Archive for May, 2008

And if you’re looking for me . . .
Hey, if you’re looking for me . . .
The boy’s still running


“Aren’t you the guy who used to be running all the time?” a man I went to school with asked when we met recently in downtown Vancouver. I’ve been hearing variations of that question all my life, from everyone from clerks in local stores to potential employers. That’s not surprising, really, because, aside from reading and writing, few things have been a part of my life as much as running.

When I was in the first grades of school, we used to play tag in a little pieces of woods on the edge of the school ground. I soon found that, while I was only the third or fourth fastest of the boys participating, the longer the game went on, the less likely those faster were likely to catch me. The same thing happened on the soccer field, where by the last minutes of the game, I could outrun everybody.

However, it was in grade three that I first took up running seriously. Like many decisions in my life, it was taken by a wish to prove someone else wrong. The school’s PE teacher had assigned people from each grade to participate in a track meet with two other schools – and he hadn’t included me. Stung by this unfairness in a way that only the very young and self-righteous can be, I determined to make him regret his decision. While his chosen few practiced each morning on the makeshift track on the playing fields, I started doing laps of the school ground, sure that he would see me and be so impressed that he would have to reconsider.

If he ever noticed, he gave no sign of reconsidering. But the habit lingered, and soon I was running three mornings a week before school with several of my friends. I was reasonably athletic, although in team sports I made my mark by enthusiasm and energy more than skill, and I took running very seriously – so seriously, in fact, that when I discovered that a couple of people had cheated on an after-school training run that, when I saw them a block ahead of me, I charged towards them, yelling “Cheaters!” at the top of my lungs, wild with rage and determined that they weren’t going to get credit for finishing first. I beat them, too – although probably I was helped by the fact that they didn’t care as much as I did.

In high school, I had more than my share of firsts in cross-country and distance running, largely on the strength of having discovered that all you needed to beat most rivals was to train every day. Moreover, since my only strategy was to rush to the front of each race and then hold on, I learned the importance of psychology. I won several races when woozy from ‘flu solely because everyone else expected me to be out in front.

Somehow, though, I didn’t have get the victories in the provincial finals that everyone expected from me in grade 12. I was sick at the time, but I wonder now if the illness wasn’t an unconscious rebellion against the increasing seriousness I was finding in sport. By that point, I had been several years in the Vancouver Olympic Club, training under the legendary Lloyd Swindell, and not only had I found several rivals, but the seriousness of the training I experienced seemed to take the fun from the sport.

In university, the seriousness intensified. Not only that, but, as a team member, I was expected to help paint posters for other athletic events and show up to football and basketball games. Since I was commuting three hours a day to university, I couldn’t have given the time to these things if I had wanted to.

Moreover, the competition was tougher, too. At eighteen, I didn’t have my full adult strength (such as it is), and I was competing with fully grown men from across North America. Increasingly, I realized that, judging from the success of some of my older peers at the university and at the Vancouver Olympic Club, I might make qualify for the world championships or the Olympics in the five or ten thousand meters if I devoted four or five hours a day to training – but I almost certainly would not reach the finals, let alone finish with the medals. Reluctantly, I acknowledged to myself that I was a good runner, but not a great one, and somewhere near the end of my second semester, I ran my last race.

But that didn’t mean I quit running. Even then, it was too much a part of my life to give up. It was a form of meditation, a collection of peak moments of exertion and early morning sights that I could never give up. I’ve run up hills in Glacial National Park while on holiday, and several thousand meters high at Mount Lassen with my lungs on fire. Early in the morning, I’ve run through the streets of Berkeley on glorious summer mornings and Tacoma’s skid row, through the fog, and the outskirts of Indianapolis in the snow and stabbing cold. I sometimes feel that, until I’ve run an area, I haven’t really experienced it.

Admittedly, my mileage has dropped and my speed is a joke, especially in the last few years, when I’ve started varying my exercise with swimming and cycling to spare my knees some strain, but I don’t expect to quit altogether so long as I can hobble, however slowly. I sometimes joke that I won’t consider any retirement home that doesn’t have an all-weather running track.

So, yeah, if you’re looking for me . . .
Hey, if you’re looking for me . . .
The boy’s still running.

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Recently, I’ve been struggling with the suspicion that my distaste for marketing is hypocrisy.

I’ve been a marketer in a past career incarnation, and a moderately good one, if I say so myself. At Stormix Technologies, I developed the idea of ad campaigns based on different idioms that used the word “storm,” such as storm warning and eye of the storm. Later, at Progeny Linux Systems, I developed a campaign based on the use of a large animal to represent the company, such as a macaw, and a small one to represent the competition, such as a budgie. In the last version of the ad, we used a bull elephant and a toy elephant, under the slogan, “Some companies just toy with open source.”

Even in retrospect, I’m proud of these campaigns, although to be honest the Progeny campaign owed much of its effectiveness to the graphics work done by Rebecca Blake at Lara Kisielewska’s Optimum Design and Consulting in New York. Both campaigns handily accomplished the aim of giving new companies name recognition across North America.

However, it’s nearing five years since I’ve worked as a marketer. At first, I had difficulty finding marketing work in the high-tech recession, and later I found direction as a journalist and stopped looking for marketing work.

Still, given my past, I’m surprised to find myself viewing marketing with increasing distaste. Last year, when I noticed an ex-schoolmate using crudely obvious means to market her company, I told myself that her tactics were reasons to distance myself. More recently, I found myself shaking my head over local bloggers writing about products for money or goods. And when I spent an evening listening to a case study of a guerilla marketing campaign, I found myself thinking the whole idea a waste of creativity. I had a similar reaction when I read a friend’s recent blog enthusing over marketers who organized live roleplaying games to promote their products. I am all for play, since I believe it is important to creativity, but I wondered if marketing wouldn’t sully the whole experience.

The thing is, given my past, what right do I have to look down at marketing? Considering the recession when I tried unsuccessfully to find marketing work, is my reaction just sour grapes? At the very least, I am being inconsistent, and that troubles me, because such inconsistency points to unexamined complexity.

Moreover, I notice that very few people share my attitudes. Many people found the case study I heard clever, and were excited by the possibilities of using real-life games to sell products. I’m next to unique in my moral outrage. That’s fairly common, since I have a strong Puritan streak in me (by which I mean that I’m obsessive about ethics, not that I’m prudish), but righteous outrage, like inconsistency, suggests a complex reaction.

So, what is happening? To answer, I have to fish blindly into the mirky depths of my unconscious, and see what I happen to land.

Part of my reaction, I think, is a reversion to earlier attitudes. I was an academic before I was a marketer, and such dismissals are common to those who have never worked in business. In the last couple of years, I’ve been at a stage in my life when I’ve been reassessing my past through various means – including through this blog – and very likely I’ve made a reconnection that I didn’t realize until now.

Another reason is that I’ve switched sides. Instead of trying to persuade journalists, I am a journalist now. In the last few years, I’ve seen many inept marketers – not least of all those who borrow spammers’ techniques and keep sending information about Windows products to an address that is clearly about GNU/Linux. Because I get forty or more such emails every day, developing a jaundiced view of the marketing profession is only natural. I’ve seen too much of it at its worst.

However, I think the main reason for my disdain is to justify the path I’ve taken. While I could always return to marketing if I was desperate to earn a living, it’s slipped several rankings down in the possibilities. Most likely, I could probably find another gig in free software journalism if I had to. But, as a generalist who believes that “all of the above” is usually the correct choice, I’m obscurely bothered by committing to a single career choice. So, to quieten my misgivings, perhaps I’m hunting for ways of repudiating the possibilities I’ve more or less ruled out.

In other words, my reactions are less about the ethics of marketing in the abstract than about my own decisions about my life. And, having come up with this line of reasoning, I imagine that I can already feel my reaction diminishing. Examining hypocrisy can lead to insights – or so I’ve found in this case.

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Since I’m a Canadian, Memorial Day doesn’t mean much to me. Our May long weekend is Victoria Day, and is often the weekend before. From the times I’ve been travelling in the United States on the Memorial Day long weekend, it seems to involve a lot of parade drill from everyone from octogenarians to people in wheelchairs – and as a sport, parade drill is low on the list for breakneck action and usually looks faintly ridiculous to my outsider’s eye. But I do remember one unforgettable Memorial Day, when we visited the fantasist Avram Davidson at the Veteran’s Hospital in Bremerton, Washington.

As you may know if you have any taste for literary fantasy, Avram was one of the great fantasists and humorists of the 20th Century. But, as sometimes happens with greater writers, he was not very skilled at taking care of himself. Through poverty, he had developed the habit of living in small towns where rents were cheaper, and, according to him, moving on when he had exhausted the local library.

In the last couple of years of his life, this habit had brought him to Bremerton. When his long-neglected health began to fail, he landed in the local veteran’s hospital, thanks to his service in World War 2 as a hospital corpsman in the Marine Corp in the Pacific. There, from the narrow confines of his room, he fought a running battle with the bureaucrats of the hospital and of Veteran Affairs, none of whom were used to dealing with patients who were not only highly intelligent but who had a high degree of curmudgeon and anarchist in their mental makeup.

Perhaps it was a campaign in this ongoing battle that prompted Avram to invite everyone he knew within a day’s travel distance to the hospital’s Memorial Day celebration, just to annoy his opponents. Or maybe Avram’s famous generosity, so long denied because of his poverty, seized on the celebration as a overdue way to treat his friends and repay them for their visits. He could, too, have been restless in the limitations of his life, and worrying that he might not have long to live.

Knowing Avram, the invitation was probably extended for all these reasons. But, whatever his motivations, the invitation went out, and we drove down from British Columbia that morning with all the excitement that inhabitants of Hobbiton must have tramped over to the party field to celebrate Bilbo’s birthday party.

The trip was memorable as the only one we ever took south of the border in which the American customs guard did not interrogate us on the strength of our rustbucket Maverick.. In those days (and possibly still, for all I know), custom jobs were veteran-preferred postings. The second that the guard heard that we were visiting the veteran’s hospital, he smiled and waved us through without another question.

When we got there, we found that the hospital had laid dozens of tables out on the lawn. The celebration was in full swing, but we had no difficulty finding Avram. He was sitting as far away from the bandstand as possible, surrounded by a dozen people, holding court in his wheel chair and telling stories about recent and past events.

At this late date, I don’t remember everything everyone said. But I do remember that, when someone noted that a tavern sat just beyond the hospital grounds, Avram said that many of the patients would go to any length to get to the hard liquor served at the tavern. When the hospital tried to discourage the custom by planting a pole in the gap of the fence, so that wheelchairs couldn’t squeeze through it, wheelchair patients would drag themselves along the fence, inch by painful inch, to get to the tavern. On Friday nights, he said, they looked like insects spread across a windshield as they clung there.

At some point, too another guest took out a letter he had been asked to forward to Avram six months ago. To my surprise, it was from me – I had completely forgotten the incident.

The stories and jokes went on, many told by Avram, but others contributing their share as well. A band arrived and played the usual American patriotic songs. We continued talking, oblivious to the occasional glares from other visitors. We lined up for food, and the hospital staff glared at our numbers and said nothing. The celebrations ended, and staff started to clean, until only our table was left standing, and still we talked. We didn’t care. I don’t know how Avram’s other visitors were feeling, but I felt as though I had stumbled into a London coffee house on an evening when Samuel Johnson was holding forth, and I didn’t want the evening to end. If we hadn’t had a ferry to catch and a two hour drive on the other side, we might have stayed until midnight.

As things happened, that was the last I saw of Avram. He was dead less than a year later, having left the veteran’s hospital for a basement suite in the town just before the bureaucrats could throw him out. I understand that he was only found a couple of days after he died, and I don’t like to think about his final moments alone.

Instead, I prefer to think of him as I last saw him when I looked back across the grass. He looked tired, but he was obviously in his element, telling stories and laughing at what other people said – a master storyteller even in his leisure.

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A few days ago, I was awakened at 6AM by the slow roll of thunder in the background. At first, I though it was shunting freight cars, but by the time I sank back on the pillows from the bolt upright position that I had no memory of moving into, I realized that the spur line to the nearby industrial complex had been closed for years. It was only one of the small storms we get on the south Vancouver coast in late spring and early fall. After dashing out to make sure that the computer and its peripherals were unplugged, I settled back to enjoy it.

There’s something about the deep-pitch of a thunder storm that impresses me on an instinctive level, much like a note struck on a full-sized church organ. It rouses all the fight or flight responses, raising the hairs on my arms and perking up my ears. In the presence of thunder, I find myself walking further forward on the balls of my feet, and looking alertly about me. I suppose that when we hear thunder, we all revert to prey animals, because it is something beyond our control that seems to be circling us, moving in for the kill.

Perhaps that is why, the once or twice I’ve been in a skyscraper during a thunder storm, everyone has crowded to the windows to stare at the accompanying lightning, careless of the fact that the window is probably the last place they should be. If the storm had eyes, no doubt we would be staring into them, like a mouse transfixed by a snake.

I have two main memories of thunder storms. The first was on my way back from a trip I took in the first days after I graduated from high school, camping with a friend in the Kootenays. The trip was eventful, involving for me the end of the romance, my first sight of a raven, my first trip as an adult, and a nasty cramp from ingesting too much of the water while swimming at Radium Hot Springs.

We were driving down the Fraser Canyon, the motion of the car doing little to help my queasy stomach, when suddenly we crested a hill from which we could see what seemed like the whole of the Fraser Valley stretched out before us. And, at that moment, sheet lightning flashed across the entire western horizon.

The sight couldn’t have lasted more than ten seconds, and probably only half or a third of that. But to me, it seemed to last for minutes – a bright, blaze as though the sky was on fire, impossibly golden and shining, and blotting everything else from sight. Remembering my graduation the week before, I wanted to take it as an omen, then decided that it didn’t need any symbolism attached to it: However I regarded it, it was one of the most magnificent and outright uncanny sights of my life. Later, I had time to wonder what would have happened if a car had been coming the other way at that moment, but in the immediate aftermath, all I could do was sigh and wish that the sight would return.

The second was in the last weeks of my master’s thesis. I had just bought a new computer, and was learning to work on it, rather than my worn IBM Selectric. I had file cards with the basic formatting options for WordPerfect written on them, and each day I would learn some other chore, such as file management.

I had had the computer a week, and was priding myself on getting to know it fairly well. That day, I planned to learn how to backup my work to floppy disks.

I was sitting at the keyboard, happily typing, when I heard the thunder crescendoing over head. It seemed unusually close, and I wondered if lightning had struck at Simon Fraser University on nearby Burnaby Mountain. For a moment, I enjoyed the pleasant sensation of mingling my newfound competence on the computer with my somewhat Byronic enjoyment of the storm.

Suddenly, I remembered the vulnerability of computers to power surges and reached down to unplug the computer. As I did, the screen filled with light – possibly, just in my imagination.

I spent a fretful hour wondering what had happened to the computer while I waited out the storm. Somehow, I was no longer enjoying it very much.
When I finally dared to turn on the computer again, the worst had happened; it wouldn’t work.

That same afternoon, I took the computer in for repairs. But my thesis defense was in three weeks, and I couldn’t afford to assume that the latest versions of two chapters and the draft of a third that I had typed into the computer would still be there. I spent the next ten days frantically recreating my work and worrying about my diminishing time.

Eventually, I found that the lightning surge had fried a resistor on the motherboard, and, that damage done, had been unable to affect the hard drive. My chapters were still there, although I no longer needed them. But I had learned a hard lesson, and I’ve been a backup fanatic ever since.

Probably, these experiences explain the contradictory impulses I have in a thunder storm. On the one hand, I want to rush to the window, or even outside, to experience the full glory of the storm. On the other hand, I want to run to the computer to make sure it’s safe, even though these days I always have current backups and two or three computers around the house. Because I’m stolidly middle-aged, checking the computer usually wins these days, but, once I’m assured of its safety, I still turn to my romantic enjoyment of the storm.

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I have a neighbor who always seems to have time on his hands. On the weekends or summer evenings, he’s usually busy with some sort of project, landscaping the area around his townhouse or washing his car as carefully as a cat licking its only kitten. When his invention fails, he pulls up a deck chair for a few companionable beers and cigarettes. On his days off, he says, he keeps thinking of what he would be doing if he was at work.

To say the least, we are not close. But when our paths cross, I observe him with a wary speculation as I try to understand him.

In contrast to our neighbor, I can’t recall the last time I had nothing to do. I suspect, though, that I must have been under ten. Any boredom probably lasted all of five minutes.

Since then, I have occasionally not known what I wanted to do next. At times I’ve been too tired to sleep. But boredom is a feeling I associate with polite social duties. Mostly, my problem has been trying to squeeze in the time for everything I want to do.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had several projects on the go. The current active roster includes the background to a fantasy world, fiction set in that world, and a collection of letters between the American fantasist Fritz Leiber and his oldest friend. If that palls, I have the translation of the Old English poem “The Seafarer” that I’ve worked on intermittedly for more years than I care to think. I have minor cleaning and repair jobs to do around the house. Worst case scenario, I’ve got stacks of books ranging from light fiction to primary historical sources, and DVDs to watch and music to hear, and a few Internet research projects I mean to get around to at some point. And, so long as I’ve got running shoes and a road, I can always go for a run.

It’s not that I have Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. I can work for fourteen hours straight on a project without any problem, and I do finish many of the projects I have going – maybe later than sooner, but I finish them. It’s just that I have all the curiosity of a newly-fledged parrot, so something new is always catching my attention.

The reason my neighbor intrigues me is that I can’t imagine wandering as lost as he so often seems to be. I’ve seen him at 8:30 in the morning in his white bathrobe, drifting around with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, already looking like he’s wondering how to fill his day. And I’ve always thought: What sort of inner life does he have? What sort can he have?
I can hardly begin to imagine. All I can do is to be thankful for what accident of circumstances or genetics spared me a similar fate – and hope that, whatever happened to him, it never happens to me.

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When you are trying to get something done in a large organization, frustration easily sets in. Before you know it, you can start fantasizing about shouting and name-calling and finding a throat that your fingers fit around – while in reality you slink off, feeling helpless and foolish. However, as I was reminded this past week trying to get action from the local health system on behalf of my hospitalized spouse, the secret is to use more indirect methods.

The first thing to remember is to never show that you are losing your temper. Show anger, and you’re giving the bureaucracy a reason not to listen to you at all. If you have to, retire to the washroom to snarl or cry, or go for some strenuous exercise after your efforts are done. But while you are talking to the members of the organization, keep calm. Smile. Say “Thank you,” even if the person you’re talking to has done nothing but obstruct you.

At the same time, never give up. In the typical bureaucracy, most people want nothing more than to go about their work quietly, and with a minimum of fuss. If you keep showing up, then after a while, they will be more likely to help you so that you go away and stop disturbing the quiet of their days. Calm, polite insistence should be your goal.

In addition, remember that you have to play by the bureaucracy’s unwritten rules – even if you are trying to get its official ones changed or rescinded (or maybe I should say especially when you are trying to get the official ones changed or rescinded). That means you need to have a simple, clear statement of what you want done, usually expressed in terms of a concrete action or two.

Even more importantly, the need to obey the unwritten rules means that your main strategy is to get allies in the system. Who can make your request a reality? Or – often more to the point – who can exert pressure on decision-makers to act in the way you want? Find out, and get those people on your side, advocating your cause within the organization. They know the structure far better than you have any hope of doing, often on an unconscious level of which they probably aren’t aware. Moreover, the more of your allies that surround the decision-maker, the harder the decision-maker will find resisting your request.

Finally, never forget your objectives. With these methods, you have a strong chance of realizing them. But if you’re expecting the decision-makers or the people who have been obstructing you to apologize or show any remorse for their lack of helplessness or failure to live up to the alleged ideals of their organization, you’re fantasizing. Settle for getting what you want, and keep polite even as you get it. While the primitive part of you might like to rub in the fact of your victory, resist the temptation, just in case the decision-maker balks at the last moment. Your purpose is not emotional satisfaction – it’s realizing your goals.

Getting a bureaucratic organization to get something done when you’re an outsider is like starting an avalanche. Anyone can set a boulder or two tumbling down the hill, and the result can even be spectacular. But finding the right pebbles to shift so that a large part of the landscape permanently moves (and doesn’t take you with it) is much harder. It requires patience, indirection, and an understanding of the landscape. But, in the end, the results can be farther-reaching than any expression of frustration or anger.

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I like to think that I’m at home on the computer. Not on Windows – ask me to solve a problem there, and (assuming I don’t refuse to approach it), I’m relying on common sense, Internet searches, and my increasing irrelevant memories of the days I used a version of it with any regularity. But on GNU/Linux, I like to think that I know my way around. I know most of the configuration files and relevant packages for hardware and configuration, and, if I don’t, I can make educated guesses or know where to find the information I need. But an attitude like that can be as misplaced as hubris – it’s practically begging the forces of irony and chance to humble you.

Last night, it was my turn for humbleness. Suddenly, I was getting repeated “1”s whenever I tried to type something. I could turn it off by pressing the appropriate key, then it would return.

Since I was dealing with GNU/Linux, on a machine whose security I had hand-tweaked, I was relatively sure I wasn’t dealing with a virus or intrusion, which would have been my first guess on Windows. The system logs showed no suspicious activity – and, anyway, modern cracking tends not to be so randomly malicious.

Investigation quickly showed that the trouble was present regardless of account and whether the X Window System was running or not, and what desktop I was using. The Xorg.conf was identical to my backup copies. Altering locales and other keyboard settings, both globally and for particular accounts, changed nothing. Neither did upgrading key packages.

The keyboard was fully plugged into its jack as well. On both ends.

By this point, I had concluded that, since I had eliminated everything else, the keyboard must be faulty. True, when I booted via an old Windows install disk, no problem existed. But this wouldn’t be the first time that I’d found GNU/Linux drivers more sensitive than their Windows equivalent, so the diagnosis seemed plausible. Perhaps GNU/Linux was detecting a problem that was still too small for Windows to detect?

Unfortunately, by this point, it was past midnight – a time when few computer stores are open. Troubled, I went to bed and brooded on the problem in my dreams.

The next morning, I was on the phone when, wandering about the house, I happened to sit down in front of the keyboard. As I talked, I noticed that the 1 key on the number pad was partly depressed because of an errant seed from a parrot wedged between key and keyboard. A flick of a finger nail, and the seed was gone and my system working again.

I’d wasted two hours, for no better reason than, full of self-confidence in my knowledge, I’d overlooked the obvious. In my defense, I have to add that I rarely use the number pad. Still, I felt duly chastened that I hadn’t bothered to observe something so basic before going into full-tilt troubleshooting mode. I could have saved myself some time and frustration if I had.

Nor does the fact that I was systematic and eliminated various possibilities in an order way make me feel better – not one bit.

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