Archive for January, 2010

The first piece an artist does in any medium is frequently a labor of love. The artist has poured all their ability into the piece, and, even if the work is flawed, you can often tell the artist’s quality and interests from it. It was with these thoughts in mind that I jumped at the chance to buy Colin Morrison’s “Naxnox” which, as he wrote on its inside, is his “first mask ever.”

Even so, I was lucky to get it. A picture of the mask sent out in early December received a dozen replies within twenty-four hours, including eight or nine from galleries. This level of interest in an unknown artist’s work, especially at a time of year when sales are difficult, tells you all you need to know about the quality, even if you can’t judge it for yourself. It is a level of interest that, in fact, is almost unheard of.

The design is arresting to the casual eye for a number of reasons, starting with the contrast between the black and red and the thickness of their lines, and continuing with the unpainted nostrils and the ovoid in the middle of the forehead like a supernatural third eye. On the right, the mask looks dark and brooding; on the left, carnal and scowling. The result is a mask with an unusual degree of presence.

In terms of the northern school, the mask is even more interesting because it seems both traditional and contemporary at the same time. On the one hand, the shape of the mask is a standard one in Tsimshian art. The painting across the face without regard for individual features is also common in the northern schools. On the other hand, I have never seen paint applied in such an angular slash across the face to create such an asymmetrical, modern effect. You might almost say that the traditional and contemporary are at war across the mask – a suggestion of conflict that contributes to the strong sense of presence.

This sense of conflict seems especially apt when I remember Morrison’s description of his own background: “I’ve learnt as much as I could about traditional life as I could, but I feel as if I don’t know as much as the elders. I know a little more then the next guy, but not a lot. Most of what I learnt, came from books, my granny, and uncle. I don’t know a lot of my Sm’algyax, but some words I do know. I don’t dance, and don’t sing. I’m getting a Sm’algyax name when we have a feast, but I have been waiting for years for it to happen.”

Traditionally, naxnox was used to refer to the masks and regalia used in ceremonies. In Tsimshian languages like Sm’algyax (Coast Tsimshian), naxnox means “beyond human understanding.” Or, if you prefer, you might translate the word as “supernatural” or “spiritual.” Such works were often concealed when not being used, and, should they not be treated with the proper respect, were capable of extracting revenge.

Obviously, Morrison’s mask is not naxnox in the literal sense, since it is meant to hang on a wall rather than being danced. Yet, metaphorically, the name seems to suit the mask’s presence and its mixture of the traditional and modern.

I wonder: Could the meaning be extended to mean “psychological?” Or, more to the point, could it cover the latent power revealed in a first work? Although I’m not a linguist, I like to think that it could. Because, however you regard it, “Naxnox,” like Morrison’s “The Spirit of the Wolf,” is a work that holds great potential for Morrison’s future career.

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I have an embarrassing confession: I almost never watch television. It’s nothing I decided or planned – it just happened — but it’s probably the most socially awkward thing about me.

Part of my embarrassment is that I am always missing half of what people are talking about. If everyone is watching a popular show, or a notorious commercial is making the rounds, I wouldn’t know. I can only gather indirect hints, because I am unlikely to actually witness what everyone is talking about.

Another part of my embarrassment is that nobody can process the fact that I don’t watch television. Just as people can’t believe that I really don’t drink coffee (which is another faux pas of mine), so they can’t believe that I don’t watch TV. I must have seen something, I’m always being told – everybody’s seen it. Or surely, I must at least watch the news. And what do I mean, we disconnected the cable because we never used it?

Nobody can accept that the average person watches more scheduled television in an evening than I do in half a year. I can tell that most people are humoring me, thinking that I am being perverse or joking, or trying to make some obscure point.

That brings up the greatest reason for my embarrassment: When I do get through to people, they usually assume that I’m being an intellectual snob – one of those people who establish their mental superiority by claiming to disdain TV fare, or a latter day disciple of Neil Postman, who refers to television as “the boob tube” and believes that it makes people stupid.

I wince at being lumped in with these snobs because I find them pretentious, lacking in anything but received taste, and not knowing if a show is bad or good unless someone else tells them.

Besides, I’m hardly one to suggest that only high culture is worth having. I’m no stranger to high culture, and I enjoy parts of it, but I also think that some of it is over-rated and trite. And I mean, I did do my thesis on a science fiction writer. I also believe that the graphic novel is a serious art form. With such opinions, I am far from likely to look down on TV.

Admittedly, I don’t care for commercials. I consider them the enemy of drama, breaking up the mood and twisting the story into unnatural shapes. But that’s hardly a judgment on the quality of the shows. When a season of show comes out on DVD, I frequently buy it.

The truth is, I simply got out of the habit of watching scheduled shows. When I first moved out of my parents’ house, I didn’t have a television, so I filled my evenings in other ways. Later, as a student and an instructor and a freelance consultant, I have kept irregular hours through much of my adult life, often working into the evening rather than relaxing.

As a result, even when I hear of a show that might be worth watching, I almost always forget about it until after its aired. I’m just not used to thinking about television, which is why so often I suddenly find – as now – it’s been eighteen months since I watched a regularly scheduled show.

But don’t imagine that I’m proud of the record, or putting you down if you watch four hours a night.

I’ve just been busy, that’s all.

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I love science fiction and fantasy. They were the bulk of my reading in childhood, and they are still a sizable chunk of my fiction reading. When I go to a movie, it is almost always science fiction or fantasy. In young adulthood, I even went to conventions, although I was never much into fandom. Yet I have a confession that I will be lucky to make without being flamed and receiving death-threats: I’ve never warmed to Star Trek. I much prefer Doctor Who, that other long-running series.

My distaste for Star Trek began with the original series, and has remained largely unchanged in all the subsequent incarnations and movies. With a few exceptions, the scripts are primitive by print standards, with plots barely a step above the pulps of the 1930s and heavy-handed humor. In later incarnations, the quality of the scripts is sometimes hidden by a quotation or reference, but these are like gingerbread along the roof line of a Victorian house – non-functional decoration that fails to fit into anything around it. Mostly, they seem heavy-handed or gimmicky, such as having Stephen Hawking play himself.

As for the characters, how anyone can believe the pudgy and sententious James Kirk as an action hero or a leader is beyond me. Nor am I enthralled by the one-dimensional Spock, whom I suspect must have suffered regular wedgies outside his locker at the Academy. True, Patrick Stewart deserves credit for delivering the clumsy lines that were dumped upon him with some degree of conviction, but he is the only one of the supernumeraries and re-treads who deserves any respect.

But the real problem for me is the military gloss and doctrine of American liberal expansionism that runs through all the series, despite some recent efforts at revisionism. For all the change of costumes, the Star Trek universe has not progressed far beyond the John F. Kennedy era in which it was conceived: The rest of the world (or the universe) needs fixing, and Americans (or humans) are just the ones to do so – for everyone’s own good, of course, but with a firm hand if necessary. This connection is so close that the first series even had an episode in which Kirk encountered a post-holocaust duplicate of the United States, which he helped to put on track by reciting the American Declaration of Independence. Much of the time, Star Trek is all too ponderously self-important for me to take seriously for a moment.

But Doctor Who – that series is everything that Star Trek is not. Even limited as it was by being a TV serial for children for much of its run, Doctor Who has consistently shown more imagination than anything on Star Trek. Whoever invented the silly yet frightening Daleks was a borderline genius – they are frightening even to adults precisely because they are silly. As for the fact that The Doctor periodically regenerates into someone entirely different, that may have been a plot element introduced to explain the change in actors, but it’s an ingenious example of turning a liability into an asset.

Yes, Doctor Who has had its share of weak scripts and poor production values. But what has been surprising is how often, despite the cheap sets, the scripts have managed to be interesting, thoughtful, and even provocative. That is especially true of the modern revival under the direction of Russell T. Davies, which has maintained a level of excellence unparalleled in science fiction TV, and often turned the storyline into a critique of the series itself. But before everything else, Doctor Who has always been about character – not just about the anarchic and eccentric Doctor himself, but about those around him as well. It’s a subtlety that Star Trek’s producers rarely understand.

I have sometimes heard people suggest that Doctor Who captures the spirit of post-empire England, compared to Star Trek‘s echoes of the jingoistic American Empire. I suspect that may be true, but, whatever its origins, the spirit of Doctor Who is far more appealing than Star Trek‘s.

For me, the difference was captured in one episode a couple of decades ago when his arch-enemy The Master invited him to assist in conquering the galaxy. “But I don’t want to conquer the galaxy,” The Doctor replied (or something very similar). “I just want to see it.”

Essentially, Doctor Who is a humanistic view of the cosmos. And while in Star Trek, The Prime Directive seems like a marketing gloss on an essentially militaristic outlook, The Doctor’s ethos suffers from no such contradiction, being consistent all the way through. It is an ethos of loyalty, of being engaged, and of trying despite trauma and odds. Always, it is a story of individuals against bureaucrats and hierarchy — a story that Star Trek could only match if it was about a group of aliens resisting the encroachment of The Federation.

But, just to keep this mix from being too grim, there is always a flamboyant self-mockery in the central figure, from the recorder of the Patrick Troughton Doctor to the scarf of Tom Baker and the verbal free association of David Tennant. Brooding, mecurial, and brilliant, The Doctor in all his incarnations has a complexity that Kirk, Spock, Picard and the others can never match, for all their detailed back stories.

No, give me Doctor Who over Star Trek any day. For me, Star Trek is just cardboard characters moving dully against a rote background. I’ll watch it occasionally, but I have less and less time for it as I grow older. But Doctor Who fires my imagination, remaining fresh where Star Trek long ago went stale.

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Several times in the last few months, I’ve closed discussion on one of my blogs. Each time, some people have howled in outrage. Their anger makes them nearly inarticulate, but their position is apparently that I have no right to stop discussion. I am an enemy of free speech, they proclaim, a censor and cowardly, and downright evil as well.

I don’t see that, myself.

For one thing, free speech is not an absolute right, even if you believe that it should be. It is limited by laws against libel, hate-crimes, and terrorism, among others. Nor can you invoke free speech as a defense against mischief.

Admittedly, violations of these laws appear dozens of time each day on the Internet, and most of them are not prosecuted unless someone complains. Even in 2010, the Internet retains more of a frontier unruliness than other forms of media. But the point is that idea that free speech is unlimited is disproved with a moment’s thought.

Moreover, in each of these cases, some of these limits seemed to apply. Whether they actually would have been grounds for legal actions, I can’t say, of course. However, I think that erring on the side of caution is reasonable, especially since at least one determined commenter seems to have been required to close down his own blog.

At any rate, I have no desire to be involved, however indirectly, in a court action. And, in the case of one blog, I would be irresponsible if I exposed the company that owns the site to litigation. These motivations are not a matter of courage so much as caution. If I am going to be dragged into a legal action, it is going to be for something worth fighting for, and not because I provided a forum for the indiscreet and feckless.

However, my strongest motivation was that I simply lacked the time to either police my blog every half hour or to enter into discussions that were unfolding in which, so far as I can see, there was little to distinguish one set of claims from another.

I have been writing about free and open source software for five years now, and I have gained a limited amount of recognition. That recognition is not on the scale of a Linus Torvalds’ or a Richard Stallmans’, but it does mean that I get a lot of email and other contacts – so much that I can only answer some of it if I hope to get any writing done. Unless I am contacted by a friend or an unusually interesting stranger, I generally try to limit an exchange to a couple of communications.

I don’t always follow this rule strictly, but when someone is repetitive, abusive, and fails to address what I have to say, I am sure to apply it. By nature, I am easy-going and love to talk, but trying to hold a discussion with such people leaves a deadening feeling of futility. They are not going to sway me by bludgeoning tactics, and all too clearly, I am not going to convince them in a discussion. So why should I waste my time? A couple of exchanges is enough for them to have a say, and for me to know the type of people with whom I am dealing.

In other words, I choose to focus on the people who are interesting to have in a discussion, and/or can teach me something. So far as I’m concerned, declining to spend much time on the obsessive is not censorship, any more than refusing to publish bad writers in an anthology you are editing is censorship. It’s selection, plain and simple. i am hardly the only person I know who has to resort to this kind of selection in order to do what’s important to them, either.

Nor can I navigate the rights and wrongs of the feud that, in a couple of cases, is the reason for me shutting down comments. Both sides accuse the other of criminal behavior, and both sides claim to present evidence. However, all I can tell for sure is that I don’t want to be involved. Being hectored, abused, and threatened two or three times a day makes me even less likely to want to get involved; attempts to intimidate only make me stubborn, and, when people act like spammers, I treat them like spammers.

At any rate, to talk about censorship on the Internet is more of a rhetorical flourish than a reference to reality. If I refuse to post someone’s comments, that’s two out of – what? Several billion sites? If a commenter can’t find a place to publish what I won’t, they aren’t trying.

Under all these circumstances, you’ll excuse me if I find myself unmoved by the accusations when I close comments. I don’t do so quickly or easily, because I value freedom of expression myself. But I do so to create a space to work, and so I can focus on what’s important.

The peace of mind that results tells me, more than anything else, that I am doing the right thing.

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“It’s not personal. I’m just saying what needs to be said.”

In the last few months, I’ve been hearing this statement frequently, or at least variations on it: Twice from people who are trying to jump start their own journalism careers by attacking me, and more recently from both sides of various online vendettas. And every time I hear it, I’m curious about how the people involved can say it.

Not, you understand, that I believe such comments for a second. When people focus on someone and attack them obsessively, claims that the attacks are impersonal quickly become unbelievable. Ditto for viciousness that is out of all proportion to the overt subject matter. A couple of people making this claim even made it immediately after explaining why the situation was personal, apparently never noticing the contradiction.

However, I do wonder why they even try to make a claim that so obviously fails to fit easily available evidence.

The most convenient answer would be that they are deliberately lying. Yet I hesitate to accept it, because to do so feels like evoking an explanatory principle to stop the discussion – like saying that opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle. All you are really saying is that they are lying because they are lying. And my impression is that none of the people who make the claim are consciously lying.

Or, possibly, some of them are lying to themselves first, convincing themselves of the righteousness of their position before persuading anyone else. This tactic would allow them to make the claim of impersonality with utter conviction. At the same time, lying to themselves would let them ignore any evidence in their own behavior or words that contradicts the claim.

In other cases, denying personal motivations seems like a deliberate effort to elevate their words and actions. After all, in our culture, impersonal motivations are considered the only ones to legitimately act upon. Even in this post-modern age of doubts, to claim objectivity is also to covertly claim the highest of motives – to claim nothing less than you are acting like a scientist, that modern icon of impersonal reasoning.

By contrast, admit that you are attacking someone because you are jealous or because they made a comment that hit too close to home for you, and you might as well admit that your argument lacks validity. The first admission will be automatically equated with the second. Far better to claim a dedication to truth, or at least to disinterested criticism than to acknowledge that grubby bits of spite might be powering our actions.

Also, of course, if you stake the first claim of objectivity, you exclude your opponent from making a similar claim, casting them into the nether darkness of subjectivity, and all the evils that lurk within it.

Yet, even while I make this supposition, I wonder how such a claim can be sustained. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I try to make such a claim (and most of us do, at some time or the other), I am distracted by nagging doubts just beneath the level of consciousness. I start to notice that my actions and words are odds with the claim, and the claim soon collapses. Increasingly as I age, I find it mentally easier not to make such claims and suffer the embarrassment (if only privately) of backing down or continuing to assert what I no longer believe.

Could that explain the viciousness that often accompanies the claim? Could its makers be sensing the instability of their claim, and, instead of abandoning it, defending it as hard as they can? Are they, in fact, in denial?

I hope so, because otherwise I will have to admit that I don’t know people at all (a distinct possibility, I admit). All I really know for sure is that, when someone says that their behavior isn’t personal, you can be confident that it is not only personal, but deeply so.

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I first crossed paths with John Paul Wilson a year ago. Another artist wanted to send me pictures, and John agreed to take and send them. Since then, we have been in touch once or twice a week, and I have enjoyed watching his art move from promising to a first maturity. It is hardly surprising, then, that “Summer Moon Maskette” was under our Christmas tree this year.

The moon is a popular subject in Northwest Coast art. So far as I know, the moon is nobody’s crest, so the question of having permission to use it never arises. Perhaps just as importantly, it is a subject that requires no special knowledge of mythology to appreciate. Wilson himself describes the moon as one of his favorite subjects, and, if you look at his Flickr site, you can see several different ways that he has approached it.

What makes “Summer Moon Maskette” stand out is its simplicity. It has no complicated design, and no red, the second most important color in the northern style. Even the black paint is applied sparingly, being confined to the mouth, nostrils, and eyebrows, and not to the pupils.

This simplicity means that the piece’s carving stands out more than usual. Wilson has responded to this situation by carving with more realism than usual. He has shaped the mouth more, and made the nose fuller than usual on the sides. He has also given close attention to the cheekbones and the area where the nose, eyes, and eyebrows meet.

However, what really makes “Summer Moon Maskette” stand out is the eyes. Slanted, with an inner fold and no pupils, they are very different from most eyes in the northern style – so much so that I almost wonder if they are a portrait. They seem to be closed, suggesting a sleepiness that is appropriate to a hot summer night.

Another result of the simplicity is that, after the paint, most of what catches your eyes is the grain. Wilson has always excelled in sanding the grain until it conforms with the contours of his carving, but “Summer Moon Maskette” is an especially fine example of this practice. For example, if you look, you can see how the grain conforms to the line of the cheekbones and the forehead, or the hollow beneath the eyes. The effect is almost hypnotic in itself, relieved only by a small imperfection which is confined to the chin – and which is also a relief after your eye has been following the apparently billowing lines of the grain.

This simplicity is an indication of how far Wilson has advanced in his art. A less experienced artist would be tempted to tart up the mask with abalone or copper. By contrast, Wilson lets the maskette speak for itself, which makes it all the more powerful. That is a risky approach, but the fact Wilson succeeds is a measure of his advancing skill and confidence.

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When the news came that Vancouver would be hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, I was jogging down from the Stadium-Chinatown Skytrain station to the Yaletown office where I was working. I didn’t hear the announcement, but I heard a cheer go up from the offices on all sounds of me.

Personally, I was surprised. At that point, I had no strong feelings about the Olympics one way or the other. But I had thought that the logistical problems of keeping people moving along the road between Vancouver and Whistler would prevent the bid from being successful. Even more importantly, my own contact with the bid committee hadn’t impressed me much.

About six months earlier, I had applied for a job as a writer on the bid. It wasn’t a position that strongly interested me, but I thought it worth a hour or two of my time to satisfy my curiosity. So, I duly strapped myself into my interview suit, stripped any obvious signs of eccentricity from my person, and presented myself at the Gastown office of the bid committee.

I was interviewed by two women who I quickly classified as marketing and communication workers. That isn’t prejudice; I’ve done similar work myself, after all. But, after a while, you get to know the signs. The two women talked in generalities, and displayed an artificial optimism and enthusiasm at all times. Somehow, I couldn’t imagine them taking part in a casual Friday.

Mostly, the conversation went well enough, so far as conversations during a job interview can ever be said to go well. But when I asked about how the logistical problems might be overcome, the women’s reply boiled down to, “Somehow, everything will work out..” I could also see that, in their minds (and probably on their clipboards), I had set a black mark against my name. That was all right; their replies had cost them points with me, too.

However, two other points were what really disturbed me. First, they said that working on the bid committee would be no guarantee of a continued job if the bid was successful. Since I was sure that the leaders of the committee would land jobs in Vanoc, that seems a lack of loyalty to staff members.

Secondly, as part of the interview, they asked me to go home and write seven or eight pages on how I would promote the Olympics. That is a considerable effort to ask someone to do on spec. Combined with the lack of a guarantee of continuation, I concluded that the request showed a cavalier attitude towards employees. I thought for a couple of days, then phoned the interviewers to say that I would not be responding to their request and that the job no longer interested me.

I have no idea whether those particular women found work with Vanoc. I no longer even remember their names. But it seems to me that their attitudes are echoed in everything I’ve heard from Vanoc ever since, from the feeling that problems would work themselves out to the assumption that local residents will put their lives on hold for the duration of the games next month.

It is not an echo that promotes happy thoughts about how the games will be organized and what the after-effects will be. Frankly, it has kept me from supporting the games ever since. I might talk about the financial and social costs, but behind them is an emotional core of distrust based on this one brief encounter.

This attitude puzzles people from outside the Vancouver area. When I was in Calgary last spring, people were surprised by my lack of enthusiasm. Remembering the Calgary games twenty years and the very different social attitudes in which they took place, everyone assumed that I must be looking forward to the occasion. They were surprised by my lack of enthusiasm, even when I explained my reasons. I’m not sure they ever did understand.

However, I don’t think my attitude is unique in anything other than its origins. No doubt it’s the company I keep, but I’ve found that only one in four – or thereabouts – actually supports the upcoming games. The intial cheering at the news of the bid just doesn’t seem to have lasted.

In fact, I’ve only found one person who defended the games with any passion, and her criticisms were bizarre – she argued that nobody who objected or even questioned the games should use the newly improved highway to Whistler (never mind that she also insisted on the official line that such improvements were not part of the costs of the games). But of eight or nine people in the store, nobody felt like taking her side in the discussion.

Maybe more people will show enthusiasm as the games approach, but, I don’t expect that most people will. The average person in the Vancouver region seems resigned to the games, largely indifferent and if anything mildly hostile, although you wouldn’t know that from the media.

You might say that, for most of us, 2010 will be divided into two parts: enduring the preparations and the games themselves, and the rest of the year. And, like most people, I find myself looking forward to the rest of the year far more than the preparations and the games. If I became dubious earlier than others, it is because I was exposed to the spirit of the games earlier than others.

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