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Archive for March, 2010

Today is Document Freedom Day, a promotion of non-proprietary standards like Open Document Format. Around the world, small groups of free and open source software (FOSS)users are holding events to educate others about the importance of this issue, and The Free Software Foundation has launched a campaign to encourage supporters to politely refuse attachments sent in proprietary formats like Microsoft Office’s. And, inevitably some people are saying these efforts are useless – and proving that they miss the point.

In circumstances like these, the critics’ usual argument goes something like this: Campaigning against something does nothing to stop people using it. They say that a street protest against Apple’s so-called Digital Rights Management technology will do nothing to stop the sales of iPads. Nor will promoting Open Document Format stop the majority from using Microsoft’s .docx format. So, they ask, why bother to take a stand?

Perhaps in the narrowest sense, they have a point. Document Freedom Day will not stop large number of users from entrusting their documents to Microsoft Office formats. Nor will very many switch to Koffice, OpenOffice.org, or any other office application that uses Open Document Format.

However, what the critics fail to appreciate is that ultimate success is not what these promotions and campaigns are really about. Yes, their organizers talk as though persuading everybody to their cause is the point, but they are neither stupid or naive. If you press them, they will admit that they do not really expect that millions of computer users will suddenly flock to their side.

So what is the point? I can think of at least three:

First, while such campaigns do not win millions of supporters, they can win dozens. Each time FOSS advocates staff a table on a university campus, or hand out pamphlets on the street, a few people stop to ask questions and become convinced. Others may not immediately support the cause, but they at least learn (often for the first time) that alternatives exist. Even if they are not ripe for switching to free software today, they may grow more critical of proprietary software and eventually start investigating free software some time in the future. These are the kinds of small victories by which FOSS has always spread, and they should not be overlooked.

Second, these campaigns are a way of encouraging existing supporters. When you hold a minority viewpoint, you get tired of seeing opposing views around you. You become accustomed to holding your tongue because you don’t want to bore your friends. You don’t want a reputation as an obsessive who is more concerned with what others consider side-issues than with getting on with the task at hand. When you are accustomed to restraining yourself, standing up and expressing what you actually think and feel is a refreshing relief. Doing so reaffirms your beliefs, and renews your commitment over the long-haul. In a sense, these campaigns are celebrations of the existing community – a way of keeping existing supporters as much as gaining new ones.

However, even if the campaigns had no other purpose, they would still be worthwhile in the same way that spoiling your ballot or voting for a minority party in an election is worthwhile.

In this sense, I am reminded how Tommy Douglas, the founder of universal medical coverage in Canada, explained why he stood by his social democratic beliefs when most of them had no chance of being widely accepted:

You say the little efforts that I make will do no good; they never will prevail to tip the hovering scale where justice hangs in balance. I don’t think I ever thought they would, but I am prejudiced beyond debate in favor of my right to choose which side shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

In other words, sometimes you need to stand up for what you know is right, regardless of consequences, simply out of self-respect. Campaigns like Document Freedom Day give the opportunity for such self-reaffirmation, and I would support them for that reason alone, even if more practical reasons did not exist as well.

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A few moments ago, I changed the flapper tank ball on the toilet. That would be an unpromising beginning for a blog entry, except for the unwarranted satisfaction I took from the job. Not that the repair needed a plumber, but I grew up thinking that I wasn’t the least bit handy. The fact that I am now in any way competent at home repairs I attribute largely to over a decade of using free and open source software.

So far as I remember, nobody ever told me I was clumsy in so many works as I was growing up. But, with one thing and another, I certainly received that impression. For one thing, I am left-handed, and, while like many lefties, I am necessarily more ambidextrous than the rest of the population, to the average eye, I looked clumsy. More importantly, I usually had to reverse any demonstrations I was given, an effort that few young children can successfully make, no matter how bright they happen to be. Consequently, I was a long time learning to tie my shoes or swim – which only justified everybody thinking me clumsy – including me.

Probably, I wasn’t helped, either by the fact that I tried to compensate for my clumsiness by being energetic and aggressive when I played sports. These traits gave me a rough and ready ability, but I wasn’t initially chosen for the school soccer team in Grade Six, or as one of the Saturday morning players tapped for going into the premier division a few years later. I only learned the skills a soccer player needs to control the ball or work with a team a few years later.

Besides, I was bookish and liked academic subjects in school. Naturally I wasn’t supposed to have any physical skills as well. That would have been against all the laws of stereotyping.

Consequently, between one thing or another, I grew up thinking myself uncoordinated – a self image that, unsurprisingly, often made me just that. Whenever I tried anything new, I expected to do it poorly, so often I did.
Once, when I called myself a slow learner, a teacher replied, “Yeah, but I bet than when you do learn, you don’t forget it.” But that was not much compensation.

It was only when I became a university instructor and later a technical writer that I realized another source of my clumsiness: Most people are terrible teachers, even when they teach for a living. Few have the patience to work with beginners. Even fewer can remember the days when they were beginners. Inevitably, they leave out important steps when they try to instruct, or fail to mention what to do in unusual circumstances. Probably, the main reason why I taught English and wrote manuals successfully is that I tried to give students and users the instructions that I would need myself.

But the real revelation came as I started using GNU/Linux as my main operating system. Like everybody else, using Windows had taught me how to be helpless. The default resources discouraged me from exploring Windows, and the information I needed was mostly lacking.

GNU/Linux, though, is different. It is designed for users to poke about and configure. If you run into trouble, help is only an Internet search away.

Without making any conscious decision, or being aware of what was happening, slowly I started to learn how to troubleshoot. I learned that very little I could do would harm my installation, much less cause the motherboard to belch flames, as I half-feared. All I had to do was observe, take a few precautions, and work systematically, and I could do far more than I had ever imagined when I was a Windows user.

Gradually, I transferred this same mind-set to other parts of my life. To my surprise, I found that it was usually just as applicable to home repairs as those on the computer.

I won’t say that I have any particular talent for handiwork. But, somewhere along the line, I stopped thinking of myself as clumsy. I no longer approach every new physical task with the expectation of failure, and, far more often than not, I succeed at it. Even on those occasions when a real expert is needed, I often understand what the problem is . A surprising amount of the time, I just lack the tools or the parts to do the job myself.

This personal change is one of the biggest reasons that I am committed to free software. Using Windows only reinforced my belief in my own incompetence at fixing or improving things. By contrast, free software proved to my that I was capable of far more than I had ever imagined.

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The more I learn about Northwest Coast art, the more the term “totem pole” bothers me. For years, I’ve been looking for a better term, and now I think I’ve found a couple.

“Totem pole” bothers me for two reasons. To start with, despite what the Europeans believed when they reached the northwest coast of North America, the artifacts that the term refers to are not totems. A totem is a supernatural guardian of a group of people, often their mythological ancestor – a minor deity comparable to the local spirits of the ancient Greeks. However, so-called totem poles classically did not depict totems, but hereditary crests and the occasional allusion to both historical and mythical accounts of the family that uses the crest.

In other words, when the European settlers destroyed the artifacts in the belief that they were destroying false gods, what they were really doing was the equivalent of smashing and defacing the coats of arms depicted on government buildings and the houses of the rich in Europe.

In addition, the popular term has also given rise the idiomatic expression “low man on the totem pole.” This expression suggests that the most important figures were always at the top, when, in reality, no such convention in Northwest cultures. In fact, in some cultures, such as the Tsimshian, the most important figure was placed on the bottom, and figures of secondary importance at the top, according to master carver Henry Green.

You could use “crest pole” instead, as I have occasionally seen. But the trouble is, I also object to the word “pole.” True, “pole” is technically accurate, being a word that describes a round object made of wood, and it is often used today in place of “totem pole.” However, it greatly understates the magnificence of many of the artifacts to which it is applied. You might as well call the Arc de Triomphe a gateway or a slab.

My first hint of an alternative came when Henry Green referred to a pole he is doing using the Sm’algyax (Coast Tsimshian) word “pts’aan.” Seeing this word was a bit of a revelation, because I realized that I had never heard the word in any First Nations language for a pole. It seems to me that, if we are starting to use the original name of cities and countries, pronouncing the capital of France as “Paree” instead of “Paris” and using “Suomi” instead of “Finland,” then we might also consider using the proper names for important cultural institutions and artifacts.

Apparently, though, “pts’aan” has an even more exact meaning. According to Green, it refers specifically to a pole that is hollowed out and flattened at the back. By contrast, a pole that is left fully rounded is a “k’an.”

Seeing these words, I asked Green what he might suggest for an English translation (assuming that we need one). He emailed back, referring to both a pts’aan and a k’an as columns. Perhaps you could call a pts’aan a half-column and a k’an a column in English? If other Northwest Coast cultures have additional terms, then “column” could be further qualified as needed.

This change of terms, I think, could have a powerful effect on how the Northwest Coast cultures are regarded. Regardless of whether you refer to a totem pole, a crest pole, or just a pole, a pole sounds like a simple, utilitarian object. A pole, after all, is something you use for fishing, or to hang a light from.

However, call a pts’aan or k’an a column, and you are making it the equal of Trajan’s Column or Nelson’s Column. Suddenly, by using “column” instead of “pole,” you realize that you are talking about an object of major importance to its culture – something that required considerable effort and artistic skill to create, and celebrates something important. You are forced to confront the fact that the cultures that made such things are not primitive (assuming that this word actually refers to anything these days), but as complex and as rich as any in Europe. Just by changing the word, your entire perspective changes.

Probably, “totem pole” is too entrenched to be replaced easily. However, I am seriously thinking of trying to promote the use of “column” as a replacement. It simply seems more accurate and precise.

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Yesterday in a local gallery, I saw a Northwest Coast mask selling for $22,000. The price surprised me, because, ordinarily, only a recognized master could ask this sort of price. However, the carver was an artist I would characterize as an experienced journeyman – someone known for his skill an with a growing celebrity, but lacking the years and a sufficient body of work to be considered a master.

Tentatively and politely, I suggested to a gallery employee that the mask was over-priced. I was told that the carver had originally planned on asking for even more.

This was not the first time I have seen artists asking higher prices than their reputation would justify, and it never fails to arouse mixed feelings in me.

On the one hand, an artist’s ability to command a price is not tied absolutely to their reputation. If an artist can find someone to buy at what I consider an inflated price, then in the most basic sense, that is all the justification the price.

Moreover, why shouldn’t artists get the best price they can? The typical Northwest Coast artist starts by selling so cheaply that the price hardly repays the price of their labor. Part of me argues that, after years of underselling their work to keep the gallery system going, artists deserve a little bit of compensation later in their careers (although, personally, I’d like to see fairer prices for newer artists).

On the other hand, the hierarchy of prices is well-established for Northwest Coast masks. New artists’ work usually sells for less than $1500, usually with 40-60% of the retail price going to the artist. As artists become better known, their prices gradually rise, although the size of a mask and its finishing details can also affect the price. When their prices hit about $4000 for an average-sized mask, you know that the artists are starting to be respected. When the prices rise to $6,000-$8000, you know you are dealing with well-respected artists. Over $10,000, and the artists are recognized as masters. At prices above $20,000, artists have international reputations like those of Bill Reid or Robert Davidson.

Exceptions exist to this rough outline – for instance, as acknowledged masters, both Beau Dick and Henry Green could increase their prices by fifty percent or more and probably still sell. However, this hierarchy is the norm, and recognized by most Northwest Coast artists.

To go outside this pricing scale is dangerous for an artist. Prices that are set too high can condemn an artists’ work to gathering dust in the gallery. But, just as importantly, when artists set their prices higher than their status, it seems to me a form of boasting. For instance, the mask I saw yesterday seems to proclaim that the artist considers himself the equal of all the great names in Northwest Coast art – to which I can only answer that he might be some day, but he isn’t yet. The mask was certainly skilled, but it was hardly outstanding, either. I have seen (and bought) masks at a fraction of the price that I considered better works of art.

Possibly, I’m showing a middle-class crassness with these reactions. At the best of times, I find a system in which even mediocre works by a major artist are worth more than an outstanding work by an unknown artist. But I do know that I would feel foolish buying a piece at an inflated price. Even if I could afford such prices, I would feel in the back of my mind that I had been conned, and that would diminish my enjoyment of the art.

So maybe it’s just as well that the price I saw yesterday was beyond what I could afford, and that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the mask. In this case, the question of putting my money where my ambivalence is doesn’t arise. But I wonder what I would do if I see a similarly over-priced piece that I really would like about the house.

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As I write, I am several days into resuming my normal exercise routine. I’ve spent the last two weeks sidelined with a knee injury – not the first time this has happened, and probably not the last, although I hope it is. But as I shake myself clear of my Ibuprofen-induced haze, as always I am aware of an overwhelming truth:

Walking is wasted on the able-bodied.

Seriously, there is nothing like losing an ability to make you appreciate it. When you have a leg injury, your entire perspective changes. Whether you’re limping along unaided or using a cane or crutches, suddenly distances seem to increase, because you need more time to travel them. Public transit, you realize, is far less convenient than you once believed, due to the distances between stops or the need to walk up to the platform. Even going from the living room to the bed room can seem a long journey that needs to be planned; if you forget something, you are not exactly going to nip back to pick it up.

When your legs aren’t functioning properly, you feel more vulnerable, too. The vulnerability is especially strong in public, where, if you must be a cripple, you hope you can at least appear to be a sturdy one who is capable of beating wallet-snatchers off with your cane. Yet, in the safety of your home, the vulnerability is only marginally less, if, like me, you hate being dependent on someone. A few days of limping, and you can work up a fine cloud of depression at your increased helplessness.

You start to wonder if what you’re experiencing is a foretaste of old age. If so, you conclude, you are probably not strong enough to endure the experience. The line “Hope I die before I get old” becomes, not a line from the heyday of The Who, but a completely reasonable point of view.
After a few days, you have to keep reminding yourself that your condition is not permanent. A couple of weeks, and civility is stripped from you like the veneer of civilization that it is. If you can’t impress through physical activity, your hind brain insists, then you will impress through crankiness instead.

Then, just as despair threatens to win, you wake up one morning feeling strangely lightened. You are still not walking well, so you take a while to realize that the chronic pain that you’ve been living with is faded to a dull ache. Suddenly, you have something to anticipate.

A day or two later, and you are walking on your own again. You are taking short, unbalanced steps like an upright hippo probably would, but at least you are walking. Ten minutes of being upright tires you like sprinting a couple of kilometers, but at least you can do it.

When you stand, you can feel the muscles in calves and thighs shifting to propel you upright and keep your balance. From the way you hurl yourself upright, you realize that most of the effort in standing has been made recently by your arms, and that you can transfer the effort back to your legs again.

Start to walk, and you wonder how you ever took for granted the interplay of muscles that make you a bipedal ape. You can feel muscles that generally you are hardly aware of contracting and pulling against one another. The physical awareness is such a joy singing through you that it feels a like a brief return to your teens. The fact that bipedalism is the result of endless evolutionary compromises only makes it seem all the more wonderful.

Soon enough, you start to forget the marvel called walking. It becomes automatic again, and you stop thinking about it. But for the first day or two after you return to walking, you find yourself looking at all the people around you who are oblivious to this simple delight and thinking, “You ungrateful bastards. You need a week on crutches to appreciate what you have.”

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If you believe the media, Canada is the model of a modern multicultural society. The official story is that Canada is a place where people of different cultures meet and interact without much friction. You sometimes hear about people being stopped by the police for “driving while black” or the recent allegations that the niqab is a security risk, but these are generally seen as exceptions caused by a dwindling minority of bigots. Most of us, the official message reassures us, are not like that.

Recently, however, I’ve become increasingly aware that at least one group (or, more properly, one set of groups) for whom face to face racism is a daily given – the First Nations.

In some ways, this realization doesn’t come as a surprise. The media is quick to depict First Nations people as uneducated, rural hicks, and victims. You rarely hear about the small but growing professional classes among the First Nations, people who balance urban life and upper middle class expectations against a wish to remain rooted in their own cultures. For the most part, First Nations cultures are barely acknowledged, except when they can add quaint experiences to tourism. You have to search long and hard to find any media depictions of the First Nations as people rather than stereotypes, so in one sense it seems understandable that non-First Nations people should respond to the stereotypes while ignoring the realities.

However, as I explore Northwest Coast art and become friendly with some of the artists, I’ve come to understand that casual racism is part of many First Nations people’s daily lives. Even the artists – gifted people who deserve respect for their accomplishments – have to endure it. Almost every First Nations person I get to know has a story or two about racism, and some people bring them out as a sort of test, to see how strangers will react and to judge their trustworthiness.

For instance, one First Nations instructor says that people regularly compliment him on how well he speaks English. What do they expect? That in 2010 he speaks broken English, or maybe Chinook? Since he teaches, he must have at least a master’s degree, if not a doctorate. What would be surprising is if he didn’t speak well.

Similarly, an up and coming artist tells me that a client who commissioned a carving by him told him at length how “his people” were so spiritual and connected to nature compared to the rest of industrial society. The client had never met him, and did not even know what nation he was from – let alone his clan – yet she was convinced that she could tell him all about his culture. Probably, she thought she was complimenting him. Still, at least she was paying for the privilege (personally, I would have added another few hundred dollars to the price).

Still another artist who is scheduled to inherit a chieftainship, told me that during the Olympics torch relay, an official asked him if “you could get your people to line up on the side of the road to hoot and holler.” A big man, he looked down and said calmly, “We do not hoot and holler.”

Another First Nations man says that he doesn’t receive much open racism because he is tall and stocky, and was raised in an upper middle class family. But he does receive all sorts of covert racism – things like bank clerks lingering just a little longer than necessary when checking his I.D. or cashiers treating him as though he was brain-damaged. Similarly, one artist tells me that when he tried to deposit a large cheque, the teller asked if he was a drug dealer. And, because of similar experiences, another artist has a note on his bank account, explaining what he does for a living in the hopes of keeping bank officials from jumping to conclusions.

I could go on and on, but the point should be clear enough. First Nations men and women regularly endure treatment and comments that are sometimes lacking in epithets but is hardly less vicious for that lack. Often, the remarks are made with a false heartiness that means that taking offense will put their recipients socially in the wrong.

I suppose that to some extent, they get used to the casual abuse, and perhaps they feel they have no choice except to endure, because they will be blamed if an argument or a fight breaks out — the law, quite clearly, is not on their side.

All the same, I wonder how they do endure such comments. I sometimes think that, in similar situations, I would show considerably less restraint. But then, as the descendant of English people, I am used to being treated more politely.

Still, I no longer wonder, as I used to, about a Metis classmate of mine who never mentions her ancestry and dyed her hair blonde. If you can escape from such situations, why wouldn’t you be tempted to try? Even pride and determination must become awfully thin defences after a while.

On some level, I am not surprised by this realization. I know all too well that there are official versions of reality created by the government and the media that have little to do with what has actually happens.

All the same, I can’t help feeling some righteousness anger over this realization. I shouldn’t be surprised or upset to discover yet again that the official version is a lie – but, all the same, I am. And I realize, too, that experience of other groups is undoubtedly as ugly as that of the First Nations. In some ways, this official story is as offensive as the racism itself.

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The process of digitalizing a life time of music keeps bringing rediscoveries. One of the recent rediscoveries is Michelle Shocked, who is not only still recording, but has also managed to regain control of her own music.

Shocked first became known in folk circles in the late 1980s with The Texas Campfire Tapes. The album was based on some casual recordings by a British music producer who misrepresented himself as a journalist, and produced an edited version of her music that, due to faltering batteries, recorded some of her music too slowly and made her voice sound higher than it was. Nobody has quite said so in as many words, but, from what is carefully not said, the impression is that the album was either released without her permission, or with permissions obtained under questionable pretenses.

The album launched her career, but its promotion also created an image of Shocked as a naive genius, despite the diverse influences, intelligent lyrics, and wry humor of many of the songs themselves. Considering the many changes of direction in her musical career, this image must have handicapped her career, with her record company trying to pigeon-hole her into a category that didn’t fit.

I didn’t know about all this back story when I bought a cassette of The Texas Campfire Tapes years ago. But, as the story surfaced, I felt more than a little guilty. I mean, the songs were worth hearing, yet wasn’t listening to the album a sign of disrespect to Shocked? Perhaps this guilt was one reason that, over the years, I stopped listening to Shocked, although I was vaguely aware that she had released other albums, and her second album, Short Sharp Shocked, was briefly one of my favorites.

Now, after a couple of decades of fighting with record companies, and Shocked has control over her own material again. A few years ago, she re-released her first album under the title of the Texas Campfire Takes, which I hurried to purchase as a download from her web site.

The Takes includes the original material played at the proper speed, as well as the raw material, complete with introductions and a few new songs, from which her first album was edited. In some cases, the edited versions of the songs sound more professional – or, at least, better produced – but the raw material, despite being uneven, is often more satisfying, and provides more context.

But the important thing is that now we can hear the music the way that Shocked prefers it. The result is a small victory of an artist over a recording company, and I’ve celebrated it in the only possibly way – by discarding the old cassette and replacing it in the music collection with the new download.

And somewhere deep inside, an old guilt seems to have quietly died. I’ve started listening to Shocked again, and I am slowly ordering her backlist an album or two at a time.

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