sort of things in my spare time that I do in my working hours – and for free — the request is a high-handed imposition. They’re asking me to waste my time for their convenience – frequently not just once, but often for the same problem, over and over.

Despite these lines of thought, I almost never turn down the requests for help. Some people are making a genuine effort to learn, and there’s always a chance that the rest will learn despite themselves. Yet I wonder if any of them guess that I think less of them once I understand that the only thing they’re willing to learn is how to excuse their own helplessness.

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For the past week, I’ve spent an hour or two each day time-travelling. Mainly, I’ve been touring the mid-Twentieth Century courtesy of Fritz Leiber’s letters to his lifelong friend Franklin MacKnight, but I’ve also been visiting my personal past, trying to decipher my intentions when I first started transcribing and editing the letters.

The letters were a project that I undertook after my thesis. In those days, I still had hopes of an academic career, and MacKnight had just donated large mounds of papers to the University of Houston for its Leiber collection. Armed with the published version of my thesis on Leiber, Witches of the Mind, I persuaded the librarian to send me several thick folders full of material.

What I had really hoped to find were Leiber’s letters to his other lifelong friend, Harry Otto Fischer. According to Leiber himself, his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series had begun in an exchange of letters with Fischer in the early 1930s, and, from the quotes in his essay “Fafhrd and Me,” the letters promised to be richly inventive.
Unfortunately, if those letters have survived, no one has found them yet, and the few letters from Fischer that had survived proved banal.

But, MacKnight, I quickly found, had exchanged long letters with Leiber for sixty years, and carefully preserved most, if not all, of the letters he had received from Leiber. And, although, for much of that period, Leiber hadn’t returned the favor, what was preserved was still a rich correspondence.

My first job was to transcribe the photocopies – the University of Houston was so concerned about illegal copying that the photocopies it sent had vertical writing as a watermark that also thwarted legal copying like mine. Next was the annotation of the letters for a general audience than they were ever intended for.

It was slow going. First, Leiber died, and, having seen him on his death-bed, I didn’t feel like working on the project for about eighteen months. Then I left academia, and in the throes of establishing myself as a technical writer, I didn’t have much time for such a non-profitable project.

Still, I persevered. I had got into the mid-1950s, and even published some of my preliminary work in The New York Review of Science Fiction when my personal life exploded, and I had no time for anything else. And so the folders sat on the desk in the spare room, slowly fading in the sun for years.

Then, this fall, I received a copy of Benjamin Szumskyj’s collection of Leiber essays, to which I contributed. Through FaceBook, I got in touch with Arlynn Leiber Presser, Leiber’s grand-daughter. And, suddenly, it seemed time to return to the project.

Leaving a manuscript is always a sound way to get enough distance to edit it, and the years since I touched the project were more than enough for me to gain perspective on the work I had done so far. But I am no longer the person I was when I started the project, and, looking at my previous work, I often find myself thinking that the editor is a rather strange young man, with thought processes I no longer understand. I disagree with many of his choices, particularly about where to omit passages, and wonder about his judgment. What was he thinking? I keep asking, and then the slow machinery of memory rumbles into action and I vaguely recall the intents that were responsible for a particular piece of editing.

My collaborator in the past, I conclude, as a timid sort, far too nervous about causing anyone offense by my present standards. But no doubt I’m coarsened by several years of on-line journalism with its instant and often frank feedback.

Then there are the letters themselves. Inevitably, the letters are full of news of the world around them, both that of world events and of the science fiction community through the ages. Reading them and tracking down references, I feel a stronger sense than ever before of a history that is still in living memory – although not, for much of it, my living memory.

It’s a world where people worried about being drafted to fight a world war, and watched McCarthyism creep in. It’s a world where gender roles are strongly defined, where a steady job is everything and walking away from that – as Leiber did in the late 1950s – is an eccentric act. It’s a world where secretaries take dictation, and an interest in science fiction is a juvenile, perhaps subversive pastime. And through it all, the main vehicle for recording impressions is the typewriter – a machine that I am old enough to have learned to use, but which now seems an unbelievably clumsy device, as frequent xing out of phrases show in the transcripts.

Immersing myself in the letters and reading Leiber’s reactions to the events around him, I fell that I have a stronger sense of this recent history. In fact, when I break to make dinner, I almost feel that I have time-travelled, and have to shake myself to remind myself that what I’ve been reading isn’t decades old and not current at all.

So far, I’ve just managed to revise my previous work to my present standards. That still leaves me with thirty years’ worth of correspondence to work through. With luck, I hope to have a manuscript ready by the New Year.

I consider myself lucky to be editor of the letters. Quite aside from the fact that I’m working with the words of a great American fantasist, I suppose that we won’t get many of those exchanges in the future. Those of us who write long emails are a minority, and most people probably don’t preserve emails more than a few years. Nor are we as likely with emails to get reflexive responses developed over several days, or even a couple of weeks – the medium seems to place a premium on quick responses. I don’t regret the change in technology — I can’t imagine, for instance, returning to a typewriter after using a word processor — but the thought keeps occuring to me that I am editing a correspondence of a sort that is about to become extinct.

I can’t imagine any greater privilege.

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Last week, ABC’s 20/20 ran a piece on the murder trial of Hans Reiser, the free software developer accused of murdering his wife in Oakland. I sighed in relief when it ran, because it didn’t include me.

It could have. Since I wrote one piece last year about Reiser’s problems with getting the Reiser4 filesystem accepted into the Linux kernel and another about what was happening with his company in the wake of the murder charges, I’ve fielded eight or nine requests from the mainstream media to talk about the background to the case. Since early summer, several of those requests were from ABC. But I never really felt comfortable doing so, although I made clear that I had no opinion one way or the other about the case, and only talked about Reiser’s work and reputation and what the free software community was like.

At the time, I rationalized my general comments as helping out other journalists. Also, considering that I’ve made a career out of explaining developers to non-developers, I figured that I might be able to see that the community wasn’t too badly misrepresented. And, let’s be honest, I was flattered.

But, simultaneously, I was uneasy, and this uneasiness continued to grow as ABC continued to talk to me. There was even talk of flying me down to San Francisco for a day to do an interview, which provoked a kind of Alice in Wonderlandish feeling in me. Spend the day travelling for something that I wasn’t that interested in? And going to San Francisco – one of my favorite cities – with no time for wandering around struck me as not worth the sense of self-importance such a trip would no doubt give me.

I tried suggesting other people in the free software community that ABC might contact. I even suggested one notoriously egotistical person, figuring that they would be pleased to be asked and would give ABC so much copy that its reporters would have no further need of me.

That only worked for a few weeks, then I received another phone call. At that point, I realized that I didn’t have a valid passport, which Canadians like me now need to fly to the United States. I explained this difficulty to a reporter, and how I didn’t really want the extra hassle of driving across the border and catching a flight in Bellingham – and he returned the idea of flying a camera crew up to Vancouver to talk to me.

I thought that unlikely, so I said that would be acceptable. For a while, I was worried that ABC might actually do it, too, but in the end the producers decided not to bother.

That was just as well, because in the interim, I had resolved to refuse the interview regardless of the condition. I took a while to understand my reluctance, but, what I concluded in the end was this: I didn’t want to feed my self-importance at the expense of the Reiser family. No matter what actually happened, those involved in the case are in a world of pain, and I didn’t want to piggyback on that pain for petty personal reasons.

And, ultimately, my reasons would be personal. No matter how well I can explain the free software community to the public, I’m far from the only one who can do so.

With this realization, I felt such relief that I knew that I had made the right decision. Now, I only hope that I can remain as sensible if someone contacts me about the case again.

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I’ve hired – or helped to hire – at least half a dozen people. However, so far, I’ve only been involved in one firing. If I’m lucky, I won’t be involved in any others. The one experience, when I did the company’s dirty work was abrupt and needlessly brutal, and I remain embarrassed by my acquiescence to it eight years later.

The setting was a small startup in Vancouver, the person fired a young programmer on his first job. He was a bit brash, a bit too eager to fit in with the other programmers in the company, and prone to carelessness, but nothing out of the ordinary for a young man on his first job.

Perhaps, too, his coding skills weren’t quite up to professional standards. But he was willing to work for the low wages offered, and tremendously excited to be working with free software – we all were.

Over the few months he was at the company, I noticed that he was gradually developing the necessary working habits, and I was starting to become convinced that he would develop into a useful employee with a little more time.

The trouble was, a startup isn’t the place to learn working skills. At the best of times, a startup is a rough and ready sort of place, and this was the Dot-Com Era, which made the company even more giddy than most in their first few months. People were doing things like sleeping overnight in the boxes the file cabinets arrived in – not because what they were doing was essential, but because they wanted to plunge into the whole Dot-Com experience.

Add to the fact that I was one of only two managers and we were both learning management, and running frequently to the parent company downstairs, and it wasn’t exactly a place for mentoring new workers.

Whatever the case, one day another developer reported that the newbie had been caught trying to hack into the company’s user accounts. In that milieu, the offense seemed a peccadillo, especially since the newbie pleaded that he was only trying to find information that he needed to complete his own work when an account owner wasn’t around.

However, that wasn’t how the HR manager from the parent company viewed the incident. He’d served in the Israeli army as a volunteer, and his military attitude, combined with the sense of his own righteousness, had him springing into action as soon as he heard the story. He hauled the newbie in for interrogation around 10AM, and – presumably after consulting with the owners – fired him not long after.

The first I heard of the story was when the HR manager asked me to clean out the newbie’s desk; he obviously thought the newbie capable of anything up to and including taking his computer and chair with him.
Looking around, I could see that the developer who reported the incident was regretting having done so, and that none of the other developers thought the incident very important, either. But I lacked the confidence to register my own protest, and maybe the HR manager’s grimness as he stood there, bald-headed and scowling and with his arms folded, was a little contagious.

As for the newbie, what he had expected in the way of consequences, being fired wasn’t among his expectations. He looked as though someone had hit him hard on the head and he was still recovering.
Eight months before, I had been laid off myself, so I empathized with the newbie. But then, when I was teaching, I’d always hesitated before giving a D or an F, so no doubt some people would say I was too tender-hearted. But, in this case, genuine doubt seemed to exist, and I was certain it wasn’t being heard. And even if he was as malicious as claimed, he still deserved to be heard in full before

I wanted to call for more discussion. I wanted to take the newbie aside and slip him my card, and whisper that I would help him with a search for a new job. But I was unprepared, and lacking the confidence in my new role to do either of these things. Instead, I went along with the HR manager, removing item from the desk and solemnly asking the newbie whether each one was his before dropping it in the box, while the HR manager stood sentry and another person from the parent company cordoned off the area. Possibly, I was more embarrassed than the newbie, who still didn’t seem to understand what was happening.

Somehow, I made it through that ordeal. But I never felt quite the same about the company afterwards, let alone the HR manager. I was condemning them, of course, instead of condemning myself for not doing things the right way. A few months later, the episode became one of many that made me decide to quit – an easy decision, since I had realized that the company was going nowhere (and, in fact, it failed within the year).

The next time an arbitrary firing was in the works, I’m proud to say, I did take a stand, and helped to prevent it. But I still remember the first experience with shame – and that shame would stand, even had I known that the newbie was as dastardly as claimed. I’ve never liked having power over other people – or them having power over me – and the episode was as obvious a case of abuse of power as any I’ve seen. And although the others involved in it have probably long ago forgot the incident, it remains with me as an example of a time when I didn’t live up to my own image of myself.

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If there’s one thing I know, it’s recovering from a leg injury. In fact, sometimes, I think that recoveries define my life: I remember, for instance, the period I spent limping around after my knee crashed into a steeplechase hurdle, or the time I tripped on an uneven piece of sidewalk and lost long strips of skin from my leg and palms. For the past few weeks, it’s been a torn muscle – and a long and dreary time, it’s been, too. Frankly, the process, is getting repetitive – and my apparent inability to learn wearisome.

To start with, many of my injuries are due to strain. Although I haven’t raced for years, I still tend to push too hard and fast when I don’t have the energy. A denial of middle-age, perhaps? Or, more likely, I’m so much in the habit of training that I drag myself out for exercise even when I shouldn’t. I don’t think it’s a residue of macho – at least, I hope I’m not that shallow.

Then there’s the question of which injury actually deserves rest. Some injuries, I know, disappear if I do more stretching and ease up a little. For others, that’s the worst thing I can do. But knowing which is which is almost impossible. So, I have the choice of either gambling or resting just in case, neither of which appeals.

And if the original injury isn’t enough, a few days of limping around, without or without crutches or a cane, often produces collateral damage in the other leg as I try to keep my weight off the injured one. That can go on for two or three rounds, long after the original injury is healed.

Meanwhile, I’m sticking close to home and rapidly spiralling down into cabin-fever. It’s one thing, I find, to stay at home out of choice, and entirely another to be confined there. Moreover, if there’s one thing I hate more than being subservient, it’s being waited on, even when doing things myself take twice as long. And, while in theory, spending time reading, watching DVDs and playing computer games sounds like a leisurely break from my regular routine, none of these activities are so enticing when I’m using them to fill up time rather than relax.

The only good thing about this enforced inactivity is that escaping it gives me a good incentive to start my comeback. I need all the help I can get, too, because the first few days of returning to exercise make me feel decrepit. But if I can endure the first few days, exercising slowly gets easier (although, more than once, the thought that maybe I’m getting too old for all this crosses my mind). If I persist, I know that I’ll soon be enjoying the benefits of heavy exercise. But at the start of the process – where I am now – I feel a sort of constant low-grade irritation at just about everything.

The worst thing is, I don’t really know how to break out of this cycle of recoveries and crashes. Paying more attention to my physical state is probably key, but one of the disadvantages of being a life-long heavy exerciser is that you get used to taking a high level of fitness and health for granted. For over fifteen months, I have been being careful – but one moment of carelessness, and I was back in the cycle.

If this is what growing old is like, I’m tempted to say, I don’t want any part of it. The only trouble is, I’m already too late for the alterantive of dying young. As for leaving a beautiful corpse — well, that was never an option in my case, anyway.

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