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Archive for April, 2009

“Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!” Bilbo Baggins says about adventures in The Hobbit. “Make you late for dinner!” Working out of our townhouse, I sympathize with that view. But, as with Bilbo, there must be something Tookish in me lying in wait. When I was invited to go to Terrace for the end of the year show at the Fred Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, I was determined to go. To fly 1350 kilometers only to return the next day seemed more than a little quixotic, especially when I didn’t feel I could really afford the trip and had never met anyone there, but the whole idea seemed irresistible. For someone who had never been farther north than 100 Mile House, it seemed a small adventure, all the more interesting because I was moving way out of my comfort zone.

I flew out of the South Terminal of the Vancouver Airport, a relic of quieter days that services the coast and the remoter areas of British Columbia. After looping around the city, with me peering out eagerly to spot the Metrotown Towers, Swangard Stadium, Cleveland Dam and other visible landmarks, we headed north. The mountains grew progressively taller and more snowcapped, and I tried not to be disappointed that all I could see of the coast was the occasional inlet masquerading as a river at first glance.

I won a T-shirt in an on-board raffle, and hoped it was an indicator of how my luck was running.

As we circled Terrace and descended to the airport, I could see signs of logging that showed that I was flying into a resource extraction community. From the air, I could see that the evergreens flanking the highway were often only one hundred meters thick, and that the town, whatever its other virtues, was a stranger to zoning in most areas.

At every other airport I’ve ever visited, taxis are always awaiting incoming flights. But not at the Terrace-Kitimat Airport. Rather sheepishly, I retraced my steps and hunted for the direct phone for the taxi.

After twenty minutes, an Indian driver – that is, someone from India, not a First Nation – picked me up and took me directly to the college. We crossed the Skeena, brown with the spring runoff, and through the mixture of stores and industrial sites that forms the downtown, and up a hill to a suburb where small houses mixed with hobby farms of a few acres and pasturage for a cow or horse or two.

Semi-rural British Columbia, I thought, reminded of places in Surrey and Langley and the Sunshine Coast. I decided I could deal with it.

All the same, the college seemed incongruous when it suddenly appeared. Paying off the driver, I found my way to the cafeteria to fortify myself and ask directions if I needed to.

A bagel and orange juice revived me, and I headed across the parking lot in the middle of the college. A few inquiries confirmed that the building with the high roof and large windows was the Freda Diesing School, just as I had thought. Trundling my carry-on, I stepped inside.

Almost instantly, I was greeted by Jennifer Davidson, Henry Green, and Peter Jackson, at least one of whom must have a stronger ability to recognize people from their photos than I’ve ever managed. Then I started meeting people – Bill McMillian, carver and teacher Stan Bevan, and students with whom I’d been in contact with online but never met, including John Wilson, Latham Mack, Sean Aster, and Todd Stephens, to say nothing of ex-students like Dean Heron. The sheer number of people to meet was overwhelming, and their friendliness left me exhilarated. Really, a stranger couldn’t have asked for a better welcome to a group with such close internal connections.

I just barely had time to go around the show (which deserves a blog of its own) snapping pictures like mad before it was time to trek across campus for the graduation ceremony. While we were milling about, Jennifer Davidson took the opportunity to photograph the copper bracelet that Henry Green did for me eighteen months ago, and Henry threated to straighten it out, evoking a squeal of dismay from me.

After rampaging through the buffet, the crowd sat through the usual round of thanks at graduation ceremonies. Mercifully we were spared long speeches, although I did notice most of the students gradually sitting lower and lower in their chairs. But an end came at last, with the most deserving students receiving awards and all of them praised for their dedication.

Two drummers, one of whom was a student, were supposed to lead a procession back to the studio, but the riff-raff like me at the back lingered so long that we missed most of it. I had a chance to look at the exhibits more carefully, and saw the sketches for one piece that I hope to eventually buy, and all too soon the show was over.

John Wilson drove me downtown, where I found a hotel and we headed out for Chinese food. A sign that we were in the north was that one of the offerings at the restaurant was salmon in black bean sauce.

I had hoped to meet sculptor Ron Telek, but he was busy with family matters, and we had to make do with a quick phone call late at night. I found myself wishing that I had booked another day, both to see Ron and to see more of the town, but, as things were, I fell asleep exhausted and buoyed by the friendly welcome I had received.

The next morning, I was at the airport before most of the staff (Memo: in small towns, the rule of arriving two hours before a flight doesn’t apply). Tired but satisfied, I flew south, putting adventures behind me for a while. But now that I’ve ventured north once, I’m sure I’ll be coming back again. Terrace may be more distant from my townhouse than Calgary, but in many ways it feels more like home.

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The prospect of flying reduces me to the state of a kid on Christmas Eve. And that’s not just a metaphor, either. The night before I fly, I’m lucky to get five hours asleep. By halfway through the night, I’m awake and almost twitching with excitement. Usually, I get up earlier than I planned, and reach the airport sooner than I intended, too. Whether I’m leaving home or returning, my anticipation is the same.

By the time the plan starts bumping along the runway, my excitement is at a pitch. I love the way that the plane accelerates, then seems all at once to leap forward into the air. At the exact moment of takeoff, the plan seems to quiver with its own excitement, and its ascent seems act of will rather than physics.

Whenever possible, I book a window seat. If the windows opened, I would undoubtedly hang out one like a dog – never mind that I’m at 39,000 feet. Something about seeing the earth spread out beneath me like a diorama is endlessly fascinating to me, no matter how often I fly. Perhaps the slight feeling of giddiness that accompanies the sight adds to the excitement, the feeling that I could step from cloud to cloud to get a better view.

The view from a plane always reminds me of the Challenger map of British Columbia that could be viewed from several different levels at the annual PNE fair. However, the view from the plaen is even better. I remember the trips I used to take from Vancouver to Berkeley, and watching the gradual shift of the vegetation from rain forest greens to semi-desert browns.

On other trips across the continent, I remember the American mid-west as an endless stretch of quarter section farms that varied only in where the home section was on the farm. Every now and then, I’d pass over towns, every one of which seemed to have an oversized cement football stadium. On those same trips, I caught my first glimpse of the Mississippi. And, on one memorable occasional flying to Phoenix, the pilot diverted the flight to give us a view of the Grand Canyon in the early morning light.

Last week, I flew to Calgary just at sunset. At first, most of what I could see out the plane window was blue-purple mountains and forests surrounded by fading patches of snow, and surprisingly few lights. Then, as the dark settled down, the pattern on the ground below became more abstract, the division between the landscape and the snow blurring. Eventually, it settled into a pointillism of snow on a dark background. Gradually, lights appeared as we approached Calgary, springing up in greater and greater numbers until all I could see was a chaotic array of lights. I had a book open, but I spent so much time lost in what I saw below me that the flight attendants had to call me twice to ask if I wanted a snack and a drink.

Descents are a gradual, reluctant return to reality from the mesmerism produced by the view out the window. If I am outward bound, my thoughts leap forward to what I expect from the trip; if I am returning home, I start anticipating breathing air that has the proper amount of moisture in it.

The actual moment that the wheels touch the runway seem another act of will, an act of controlled violence, even with the most skilled of pilots. As the plane slows, it seems to fall asleep. By the time it reaches the gate, I am ready to burst out of its corpse and back into mundane reality.

I keep telling myself that such reactions are out of place in someone who can no longer pretend to be young. Enough travel, and I’ll grow out of them. However, I haven’t fallen into sedateness yet. Each time I fly, I am excited as the first time, and I don’t doubt that I’ll be just as excited the next time I fly.

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I am just back from COSSFest, a free software event held in Calgary, Canada. You can read about the conference on my Linux Pro Magazine blog at:

http://www.linuxpromagazine.com/online/blogs/off_the_beat_bruce_byfield_s_blog/the_calgary_open_source_symposium_festival_cossfest_2009

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So what impressions does a life-long Vancouverite have of Calgary after a two day visit? Necessarily, a fragmented one. Two days is far too short a time to know any region well, and I spent much of my time in a conference hotel. I did venture out a few times, but karaoke bars and mid-level restaurants are much the same anywhere in the industrialized world. Still, I can no more stop myself gathering impressions than I can from breathing.

The first thing that struck me as I left the airport were the horizons. Unless you are in some place in the Fraser River delta like Richmond, the Vancouver area is bounded by mountains. Calgary, though, is not like that. The horizons seem impossibly long, the numerous hills never seeming tall enough to tailor them to a decent length. Off to the west, you can the jagged profile of the Rockies from many perspectives, but, otherwise, the horizons stretch in all directions, producing a stirring of agoraphobia in me.

The next impression was the air. It’s drier than on the coast, so that my mouth always felt dry, and perhaps a little dusty as well. It felt thinner than the air I’m used to as well – and, after all, I was several thousand feet higher than at home, a fact that made running harder for me than it would be at home. Over the couple of days of my stay, the wind always seemed to blowing, gusting much more regularly than I was used to. Once or twice, when the sun came out, I could feel an unaccustomed amount of ultra-violet on my skin, and the light seemed pale.

Since I’ve grown up in a rain forest (or, at least, where one used to be), the land looked dry and barren. Where I am used to infinite shades of green, Calgary had only one or two dark greens in the form of some evergreens. Everywhere else, the grass and weeds were a wan and tired brown, even though spring could hardly have been said to arrive, and the result was that the whole landscape seem washed out and barren to me. If I focused, I could see that the varieties of brown were just as numerous as the greens I knew, but they seemed faintly depressing to me. The birds were species that I largely couldn’t identify, includng a black and white species with a long tail that seemed to prefer huddling at the bottom of bushs and shrubs.

I did, however, see some seagulls, much to my surprise. They seemed as alien to the land as I was feeling.

I was in the northeast section of Calgary, which I am told is the rougher section of town, and has a larger proportion of immigrants than the rest of the city. And it’s true that when I went to a pho palace, most of the other diners were Vietnamese. Even so, the crowds seem strangely European to my Vancouver eye, making them seem not quite right in a way that puzzled me until I figured it out. I did see a few people of Chinese descent, but almost none of Indian. The majority were European, which is something I haven’t lived with since I was a child. I heard more French that I’m used to hearing (and saw more poutine being sold in restaurants and bars), and Russian and Polish once or twice, but the dominant voices were English Canadian, with an accent subtly different from Vancouver’s, whose characteristics I can’t quite articulate.

(I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with Calgary’s population mix – just that it was different from what I’m used to.)

I can’t speak about the rest of Calgary, but the northeast is one of those places that have sprung up on the edges of far too many cities in the last few decades: strip development which has been built in haste, only to decay in leisure, without a hint of urban planning or zoning. I saw chiropractor’s offices next to auto dealers, and light industry next to shopping malls. Here and there, a few large buildings were empty, no doubt victims of the recession. It’s not a place where people walk, although the C-Train rapid transit system ran through the middle of the small area that I spent my time in. It reminded me of parts of Richmond, or possibly Maple Ridge at home.

However, one thing made the strip development even uglier than that around Vancouver. Around Vancouver, space is at a premium, because the city is jammed up against the coast mountains, and starting to fill up. Under these conditions, even strip development around Vancouver is starting to go up. By contrast, in Calgary’s northeast, space is not an issue, and the sprawl is mostly low-rise and less orderly. It seems a wasteful and careless use of space, to someone used to Vancouver.

What else? Some random impressions: Most of the chain stores and brand names were the same as in Vancouver, although I saw one or two unfamiliar ones. Highways are called “trails,” in tribute to the old settler roads, and the airport has several sculptures with cowboy themes. Boots and cowboy hats suggest that the stereotypes of Calgary still have some basis in fact, but tend to be worn regularly only by men over sixty. People’s complexions seemed drier than they would be in Vancouver. The water, while it had a slight mineral tang, was generally drinkable from the tap, although I took care not to drink to much of it, just in case my intestinal fauna might revolt against it. There were more smokers, with the smell of their habit lingering around them, although the no-smoking laws seem as strict as in Vancouver.

I wish I could have fleshed out these impressions with visits to the rest of Calgary. Since I’ve already been invited back to COSSFest next year, maybe I’ll take an extra day or so and learn more. For now, I can say that Calgary is neither a city I warm to, like San Francisco or San Diego, nor a city that repels, like Indianapolis. As for whether I could learn to appreciate the prairie after living so many years in the rain forest, who knows? Maybe my impressions will tip one way or the other whenever I get a chance to see more.

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It is 10:30PM, and I’m sitting in my hotel room in Calgary. Half an hour ago, I left Bootlegger’s in the north-east corner of the city, where I drank more cider than was good for me and where I watched Aaron Seigo of KDE doing karaoke with “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” and mugging with local developer David Crosby to “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” I would have stayed longer to cap off an ejoyable day at COSSFest, except that I have one more talk and panel tomorrow, and I want to get a workout in the morning. So, here I am in my room, reflecting on the love-hate relationship I have with hotel rooms.

On the one hand, a hotel room represents a holiday. So long as I’m staying here, I have none of my normal responsibilities, all the more so because I am travelling alone. I have none of my normal work; although I suppose that the talks I’m giving are part of it, they are such a change that I don’t really associate them with my usual routine. I have no meals to cook, no garbage to take out, and I can be as tidy or as messy as I want to (which means that I usually start by putting everything away, and end gradually strewing my belongings in piles around the room). For a few days, I am living without responsibilities, and, while I don’t regret any of my personal obligations, being free of them still evokes a sudden sense of freedom.

On the other hand, I keep thinking of Harlan Ellison’s comment on hotel rooms: “Why did you come so far to be alone?” The truth is, whenever I am traveling solo, I sooner or later start to feel isolated. Don’t get me wrong – the people at the conference are all interesting people, free and open source software geeks of a sort I understand and deal with regularly. But I am away from my partner and my pets, and I am not meeting up with some of the people I might have in Calgary. So, at the same time I feel liberated, I also feel mildly melancholy.

It’s not, you understand, existentially melancholy, or self-absorbed. It’s more the wistful, thoughtful sort – the kind that drives me to write a blog entry about it in order to describe and understand it.

Besides, the older I get, the more I get interested in complicated emotional states, whether in me or in someone else. Or maybe I’ve just had enough to drink to be in a pseudo-profound mood that I’ll disavow in the morning.

Probably, though, it’s more than that. Ultimately, there is a vast indifference in hotel rooms. I am only camping in this room very briefly, and nothing and no one in the hotel cares if I linger or go. The paintings on the wall and the furniture are blandly unobtrusive, and there is a ridiculous extra bed in the room to remind me that the place was neither designed or decorated with me in mind.

This impersonality is at the core of both the feelings my hotel stay provokes, and makes the ambiguity that much more precarious. Probably, it is just as well that I am only here for another thirty-six hours, or else I would fall into one mood or the other, and neither, I think, is particularly healthy.

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I am a firm supporter of free and open source software (FOSS). These days, though, I rarely evangelize about FOSS when face to face. While I will argue in favor of FOSS in articles, or in speeches, I hardly ever do so in casual conversation.

Part of the reason for this reticence is politeness, a sense that inflicting my views unasked is bad manners, no matter what the subject or my interest in it. Another part is my anarchistic inclinations; while I have firm beliefs on the subject, I am mostly content to leave other people to their own beliefs, unless they are trying to denigrate mine or inflicting theirs unasked. However, mostly, my reticence is based on my growing conviction that evangelism is rarely effective.

This conviction struck me harder than every the other night, when we were at a gathering at our neighbors’. Another guest asked what I did for a living, and I explained that I was a journalist who wrote about free and open source software. After warning the other guest that I could talk for hours on the subject, I started to explain. I soon had three reactions that I have grown wearily familiar with from past efforts to talk about FOSS.

One female guest frankly refused to believe anything I said. Microsoft did not own her software, she insisted, nor could it record information about her activities or the legality of her software. GNU/Linux couldn’t be free of cost, either. Nor could it be possibly be less prone to malware and viruses than Windows. She was willing to consider the possibilitiy that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens, but not a few facts that anyone with an Internet connection can quickly establish.

The second reaction was from the male host. He regularly downloads movies from – let us say – sometimes questionable sources, and has suffered from malware and viruses in the past. At least once, he had to have his computer purged by an expert.

Yet this man thought that the security built-in to GNU/Linux was too much trouble. In fact, he thought that having separate administrative and user accounts was too much trouble. I had helped him set them up on his latest Windows machine, but he had soon changed them so that every account had administrative privileges. I asked him what was so difficult about taking ten seconds to switch accounts, and all he replied was, “I know you think it’s a foolish decision, but for me the security just isn’t worth the effort.”

I started to ask him if he though having an infected machine and having to spend money on software and assistance wasn’t more of an effort, but then the guest who had started the conversation thread announced that the discussion was boring. From the look on several other faces, I realized that, for them it was.

“I guess that’s a hint,” I said with a smile. But, inwardly, I was thinking: These are people who social activists. They are concerned and can speak with some knowledge about the hardships faced by the average Palestinian in the Middle East, the state of education, anti-poverty measures, and environmentalism. Yet none of them could see that I was talking about issues close to their senses of self-identity and about concrete steps they could take to put their ideals in practice in their computing – not even when I spelled out the connection in so many words. They spend hours on the computer most days, yet they did not care about realizing their ideals in their daily life.

Faced with such massive indifference and disbelief, I could either go into full rant mode or keep silent so as not to spoil the evening. I was tired, so I chose not to spoil the evening.

The encounter was not surprising, nor particularly unpleasant. All the same, it and countless similar encounters have made me keep my evangelism quiet. These days, I state my position only when asked, and stop expressing it when other people look bored.

It’s not that I care so much whether people think I’m obsessional. Rather, I hate being branded as such for no useful purpose.

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Like far too many North Americans, I remain unilingual. I understand French well enough that when I met the exiled King of Ruanda and his aide-de-camp (which is a long story in itself), I could understand about eighty percent of the conversation, but I couldn’t participate in it. Otherwise, I can read a reasonable amount of Anglo-Saxon (which will come in useful if I ever travel in Frisia.), and even less Latin – and that’s it. In other words, compared to the average continental European, my linguistic education is pitifully inadequate.

The reasons for this common ignorance is obvious. For several centuries, one of the dominant powers in the world (if not the dominant power) has been English-speaking. Even now, with the United Kingdom reduced to a second-rate power and the United States possibly tottering, English remains the language of trade and the Internet. You can tell this because, while you often read people apologizing for their lack of English skills, you hardly ever see English-speakers apologize for their lack of another language. The best you can say is that these days we at least have keyboard locales with a decent array of accents, so that we can spell the names of many non-English speakers correctly.

Just as importantly, with the exception of Quebec and possibly a few Inuit villages around the Arctic Circle, once north of Mexico, you can travel for thousands of miles without knowing anything except English. Even in ethnic enclaves, you have a strong chance of finding someone who speaks English. The result is the most North Americans feel little need to learn a second language, much less a third. By contrast, you have a greater incentive in many countries in Europe, where you are unable to travel more than a few hundred miles without finding another language useful.

Still another reason for the ignorance of people like me is that, given the language instruction we did receive, we would have been better off memorizing a tourist’s phrase book. I was in school before French immersion began, and forty minutes a couple of times a week – or fifty-five in high school – is not enough to learn any language, even if you have competent teachers – and I, for one, rarely did.

My first French classes consisted largely of playing bingo with the numbers from 1 to 50. Similarly, in high school, my French teacher for two years could always be distracted by asking her about her travels in France. I never did figure out if she had gone there several times, or just the once, but it didn’t really make a difference; ask her about Mont St. Michel or omlettes, and the members of the class could lean back and relax, confident that no other word of French would pass their lips for the rest of the lesson. As for my French teacher in my last year of high school, she was so dully stolid that I earned the only C+ of my school career while staring out the window of her class room.

I did have one native speaker who taught French. But he was my elementary school’s science teacher, and while his French lessons were dutiful, they were not inspired. His heart was not in it.

The combination of such teaching with a lack of any chance to practice meant that most of us had no clear concept of what another language might actually mean. If pressed, most of us probably would have said that it was like a cipher that mapped one to one with English words; if the structure wasn’t the same, it would always come out a match by the end of the sentence. As for idioms and dialects, they were not even concepts. The handful of us who knew better – one girl who was my main competitor for high grades, and another on whom I had a crush once or twice – were seen as having almost mystical powers because they could actually speak French, and not just recite memorized phrases from the textbook.

I could, of course, have cured my ignorance as an adult. In fact, a wish not to be so limited was the reason why I learned the little Anglo-Saxon and Latin that I know. Together with a small knowledge of linguistic sound changes, they remain enough for me to sometimes puzzle out German and to see cognates in the Romance languages or Middle English, but it seems indicative of my failure to understand the usefulness of languages that I never tried to studied one that might have a daily usefulness.

I wanted languages that would improve my understanding of English. Yes, that was the problem – I was too absorbed with learning English to make the effort to learn other languages. But that excuse sounds lacking even in my own ears.

The only mitigation I can plead is that I am aware of my defect. Unlike many North Americans (all right – unlike many Americans), I do not think that English is the default language, or that the Bible was written in English. I know that I am lacking this basic piece of education, so painfully so that I wince when I read 19th century novels that blithely mention school boys translating pages of Latin and Greek, or even Hebrew.

I know I should know better, and, maybe one day I will. Wasn’t it Queen Victoria who undertook to learn Hindu when she was in her eighties? If so, maybe there’s hope for me yet.

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