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Archive for August, 2009

For the past seven weeks, I’ve been using a USB turntable to digitalize our old vinyl records. So far, I’ve done 41 LPs, with about another sixty to go. We haven’t played the LPs for at least fifteen years, so the process is a rediscovery for me – and proof yet again of how, when the dominant recording medium changes, some things are left behind.

Looking through the list of albums on the music player (a Sansa clip, which, incidentally, is much better buy than an equivalent iPod), I’m fascinated at the glimpse of my past. When I started, I wondered whether my tastes would have changed, and whether I would find some of the music that (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) was the aural wallpaper of my youth would now seem callow or outdated.

But, to my relief and considerable satisfaction, the fear was largely unfounded. While songs that call for the freedom of Nelson Mandela, or refer to Solidarity in Poland obvious refer to specific time periods, on the whole the musical choices of my youth manage not to embarrass me, although I do think that my taste has broadened and expanded since I listened to this music regularly.

Part of the secret of its longevity is that intelligent lyrics tend to weather the years better than trendy musical styles. But the main reason, I think, was that when I was a young man, the folk music that formed the bulk of my listening was in the middle of a renaissance full of passion and the fusion of traditional and contemporary that produced innovative and exciting music.

In fact, far from being embarrassed, I wonder how I could ever have stopped listening to some of these albums. For instance, my music player is currently loaded with the last studio album by the Scottish super group Silly Wizard, Michelle Shocked’s “If love was a train” EP, two albums of klezmer music by Klezmorim, an album by Breton harp genius Alan Stivell, another by the Scottish harp duo Sileas, another by the Quebecois group Barde, Malcolm’s Interview’s great punk folk album “Breakfast in Bedlam,” early works by OysterBand, Pete Morton, live albums by the Corries and Steeleye Span – I could go on and on, but I think I already have. Treasures, all of them, although some are considered modern classics and others are entirely forgot.

But by sheer number, my greatest rediscovery has to be Leon Rosselson, a sort of farther-left version of Tom Lehrer, and his sometime fellow traveler Roy Bailey. Eleven of their albums, seven of them made together, are now on my music player, and I can still see why. Bailey, a gay leftist with a strong sense of activism and tradition has one of the great voices of British music, and his covers of songs like “The Hard Times of Old English” or “If They Come in the Morning” resonate in my memory with the least encouragement.

However, if anything, I appreciate Leon Rosselson’s savage wit even more (if that is possible). Even now, I can’t resist Rosselson in the persona of a British tabloid journalist who prides himself on decency and moderation, working himself up into a satirical frenzy ending with:
What we say is hang the muggers,
Deport the blacks, castrate the buggers,
Press the button, drop the bomb on
Peace campers at Greenham Common.

Similarly, after looking in the first person at the various people who would be involved in the decision to use nuclear weapons passing the buck, Rosselson concludes: “So if the end to all creation is global suicide / There’ll be no one who is responsible, ‘cuz no one will decide.” Or look at his parody of the British Labour Party’s song, written in the Sixties, but still appropriate today:
We will not cease from mental strife till every wrong is righted,
And all men are equal quite, and all our leaders knighted;
We are sure if we persist, to make the New Years’ Honours List,
Then every loyal Labour Peer will sing “The Red Flag” once a year.

But I think I like best “The World Turned Upside Down,” his history of the Diggers of the English Revolution and their declaration of freedom:
We work, we eat together, we need no swords
We will not bow to the masters or pay rent to the lords,
Still we are free, though we are poor,
You Diggers all stand up for glory, stand up now.

I remember the time when that song was an anthem for me, and, hearing it again in the original after enjoying covers by Billy Bragg and the Oysterband, I find that it becomes so again.

I know, I know. You haven’t heard of half these names, and most of the other half are mostly obscure to you. But that is my whole point. Just because something is old doesn’t make it worthless and justifiably discarded. Sometimes, things that are old are classics, or deserve to be.

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When I wandered into the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria on a day off, I really wasn’t planning to buy another piece of art. My official excuse was to see the gallery’s “More Than Meets the Eye” show, which included a recent piece by John Wilson, and a twenty-five year old piece by Ron Telek. But when I saw an artist’s proof of Wayne Young’s “Wolf Clan,” a purchase was more or less inevitable.

For one thing, Wayne Young is an artist on my short list. Having learned his craft under Dempsey Bob and his uncles Robert and Norman Tait, like his cousin Ron Telek, Young displays in his work all the characteristics you would expect – imagination, a strong sense of line, and careful attention to finishing – while still managing to display a distinctive style of his own. One of his prints at the Alcheringa Gallery was one of the few renditions of Dogfish Woman that didn’t descend from Charles Edenshaw’s sketch via Bill Reid. Another print that I saw at the same time showed Raven and the First People without being dependent on Bill Reid’s monumental work; in fact, unless I miss my guess, it shows a mussel or a chiton rather than a clam shell.

Just as importantly, something that always fascinates me about Northwest Coast art is how the design is rearranged and constrained by the surface it is on. A flat design can be wrapped around the handle of a ladle, for instance, or rearranged to fit into a round panel. The challenge to the eye is to pick out the details of the design and identify it while enjoying the intricacy.

In the case of “Wolf Clan,” the shape of the design is reminiscent of an argillite pipe. The compressed space contains three wolves, two full sized and one small one, perhaps a cub. Of the small one, only the head can be identified for sure, although perhaps its body and legs are to the right of it or to the left across the two central S-curves. Possibly, it is a killer whale, representing a clan related to the wolves. The wolves on the end show few clear signs of their bodies, with most of the space given to their heads and tails, and, on the left, a single paw.

What is mildly unusual for Northwest Coast art is that it is asymmetrical, with all three heads both facing the same way, and the right side of the share by two of the heads. The two S-shaped areas in the middle – at least one of which is a tail, and possibly both – also create the optical illusion that one side is shorter than the other. However, which one seems shorter depends on which S-shaped area you focus on, and measurement proves that the two halves are about the same length.

Notice, too, the variation of repeated elements, such as the eyes and pupils of the heads, and the secondary elements that surround the head and eye. Even the teeth vary, with the wolf on the left sporting an incisor and the one on the right none. The small head, by contrast, actually seems to have incisors that curl up In much the same way, the stripes on the tail vary as well. Since contemporary design is asymmetrical, the overall impression is of a modern sensibility, even though all the elements, taken one at a time, are traditional.

Even more unusual is the extraordinary variation in the thickness of the formline, ranging from the thick lines of the wolf snouts and heads to the pen-thickness of the outline of the tail in the middle, and the extreme tapering of some of the secondary elements where they join another line. This variation gives “Wolf Clan” a certain angularity, despite the roundness and the sweeping curves throughout the design. The variety also makes a sense of constrained motion in the design, moving the eye along one line until it catches the next one.

“Wolf Clan” is a small piece but it shows all the strengths of Wayne Young’s work. I have noticed recently that we have a disproportionate amount of Nisga’a works among our purchases, probably because of the bold simplicity that features in that nation’s traditional designs. To that tradition, “Wolf Clan” adds an intricacy that I’m sure will intrigue me for years to come.

wolf-clan-lo-res

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I ride the buses at least as often as I do a private car, so I’m as pleased as anyone with the opening of the new Canada Line on the Skytrain system. But I do wish that when the media or casual conversation mentions the new rapid transit line, they would focus on what matters.

To start with, before anyone praises the fact that the line was opened three months early, let’s remember how that was done. It was done by ruthlessly ignoring the effects of construction on small businesses along the route. Dozens have closed as a result, and some may yet manage to get the compensation they deserve through the courts. And let’s not forget the hiring of foreign workers at sub-standard wages, or the farming of the management of the new line to private industry. If such things are the only way to finish a construction project early, then I think I might prefer delays.

For another, just as when the Millennium Line opened a few years ago, the commentators are babbling about the wonderful view on parts of the line. And it’s true that running seven meters off the ground, Vancouver’s transit lines can offer a better than usual view of the scenery. But, for those of us who will actually be using the line, the wonder of the view will last no more than a few trips. Soon, people will be reading, talking on the phone or fiddling with their music players, just as they always do on a routine trip.

The same is true of the comments made by the would-be architectural critics. What matters for daily travelers is not aesthetics, but practicalities. Are the stations well-lit? Are there enough signs so that people know where they are going? Are the stations safe? Can they accommodate the thousands of people passing through them during rush hour? The answers to all these questions seem mostly positive, although I’m willing to bet that the above ground platforms act like a wind tunnel, just as they do on the other lines. But what everyone seems to be commenting on is how the glass and metal and terra-cotta colored walls make an aesthetic experience.

To someone on transit as often as I am, the scenery and aesthetics soon fade into the background, except in unusual circumstances, such as an unusually vivid sunset. What regular riders like me want to know is something far simpler: Does the new line save us time?

I didn’t ride the line on the first day, when the fares were free. But I did ride it on the second day as I went about my business. So, I’m happy to report that, yes, the new line did save me time – some five to ten minutes compared to the bus when traveling across False Creek from Yaletown to Cambie and Broadway, and maybe twenty minutes total on my entire trip. Better yet, the connections were better than on my old route.

Obviously, how much time you save depends on where you’re going. But, for regulars, that is the real story in the new line – the time saved, and the relative convenience compared to the bus or the car. Most of the rest is background, at least for those who will actually be using the new line. I suppose the new line makes a change from the usual stories straight from the police’s media departments, but, as happens all too often nowadays, in this story the media is missing the point.

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Do you get the sense of history repeating,
Have you made the same mistakes again?
Can’t you see me smiling in the bathroom mirror?
It’s a greeting from the beast within.
– Oysterband, “Walking Down the Road with You”

Over the years, Oysterband has provided some of my more memorable concert experiences. A few days after hearing their rocked-up version of an old Morris song, I heard them in a pack-to-the-limits concert at the Savoy. I’ve heard them shake the mirrors at the Commodore, and, on one especially memorable occasion with June Tabor at the Plaza of Nations, where they ended by covering the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” complete with dry ice. Having missed them last year when they were in town, I wasn’t about to miss them this year.

Saints are drawn to the desert,
Moths to the candle flame,
You know there’s going to be trouble,
But you go there just the same.
– Oysterband, “Meet you there”

Rock (so far as the term has any meaning any more) is supposed to be a young person’s music, but you wouldn’t know that by the band or the crowd. Bass player Chopper (who I persist in thinking of as the new member of the band although he has been playing in it for decades) is solidly into middle-age, and drummer Dil Davies, the real newcomer, is hardly into middle-age at all, but the three originals band members must each be hovering a year or two on either side of sixty. Guitar player Alan Prosser looks leaner than in earlier years, violinist Ian Telfer more like a bearded Scottish sailor than the Presbyterian elder or aging punk of previous visits, while John Jones looked like he dyes his hair, but all of them looked immensely fit and focused. As for the crowd, it varied from ten to seventy year olds, with the median age somewhere in the mid-fifties.

The spirit of a troubled life
Is all I have to give to you,
The simple curse of a wayward life
Is all that I can bring to you.
-Oysterband, “Over the Water”

The first half of the night was dedicated to recent albums. In fact, the first three or four songs songs were the opening tracks of Meet You There, the band’s latest album of new material, which is some of the strongest twenty minutes of folk rock I’ve heard in years. Starting with “Over the Water,” the band quickly moved on to “Meet You There,” “Walking Down the Road with You,” and “Here Comes the Flood,” which I’ve always thought was an apt summary of the band members’ generation of Brits, as well as their free-thinking leftist politics.

I haven’t prayed since God knows when,
My teeth are unAmerican,
Socialism’s orphan child,
Unimpressed, unreconciled,
Some people think I’m crazy, but I’m not:
Here comes the Flood.

– Oysterband, “Here Comes The Flood”

The rest of the fifty minutes was filled out with material from other recent albums, as well as John Jones’ signature song, “Native Son.”

For I was born to tell the truth and run,
Remember me, remember me,
It was all for love, the crazy things I’ve done,
Remember me, I’m still your native son.
-Oysterband, “Native Son”

People were dancing by the third song, and nine out of ten bands (if not ninety-nine of one hundred) would have counted the first set as a success. Oysterband never seems to have forgot that it started thirty years ago as a dance band, because it never fails to orchestrate its playlist, building the energy and alternating fast numbers with just the right number of slow ones, while encouraging the audience to sing the choruses (although, with last night’s partisan crowd, I suspect that the audience could have song all the songs with the band if given the chance).

Maybe we don’t know right from wrong,
Maybe we don’t know what we’re here for,
Maybe it’s time to sing along:
This is an uncommercial song.
-Oysterband, “Uncommercial Song”

However, the first set didn’t quite reach the highest level of energy that the Oysters are capable of, and I suspect that the band was aware of it and spent the interval overhauling its playlist. When the band took over the stage for the second set, its members had plainly come prepared to do battle with their own expectations of themselves. Without waiting to be announced, they launched into Meet You There’s “Dancing as Fast as I Can.”

You can trust in the power of music,
You can trust in the power of prayer,
But it’s only the white of your knuckles
That’s keeping this plane in the air.”
– Oysterband, “Dancing as Fast as I Can”

Then, barely leaving room for applause between songs, it dove into a history of its own career – one inspired, I suspect, by the recent re-recordings of some of its past songs to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary. Much of the material was political and social commentary, and all of it hard-driving musically. Audience participation, already high, rose even higher, orchestrated by a grinning John Jones.

In the middle of a good time,
Truth gave me her icy kiss,
Look around, you must be joking,
All that way for this?
-Oysterband, “All That Way for This”

I seem to remember the energy at previous Oysterband concerts rising even higher than it did last night. But if the first set was more than most groups could aspire to, the second set was one that most couldn’t imagine. By the time the band returned for an acoustic version of “Put Out the Lights,” both the musicians and the crowd were happily exhausted, and more than content to call it a night.

Everywhere that I have been,
Leaves its message on my skin,
So many prophecies and signs,
So little time, so little time.
– Oysterband, “Put Out the Lights”

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I like to say that the secret of writing well is an understanding of structure. This emphasis on structure probably explains why I am quick to pick up on any writer’s tics – the favorite phrases that they overuse, and fall back on for an easy means of expression.

Some tics belong to a group of writers. For instance, in the 1990s, every second fantasy and science fiction writer seemed to use the sentence “He shook his head to clear it.” The subject of the sentence was never “she;” even now, you can find over 7800 instances of the sentences on Google with “he” and none with “she.” It was used to express astonishment, or, sometimes, a change of direction in thought. Never mind that nobody actually shakes their head in either circumstance. For a while, the phrase was so common that for a while you could make an accurate guess about who had been reading whom.

However, more often, tics belong to individual writers. George Orwell, for example, was fond of lists of all sorts. More recently, Harry Turtledove, the alternate history writer whom I read when I want some intelligent light fiction, has shown such an extreme fondness for having characters “Am I wrong?” or some variation that I find myself keeping count as I read. Turtledove is an extremely prolific writer, so some tics are almost inevitable in his work, but the question always seems unidiomatic to me, especially when asked by a Nazi officer or a Roman governor, perhaps because – to my ear – it would sound best when spoken in a New York Jewish accent.

For me, the worst sense of this awareness of tics is that I am always painfully aware of my own. When I speak, I am painfully aware of every “um” that I utter. When I write, the situation is far worse. I have managed to retire a habit I had a decade ago of starting a sentence with “sure” to give informal emphasis, but other habits have crept in to replace it, such as my fondness for “chances are.” I also have an unusual fondness for the dash, because I tend naturally to a digressive style with quick asides and changes of thought.

But my most obvious tic is a fondness for conjunctions. Because I think hard about structure, I want to make sure that how one sentence or paragraph connects to another is obvious to anyone who reads my writing. The result is that my first drafts are peppered with “however”s, “but”s, and “similarly”s. Give me the faintest hint of a list, I’ll trot out “to begin with” or “firstly.” I’m not sure where the habit began, but I suspect that it’s legacy of teaching composition to hundreds of first year university and college students.

Such tics are, in fact, a form of cliche. Especially when writing quickly or in a first draft, almost everybody will reach for their own set of cliches because they are more concerned with a rough expression of their thoughts than precision or choosing their words carefully. And nothing’s wrong with that. Even Shakespeare had his share of tics, including a fondness for “the primrose path.”

But if you’re a writer with any interesting in expressing yourself well, you will become aware of your own tics, and try to vary or severely limit them. For instance, my tendency to conjunctions is so strong that one of the first things I do when revising is to see where the connection between thoughts is so obvious that I can leave out the conjunction. Usually, I can delete forty percent of them or more. The same is true of my dashes to an even greater degree.

I’m also on watch for new tics creeping in. Otherwise, I risk becoming a parody of myself, a set of mannerisms rather than someone expressing any serious or entertaining thought.

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Nine months ago, Linux.com stopped publishing. Four months later, the announcement came that its web address had been bought by the Linux Foundation. The change wasn’t the end of independent news about the free and open source software (FOSS)community, but it has left a gap that is still unfilled. And, although as a ex-stringer for Linux.com, my bias is obvious, I can’t help thinking that the community is poorer for it.

Don’t get me wrong: Under the Linux Foundation, Linux.com is far more of a community site than the old version ever was, and often more imaginative, too. I’ve written the occasional article for the new version of the site, and hope to write more for it in the future. But the Linux Foundation has never pretended to be interested in a news site, and it runs far more how-tos than news stories. When it does run news, it tends to mention the bare facts, and add some off-the-cuff commentary. The new site simply has different priorities from the old.

Other news sites exist, but many of them appear to be limping along on starvation budgets. Most stories on Linux Planet and Linux Today are recycled, with the exception of editorials and blog entries by editor Carl Schroder. Datamation and Linux Pro Magazine publish only a few new stories online each week. The Heise publishes more, but is spotty in its coverage, and rarely has stories of more than five hundred words. The most consistent producer of new stories is LWN, and its stories are handicapped by the fact that the site publishes its main edition weekly, which means that its in-depth coverage tends to be confined to ongoing rather than breaking news.

Possibly, I’ve missed one or two sites. Also, some blogs or planets provide news and insightful commentary in their own limited subject matter. Yet the fact remains: the FOSS community has less independent news than it had a year ago.

No doubt some people in the community are hardly aware of the fact. They are busy with their own projects and jobs, and have only a passing interest in what is happening in the rest of the community. Still, from the countless comments I’ve had from people who assume that I’ve disappeared, the old Linux.com was where much of the community went to be informed, and they haven’t moved to the other news sites (if they had, they would know where I’ve been, because I’ve written for most of the other sites in the last nine months).

This lack of news concerns me – and not just as a writer who might benefit if the situation changed. The FOSS community is a complex, quickly changing place, and reliable sources of information can help it to function. Although news sites cannot cover everything, and their selection of what to cover may mean that some events are omitted or under-emphasized, they make the effort of keeping informed much easier for each of their readers. Without news sites, keeping informed requires much more effort. In effect, the sites make the effort for all their readers.

Nor is that a bad thing, so long as the sites make good faith efforts to be thorough and uphold journalistic integrity. If they sometimes make mistakes, they will also publish followups. If they publish a commentary expressing one side of a controversial subject, the next week they may publish another commentary that gives the other side. Although individual articles may fail to meet the highest standards, the overall result of having news site is a better informed community – and an informed community, of course, is essential for the proper functioning of a democratic, grassroots organization like FOSS.

Theoretically, blogs could fill the current gap in news sites. And, in practice, that is where many community members are probably turning. But, while I have nothing against blogs (obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing one), they are only a partial substitute for a news site with journalistic standards.

Blogs can announce news, and comment on it. However, with few exceptions, their writers are less likely than journalists to investigate news, or attempt to balance their sources. Most blogs tend to be short on detail, and to miss nuance. All too easily, they serve to repeat rumors and half-truths that a journalist is more likely to investigate and debunk as necessary. Few bloggers even attempt to uphold journalistic standards, which means that you frequently have to be familiar with the blogger’s previous works before knowing if they are a trustworthy source of information. As flawed as journalism often is, at its best, it holds to higher standards than bloggers and is more reliable overall.

As both a reader and a journalist, I would like to see the gap in FOSS news site filled. The question is, how is that possible? So long as they are under budgetary restraints, the remnant news sites are unlikely to increase their coverage. A group of writers might start a new site, but they would need to have other income while they built audience and revenue. Could an investor or a philanthropist help without compromising the independence of a new site?

The question has no easy answer. However, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that finding any answer is important.

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Yesterday, I was talking with the owner of a Northwest Coast gallery when an artist entered carrying an unprotected mask. I instinctively moved away, partly because I could see that the artist was going to try to sell the mask and business needs privacy, but mainly because I knew that he wasn’t going to succeed, and probably wouldn’t want obvious witnesses to his failure.

He was far from the first artist I’ve seen arriving unannounced to sell work. If you hang around galleries as often as I do, you’re bound to see a similar scene sooner or later. It’s frequently a painful scene, because few artists know how to sell their own work. They are nervous and embarrassed, but determined to plunge ahead with the effort.

Their uneasiness reminds me of a singer whose concerts I used to attend, who would grimace to himself if his singing was the least bit off true; in the same way that I used to sympathize deeply with the singer, I sympathize with the artists and their deep discomfort as they try to do something for which they have no talent.

Another reason I sympathize with the artists is that they are almost certainly preparing for failure. While I can’t pretend to understand all the details about how business is done in the Northwest Coast art world, I do know enough to know that only well-established artists can drop by unannounced and have any hope of selling their work or placing it on consignment. Most artists need to make an appointment – and, these days, spend some time exchanging emails and photos of their work, as often as not. Someone who arrives unannounced will have no idea whether the gallery is buying, or even whether a buyer for the gallery is available. For these reasons, they may very likely have wasted their time.

But yesterday’s artist had the odds more stacked against him than most. I could see his mask, and even from a five or six meters away, I could see that its quality was too low for any gallery to buy it. He might be able to sell it on the street, the way that one artist has been selling similar masks this summer outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, but the mask simply wasn’t good enough. All too clearly, the artist didn’t have the proper tools, or else didn’t know how to use them. The mask was roughly finished, front and back, and no amount of paint could hide the fact.

Under the circumstances, the gallery owner was gentle. Perhaps, being an artist himself, he could sympathize with the visitor. Instead of commenting on the quality of the mask, he made a non-committal comment, and simply said that he was not buying right now. Then he talked with the artist awhile, joking that, because of his Hawaiian shirt, he must be a Kanaka, then – when the artist was apparently too lost in his own anxieties to get the joke – exchanging nations. I could guess from the look at the artist’s face that this was not his first rejection of the day, but he responded to the gallery owner’s efforts to draw him almost against his will. Meanwhile, I watch while pretending not to watch, and found identifying with the artist all too easy.

The encounter was over in less than five minutes. But I found it hard to forget. I came away with respect for the gallery owner’s courtesy, and a profound gratitude that I hadn’t been the one to turn the artist down. I probably would have agonized over rejecting the artist, or even bought the mask – unsellable as it was – out of sympathy. In the end, I was very glad that I was just a spectator.

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