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Archive for February, 2008

If there’s one set of muscles that people obsess over at the exercise room that I frequent, it’s their abdominal muscles. At least that’s the one that they always talk about, regardless of gender or age. If everyone were to stop talking at once (which would never happen), I swear that the room would still echo for the next thirty seconds with “Abs, abs, abs . . .” in a dying fall.

The common attitude is summed up neatly in a cartoon over the water fountain captioned “Yoga Then and Now.” The first panel shows an expressionless Indian fakir in a loincloth with his thoughts focused squarely on the lotus. The second panel shows a woman who is probably wearing Lululemon workout gear with a vacant smile on her face and her limbs in a desperate tangle. She’s thinking, “This is so good for my abs!”

You have to frequent an exercise room to full appreciate the cartoon. However, take it from me: most of the people who use the gym would happily leave their cardio-vascular system in ruins and their legs and arms flapping with flab, if only they could have a washboard stomach – or at least a flatter one.

Given this widespread obsession, the reaction to the new abs machine is predictable. At one point or the other, almost everyone has tried it in the last couple of months. But they don’t simply read the instructions and try it out. Instead, they circle it for a week or two, like a parrot faced with something new and possibly dangerous. When someone else sits down to use it, they watch out of the corner of their eyes, as though they expect him or her to be consumed by the machine.

And, on the unconscious level, you can see the reason for their worry: with the pads for your arms and the metal frame behind you that you pull forward, the machine does look like something that might be used to interrogate prisoners at Abu Ghraib or Guantanmo Bay.

After witnessing a few people using the machine and emerging unscathed, eventually everyone braves the machine for themselves. Sitting in the saddle, they adjust it gingerly to their height. They shuffle, trying to find a comfortable position on an innately uncomfortable seat. They adjust the weight load. They shuffle again.

Then they have a moment of Nietzschean self-contemplation. No doubt they are muttering something about how that which does not kill them makes them stronger, or some other phrase they picked up while watching a Conan movie. Then they lean forward, pulling the metal frame with them, their heads up so that they can watch themselves in the mirror.

Five, ten repetitions, and most of them are done, rising to join the crowd around the wall-mounted television, or the one arguing about the latest hockey game.

So far, only a handful have returned, or started using the ab machine regularly. Having tried it myself, I’m not surprised . Put any sort of weight on the machine, and you can feel the reps straining muscles you never knew you had.

Of course, enduring the unusual strain for several months is how you get that six pack (and I do mean you; I never look like I’m fit no matter what exercises I do, not without taking off my clothes, and, while you can do that in public when you’re two, bystanders are considerably less tolerant of such behavior when you’re an adult).

But such a regime doesn’t fit in well with our cultural cult of instant gratification, or the widespread genteel belief that getting and staying fit is a social occasion that sweat shouldn’t enter into. Not detecting any significant increase in their sex appeal after their ordeal, most people are content to leave it alone. They don’t quite circle around it, but something in their walk suggests that they would like to.

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As a sometime-consultant and a sometime-manager, I’ve sat on both sides of the interviewing table many times. Which side I prefer is impossible to say: Given a choice between the tension of trying to sell myself to a person who’s largely unknown to me and the discomfort of judging strangers, I will gladly choose none of the above (no doubt that explains why I’m in business for myself). However, being the interviewer does have the advantage of giving me a wider view of human types than being an interviewee. Over my career, two interviews in particular stand out as examples of some of the things you should never do when you go for a job.

Both occurred when I was a manager at a startup specializing in GNU/Linux. I was new to both startups and free software, but I was learning quickly – in fact, I was the only manager, up to and including the CEO and COO, who had any sense of the software life cycle or of free software (and even my knowledge, I admit now, was new and shallow in a lot of places). However, I had hired before, so I ended up on the hiring committee, along with an HR veteran from the startup’s parent company who was there for guidance.

The first interview looked good on paper. He had years of Unix experience, and claimed to know something about GNU/Linux as well. However, one look was enough to show that we’d made a mistake in calling in this interviewee. Looking like he had come straight from makeup to play an English academic, circa 1936, he wore a thick brown suit of tweed with patches on the elbow that looked decades old. His glasses were even thicker, and didn’t match his suit. On his feet were mud-splattered running shoes. His hair was not only uncombed, but looked as though he might have lost combs in its tangles.

His posture – well, a bonobo would have called it shambling and stooped, and died of shame to be seen holding himself that way.

Shaking his hand, I also realized that he was a heavy smoker. A miasma of tobacco swirled around him, nearly visible and making me gag.

This interviewee sat down at the boardroom table, and immediately put his feet up on a chair. Then he leaned back and cradled the back of his head in his hands.

Questioning him, we soon learned that he had applied for the job because “he needed the money.” He had no idea what the company did, and had no questions about it when provided an interval to ask some. Although it was a startup and therefore demanding of everyone’s time, he told us that his idea of an ideal job was one where he could work maybe ten or fifteen hours a week.

I was sinking lower in my chair, embarrassed for him, when the HR veteran interrupted the interviewee.

“No, no, no –” he said. “This isn’t working.” He then gave the interviewee a five minute lecture on the basics of dressing and deportment for a job interview, while I sat watching them, even more embarrassed.

From the way the interviewee slouched away, I don’t think he absorbed much of the lecture – especially since he asked for his resume back, saying it was his only copy.

The second bad example was an applicant for the same company. Its horrors were different, but no less intense.

This second interviewee had worked on a free software project related to the company’s core business. Several programmers knew his work in the community, although they had never met him, so we brought him in.

Once again, first impressions said everything. This applicant was appropriately dressed for a corporate interview, but, from the first, everything about him showed that he considered the interview was only a formality. He was a round man of average height, and everything from his gestures to the slight sneer that was the natural position of his face at rest suggested that he thought himself condescending to apply for the job at all.

This time, we finished the interview. Looking back, though, I really have to wonder how. The interviewee was so patronizing that I had a faint urge the urge to either make deflating comments or to punch him out – and normally I am neither rude nor confrontational.

The problem was not what he said, but the way he said it. Of course we would want to hire him, his tone seemed to imply (although he was no clearer than the first interviewee about exactly what the company did, and no more interested). Of course we would pay him what he asked. Of course the knowledge test we gave all programmers would be the merest formality. And we would let him work on whatever interested him, wouldn’t we?

All these implications came with little sniffs and flicks of the head, as if condescending to be interviewed was almost more than he could bear. I half-expected him to take out a pomander and sniff it, the better to endure the tawdry atmosphere of commerce around him.

Then we introduced him to the lead programmer and team leaders – and the way he shook their hands, you might have mistaken him for visiting royalty.

I don’t remember how we ended the interview process – probably with some version of “Thanks, we’ll call you when we’ve made a decision” – but I do recall that I was exasperated beyond belief.

Needless to say, he was as much out of the running as the first candidate, even though he had survived longer in the interview.

Both these candidates had their own brands of obnoxiousness, but they shared some common faults. Neither gave any thoughts to first impression. Both were so egocentric that they never thought to curb their natural tendencies in the hopes of getting employed, or to find out anything about the company they were applying at. You name a basic mistake in interviewing, and one or both of them made it.

In fact, the behavior of each of them was so extreme that, looking back, I wonder if either had any genuine interest in employment. Perhaps they were only being interviewed so that they could continue to collect unemployment insurance. But I think that their real roles in life were to provide bad examples and good stories. And certainly, they have played both roles many times since.

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Looking at temperatures across Canada, I see a depressing number of minus signs. The sole exception is the southwest corner of British Columbia, where we are already enjoying temperature of 15 degrees Celsius. Several weeks ago, we had our last snowfall, but now we’re starting to see the first signs of spring. Does anyone wonder why those of us in Vancouver have a tendency to phone friends and family in places like Calgary and Winnipeg to have a nice, warm gloat?

Many city people probably pay minimal attention to the seasons. Except for short dashes to their cars, they spent most of their time in heated buildings. However, for those of us whose daily exercise takes them out into the elements, the coming of spring has a certain urgency – although far less, granted, than it does for a farmer.

For one thing, running or cycling on snow is either difficult or impossible. For a runner like me, it’s like running on sand, with every kilometer feeling like two or more. And, like sand, it’s hard on the ankles. Add unplowed sidewalks and the need to contest the streets with cars, many of which lack all-season tires, let alone snow tires (Vancouverites are almost in as deep denial about receiving snow as they are about rain), and getting any sort of exercise becomes an ordeal. The fact that sweat pants bind my legs is just a winter torture unique to me.

Then, for morning exercisers like me, there’s the dark. Cars full of sleep-deprived, caffeine-motivated drivers are dangerous at the best of times, but trying to dodge them before sunrise adds a new dimension of horror, especially when you suddenly find yourself tiptoeing across a patch of black ice, waving your arms wildly and trying not to scream in panic as you try to keep upright.

But, somewhere in the last ten days, spring has definitely gained a hold. It was like trench warfare for a while – a tiny advance here, followed by an immediate setback, then the cycle repeating somewhere else – but at some indeterminate point, winter lost its grip.

Now, the only remains of snow are the mounds heaped up by snowplows – and they are diminishing everyday. The sun rose today just after 7am, meaning enough light to see by (and be seen) exists by 6:30, and the roads and sidewalks were mercifully ice-free. Crocuses and daffodils are thrusting up shoots of desperate green on the grass. In Dunbar, the first buds are showing, which means that, around our townhouse, they will appear within a week.

I’m not a victim of Seasonal Affective Disorder, and of course Vancouver winters are laughable by the standards of the rest of Canada. All the same, in December and January, I had the sense of keeping my head buried in my work, hunkering down in our living room as though it was a bunker in a war zone and waiting for better days.

Now those days have come, I feel a sense of relief, and a renewed need to be up and doing. With all these first signs of spring, the first cherry blossoms should be less than a month away – and then I’ll know that winter is gone beyond any recall.

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Few animals or birds are as affectionate as parrots. Mostly living in flocks, they are intensely social, so much so that interaction is intensely important to them – so much so that an ignored parrot is an abused parrot. Next to the average parrot, a cat is an ascetic, and a dog is a treacherous turncoat who will betray you at every chance. Yet, being highly intelligent as well, each parrot demonstrates affection in their own way.

Our own Nanday conures illustrate a variety of preferences. Ning, our oldest cock, was once a studious preener. When he first accepted us, he would gently preen every square centimeter of my hair, then march down the couch to preen Trish’s. However, when he became the mate of Sophie, he showed less interest in preening us, although he still tries to preen our mouths. But his preference is to stand beak beneath a human nose, making kissing noises, for as long as we will let him. When I am doing my couch potato imitation, his preference is to tuck himself against the side of my jaw, making a purring noise like a miniature green refrigerator. You always know when he is set on preening, because he swaggers over with an arrogant determination to get the affection that he wants. He likes a quick scratch under the chin or over his ear holes, but never for more than about a minute.

By contrast, Ning’s mate Sophy is more standoffish. She was an abused bird when we bought her, and has never learned to trust hands completely. To this day, she only enjoys a preen so long as she is turned away and doesn’t officially notice it. Instead, her preference is to do the preening herself. She will preen a motionless hand or arm for twenty minutes at a stretch. She also enjoys preening a face, especially around the eyes, having perfected a delicate preening that makes her the only one of us our birds whose beak we would trust so close to our eyes.

Rambunctious, our crippled cock who was handfed as a baby, is the exact opposite of Sophy. Where Sophy is standoffish, Ram will fly anywhere, anytime to one of us so he can sit on a shoulder, cheeping happily away as if telling a long and rambling story. Once I stop moving, he will belly up to a neck and start preening the side of my face. If he comes across me lying down, his greatest joy is to roll on his side in the middle of my chest, with my hand cupped over him. He will stay that way for forty minutes, given the opportunity, and has been known to fall asleep in that position.

Seeing Beaudin, the youngest cock, strut up and down and make harsh cockatiel squawks, you would never believe that he had an appetite for affection. But, the truth is, he is the most affection-hungry bird in our house. Possibly, he doesn’t quite believe that he has a permanent home. Or perhaps, as we suspect, he is a handfed bird like Ram. But, whatever the reason, he has an endless appetite for interaction with us. He likes to sidle up against the palm of a hand, and be scratched endlessly almost anywhere. Under the beak, over the ear, on the neck, under the wing – it’s all the same to him, so long as the preening is constant. A few minutes of this treatment, and he goes so limp that he seems boneless, rolling on his side and gently nibbling any nearby fingers.

Much of this behavior seems based on their experiences in the nest. For instance, it is easy to guess that a nose hovering above them to an accompaniment of clucking sounds reminds them of when they were just hatched, and a beak was hovering over them protectively. But, whatever, the reason, all our birds seem endlessly preoccupied with giving and receiving affect. Even Ning and Sophy, who are rarely more than a meter away from each other, welcome the chance to preen one of us given any encouragement whatsoever. Their affectionate nature is one of the main reasons why parrots remain my pet of choice.

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Because I make a living by selling articles, I am constantly fielding questions about how to become a freelance writer. I always oblige, since I’m an ex-instructor, and the teaching instinct is still strong in me. However, I usually sense that they’re disappointed by my answers. For one thing, I came to my profession by desperation more than by the hard-headed planning that career experts and how-to-write magazines are always urging people to adapt. It wasn’t exactly luck (a suggestion that, somewhat inconsistently, I resent), but it wasn’t calculation, either. But, even more importantly, I suspect that the questioners are disappointed by how mundane my answer is. Rather than offering the sort of secret that you normally only get when you go through an initiation and learn the special handshake as well, what I usually tell people is that they need to have consistently good ideas, deliver stories on time, and create a minimum amount of work for editors.

Right away, listeners balk at this answer, because it doesn’t include anything about writing well. That’s partly because, while writing well is a welcome bonus, it’s not a requirement for success so much as a requirement for admission. Unless you are moderately literate to begin with, you probably won’t get a chance to submit your work in the first place because of my third rule; editors are simply not going to allot much time to a writer whose work always needs major corrections. If your ideas are excellent, you may make two or three sales, but eventually the average editor is going to get tired of teaching you basic grammar and structure.

Besides, while editors appreciate quality prose, their immediate concern is filling the vacant slots on their publishing schedule. Once you understand this basic point, the three requirements I listed become self-evident.

Given the pressure that editors are under, a writer who can regularly produce quality ideas is a valuable asset. Few editors have enough of such writers, which means that they are constantly taking a chance on new writers – and new writers, even the best of them, require more maintenance than ones they’re already worked with, who know their quirks and style guides.

Nor is this requirement easy to meet. While teaching first year composition at university, I found that, given reasonable intelligence, almost anyone could be taught to write acceptable prose. But coming up with the ideas that makes that prose worth reading – that’s the hard part, especially when you need several ideas a week. Usually, it means gaining some subject matter expertise so you have something to write about. Also, just as a photographer comes to see the world in terms of possible pictures, you have to develop a part of your mind that is always running in the background, looking for potential stories. And, compared to finding the stories in the first place (and researching them), the actual writing is easy.

The fact that editors are on a schedule also explains the second requirement. If you don’t deliver a story when you said you would, then editors suddenly have to scramble for a replacement – and show me the person who enjoys being inconvenienced in their job. In any business relationship, being able to depend on each other is essential if trust is going to develop, and writing is no different.

That doesn’t mean that most editors are going to develop a permanent grievance if you fail to deliver occasionally, especially for reasons beyond your control. But they would like to know as much in advance as possible so they can fill your slot with something else. Nor are they going to have much sympathy with writer’s block or a desire to talk through every piece of writing you do at great length, although almost all editors are willing to help develop an idea that needs just a bit of fine-tuning. Amateurs and undergraduates can indulge in such pastimes, but what writers need to do is prove themselves professionals.

Editors also need to consider their time. After they’re been in their position a while, they know how long they can afford to work on a particular story and still meet their quota. For instance, if they need to edit four stories a day, that means they can only spend about two hours on each one – less actually, since they have duties such as answering queries and staff meetings. If your submissions constantly take two and a half hours to prepare for publication, their schedule is thrown out. Perhaps they have to work longer hours in order to accommodate you.

Your ability to generate ideas and your dependability may buy you some time to learn, but, eventually, even the most generous-minded editor will have to run the cold equations in their head and conclude that you are more of an asset than a liability.

Even if you’re an expert on a subject, your knowledge only buys you so much grace time. I’ve seen prominent writers dropped because editors tired of proofreading their sub-standard prose or grew tired of their demands for endless amounts of time. And if experts can’t get away with being difficult to work with, what do you think your chances are if you consistently cause problems?

That’s not to say that editors will object if you protest the occasional edit. Most editors are as interested in writing well as you are, even if they don’t always have the time to indulge in it. But it does mean that you should make your protest without personal attacks, and limit it to two or three exchanges.

If the editor does not agree with you, then you either have the choice of withdrawing the work in question from consideration as politely as possible, or accepting their decision with all the grace you can muster. Just make sure that you don’t make the exchange overly personal. Even if you withdraw the story, you may want to sell to that editor again. And, for their part, they may want to buy from you. It’s just that, in one particular case, they rejected rather than accepting you.

These sentiments may sound hard-nosed to you. If so, then the best thing you can do is confine writing to a hobby. Earning a living as a writer requires as much realism as talent. If you can’t cultivate that realism, then chances are that writing isn’t the profession for you, no matter how much talent your friends say you have.

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Looking at the sessions scheduled for an upcoming blogging conference, I found myself thinking that the titles were depressingly serious. They included “The Other Side of Two Dimensions,” “There are 50 Web 2.0 Ways to Tell a Story,” ”Building the Brand of ‘Me,’” and others so painstaking and earnest that I felt an impatience that I hadn’t felt since grad school when I would wince at the pretentiousness of articles in periodicals. Why, I thought, couldn’t people just get on with writing?

But that’s the difference between amateur writers and professional ones, I realized. Most amateurs would rather do anything except write, while most professionals hardly want to do anything else.

If you have ever hung around wannabes, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Amateurs love to talk about what they’re going to write, or the important ideas and themes they say they’ll be dealing with. They’ll talk about the real life experiences they plan to write about. They’ll talk about writer’s block, and the agony they’ve suffered trying to overcome it. Should they actually finish something to the point where they can show it around, they’ll discuss what they meant to do endlessly, too.

Drop at random to any community library or university campus in North America, and you should be able to find a club where wannabes can inflict their endless rants on one another. A whole publishing industry, centering around magazines like Writer’s Digest, exists to cater to the wannabes, they’re so commonplace. Typically, they devour the contents of such magazines and web sites. A few will even cite lengthy passages from successful writers to support their viewpoints, especially when critiquing somebody else’s work – partly, I suspect, to blur the fact that they’re being negative, and partly to lend their comments authority.

Yet somehow, amid all the verbal planning and over-intellectualizing, very little ever seems to get written.

By contrast, I’ve observed that those who actually make a living by writing tend to be a closed-mouthed lot. Asked what they are writing, they generally confine themselves to a summary of about a dozen words. They seldom agonize over writer’s block, because they’re too busy meeting deadlines to take the time to have one. Asked to analyze a passage, they will talk about concrete like word order. Asked to talk about their craft, they’ll probably start talking about how they’re getting along with their agents.

I’ve heard people suggest that wannabes waste their energy in talking while professionals save theirs for their work. But, although that might be true in some cases, I think it’s not usually the complete story.

Rather, I suspect that the wannabes don’t have much interest in actually producing a work. Their satisfaction comes from talking about writing – or, to be more exact, from sounding knowledgeable and perhaps impressing those around them (which is one reason why they remind of academia, where positioning yourself as an expert is far more important than helping others appreciate a work for what it is). In other words, talking about writing is their hobby. In some cases, it’s also a way of asserting superiority so they can feel good about themselves.

In the same way, I don’t think most professionals are seriously worried that talking too much about a piece of writing means wasting energy that should go into creating it. Some are superstitious about the possibility, including me sometimes. Yet I think the reluctance comes more from a discomfort about sounding pretentious about what, to them, is a very practical activity.

Anyway, they’re too busy writing.

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Okay, now I’m scared. On Monday, I published a story about a boycott against Trend Micro for its aggressive use of patents against a competitor – a case that revolves around use of the free software Clam AntiVrius. By Tuesday night, the Trend Micro head offices were burning.

Well, not quite. But the story was widely picked up, and, whenever it appeared, people were making comments that were a variation on, “Well, I was going to buy some anti-virus licenses from Trend Micro, but now I’m not.” So my reporting has a large part of the responsibility for the spread of the boycott.

Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I support the boycott. The patent in question is such an obvious one that it never should have been granted, and I believe that Trend Micro is not only abusing the American patent system, but doing so in ways that could have serious repercussions for free software.

Nor an I so conceited as to imagine that, had I not written on the subject, the boycott wouldn’t have spread. Admittedly, as a regular contributor to Linux.com, I have a better pulpit than most for proclaiming what I think is important. However, with the Free Software Foundation supporting the boycott, it would have had a lot of attention without me. If in some alternate universe I hadn’t started covering the story, then some other journalist would have, and the results would have been much the same.

However, in this universe, I was the one who gave the boycott one of its biggest boosts. Again, this is not conceit, because every site that picked up on the story linked back either directly to my story or to its mention on Slashdot. And this simple fact suggests another with which I am extremely uncomfortable: What I write can have influence.

A lot of influence.

I don’t write a story that I lack interest in, and the boycott story interested me considerably more than most. However, lurching from story to story day by day in desperate scramble to meet my monthly quotas, I don’t think much about how a story will be received. Usually, I’m too busy getting the facts right and finding the structure to put them in, with a little worry left over for how many more stories I have to do before the end of the month.

Apart from a general hope that readers will find the result interesting, I don’t spend much time thinking what the reaction to any given story will be. And usually, by the time a story appears, it’s something I’ve finished with a few days ago, and I’ve moved on to thinking about another topic.

However, the spread of the boycott, coupled with the unwarranted amount of attention paid last month to my off the cuff ramblings about conspiracy theorists in free software, are making me realize that my attitude is too casual. I would be irresponsible if I ignored the fact that, when the wind is right, people are going to listen to me.

What exactly that means to me as a writer, I don’t know. I have no wish to become a pundit who imagines that everything he says is of absorbing interest, but neither do I want to be so paralyzed by the possible consequences that I can no longer write.

In the short term, my dawning realization means that I am more determined than ever to make sure that my facts are correct and complete, that I am impartial except when writing a piece clearly marked as commentary, and that I include all the necessary qualifications and nuances necessary to describe a situation with maximum accuracy. If I don’t, I risk misleading readers.

As for the long term – who knows? Maybe I just need to be more comfortable with the idea that I have an audience. But I’ve a nagging suspicion that the situation is not that simple.

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