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Archive for August, 2011

Twenty years ago today, Linus Torvalds sent the announcement that announced Linux to the world. The Linux Foundation has promoted the anniversary all year, displaying memorabilia and holding a Roaring Twenties theme party ( much to the evident embarrassment of Torvalds, who was conspicuously absent at LinuxCon when invited to take a bow.) – and it’s fitting that the free software ecosystem that has grown around Linux should be celebrated. However, amid all the self-congratulations, I think it’s worth remembering that what is being praised is the goal more than the reality.

I hate to insist on this cold splash of reality, I really do. Although I wasn’t around at the start, I have been involved in free software for twelve years, and I share the dream. For me, free software is as important a part of activism as recycling. One way or the other, it has been my major source of income for most of those twelve years. The community of free software is where I’ve found a modest dollop of fame. Moreover, as I rediscovered at last week’s LinuxCon, where I seem to have spent three days shaking hands and renewing old acquaintances, I feel at home in the community, and many of my closest friends come from it. So, when the keynote speakers on the first morning stood up and celebrated the accomplishments of free software, I was moved in much the same way as other people might be moved by the national anthem of their country.

And yet –

Something whispered in me that the keynotes at Linuxcon were just a little too self-congratulatory. I couldn’t help thinking that the rhetoric of co-operation was sometimes being delivered by the representatives of corporations famed for their cut-throat business practices. I thought, too, of how, despite everything that the free software ecosystem has accomplished – often contrary to the predictions of old-school business and development experts, much to my delight – the community seems to have balked at taking the final steps, putting up with cost-free drivers rather than pushing for free-license ones.

But the largest gap between rhetoric and practice came in the description of the community. The gospel was preached most vividly by Jon “Maddog” Hall.

Hall is a seemingly endless source of friendliness and good will, and part of me hates to contradict him. All the same, I had to raise an eyebrow when he proclaimed – as he had already done in his blog :

I am proud of the Free Software community in embracing diversity. And finally, it is lucky for me that the Free Software community also embraces older people…..

No one asks these programmer/entrepreneurs their age, their race, their religion, their sex or their “sexual orientation”. No one asks them if they were physically challenged, what country they came from, or their political views. No one told them “don’t go there”, “don’t do that”, “you are too young”, “you are too old”, “you are just a…” or “you can not succeed”…..because (as one of my favorite cartoons points out) “on the Internet no one knows that you are a dog”.

All the Free Software community says is “show me the code”.

It’s a wonderful dream, Jon, and I hope that one day it comes true. But read the Geek Feminism wiki, and you soon realize that it isn’t true yet. Pornographic presentations, the litany of sexist bloopers from one community leader after another, the knee-jerk, foul-mouthed hostility to even the suggestion that more should be done to encourage the participation of women – it all buzzes around in your head like loud music when you have a hangover. Before long,  you are forced into the realization that, unfortunately, the community does not always embrace diversity, and that portions of it care very much who you are. In fact, they care so much that they will do their best to prevent you from contributing your code no matter how well-written it is.

Taking time to appreciate the accomplishments of free software is only right. It’s a working community, and many of us don’t take enough time to appreciate what’s being built a bit at a time. But what Jon and the other Linuxcon keynote speakers praised was the ideal, not the way things are.

So, while we should celebrate what is after all a unique accomplishment, let’s also take time to remember that the accomplishment isn’t finished yet, and that we’ve collectively fallen short of the ideal. Forget that, and we risk always being less than we could be and betraying ourselves.

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Maybe it’s a character flaw, but nostalgia for a technology puzzles me. My bewilderment has last all my adult life, and now, with the all the sentimental preference for paper books over ebooks, it returns to me stronger than ever.

I first became aware of other people’s technology nostalgia when I jumped from a typewriter to a word processor. Did I miss working with carbon paper, or having the choice of redoing a page because of a spelling mistake or getting liquid paper all over everything? Not for a moment. Revision was so much easier on a computer that I barely looked back. The IBM Selectric that I kept in a back closet just in case languished in obscurity for a decade before I realized that I would never use it.

Yet much to my surprise, many people started romanticizing the typewriter. I could understand veteran writers who after several decades were reluctant to mess with their creative processes. But other people insisted that the hum of the computer kept them from concentrating (apparently the even louder hum of an electric typewriter didn’t). Their thoughts, they insisted, were geared to the tap of the keys (as though a century of using typewriters could have produced any significant natural selection in favor of them).

Soon, distressed typefaces that mimicked typewriters with old ribbons or out of alignment keys became a fashion in graphical design. You still see these typefaces occasionally today, a sentimental attachment to all the inefficiencies of the old technology added with more ingenuity than sense to the new technology.

Now, with journalists constantly trumpeting the death of the paper book, the same thing is happening. Suddenly, people are forgetting the tendency of paperbacks to fall apart after one reading (assuming pages didn’t start flying away before then), and talking about the shape and construction of the book – which is largely an accident of cheap production – as something to get sentimental over. Again, I wonder what they are rattling on about.

Not that ebook readers are perfect technologies. You have to learn exactly how hard to tap a paper if they use a touch screen, and how often to refresh so that you can turn a page without a pause interrupting your reading. Every reader, too, could use twice the resolution, even if they have improved considerably from a decade ago. I admit, too, that the end of the standard two page spread leaves me wondering what to do with my spare hand, and that a single page looks odd to my typographically-trained eye.

The mistake that people make is imagining that the medium is the book– which isn’t true for either paper books or ebooks. If it were, then to get the full experience of Catullus or Cicero, we would have to read them on papyrus scrolls. Shakespeare would have to be read on vellum, and Jonathan Swift and George Eliot on rag paper. All of these are simply media.

The book – the play, the oration or the novel – is the words and how they are put together. And that doesn’t change, regardless of whether we read a clay tablet or have the words beamed directly into our brains. If we remember a particular technology fondly, I suspect that it’s because we transfer the pleasure of the words to the medium in which we read them.

Personally, I neither welcome nor decry the rise of ebooks. They have their points, such as reduced storage space or the ability to change fonts, but that’s not what I notice when I read, any more than I notice the convenience and portability of paperbacks, or the smallness of the loss if they fall into the bathtub. When I read, what I notice is the story or the arguments, and the skill in word use. Should I live long enough to see ebooks replaced by something else, I’ll use that something else, just as I use ebooks now.

Like those who romanticized typewriters, the people currently anticipating the end of paper books have lost sight of what’s important when we read. Maybe they’re just afraid of anything that’s new, but the medium is a minor issues so long as we can read without being distracted by inefficiency or inconvenience. What matters is the words. Always.

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Widowhood is a state of transition. It’s the time when you decide what you are going to do after the most important relationship in your life is gone. Or, to be more specific, it’s the time when you decide whether you are going to risk another relationship, or spend the rest of your life solo. Fourteen months after Trish’s death, that’s a decision I haven’t made, but, what most people don’t understand is that if I end up alone, I wouldn’t be overly disturbed by the outcome.

This fatalism has nothing to do with a morbid nostalgia. Trish and I met a month after her first husband died, and became a couple two months after that, so I don’t feel any need to stay loyal to her memory. In fact, several times, she told me that she hoped I would remarry if she died. So, if anything, I suppose I should be trying to meet people.

But the truth is, while one or two intriguing possibilities exist, I don’t need a relationship merely for the sake of a relationship. I’m comfortable with my own company, and as a writer I need a degree of solitude each day regardless.

Part of my attitude is my hyper-awareness of a fact that is obvious, but that no one likes to emphasize – namely, that a relationship ends with one person either leaving or dying.. As you get older, the possibility increases that the end will involve a death. I would rather not face the other person’s death, and I am no more eager to leave her facing my death and having to settle my affairs.

As time passes, this reluctance will probably fade, of course. But the truth is, I just don’t have the pressure to be in a relationship that people younger than me have. When you’re in your twenties or early thirties, being married or in a common-law relationship is a mark of maturity and independence. It can be a way to settle any lingering doubts you have about your sexual orientation. Most of all, it’s something everyone does, which often panics people into bad relationships, just so they don’t feel left out or appear odd. To be young and single by choice takes great strength of character because a more or less permanent relationship is part of what you’re supposed to want or do.

But at my age, the situation is different. I’ve paid my own way since I was eighteen, so I have nothing to prove. I long ago discovered I was a straight male with eccentric ideas about gender roles and an indifference towards them. Nor, for some reason, does modern industrial culture have many expectations about widowhood and its aftermath.

If I were still married, no doubt I would feel the pressure of the expectations placed on long-married couples – but suddenly, and through no wish of my own, my possible choices are broader than they have been since high school. I don’t have to rush to decide whether I should be single or committed, because the decision doesn’t matter except to me and any woman with whom I might be involved.

And if I do end my days single, so what? I’ve had a relationship that was better than any I see around me. That’s not just my opinion or the distortion of romanticism, either – I lost count years ago of the people who said that Trish and I acted like newly weds or who were surprised that we were polite to each other (as though politeness was something you owed strangers, and not those you loved), or how we consulted each other about mutual decisions.
Should I never be in another serious relationship, I’ve been in one that people envied. So why should I settle for anything less?

That would be the real betrayal of my past – not staying single for the next three to five decades, but blundering into a relationship because when I’m tired or not sleeping I feel lonely. I owe the memory of Trish better, and I owe myself better, too.

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Shawn Patrick Aster’s “Raven Turns the Crows Black” has a longer history than most of the art in my townhouse. Aster took over two years to deliver it, but I consider it well worth the wait.

Aster’s work was brought to my attention by another artist in late 2008, as someone whose work was admired even by master carver Dempsey Bob. I immediately commissioned a piece from him, wanting an early piece from an already skilled artist who seemed sure to make a name for himself.

A few months later in April 2009, when I attended my first year end exhibition for the Freda Diesing School, I was amused to see that others gave Aster’s work no special attention – until he won two awards. Moments later, all his work in the show had sold.

But the commission had progressed little. Aster seemed nervous (I believe it was his first commission outside his family and friends) and couldn’t satisfy himself with the design. A month later, I bought “Raven Heart” from him, but I was still waiting for the commission.

By the next year end exhibition, Aster was looking distinctly apologetic when he saw me. Jokingly, I started referring to him as “the most promising artist” I knew, since he had promised the piece for over sixteen months – although I made clear that I was more than willing to wait. Secretly, though, I had decided he was unlikely ever to deliver. I was disappointed, although I bought other pieces from him.

Then, last March, Aster told me on Facebook that he had finally completed the design. It had apparently changed since he first started designing it, but I was happy to see it. I paid indirectly at the 2011 year end exhibition, and it was delivered by Aster’s fellow Freda Diesing graduate Todd Stephens at the YVR Art Foundation’s reception in May – a good deal of which I spent showing the piece to others and worrying that food might be spilled on it.

“Raven Turns the Crows Black” depicts an episode from the Haida epic “Raven Traveling,” a work that  many now consider the common heritage property of all First Nations people on the northwest coast. In the story, Raven the Trickster sees crows roasting a salmon on the beach. They agree to share the food, and Raven falls asleep while he waits for it to cook.

Unwilling to share, the crows devour the salmon. Belatedly worried at what Raven’s reaction is going to be, they put crumbs of the salmon meat on his clothes and between his teeth. When he wakes, they try to convince him that he ate before he slept, but Raven in his anger throw them into the fire, from which the survivors emerge forever singed and black.

Aster’s rendering of the story makes for a unusual design in what is already a tradition apart. Shared by several northwest coast nations but possibly Tsimshian in origin, the Chilkat style is based on weaving patterns. The style is constrained by the limits of weaving, so it tends to consist of discrete blocks of design, rather than the flowing formline found in painting and carving. This tendency makes it both geometric and highly abstract.

Aster’s design shows Raven in the center, his teeth bared (and if you ask why Raven has teeth, I can only reply, why does the parrot in Aladdin? Although, probably, Raven was in human form in the story, shape-changing being his most common power). I interpret the design as showing Raven in two states: in the middle, hungry and asleep, with his wings folded, and at the top center, angry and awake with his wings outstretched.

On the left are the white crows, on the right the black; like the raven, their wings and other features are abstracted into blocks of forms. The designs on each side are not quite symmetrical, with only the outlines of the heads to suggest the transformation in the story.

The background includes the characteristic Chilkat blue and yellow. However, to suggest the fire – and, perhaps, the salmon meat and Raven’s anger – Aster adds red to his design. Although I am far from an expert in Chilkat design, I have never seen any other Chilkat design use red. However, Aster’s innovation succeeds, largely because the red is relatively dark and sparingly used.

The result is one of the most bold-looking pieces of art in my collection. And while I admit that I grew impatient while waiting, I’d gladly wait another twenty-eight months for another work that is equally striking.

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I’m at the point where I tremble when Gary Minaker Russ comes to town. I know that he will have at least one outstanding piece of argillite to sell, and that if I so much as glimpse it, I will be unable to resist the temptation to buy it, even if I can’t really afford to. That’s the story, really, of “Haida Shaman,” the latest piece I’ve bought from him.

When Russ first brought it to town, he sold it to the Inuit Gallery, where I admired it regularly. But no one bought it, and Russ prefers not to have his work languish for too long in a gallery. So he swopped it for his latest piece, and when we met at the Rhizome Cafe that afternoon, he hadn’t resold it.

A quick trip across the street to the bank machine, and it was mine, the balance to be paid  over the next month. One nervous Skytrain trip later, I had it beside my computer workstation.

“Haida Shaman” is a traditional piece. I mean that description in two senses, both complimentary. First, the pose is one that has been widely used throughout the hundred and eighty years of recorded argillite carving (as opposed to the unknown amount of time – decades? centuries? millennia? — that argillite may have been carved far more rarely, before it became one of the first cultural exports for the Haida).

The proportions, with the head a third of the body height, and the stance, one arm uplifted and the other in front of the chest, can be seen in any number of pictures, if you search libraries or even the Internet for pictures of argillite. So, in one sense, Russ is working in a very set subject, in much the same way a Renaissance European painter would be when painting a Madonna and child.

What you won’t see – at least today – is this pose done in the amount of detail that Russ has lavished on “Haida Shaman.” You’ll see the basic proportion and posture, yes, but not the detail. Most modern argillite carving is closer to engraving. It is covered with embellishments of inlaid precious and semi-precious stones, with the shapes hinted at rather than fully developed.

In several  pieces, the result is so abstract that only the posture is recognizable and there is little else to indicate that a shaman is depicted. The modern argillite market does not reward taking pains, and, in too many cases, the quality of the carving has declined while the cost of the raw materials have sent the prices soaring.

By contrast, “Haida Shaman” shows the attention to detail that I associate more with nineteenth century argillite pieces. Russ himself describes it as being more in his original – and preferred – style, and not the simpler style he has moved towards in the last decade and a half in order to make a living as an artist in an increasingly obscure art form.

This is the second sense in which the piece is traditional – in the pure sense of craft that has gone into it. For a style that is only partly representational, “Haida Shaman” packs an extraordinary amount of detail. Some of it may be hard to see in a picture, but the carving is full of realistic detail like the definition of the muscles on the arms, or the braiding of the rope the shaman wears, or the mass of hair in his topknot. I joke that the sculpture is a “traditional Haida action figure,” but behind that rather flippant comment, there is nothing but respect for the care that has gone into it.

These details are enhanced by the sparing use of ivory to contrast with the darkness of the argillite. Unlike many modern argillite carvers, Russ has not produced a gaudy piece, valued largely for its inlays. Nor has he added so many inlays before starting to carve that they get in the way of the detailing. Instead, the ivory appears where it doesn’t hide or overwhelm the details. It is used sparingly, with a restraint that allows it to work with the argillite, rather than against it.

You might say that “Haida Shaman” is an artist’s piece, done to satisfy Russ’ sense of how he should be working, with little regard for what sells. I am not in the least surprised that it didn’t sell while on display because, amid the other argillite extravaganzas available in the local galleries, “Haida Shaman” is an understated piece, with an emphasis on the craft of carving.

It’s because of pieces like “Haida Shaman” that I secretly look forward to Russ’ visits to town, not knowing what wonders he will quietly unwrap to tempt me with. I only know that most of what he brings to town will be wonders, and I will be tempted to bring at least one of them home.

Now, if I only didn’t have to explain that I wasn’t buying from a drug dealer when I deposit large sums of cash in his account, I would have nothing to complain about. I am both soothed and honoured to have pieces like “Haida Shaman” in my townhouse.

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