Archive for September, 2008

A couple of Sundays ago, I passed through the yard of my old elementary school. Contrary to what people usually say about a childhood locale, it didn’t seem small. Rather, it seemed mundane compared to the occasional dream I have set there. At the same time, it seemed full of memories.

In fact, I could hardly walk two meters without some memory ambushing me. As I entered, I passed the tame woods where I used to play endless game of tag with the other boys, and the creek where I caught tadpoles that I watched grow into tiny frogs. Beyond them were the houses of various girls I used to know, including the one to which I delivered the local weekly paper, much to my embarrassment. I was always afraid that the girl in my class would answer the door.

There was the place where a girl scolded me for standing with one foot at right angles to the other one and on top it; as a member of the graduating class, I should set a better example, she said. A little further on was where the teeter-totters used to be where we played still more games of tag; the teeter-totters are long gone, of course, replaced by supposedly safer playground equipment.

Having a moment to spare, I decided to wind around the school before continuing on my way. I passed my Grade Three class room, then up the short hill where I once banged my knee so hard that the fluid had to be drained off it. I passed by the barred gate that, in my day, was closed only in the summer holidays, and passed the gym, where intramurals games, and school fairs and assemblies used to be held. Beyond that was what had been the science class room and the library where I first discovered my love of reading.

Doubling back, I passed the covered area that was once the scene of endless games of road hockey. The grassy enclosure where we used to play massive games of British bulldog and Red Rover was gone, but I could see where it had been. And below that was the grass bank where my crowd used to lounge with their bicycles and gossip about who had a crush on whom, with everybody giving everyone else bad advice about how to make the boy or girl they admired notice them.

And so it went, every step of the way. The place where I used to wait for my first crush to arrive at school, my Grade One and Two class rooms, the playing field where I had won track events and scored goals in soccer, the baseball diamond where boys and girls used to play endless games of two up all summer – but, by this point, the memories were coming so fast that I was glad to leave the school grounds and continue walking to my destination.

The experience was novel, but I don’t expect I’ll be back in a hurry. I don’t live much in the past, and nostalgia is far too giddy an emotion – at least when it comes in such concentrated form – to indulge in very often.

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I confess: I’m an enthusiast for Northwest Coast art, yet I have no trace whatsoever of First Nations ancestry in me. This fact doesn’t bother me particularly; I like what I like. But, as I festoon every square centimeter of wall space with art, one or two people have wondered if I’m guilty of cultural appropriation. Can someone with my background really appreciate Northwest Coast art?

My first response is flippant: If not, then a lot of talented artists will have to take day jobs.

But the response deserves a more serious answer, if only because it keeps coming up. So, in short, I think that I have no trouble whatsoever finding ties to the school of art I like best.

I should say at the beginning that the appeal that Northwest Coast art has for me has nothing to do with primitivism. I despise primitivism as condescending and labored, and want nothing to do with it. If I felt otherwise, then my interest in Northwest Coast art would probably extend to the Woodlands and Inuit schools in North America, and to the Maori of New Zealand. But I have only a mild interest in any of those. I feel that I don’t know enough to properly appreciate them.

Besides, I don’t believe in the noble savage myth, and wouldn’t apply it to the Northwest Coast cultures if I did. They are far too complex and sophisticated.

In fact, Northwest Coast art today is not an isolated, entirely self-referential art form at all. Northwest Coast art as we have known it in the last sixty years or so is – for all its historical roots – a thoroughly modern art form. If it draws on the myths and cultures of the coastal peoples for inspiration and design, it relies just as much on European art for technique and reference. Not only are artists experimenting with new forms such as glass, but often they are working with a full awareness of not only the local school of art but also other schools from around the world.

For example, when the young artist Alano Edzerza can do a print called “Think Like a Raven” that he describes as a Northwest Coast version of Rodin’s Thinker, you know that he and his peers are not working in an isolated tradition. For all their local roots, they are also thoroughly internationalist. In this sense, it seems perfectly appropriate that the central figure in the Northwest Coast renaissance should be Bill Reid, a man who was not only of mixed European and Haida descent, but who also studied the latest jewelry techniques in Europe and applied them to the local school of art. When a school is so internationalist, then few people should have any trouble finding a connection to it.

Even were that not so, I could still appreciate Northwest Coast works for their sense of craft. By this, I do not just mean the finishing details on a Norman Tait mask or the sense of line in a Susan Point graphic design. Nor do I just mean that Northwest Coast artists today can choose between the classicism of working with traditional forms and the romanticism of innovation, although this situation means that Northwest Coast art is one of the most varied and flexible schools of modern art.

I am also referring to the whole geometric basis of the art, with the repetition of simple forms adding up to the creation of more complex ones. This structure seems to straddle the line between representational and semi-abstract art, falling to one side or the other according to the preferences or the whims of the artist. How each artist goes about creating complex shapes from the simple ones is an inexhaustible study, and one that exists at least to some extent outside the specific tradition. In many ways, it is a matter of pure technique.

However, the greatest appeal of Northwest Coast art for me is very simple. I am sure that I would appreciate the school even more if I were Haida or Tsimshian or Salish. Then, perhaps, I would have the cultural resonances and perhaps familial familiarity to understand more completely what I am seeing when I look at a piece of Northwest Coast art.

However, I do count myself lucky that I have the next best thing. My family may have been on the northwest coast for less than a hundred years, but I have lived all my life here. If my knowledge of the cultural references is learned from books, the natural references are second nature to me.

True, I live in a urban area, but that area is Vancouver, where modern industrial life and the wilds are so close together that you can go from downtown into wilderness in less than an hour unless it happens to be rush hour. Being in such proximity, the wild is always intruding on the city, and you don’t need to be a hiker or cross-country skier to find it.

Even though my day job is at a computer in my house, I have still confronted a raven eye to eye and knowing that another sentient being was watching me. From that experience, I have no trouble understanding why the raven is a trickster in local mythology. I have been deep enough into the northern rainforest that I have felt the disquieting silence that explains the stories about the Dzunuk’wa. I have seen orcas in the water, and my sense of spring is partly involved with the seals going upriver chasing the eulachon, just as the end of summer is marked by the salmon runs (or, increasingly these days, their failure). The landscape that the art talks about is the one that I live in, and, while as a city-dweller I see far less of it than the people living here three centuries ago did, enough remains for me to identify with it to a degree.

By contrast, I can feel far less for the art of the Celtic and Germanic peoples that likely make up my actual ancestry. I don’t live in the land that produces it.

No doubt for some people, these connections are still not enough to give me the right to appreciate Northwest Coast art. They might even say that I appreciate it for the wrong reasons. Yet, with six hundred years dividing me from the Italian renaissance, the same might be said of my appreciation of Michelangelo or Raphael. Art speaks to its viewers in many ways, and, in the end, what matters is that it speaks at all – not what dialect it uses.

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Considering the number of jobs I’ve worked at, I’m surprised that I’ve only been fired once. I use the word “fired” deliberately, since I dislike euphemisms like “laid off” or “made redundant”and consider them inaccurate. It was experience that I found humiliating and unfair, and my wish not to repeat it helps to explain the fact that I’ve usually worked freelance or as a consultant ever since.

At the time, I was working as a technical writer. I had a job at one company that bored me to tears, so I hired a sub-contractor to do that, taking a modest hourly cut from her salary and showing up there one day a week. The other four, I worked at another company that wanted my services.

My four day a week job was everything that the other was not. It was new, and I was learning Unix, and I shared an office with two other people who were intelligent and shared a cynical sense of humor. Best of all, I was laying the groundwork for the company’s documentation, recording for the first time much of the information on which the company ran, which was a creative challenge as I struggled to understand the software system and to pry information out of the brains of uncooperative developers (this was before my knowledge of free and open source software made me tolerated in the world of programmers).

All seemed to be going well. The manager to whom I reported wanted me to turn full-time after my first week, and we had a mutual interest in birds (in fact, most of my initial job interview was spent talking about parrots). Elsewhere in the company, people were talking of me as someone who was dong the impossible, since I was the third person to try to give the company some documentation, and I seemed to be succeeding.

Then, one day after I had been working at the company for several months, I heard that the company had lost a major customer. I made the expected solemn noises when I heard, but didn’t think too much about the news, even when rumors of staff cuts started circulating about mid-morning. After all, I thought myself a star employee, so they couldn’t be about to fire me.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had forgotten what passes for wisdom among executives – the idea that the last hired or those on contract should go first, regardless of how irreplaceable they might be.

Early in the afternoon, the manager of my section called me in and told me I was being laid off. My first reaction was a wordless sound of disbelief. In my naivety and self-conceit, I had been taking the praise I had received as an indication of how the company regarded my work.

My second was to find a reason for the event. After a moment, I remembered an incident in which part of a printing job needed redoing because of a mistake in the address. Hesitantly, I asked if that was the reason for me being fired.

“Let’s just say that it made the decision easier,” the manager said, suddenly stern.

I pointed out that, while the final responsibility was mine, both he and the president of the company had proofread the job, and so had some of the blame for that mistake. The manager sputtered for a bit, and I realized that all I had done was give him an excuse where he hadn’t had one before.

I could recall far more costly mistakes, including a couple by the manager.
But the excuse didn’t matter. The manager told my office mates to make themselves scarce, and stood over me while I cleaned out my workstation.

To give him credit, he did say that he thought me unlikely to steal or sabotage anything. But he treated me like a potential troublemaker anyway, and I had one of my first direct insights into how expectations and policy could make a basically decent but courage-deficient person act like a stranger to someone who was a friend.

Full of resentment, I packed my things and left, so quickly that I forgot a little plaque with a Northwest Coast design on it. The office manager left a phone message about the plaque, but I never did retrieve it. I didn’t want to return to the place where I had been treated that way, or to face my office mates after what I considered a public humiliation. Never mind that three of the other recent hires were also fired; I took the action personally.

A couple of years later, I met one of my office mates on the Skytrain, and he said that they had all been hurt that I hadn’t kept in touch. A touch icily, I observed that they had never tried to contact me, either.

In the end, I wasn’t largely unaffected financially by the incident. The other company had enough work that needed doing that I could return full time there, while still receiving the stipend for supervising the sub-contractor. But the incident left me more cynical and less trusting, and at some level I promised myself never to endure the situation again.

The next time it looked like financial troubles meant that a company at which I was a long-term consultant was about to lay off people, I bailed a week before the staff was nine-times decimated. The company’s president had promised me a job as long as I wanted one, but I decided not to put his character to the test; instinct told me that he would have failed.

Very quickly, too, I decided that I would not worry about full-time employment and stay freelance. To this day, I dislike people have the power of judgment over me, especially when they are under no restraints to use that power responsibly or fairly.

Even now, I avoid situations where someone might exercise that power over me. Some people might say that shows a bad attitude, but, in the end, I’m glad to have it. If I hadn’t learned to feel that way, I might not be doing almost exactly what I want for a living.

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Understanding people’s motivations and thoughts is an exercise of the imagination, and, like any exercise, becomes easier when you practice it consistently. For this reason, I like to imagine that I have become reasonably skilled in anticipating and understanding other people’s thought processes. But one mood that I have trouble comprehending is boredom. It’s like an idiom in another language that has no English equivalent – I can vaguely sense what it means, but I can’t really appreciate what it might refer to.

I know that I have been bored. But the last time that I was bored in the sense of not knowing what to do with myself, I was about five or six years old. I always have a variety of projects on the go (many, I admit, unfinished), to say nothing of books to read and music to hear. So, for me, the trouble is usually finding time to do everything I want, rather than looking for ways to fill time.

I have been too tired, as well, to do much. But that’s another state entirely. I also discount times that I have been content to just sit quietly, because when I do, I am enjoying being motionless and motiveless, or else enjoying the weather or the antics of the songbirds around me.

Nor am I bored with other people or circumstances, although sometimes I am impatient. I seem to possess all the curiosity of Raven the trickster, and I have no trouble mustering interest even about people I dislike or with whom I disagree. In fact, I rely heavily on other people to mention topics that I might not explore on my own to help take me out of myself.

Similarly, if I’m caught in a circumstance that I would prefer not to be in (say an excruciatingly long funeral service), I have more than enough mental resources that I can assume a polite facade while my mind wanders elsewhere. I’m not a prodigy who can play both sides of a chess game in my head, or solve quadratic equations in my mind (in fact, I barely remember what they are), but, if nothing else, I can usually observe people or plan articles in my head. I also have a very strong aural memory, and can replay dozens of songs or even conversations in my head almost as accurately as if I was listening to a sound file,and can amuse myself that way.

That’s not to say that I don’t want to avoid such circumstances as much as possible, and don’t try to minimize the time I spend in them, but I can tolerate them easily enough. Probably, I’m aided by having seen enough trauma and stress that I’ve learned to be phlegmatic about everyday upsets, but even when I was more innocent I never worried much about situations that other people would undoubtedly call boring.

All of which makes boredom a concept whose details are mysterious to me. So far as I can tell, it springs from the same source as recreational shopping, or nightly watching of network television – a lack of inner resources.

That sounds harsh, but I think the reason that boredom eludes me is that, for better or worse I have an active mind (which sounds more positive than saying that my thoughts jump around like drops of water on a hot frying pan). I surmise that at least some other people don’t have the same mental resources, and, as a result, often find themselves looking for something to do.

Some of them do find diversions, like one of my neighbors, who is always wandering forlornly around the townhouse complex looking for something to do (his latest project is trying to grow grass under the fir trees; so far, he hasn’t grasped why he fails). Others look without success, and find boredom sinking over them.

Or so I imagine. As I said at the start, I’m not the best person to ask. Despite being a man, I can imagine childbirth more readily than I can boredom.

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This weekend, I scouted the Northwest Coast galleries around the south end of the Granville Bridge. Here are my impressions:

  • Eagle Spirit Gallery: Located on the edge of Granville Island, this gallery is one of the pleasanter viewing areas that I’ve seen, with lots of natural light and indirect sun. It seems aimed at the corporate or public buyer rather than the individual, with many larger-than-life plaques, masks, and sculptures. Its selection includes some of Robert Davidson’s recent sculptures (which you don’t see much of), as well as works by Lyle Campbell, but, for me, Francis Horne, Sr.’s “Spirit Raven” was the only really exceptional piece. Even browsing casually, I saw a surprising lack of finishing detail on some pieces, including some by artists whose work is usually more polished. In general, the selection seemed a little too safe for my taste.
  • Edzerza Gallery: I discovered this gallery by accident, occupying the space that used to be occupied by the Bentbox Gallery, a block from Granville Island. Owned by the young artist Alano Edzerza, it displays mostly his prints and jewelry, but includes selected pieces from up and coming artists. For a young artist, running your own gallery seems a daring move, but, I’m proof that it pays off, since it means that I noticed Edzerza’s work for the first time, and he’s now on my list of artists whose work I want to buy. While I was there, I also met another artist whose work I admire. The selection is relatively small, but I am sure that I’ll be coming back, both to support the venture and to buy.
  • Latimer Gallery: A block from the Edzerza Gallery, the Latimer features moderately priced limited edition prints, masks, and jewelry I remember this gallery as being more touristy than it was today, so either my memory is faulty or else its stock has gone upscale a little. I had no trouble finding some small treasures, including some old Bill Reid prints, and some very affordable crayon sketches by Beau Dick. I don’t think I’ll be a frequent visitor at the Latimer Gallery, but I will be dropping by now and then to check what they have.
  • Douglas Reynolds Gallery: Located in gallery row a block up from the south end of the bridge, this shop is aimed at the high end of the market. Besides the inevitable Robert Davidson and Susan Point prints, it includes a number of masks by Beau Dick, and at least two striking wall plaques by Don Yeomans. It also includes a selection of gold and silver bracelets, rings, and earrings, including a few small pieces by Gwaai Edenshaw. The stock seemed a little safe to me, but was adventurous enough here and there to make me want to return occasionally.
  • There are still Northwest Coast galleries I haven’t visited in Vancouver, but these four, together with the ones I visited last week in Gastown, are some of the better known ones. Besides finding which galleries seemed right for my own art buying, visiting a number of them has helped me to understand the market a bit better, including such as who are the established and upcoming artists, and what are the going prices for each artists’ work. This knowledge makes my visits well worth the effort, especially since you can easily see a number of galleries in an afternoon without doing much travelling.

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Much to my bemusement, I see that James Maguire has listed this blog as one of the top 200 technology blogs, in the GNU/Linux/ Free and Open Source category.

James is my editor at Datamation, who shows amazing toleration for my inability to edit my own work, so I already know him for a decent sort. So, I figure he just needed to round out the spaces he had allotted for the category. Not that I don’t appreciate the honor, but I can see myself clearly enough to know that I don’t deserve it.

For one thing, look at the company I’m keeping. My entries here certainly aren’t a match for the varied articles at Linux.com, which is also on the list. Nor do they come close to the combination of astute legal analysis and wonky opinion on Groklaw. As for equating my efforts here with the industry analysis in the blogs of Mark Shuttleworth, Jim Zemlin, or Matt Assay – no way, man, as we used to say in my increasingly distant youth. I mean, I didn’t call this blog “Off the Wall” at random, you know what I mean?

What is really ironic is that, when I started this blog, I intended it as a place where I could write about things other than free and open source software. At the very most, it would be a sandbox for ideas that weren’t ready to be articles, or ones that I didn’t think I could sell. Nor do I often write on such topics, although I have plenty to say about my life as a journalist who covers such topics.

Yet, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that, when I do cover free and open source topics directly, the posts attract an entire order of magnitude more readers than my other topics. And I mean that literally, without any exaggeration whatsoever. So, maybe James is right, and this is a technology blog after all.

Anyway, I was taught that, if someone pays you a compliment, you say thanks and smile warmly – especially if the compliment isn’t true. So, that’s exactly what I’m going to do, figuratively speaking.

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The other week, I heard that a former employer had gone out of business. I reacted with the same pleasure that an octogenarian might feel on reading the name of an unpleasant former colleague in the obituaries. I was glad to see the company go, and my only surprise was that it had crawled along as long as it had. I had been expecting to see it go under for years.

As you might guess, I was not particularly happy there. I used to take long walks at lunch, regardless of the weather, just to get away from the place, and would amuse myself by composing words to a parody of “Chantilly Lace” that I called “Genteelly Bored.”

Part of my unhappiness was the circumstances. It was my first full-time position since the dot-com crash. After being one of the powers at two different companies, I felt demoted to be working as a technical writer again, no matter how often I told myself that no honest living was shameful. But I felt massively under-challenged, and chafed at having to take directions, although I remained polite.

But a larger part of the problem was that, having been a leader (of what quality I’m not sure), I knew that the company officers and executives were border-line competence at best. The CEO was not only fond of purges, which inevitably included people with key knowledge, but also of inflicting the latest management fads on the company. He was fond of regular, excruciating company meetings at which he kept showing the same slides over and over. When I left, he was trying retreats at which select members of the company would discuss a book on the management best-seller lists – a move which instantly divided the company into the privileged and the under-appreciated. He never did seem to understand that he was sending mixed signals, and, when I briefly shared an office with him due to overcrowding, he used to wonder why no one was passionate about the company.

The other executives were no better. The vice-president of toadyism, as I called the CEO’s right hand man, was infamous for making decisions without bothering to gather necessary information.

Another executive, a fundamentalist Christian, tried to take me to task for using, “Does anal-retentive have a hyphen?” on my screen saver. He thought it obscene, and was put out when I suggested that he had better things to do than chastise me over trivia and I refused to apologize on the grounds that I had done nothing wrong.

Then there was the testing manager, a little man who decorated his office in unread books and inspirational posters, and would spend hours designing spreadsheets with the largest color palette that I have ever seen. He worked long hours, and like to call meetings with me just before I was leaving for home. But at least he didn’t last as long as his probation.

“Blind leading the blind” was the phrase that kept occurring to me when I had to deal with any of these characters. But although interacting with them was bad enough, what was especially hard to handle was the fact that I had enough experience (and enough memories of my own incompetence) to know that they were mismanaging the company, and making what could only be a marginal business at best a loser. I discovered that to see incompetence that you know how to correct, yet to be able to do or say nothing is one of the most uncomfortable mental states possible.

Still, I shouldn’t complain. If I hadn’t been so uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have started trying to write a book on OpenOffice.org. The book was never published, but my efforts over the fifteen months I was at the company have since repaid my effort many times over as I cannibalized the chapters for articles. I also started doing a couple of other articles per month, and I still remember the pleasure when I had earned enough from articles to buy my new computer. There was another short contract between my work at this company and my transition to full-time journalist, but if I hadn’t been so bored, I might never have done the ground work for a career change. So I can’t say that the company didn’t do me an unintentional favor.

Still, I wish there had been a wake. I would have attended, if only to dance on the coffin.

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