Archive for February, 2009

When you hit middle age, how you face change can become a dilemma. Either you decide to accept every change that comes along in an effort to feel that you are still part of the mainstream in our youth-oriented culture, or else you reject every change as something dangerous that should be denigrated at every turn. Only a few seem to find an alternative to these reactions.

The reasons for this dilemma are not hard to see. As most people age, they start to associate change with decay and, ultimately, with death. It becomes something to deny, either by taking on the mannerisms of someone half your age, or by denouncing it.

The trouble is, neither of the usual two reactions is very satisfying. Nothing is more undignified or embarrassing as a middle-aged person trying to pretend that they are young. A fifty year old woman who tries to dress as a teenager risks being ridiculous, because they don’t have the body of a teenager. The same is true of a fifty year old man who tries to keep up physically with a twenty year old.

Similarly, if either tries to keep up to date on the latest music or Internet fad, they risk acting like an over-aged puppy pathetically trying to please. The fact is, youth culture is not something you are expected to understand or belong to when you’re middle-aged – one of the whole purposes of youth culture is establish an identity that’s different from that of the middle-aged.

By contrast, by rejecting the culture of your generation, you risk losing your own roots for the shallowness of a wannabe who can never belong. You might as well apply to a club whose entire purpose is to blacklist you.

The trouble is, going to the opposite extreme and denying the value of everything new is no better. By doing so, you only increase the impression that you are out of touch (which most people younger than you tend to believe anyway).

Just as importantly, you risk missing new things that you might otherwise appreciate. All that lies behind the elderly curmudgeon is a constant, unending complaint that the world has changed since you first became an adult, and you don’t like it. That is a petty and small-minded attitude for anyone around you to endure; you can see it almost any day in The Globe and Mail, which on subjects such as Facebook or file-sharing often gives the impression of being written by embittered seventy-five year olds for seventy-five year olds.

All the same, pursuit or rejection are by far the most common ways that the middle-aged respond to their growing perception of the unavoidability of change. It takes tremendous sense of structure to resist either response and simply have faith in your own taste, accepting the changes that suit your taste and rejecting those that do no, and fostering a tolerance for other people’s preferences. Yet, considering that the alternative is either to be ridiculous or unpleasant, it seems the only acceptable alternative.

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I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone tagged me for the “25 Random Facts” craze that’s sweeping the blogosphere (Hi, cdlu!). My first reaction was to admire Linus Torvalds’ response:

1. I get bored very easily.

and wish that I’d thought of that reply first, or something equally witty.

But then I started to be intrigued by the idea and decided to participate after all. So, here goes:

1. If my shins were in the proper proportion, I’d be over six feet tall. Since they’re not, I have a long torso and short legs, and fall on the short side of average.

2. I have exercised almost daily since I was nine years old. For years, I favored running, but in the last three years, I’ve expanded into swimming and an exercise bike to buy my knees a few extra years of use.

3. I regularly pass for younger than my age. This is a mixed blessing at times.

4. For several decades, I have lived with one or more Nanday conures, a type of small South American parrot. Currently we have four, including a mated pair and one of their offspring.

5. Our Nandays are jealous of the telephone. For this reason, when telemarketers phone, I like to stand close to their cages so the person on the other line can hear then screech. The phone really amplifies the sound, and tends to make conversations short.

6. I have a passionate interest in collecting Northwest Coast Art. In fact, I consider it the only modern art form that is consistently interesting.

7. Four years ago, I gave up coffee and all forms of caffeine, including chocolate, because I had become hyper-sensitive to it. One sip of coffee could wire me for almost twelve hours. Fortunately, what I really like is hot drinks, so the sacrifice doesn’t amount to much, except for shedding the false sense of urgency that caffeine leaves you with.

8. I have never owned a credit card, because the temptation is too strong. This is probably the main reason that I have never been in debt.

9. I am a confirmed free and open source software (FOSS) supporter. I use GNU/Linux on my computers, and only see Windows about once every six months or so – which is far too often. Part of my reason for this belief is that I earn my living by writing about FOSS, but I would use it even if I didn’t.

10. I have been a busboy, a warehouse worker, a bookstore clerk, a teaching assistant, a sessional instructor, a technical writer, a marketing and communications consultant, and a freelance journalist. People who write are supposed to have varied careers, so I’m trying to do my bit.

11. My preferred music is folk with a beat and intelligent lyrics. That means I tend to listen to all sorts of people you’ve probably never heard of, such as OysterBand and The Men They Couldn’t Hang. Possibly, you’ve heard of The Pogues, though.

12 I came out of the dot-com crash with 65,000 worthless stock options in defunct companies.

13. I once helped to run a brass rubbing booth for four summer weekends at a Renaissance Faire.

14. I read mostly science fiction, 19th century novels, history, and biography. But I’ve been known to read almost anything if the plot is right.

15. On a regular basis, my life turns surreal. For instance, once when we asked friends in Berkeley if we could crash with them, the reply was, “All right, but you’ll have to sleep in the dojo with six witches from Denver.” The reply sounds like the start of a dirty joke, but it was perfectly true.

16. I am not a foodie, but I have several dishes that I am especially proud of, including buttered chicken, sweet potato pie, rissotto, lasagna, spanakopita, and saganaki.

17. I find groups of all men or all women equally crass. I firmly believe that each gender needs the other to civilize it.

18. The only thing I am worse at than being in charge of someone is taking orders. That’s why I’m a freelancer.

19 .I am probably far too polite for my own good. This politeness makes people surprised when I get angry.

20. Although I work from home and generally work alone, I am not particularly an introvert. Nor am I an extrovert. I like socializing, and I like being by myself.

21. I despise watching sports, although I have always liked participating in them. I regularly break up a sports discussion with questions like, “Oh? Vancouver has a hockey team?”

22. I did not attend my high school graduation. I have had the occasional regret in the years since, but attending my first high school reunion a few years ago convinces me that I didn’t miss much.

23. My master’s thesis became the definitive study of the American fantasist Fritz Leiber. One of these days, I need to finish editing his letters to his oldest friend.

24. There are several things about me that I have no intention of mentioning here.

25.This is one of them.

There. I don’t think I’ll tag anyone,though. One of the facts I didn’t mention is that I can be lazy about little things.

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The Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art in Terrace teaches not only design and carving, but also the business of being an artist. For this reason, its program includes several school shows. A few weeks ago, when I heard that the mid-term show was being held, my Internet acquaintance John Wilson said he would take some pictures for me.

I expected maybe half a dozen pictures. Instead, he sent fifty, covering most of the show and giving me a preview of the next generation of Northwest Coast artists, at least so far as sketches and paintings go.

The presentation of some of the works left something to be desired (unless, of course, you think brown parcel paper or cardboard makes a good matting), but I hardly noticed such shortcomings. Since I am just learning some of the fine points of formline and other elements of Northwest Coast design – strictly from an enthusiast’s viewpoint – I’ve had many pleasurable hours over the last few weeks pouring over the photos.

I can’t hope to mention every picture I looked at. In particular, I won’t mention John Wilson’s contributions, since I’ve blogged about his work in some detail before. However, when I narrowed them down to eight or nine, I found that I was consistently picking the same three or four artists – one of whom I already knew, and the rest of whom were new to me.

One of the pictures that stood out for me was Charles Wesley’s double whale. I am always partial to split designs, and this one caught my eye immediately, with its symmetry of lines and color. The formlines on the top of the body of the whales might be a little thick, especially at the shoulders where they meet the bottom formline, but the thickness does give a boldness to the design. Elsewhere, though, the junction of formlines is neatly minimized – especially where the bodies meet the tail. Moreover, the u-shapes between the heads and shoulders and the matching red and black designs on the body and outside it show the attention to detail of a true perfectionist.


By contrast, Latham Mack’s killer-whale uses a different perspective, showing its subject head-on in a style that is more common to carving that two-dimensions, and that seems to flatten the snout . In this piece, the formlines are so thick that the design could easily have been a disaster, but mack manages to pull them off with lots of tapering and white space. at the joins I like, too, the way that the design is framed by ovoids, and similar shapes are re-used in slightly different positions throughout. Another interesting element is the way that the design on the fin suggests a hat with a potlatch ring, a detail that suggests both chieftainship and transformation.


Another artist whose work caught my eye is Todd Stephens, who had several works in the show, including a beaver and a simple mask. What appeals to me is the elegant simplicity of his designs. For instance, on Stephen’s beaver, the formlline becomes the arms. Stephens also consistently minimizes the thickness of merging formlines, inserting spaces and spacers to control them. All these formlines nearing but only touching at a point or two give a realistic restlessness to the beaver, adding up to more than what Bill Reid called “the obligatory Canadian content.”


As for Stephen’s mask, it is interesting for being more a sketch of a mask than a two-dimensional face and for its inversion of the primary colors. Add the simplicity, and the result is a surprisingly contemporary look.


But perhaps the most interesting pieces in the show were by Shawn Aster, a young artist from whom I’ve already commissioned a painting, but whose show pieces I picked out without knowing who did them. Aster has several pieces in the show, but two in particular are strikingly original. The wolf seems almost archaic in its design (look at the teeth and the body decorations) while having enough traditional elements to place it squarely within the northern tradition. The spikiness in the design, which suggests fur, and the spirit in the tail, as well as the posture, which seems a mixture of a howl and a crouching to spring are other details I appreciate.


Aster’s conjoined birds are equally intriguing. The compression of the elements into the overall shape brings the already abstract elements of Northwest Coast design to an even greater level of abstraction. Meanwhile, the contrast between the serenity of the birds’ faces and the tormented, imprisoned figure between them adds another element of interest to the composition. Considering the timing of the show and the overall shape, I suppose you could consider this a Valentine’s Day design, with the central figure representing the strain of two people in a relationship – but, no matter how you interpret this design, it is one of the standouts of the show.


Some of these artists I hope to buy a painting or two from. Others I plan to keep an eye on. John Wilson tells me that another show is planned for the end of term in April, and I can only hope to get a remote viewing of it as well.

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In the last six months, a free Saturday or Sunday afternoon will likely find me down at a Northwest Coast art gallery. For me, it’s a pleasure that ranks with a good book or music store.

In fact, in one particular sense, an art gallery has an advantage over a book or music store. In a music store, you are lucky to get a quick sampling of an album if you get one at all; usually, if you want to listen before you buy, you have to do so via your own home Internet connection. A book store is much better, but, even so, reading more than a few pages will quickly make you unwelcome.

By contrast, at a gallery you are expected to give pieces a careful look. So long as you don’t touch anything without an invitation, few staff members in a gallery are going to mind if you examine piece after piece for a long time. After all, nobody expects you to drop a few thousand dollars on a mask or print without making up your mind. Paradoxically, because you are surrounded by expensive items, nobody expects you to be in a hurry to spend.

This attitude has the advantage of making your browsing session inexpensive nine times out of ten (the tenth time, admittedly, you are apt to find yourself putting down the cash that would buy dozens of books or albums, or talking about lay away plans). But unless the lust to acquire hits you, usually you can stand and admire a formline or the use of color for hours and not spend a cent.

To some extent, of course, you can browse online. But online, you miss many of the details, and your opinion of a piece can change drastically depending on whether you see it online or up close. Moreover, even the most conscientious galleries do not always have all their stock online, so you never know what you might see when you actually visit. Once or twice, I’ve even seen new pieces that have just arrived.

Art galleries are businesses, and, sooner or later, a staff member may ask if you need help, the same as in any other store. But while someone selling music or books is likely working at minimum wage and has a corresponding minimal interest in what they are selling unless they work in a small specialty store, most members of a gallery staff are only too pleased to talk art, too. If you are a novice, many are happy to educate you. If you have deeper knowledge, most are just as willing to share their enthusiasms with you. After all, they are interested in the art as well, and, while they have more to do than deal with customers, on the weekends gallery staff members expect to be busy with customers. And, because they know that most people don’t buy lightly, they are quite willing to cultivate customers to encourage another visit.

For these reasons, you have a good chance of combining aesthetic pleasure with a bit of education – or even some friendly gossip about various artists and an informal sociology lesson. If you keep returning, before long, you may have struck up something that is not quite a friendship (since, after all, money is ultimately the basis of the relationship), but is certainly a friendly acquaintance or professional relationship. In fact, of half a dozen galleries which I visit with any regularity, there is only one in which the staff is unfriendly – and, not coincidentally, it’s the gallery that I visit least, enjoy least, and have not bought from.

Best of all, though, is the time you take to enjoy the art itself. Northwest Coast art has its banalities of form and its mediocre artists, just like any other art form, but the standards of craft tend to be higher than in most forms of modern art. Even if a piece doesn’t make me want to buy, I can still learn from it, if only by trying to codify why it succeeds.

And when a piece does succeed – well, I am simply lighter of heart for seeing it. I don’t have to possess it (and good thing, too, since some of the best pieces are well beyond my price range); I am simply happier with being alive for having had the privilege of seeing the really first-rate.

The modern world, it seems to me, does little to encourage the cultivation of aesthetic emotions. Even much modern art is so tangled in consumerism and posturing that aestheticism is often ignored, if not actually ridiculed. But such attitudes have never completely taken hold in Northwest Coast art, perhaps because it is still partly rooted in culture and tradition, no matter how innovative it becomes. All I know for sure is that I come away from an afternoon at the Northwest Coast galleries feeling subtly relaxed, and never regretting the time I spend indulging my aesthetic senses.

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For some reason, writers in late middle age feel compelled to denigrate Facebook. The Globe and Mail seems particularly insistent, and hardly a week goes by without at least one of its columnists going on at length about how shallow Facebook friendships are or how trivial the quizzes and games often are. I’ve always thought that such rants are part of the general complaint that the world has changed since the late middle-aged were young; although I agree that Facebook is superficial, I’ve found it a useful way to maintain some business and hobby contacts. But, recently, I have had direct experience of another reason to appreciate Facebook: as an organizing tool for social action.

My newfound appreciation started at the end of January, when I stopped by the Edzerza Gallery while on a wander to celebrate having finished my work for the month. There, I struck up a conversation with carver Morgan Green, who told me about the trouble she and her father and the rest of his apprentices were having over their use of the carving shed at the Museum of Northern British Columbia.
After listening, I spoke fifteen fateful words: “Why don’t you start a Facebook group? Facebook has got to be good for something.”

That night, Morgan started the group “Expression not oppression” and issued invitations to all her Facebook friends to join. Within twenty-four hours, the group had two hundred members. It now has over 900 members, including prominent Northwest Coast artists such as Lyle Campbell, Ron Telek, and Ya’ Ya, and has become the focus for the discontent that many among the northern first nations feel about the museum and its curator and for the lack of respect that even prominent native artists sometimes face from the dominant culture and its bureaucracy.

Looking at what has happened, I like to joke that now I know what the pebble feels like when it starts the avalanche.

Even that, of course, is too much credit for me to claim. Apart from a few emails of support and my previous blog entry on the subject, I have really done very little, and nothing somebody else might not have been done. The truth is, the success of the group has everything to do with the carvers involved and their friends and family, and next to nothing to do with me. And that’s how it should be; I’m more than content to be part of the supporting crowd and leave the speaking roles to more suitable people.

However, because I was a bit of a catalyst, I have been following the growth of the group more than I might have done otherwise. And it strikes me that any tool that can help organize a community as quickly as Facebook did has more value than you might expect. Ninety-nine percept of everything that happens on Facebook may be shallow, but observing the “Expression not oppression” group has convinced me that the remaining one percent is powerful and more than enough to justify the rest of the activity.

Really, the late middle-agers have got hold of the wrong perspective – instead of insisting on the triviality of Facebook, they should be having a closer look at how it can be used to organize people. To me, any tool that has such a positive effect deserves to be taken seriously, not dismissed because it’s new and different.

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For a freelancer, complacency can mean loss of income. This is a lesson that freelancers can never hear too many times – and one that I apparently need repeated more than most. A few weeks after I blogged about how I had managed to replace the income I lost with the closing of Linux.com with other assignments, I found some of those assignments failing, and suddenly found myself scrambling to replace them.

Fortunately, the job-hunting skills I’d learned as a communications and marketing consultant soon paid off.

As before, basic survival wasn’t an issue. We had income for basic survival, and, since we own our townhouse and have never lived beyond our means, we had no worries about debt. All the same, the situation was disconcerting. I thought I’d solved the income problem.

The problem arose because of two clients. In the first case, the client had at first seemed willing to commit to two stories per week from me. However, after a few weeks, they confessed what I had already concluded from their actions: That they were unable or unwilling to take more than one story per week.

In the second cases, the editor forgot that they had agreed to take two stories from me in February, and budgeted the money instead for articles from other people. Since this was a short term arrangement, it wasn’t as important as the first one, but it was still the first time that an editor had reneged on me for any reason, so it came as a shock. For one thing, I rather liked the editor, and preferred to think well of them. For another, I had counted on having a month to figure out a replacement for that income. Coming on top of the other case and some personal bad news that I choose to keep private, it felt like one damned thing after another.

For a day or so, the situation got to me. I even went so far as to consider revising my resumes and looking for straight work. Despite the recession, the work for writers, editors, and instructors of my experience were plentiful in the Vancouver area, but it all seemed dull and routine compared to what I have accustomed to in the last four years.

Then common sense took me by the scruff of the neck. There were still plenty of outlets for free and open source software articles that I hadn’t got around to trying. I spent an afternoon on the Internet learning about the potential clients (something no freelancer or job-hunter should ever neglect), and prioritizing them according to how their needs compared with my areas of knowledge, the size of their audience (which is often found on pages for advertisers), and, where possible, how much they pay per article.

The next morning, I started phoning. I could have emailed, and my queries easier on my nerves, but, for serious business conversations, there’s still nothing as direct as a phone call. Hearing a voice is personal in a way that email or even chat isn’t, which makes a phone call a way to distinguish yourself from anyone else and have yourself remembered.

To my surprise, I appear to have been lucky the first time out. Details are still being worked out, but I expect to be doing an online blog and a print column, as well as contributing other articles.

You’ll have to imagine me dancing around my living room and pumping my fist in the air (or maybe you shouldn’t; it isn’t a pretty site).
But, while I’m glad of the respite, I hope I’ve learned my lesson. I can’t say that I don’t make the same mistake twice, but I hope to say that I won’t make it three times. I still have other a prioritized list of markets (something I should have readied a long time ago), and, if any other client disappears on me, I’m ready to find replacements.

Given the current economic conditions, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ll have a use for that list again in the next few months. But, so far, I can still repeat what I said in my earlier post: Freelancers are better equipped to survive the recession than most – and should generally survive better.

Now, though, I would add: A few job-hunting skills don’t hurt, either.

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John Wilson, who describes his work as “contemporary Haisla,” has only been selling his work for a few years. And, so far, he has confined himself largely to portrait masks, although he has also done drums and some graphics worth releasing as limited edition prints. I consider his “Blue Hand Mask” (which should actually be read as “Blue, Hand Mask”) an accomplished example of the portrait genre, and am pleased to add it to our collection.

If you have read Bill Holm’s An Analysis of Form, you will immediately identify the “Blue Face Mask” as being in the northern style: although the nostrils and lips are painted solidly, the hand and the spirit-helper on the left temple cut across the facial features. In fact, you cannot tell where the spirit-helper ends and the eyebrow begins – that is, what is natural and what is painted, or what is mundane and what is supernatural. Also typical of the northern style is the predominance of black, followed by red.

What is less typical is the band of blue. Cutting across the eye socket and eyelid, the band is an unusual shade. It has the effect of drawing your glance to the blackness of the pupils, giving a sense of fierceness or determination.

The painted hand is a visual pun. It has an umbilical-like connection to the spirit-helper that runs below the chin and up the left cheek. In other words, the spirit-helper is literally lending a hand. And, just to reinforce the pun, the obvious thumb shows that it is a left hand, originating on the same side as the spirit-helper.

One of the things that makes this mask stand out is the sheer skill of carving. Unlike many carvers early in their career, Wilson thinks in planes. That means he is working with the wood, rather than against it. At the same time, the mask is closer to realism than a strictly traditional piece in such features as the chin, the eye sockets, and eyes – which is what makes the mask contemporary.

Another outstanding feature of the mask is the way that Wilson has carved and sanded down to the grain that is suitable in different parts of the face. On the forehead, the ridges of grain meet almost in the center, while on the left cheek, the concentric circles of the grain emphasize the plane of the cheek bone. Even more interestingly, beneath the eyes are what might almost be reflections of them in the grain. Some bits of this attention to the grain are lost beneath the paint, but, because the paint is minimized, much of it remains visible.

Portrait masks are an easy genre to under-estimate. They lack the exoticness of a mythological theme or a stylized animal that many people seem to want in Northwest Coast art. But, if you look closely at the best examples of them, like the “Blue Hand Mask,” then you can start to appreciate them as a genre in which artists are thrown back entirely on their own skill. You can also understand why I think that John Wilson is an artist who is likely to make a name for himself.

(Note: Somebody should explain to galleries that, when shipping masks with hair, they need to make some effort to keep the hair from getting tangled. As you can see, I am still trying to straighten out the hair)

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I have interviewed Richard Stallman and other members of the Free Software Foundation often enough that he remembers my name (no small feat, I’m sure, considering the hundreds he meets each year). Once or twice, I think, in talking about parrots and folk music, I may have caught a personal glimpse of him. But, even if I haven’t, I generally support the Free Software Foundation. So, when Richard Stallman spoke the other night at the Maritime Labour Centre in Vancouver, I wasn’t going to see what he is really like, or to hear his arguments. I went to see his public persona, and to observe how other people reacted to it.

First, in case you are wondering, Stallman is neither three meters high, green-skinned, nor fanged like a sabertooth tiger. He is a man in his mid-fifties, surprisingly short –maybe 170 centimeters high– and apparently not given to exercise. His hair is long and graying, and so is his beard. Both are uncombed. His clothes are business-casual.

He was tired when he arrived at the hall, and perhaps feeling a little over-exposed to people, having given a speech earlier the same day at the University of British Columbia. After meeting the organizers, he immediately requested a quiet place to work. The request was probably a necessity, since Stallman keeps in close touch with the Free Software office in Boston, but I also suspect that he was relieved to have a moment to himself in the middle of a day in the public eye.

Another myth-buster: Stallman starts by being polite when you talk to him. Nor is he humorless. His comments sometimes show a wry sense of humor, often based on literal interpretations of other people’s phrases. He shows, too, an interest in dining as a social occasion, lamenting that, when he arrived the previous night, he had no one with whom to eat. And, after listening to the local band that warmed up the crowd for him with Flanders and Swann’s “The GNU Song,” he got up on stage to sing “The Free Software Song” with them, his smile not the least deterred by the fact that he is a mediocre singer and could only remember some of the words.

At the same time, Stallman is not always easy to talk to. He seems a little deaf, and impatient with the fact. He is impatient, too, when talk strays into an area where he has expressed the same opinion for decades – or perhaps he simply does not suffer fools gladly. And who can blame him? At this point in Stallman’s public career, anyone who calls him a supporter of open source software has clearly not been paying attention. Nor can it be easy to cover the same basic subjects dozens of times each year.

One on one, he might make some women uncomfortable with compliments about their attractiveness that are a little too quick and open by modern standards. Other women seem to find him chivalrous. Both sexes might accuse him of expecting to be the center of attention, but again, who can blame him? When he is on tour (and he is often on tour), he usually is the center of attention, with his hosts hovering nervously around him.

After our phone conversations, I expected some of these traits, but the overall impression that Stallman makes in person is hard to define. He is neither as obnoxious as detractors paint him, nor as selfless and charismatic as some supporters insist . Although, after meeting him, you can see how all these depictions originate, like any person, Stallman is more than the sum of such caricatures.

Stallman on stage

The fragmentary impressions I got of Stallman off-stage were reinforced when he got up to speak. Like many professional speakers, he immediately gains animation and energy when handed a mike, no matter how tired he is beforehand.

Stallman spoke for well over two hours, not using notes, but obviously covering ground (In this case, his view of copyright law) that he had gone over many times. He was fluent, with few if any pauses or interjections, but not particularly eloquent. Think of a university instructor who keeps his classes interested without being arresting or given to flights of rhetoric, and you have the right impression. The two hours went by quickly, and the audience showed no signs of boredom.

As an argument, Stallman’s speech was concrete, full of examples ranging from the personal to the legal, often enriched with small jokes, and structured with extreme clarity.

If I had to summarize Stallman’s speech in a single word, that word would be “focused.” When Stallman lays out an order to his points, he always returns that order, no matter how many digressions intervene – and, generally, he allows himself very few.

One thing that comes through very clearly as he spoke is his absolute sincerity and conviction. Whatever else anybody might think of him, those are never in doubt. He is quite willing, for instance, to do without a cell phone, DVDs with DRM, or anything else that he cannot use with a clear conscience.

But, as I watched his argument develop, what struck me was not so much any brilliance (although clearly Stallman has an above average intelligence), but his thoroughness. Although other people might possibly make connections or reach conclusions faster than he could, few could think topics through as carefully as Stallman.

In particular, Stallman pays close attention to how issues are framed by language. For example, he rejects the term “piracy” for file-sharing, pointing out that its main purpose is to demonize the practice, not to suggest an accurate analogy. Conversely, he talks about “the war on sharing,” doing his own bit of framing.

This is the same concern, of course, that leads him to insist on referring to GNU/Linux. Many people reject this idea without thinking, but, once you realize that, for Stallman, defining the terms is a necessity for clear thinking, then you realize that he is not simply being pedantic. He is well aware that language is rarely, if ever neutral, and, quite unsurprisingly, tries to influence the debate so that it is on his terms, or at least neutral.

If Stallman’s speech had a weakness, it is that he did not always think on his feet. Several times during the questions at the end, he seemed mildly at a loss, and could only refer back to his speech or declare – sometimes arbitrarily – that a questioner’s topic was irrelevant. Once, when a questioner went on and on without getting to the point, all he could do was seize on a careless use of “open source” rather than “free software,” instead of moving to take direct control of the situation. But perhaps fatigue had a lot to do with this behavior.

Watching the crowd

At any public event, watching the audience can be as rewarding as listening to the performance, and Stallman’s speech was no exception. Some audience members, I later learned, also attended his speech earlier in the day, as well as the one on the next day. However, even without that knowledge, I would still unhesitatingly describe the crowd as geeks with a small smattering of spouses. Most clearly had some familiarity with free software and Stallman’s ideas, and had not come to be challenged so much as to glimpse someone famous.

A minority had a slightly more ambitious goal: To engage Stallman, however briefly, in conversation. Since Stallman’s reputation and manner discouraged most from approaching him informally, some found a moment by getting him to autograph copies of his book, others by asking questions at the end. Many of those lining up up the mikes to each side of Stallman did not have an actual question, so much as a statement they wanted to make to Stallman. One or two seemed inclined to argue with him.


So what do these impressions add up to? A public event is not the place to get to know anybody, and Stallman would probably be a difficult man to get to know under any circumstances. What I saw was the public figure, with – perhaps – the occasional flash of the private man, both accustomed to his fame and occasionally irritated and trapped by it.

In the end, it occurs to me that a distinction between the public and private Stallman many not be worth making. He reminds me of the portrayal of the Wart (King Arthur) in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. White depicts Arthur as someone inspired by a great idea that took over the rest of his life. In something of the same way, Stallman appears to have been struck by the idea of free software in the early 1980s. The decades since then, I suspect, have simply been filling in the details and taking the idea to its logical conclusions – until now it is hard for a casual observer like me to say where the public man ends and the private one begins.

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“A dusty road that smells so sweet
Paved with gold beneath my feet
And I’ll be dancing down the street
When I get to the border.”
– Richard Thompson

Hugh MacLennan once said that Canada had the same relationship to the United States that Scotland did to England: we’re to the north, we like to think of ourselves as morally superior, and we go south to be successful. I’m not so sure about the last part, but I do know that the American border looms large in the minds of many Canadians. Most of us live within a hundred miles of it, and it is far more of a psychological barrier than a physical one. Although the people and the streets look much the same, they’re brasher south of the border, and more conservative. Because of such differences, for many Canadians, to cross the border is a major step, no matter how often we do it, and many of us have stories of our misadventures when crossing.

I remember that, as a child, I took many holidays south in a trailer. Whenever we crossed back in Canada, I would always feel a relief. Now, I would tell myself, if anything happens, we are not so far from home. Or, if we were, breaking down would seem less of a disaster, simply because we were in Canada.

When I was a young adult and newly married, we had a succession of rust bucket cars. It was exactly the sort of car that raised suspicion in the eyes of American border guards, who are often ex-Service types. Never mind that drug mules were most likely driving late model cars to divert suspicion; we were always grilled closely about our reasons for polluting America with our junkmobile. Often, we would have our trunk open, and, although we never had the car ripped apart, we were often given to understand that could easily happen.

The only time we were spared such ordeals was when we were on our way to visit a friend in the veteran’s home in Bremerton, Washington. As soon as we said where we were going, the border guard stopped glaring at us with suspicion, and waved us through. He didn’t give us a salute, but I thought he was considering doing so.

Another time, we were heading south for a Society for Creative Anachronism event in a car driven by a young, not very bright hothead. After pulling up to the American customs both, our driver seemed inclined to argue with the customs guard. Mindful of all the swords and other medieval weaponry in the back, the rest of us in the car cringed and silently prayed we wouldn’t have to explain what we were doing with all the metalwork crammed into our packs.

But the worst crossing we had was on our way back into Canada. I was in the front passenger seat, and, just before we pulled up to the customs booth, the driver stuffed a brown bag under my seat.

As we were pulling away from the booth, I asked the driver what was in the bag.

“My stash,” he said.

We felt strangely silent until we were dropped off. Afterwards, we stopped hanging out with the driver, and to this day, I doubt he knows why. Very few of my generation worry much about marijuana, even if we don’t use it, but, had the car been searched, the customs agent would probably have assumed that the bag beneath my seat was mine – and, given that I had to be bonded for the work I was doing then, I could have ended up unemployable.

Right about then, we stopped taking rides with people we didn’t know very well.

Strangely, all these episodes took place before the September 11th attacks, when Americans wanted tighter controls at the border (that is, measures whose main result was to make the lineups longer and those waiting unhappier). In fact, the last time we crossed in the United States, when we realized we had forgot our birth certificates, the American guard let us by. No doubt he thought that anyone so hapless couldn’t possibly be a danger to his country.

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Over the years, the Museum of Northern British Columbia has gained a reputation for working with the local First Nations in Prince Rupert. But now, unless appearances deceive, museum officials seem willing to throw away that reputation just so curator Susan Marsden can flex her muscles in her ongoing struggle to assert her authority over Tsimshian master carver Henry Green and his apprentices. The conflict is being fought over the carving shed, a popular attraction where Green and the other carvers have been working, but what’s really at stake is the consistent disrespect shown by the museum and city officials.

According to the chronology provided by Green on Facebook, the carving shed has been in existence since 1980. While hardly a comfortable place – it has no washrooms, running water, nor working furnace — in the last twenty-nine years, it has been a workspace for many of the biggest names in Northwest Coast art, including Alvin Adkins, Edward Bryant, Heber Reece, Lyle Campbell – and, of course, Green himself, who has worked there on and off since it was built.

The carving shed has not always co-existed peacefully with the museum, being a place where artists came and went without ever being employees or having much regard for museum hours. But, when relations were uneasy between the museum and the carving shed in 1993, Green says, communication helped to reduce the tensions on both sides. Mostly, the shed has continued to be an important attraction despite minimal promotion by the museum.

However, since last summer, relations between the museum and the current crop of carvers have steadily worsened. The phone was removed, amidst allegations that it was being used for long distance calls, a claim that Green denies. Then the locks were changed, including the ones on Green’s private storage. Green says that he had to wait four hours to get into the shed to get his tools, and that “during this time I was berated and talked down to.”

In another episode last summer, the artists erected a carving sign directing tourists to the carving shed. When Green’s partner and his daughter investigated, they found the sign locked away by the museum, on the grounds that private signs could not be put on museum property. Not only has the sign not been returned, but, as a result of the incident, Jennifer Davidson, Green’s partner, was banned from the carving shed by Susan Marsden, while Morgan Green was told that she would have to apologize before she could return. Marsden’s claim is apparently that Morgan Green kicked and swore at her – charges that Morgan denies.

Matters came to a head in January, when all the carvers were given one week to vacate the shed. Considering the number of carvings in the shed, including some two meter poles, this is a next to impossible demand. The artists requested at least a month to vacate. Meanwhile, they are worried that their tools, many of which are highly specialized and specifically created by them or for them, will be confiscated by the museum.

The carvers have tried to talk to the museum’s board of directors, but all they have heard is secondhand accounts that the shed will be renovated, then assigned to groups for specific projects. The implication seems to be that the current group of carvers will not be among them. Moreover, since it is February and no permit for renovations appears to have been taken out, the carvers are more than a little skeptical of the claim.

The situation remained unpublicized until Morgan Green started a FaceBook group called “Expression Not Oppression” four days ago. Since then, over four hundred people have joined the group, including many local first nations people and art-lovers.
Prince Rupert mayor Jack Mussalem insists that supporters have heard only one side of the story. However, when he phoned to give it to me, he demonstrated no understanding of what upset both the carvers and their supporters (who include me).

Nobody is questioning the right of Marsden to evict the carvers, not even the carvers themselves. But what bothers people is the disrespect. If what I have heard about Marsden’s behavior is even remotely true, she seems to have abandoned common courtesy.

Even worse, Marsden, Mussalem and other officials of the museum and Prince Rupert seem to be acting with a total disregard for the sensitivities of the first nations. Considering the history of the last century and a half, many among the first nations are understandably sensitive about anything that suggests the arbitrary abuses of power, particularly by people of European descent. And when you add the fact that first nations artists are leading figures in preserving the cultures, insults directed to an internationally-known figure like Henry Green are easily seen as insults to the community itself. You can see these attitudes being expressed in the comments in the Facebook group.

Art-lovers and collectors feel much the same way. Witnessing a conflict between artists whose main desire is to continue working undisturbed and empire-building bureaucrats, you want to guess with whom they’ll side?

Possibly, there are mitigating circumstances that would explain the behavior of officials. Yet, if so, they have not bothered to explain those circumstances. Instead, they have simply asserted their right to act as they have chosen, and refused to address the question of their behavior.

Very likely, they can get their way in the short run. However, in the long run, their petty victory in what seems no more than a bureaucratic turf war threatens to be won at the expense of all the good will from the first nations that the museum has built up over the years. And, if that happens, the museum could take decades to regain that good will – assuming that it ever does.

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