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Archive for January, 2012

I admit it: I’m addicted to site stats.

Not the number of visitors. This blog has never been about number of readers. If I cared about mere numbers, I would only write here about free and open source software (FOSS). Judging from the result when I have written about FOSS, I would get a minimum of 1500 visitors per day if I only wrote on that subject. But I can get even much higher numbers for my paid work, and the whole point of this blog is to write about different things than I do professionally.

Instead, what fascinates me is the information that I glean from WordPress and SiteMeter, the two sets of stats that I look at. I’m not at all surprised to see that most visitors come the northern hemisphere, with a scattering from Australia and India. However, who was that one who logged in from Antarctica? Tahiti? Nepal?

Some of those names, too, are evocative: Bellshill in the UK, Red Bud, Sticklerville and Storrs Mansfield in the United States, Tullinge in Sweden, and dozens more besides.

I’m fascinated, too, to see what people are reading on my blog. Somewhat to my chagrin, the most popular entry appears to be “What Makes a Canadian Canadian?” It’s a trivial piece I knocked off several Canada Days ago, and I’m irked that Canadians and foreigners alike seem fascinated by it at the expense of more thoughtful and original pieces. The same goes for “Why I’ve Never Joined Mensa,” an off-the-cuff piece that many Mensa members have taken as a frontal assault and a sign of unresolved conflicts. At times, I’ve been tempted to delete such pieces.

I’m more pleased at the popularity of “The First Nations Art of Birch Bark Biting” which has become a Wikipedia source; it was a good interview on a subject that’s new to most people.

I’m also tickled by the fact that “Napoleon and the invasion of Russia and the challenges of managing large projects,” is widely read, because it’s a tongue in cheek response to all the attempts by business writers to make their subjects glamorous by comparing their readers to heroic figures like samurais and Antarctic explorers. The Napoleon piece is also surprisingly popular at American military academies – so much so that I feel like disavowing all responsibility for how the next generation of officers in the United States turns out.

Then there’s the searches that land readers on my site. Since I’m one of the few bloggers on Northwest Coast art, often the name of an artist suggests my blog. Only two or three each day appear to get to the blog by searching on my name. Other search items are mostly mundane, although I’ve been surprised to see searches like “why do we never see baby crows” turn up frequently, because I never heard that people believed that – where I live, I see baby crows regularly at the right time of year.

However, my greatest interest in stats is trying to guess exactly who some visitors might be. If I get a visitor from Sarasota who uses Linux, then I can be fairly sure that one of several former colleagues from Linux.com have dropped by. Similarly, most visitors from Terrace, B.C. are most likely one of my artist friends.

But who is the visitor from West Hartford Connecticut who looks at “An Encounter with Male Supremacists” several times a day? I suspect a male supremacist, since the frequent visits suggest obsession; it’s not a particularly positive article.

I sometimes think, too, that one of the daily visitors from a fixed Google account must be a former colleague with whom I no longer talk. Without watching too closely, I have noticed that the visits apparently coincide with the colleague’s schedule, changing when I know they have changed time zones, or not appearing at all when they busy at an event. However, I haven’t made a lot of effort to investigate to rule out coincidence, having a long list of more important things to do, starting with — well, with everything, really. Still, I wonder, now and then.

I suppose that stats are meant for site managers who are eager to draw more people to their site, and to cater more precisely to their audience. However, my own stat-browsing has no such serious purpose. For me, the stats are ground for interest and speculation, with the speculation all the more interesting because I almost never get to find out whether my guesses are right.

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When I was working at a startup, I arrived one morning to find several developers crawling out of the boxes in which file cabinets had arrived the day before. They had slept there after working late into the evening. No deadlines were looming, but they had done the overtime so they could get the full experience of a startup. From the look in their eyes, I could see that they had already started mythologizing the experience of sleeping in the boxes, even while they complained of aching backs.

For me, the scene has become a symbol of workaholism – compulsive, often pointless overwork. Seeing my busy schedule, you might have a hard time believing this, but it’s the kind of work I’ve always declined.

Nowadays, people are as likely to condemn such behavior in themselves or others. Yet I can’t see that workaholism has declined any, especially in high-tech. People may coyly agonize over how long they work, but for all the relaxation schemes they try, and all the aphorisms and rules they tape on their monitors, they don’t change their habits. Just as people trying to drop ten pounds never manage to get out to the gym regularly, or to cut their portions at lunch, so the self-proclaimed workaholics never quite manage a more relaxed lifestyle. Being a workaholic is part of their identity.

Only now they are recovering workaholics, and want you to know they are aware of their problem.

No one, of course, is going to admit that they are not working as hard as they might. The same corporate culture that claims to be sympathetic to these pseudo-addicts also tells them to give 110%, and to work hours of unpaid overtime. To admit to a desire to do less would be like saying that you aren’t a serious person, and possibly a liability for everyone around you – that you are, in fact, intimidated into making an effort that you would prefer not to make.

Such an admission is not compatible with most people’s self-respect. So instead of finding less demanding or more fulfilling work, they keep pushing themselves too hard, using the language of twelve step programs so they can dramatize their dilemma until it’s bearable.

As a coping mechanism, seeing themselves as addicts is much easier than actually working towards changing their lives. If nothing else, truly changing themselves might take a year or two because of their previous obligations, and as a culture we’re not skilled at delaying gratification. Call yourself an addict, though, and you have the perfect excuse for never changing anything.

If that is what they want to believe about themselves, who am I to argue them out of it? Yet I do wish that they would stop insisting that, if I work hard, I must be in the same position.

I can understand why the workaholics might think that. Like them, I work long hours – far more than the forty hours each week that once was supposed to be the norm. Ten, twelve, or even fourteen hour days are very familiar to me.

The difference is, unless I’m sick or injured or traveling, I rarely go as long as two days without exercising, and always take some time for myself.

Even more importantly, I’m as busy as I want to be. I wasn’t lucky, as they often say, to become a freelance writer. I took years to maneuver into my present position, Now, when I work long hours, I may have deadlines to meet. But I chose to take on those deadlines, and I meet them because I more or less enjoy what I’m doing.

Admittedly, some of the assignments I take on aren’t ideal ones. Nor can I say that, were I suddenly independently wealthy, that I would keep on doing exactly what I’m doing now. But I would keep much of present routine, and the rest wouldn’t be that different from what I do now.

Isaac Asimov said that he was once asked if he would rather have sex or write. He replied that he would rather write – after all, he could write for twelve hours a day. I don’t know that I would go quite that far, but I know what he’s talking about.

Quite simply, my work writing is fun. It’s not drudgery. I like it so much that when I finish my paid work, I go and write some more, either in this blog or on some other project. I enjoy putting words on the screen, and I see no reason for being apologetic about the fact.

Workaholic? Me? Sorry, when you enjoy it, work’s a healthy thing. Just because you haven’t learned that doesn’t mean that I haven’t.

I wish you might learn the difference one day; you’d be better off. However, until you do, please don’t mistake my definition of work for yours.

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Like those infinite monkeys who eventually replicate Shakespeare on their keyboards, so I become fashionable at random intervals in my life. This time, it’s with hoods, and, I presume, connected to the popularity of hip hop and hoodies, as well the fact that we’re currently slogging through a wet winter in Vancouver. But I find the situation alarming, just the same.

My own reasons for liking hoods are much more personal than fashion. To start with, hoods are often connected to cloaks — and, as I discovered when I was a medievalist, the only thing that’s more romantic or mysteriously dramatic than a cloak is a cloak with a hood.

Think Robin Hood going to the archery contest in disguise. Think Aragorn sitting in the dark corner of the tavern at Bree. Anyone can wear a hat, but only hawks and super heroes or mysterious strangers go hooded. Show me a person who doesn’t feel like a figure of mystery when they’re in a hood and peering out of its dark recesses, and I’ll show you a person whose imagination is either dead or mortally wounded. It’s like carrying your own piece of the night everywhere you go.

Just as importantly, a hood is more practical than any alternative. Unlike most of my fellow Vancouverites, I don’t deny that rain happens frequently around here. It happens a lot, and in winter we sometimes get wind storms full of damp air. But an umbrella or a hat is just one more thing to pack. As I rush for the bus, I’m likely to forget either. If I do remember an umbrella or hat, I either clutch it compulsively when I’m inside, or else put it down and forget it until I’m halfway home.

By contrast, a hood is connected to a coat. That means I’m less likely to forget it. And it definitely won’t fall under a chair and be lost.

However, the real reason I prefer a hood is my lifelong fear of baldness. I was six when I first worried about inheriting my father’s pattern of baldness. Probably, I won’t, because my hairline is inherited from my maternal grandfather, who had a full head of hair when he was eighty. But in my adolescence and young adulthood, I thought my father’s baldness had something to do with his wearing of a tight cap in the British army during World War II.

That was never going to happen to me, I resolved. Besides, wearing hats in public was something my father’s generation did, not mine. So I got into the habit of never wearing one, even to ward off sun stroke. No skull-fitting cap was going to erode my hair prematurely, thanks all the same.

By the time I figured that the issue was one of genetics, the habit had already been formed. Now, I can’t wear a hat or cap without feeling stupid and self-conscious. I don’t even need to reverse a cap to feel this way. Long ago, the feeling became automatic.

Finding myself unintentionally fashionable, I’m almost tempted to break my lifelong habits and start wearing a hat, or at least a toque until the weather improves. But I’m afraid it’s far too late to have a choice. All I can do is pull my hood down over my temples and glare from the depths of its folds at all the latecomers who are intruding on my scene for no better reason than fashion.

With luck, they’ll be so unsettled by the way my eyes glare out like coals at them that they will take their lack of originality and slink away, leaving me alone with my lonely but lordly splendor.

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In the two weeks since my parrot Ning died, many people have expressed their sympathies. Inevitably, they talk about the “unconditional love” of pets. Knowing that they mean well, I haven’t bothered correcting them, until yesterday I suddenly said to a friend, “Actually, the whole point about parrots is their love is conditional.”

When you stop to think, this statement is obvious. Although people have kept parrots for centuries, until a couple of decades ago, very few were born in captivity. Instead, each generation of parrots was taken from the wild.

As a result, at the very most, a parrot has only two or three generations of captivity. Unlike a dog, or even a cat, parrots haven’t been domesticated for thousands of years. They haven’t been bred to be docile, and they definitely haven’t been bred to be friendly towards humans. Other animals may stay loyal to the humans in their lives even when mistreated, but not a parrot.

If you want the loyalty of parrots, you have to earn it. You have to spend time with them, talking to them and feeding them and scratching the back of their necks. In other words, you have to convince them that you are trustworthy. Before they develop an affection for you, you have to earn it. Even if a parrot has been raised by hand, unless it is too young to have any sense of self or fear, it is going to take a while to accept you.

To some people, this behavior might be disappointing. If you expect a pet to take to you instantly, the fact that you may need to wait several weeks before your efforts are reciprocated may seem unreasonable.

Personally, though, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The flip side of all the patience needed to win over parrots is that when it happens – when they chirp happily to see you, or raise a tentative beak to preen your cheek – you feel that you have really earned something. Then, that moment is followed by the parrots gradually relaxing around you, and getting to know your quirks as you get to know theirs.
A human’s relationship with any pet is never going to be one of equals. If nothing else, you have teach parrots the limits of acceptable behavior, as much for their own safety as your own convenience.

All the same, your interactions with a parrot are likely to be far more like those with another human than any with a dog or a cat. Being social animals, parrots always want company, but they will be negotiating the relationship continually, not just responding to instinct. Just because they accept your dominance in some interactions doesn’t mean that they will accept it in everything. They will always be testing the limits, and at times they may challenge you.

A parrot’s friendship with you will always have an element of choice – and that is precisely what makes it worthwhile.

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One of the projects I need to finish some day is a translation of the Old English poem “The Seafarer.” It started as a directed studies program when I was an undergrad, and I’ve puttered away at it now and again ever since.

Why, I’m not sure. I have no sympathy for its Christian moral. But the descriptions of sailing have a beauty of their own in the original, and I admire the cleverness with which the vivid description gives way to a moral. As in many of the most moving Old English poems, the description of an outcast’s life in “The Seafarer” has a vividness that comes through even when you have limited understanding of the language.

By contrast, I’m exasperated by the stolid translations others have done, particularly Ezra Pound’s ham-fisted one, which reads like exactly what it is – the work of someone completely ignorant of Old English cribbing from a dictionary and guessing at the grammatical structure. At best, most existing translations seem too literal, hiding some of the complex associations in the poem and giving rise to false issues (such as whether the poem is two or more fragments clumsily welded together) that disappear when you consider the original language.

Translation, of course, is by definition an exercise in the impossible. No matter how hard the translator tries, the best they can ever manage is to recreate an approximation of the original as they conceive it.

Still, someone translating Old English has some advantages that other translators don’t. As in many translations, Old English offers false cognates; “dream,” for example, means something like “joy” rather than the modern “dream.” It also contains what I think of as half-cognates, or words whose meanings overlap with a modern word but aren’t completely synonymous: for instance, “graedig” means “eager” rather than “greedy,” while “lustig” means “longingly” rather than “lustingly.”

However, Old English does have many words that have exact equivalents in modern English. Sometimes, these words may be mildly old fashioned, but often that works well, since Old English poetry does appear to have had some vocabulary that wasn’t used in everyday speech. When no equivalent exists, modern English, with its much broader vocabulary, can often provide several alternatives that don’t seem too jarringly out of place.

Often, translators can even offer a reasonable facsimile of the Old English poetic line. This line usually consists of four accented syllables, of which the first, third, and sometimes the second alliterates. A translator can almost always keep to the four accented syllables per line, and, over three-quarters of the time, to the alliteration pattern as well. When the alliteration pattern can’t be sustained, an alternative such as having the second and fourth accented syllables alliterated gives an acceptable approximation. In general, this meter is far easier to keep up than, say, classical Greek hexameters.

Even so, a completely satisfying translation is a matter of effort. Sometimes, despite modern English’s larger vocabulary, no word exists that fits all the connotations of the Old English original while fitting into the meter.

An especially troubling example is “dryhten,” a synonym for “lord” that implies a leader of warriors. “Lord of hosts” would carry the same sense, especially since the word is used at one point to contrast an earthly lord with the Christian god, but adds an extra syllable to the line, while a coining like “host-lord” looks jarring.

In addition, to make life simple, I want a word that starts with “d,” so that I can easily translate a couple of key passages. Yet nothing really fits. “Director”is too modern-sounding, and “doyen” has the wrong connotations. “Dominus” doesn’t suggest a war-leader. “Dux” wouldn’t be bad, except that it has specific historical connections with the last days of the Roman Empire, and wasn’t used by the Old English so far as I know. Nor could I use “dux”’s modern equivalent “duke,” because, like so many other choices, it lacks the martial implications.

In desperation, I’ve even considered “ordainer” long and hard. Since it contains an accented syllable starting with “d,” it fits the meter, but, unfortunately, is utterly unfitting for an earthly lord. Consequently, I’m starting to look further afield, but, once I get away from the original alliteration, I open myself up to constant problems, because a dodge that works in one place usually doesn’t work in another place where the same word occurs.

And so the translation goes, word after word, trying to balance meaning, sense, and poetry and usually failing to meet at least one of these goals. In retrospect, it’s no wonder that I keep putting the translation away in despair. I often think that I’m trying to do the impossible, especially when I’m driven to considering what I can leave out when I would prefer not to omit anything.

Still, the effort lurches forward. I don’t know that I’ll ever manage the fully annotated version of the poem that I once hoped for, but I hope that before much longer, I will at least have a complete modern English version of the poem that does at least some justice to the complexities of the original.

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Sometimes, the only explanation for an action is that it seemed like a good idea at the time. That’s definitely the only one that explains why I attended a speed dating event yesterday evening. After eighteen months of being a widower, I have neither great desire for another relationship, nor any real expectation of one. But I was curious and had nothing planned for the evening. So I went.

The event was held in the back room of a sports bar – a windowless room that echoed with a dozen different conversations until at times I could hardly hear. The company putting on the event, an organizer told me, consists of half a dozen people, and specializes in various projects that require few expenses and bring only modest profits. It holds one speed dating event for different age groups or ethnicities each week, but, since I doubt that it clears more than $900 per event, this is hardly capitalism on a grand scale. At most, the events might be seen as advertising for the company, or perhaps groundwork for some larger project such as a relationship website.

Whatever the exact situation, the format of the event is simple: twelve women sit at tables around the room, and twelve men go around to each table, talking to each woman for five minutes before moving on. There’s a break for appetizers at the midway point, and throughout men and women scribble notes to themselves about each other. At the end of the evening, everyone hands in a form, indicating who they might want to see more of.

I arrived at the event fifteen minutes early, and watched everyone come in, a little nervously, eying both the members of the opposite sex and the members of the same sex who would be their competition. At least two women were friends, and a couple of the men had obviously come to other events, since they were recognized immediately by the organizers.

My first reaction was a mixture of vanity and nervousness: I looked younger than the other men. The fact pleased me at first, but then I wondered if I would be taken less seriously than them. I hardly seemed the contemporary of the women, either, and I wondered how accurate my self-image was.

Just before I could bolt in panic, the event got under way. I had a variety of moderately interesting conversations with a variety of moderately pleasant women, trotting out some of my stock lines about myself and what I do, and doing my best to seem animated, interesting, and interested. As happens with repetition, my self-presentation become progressively glibber.

I didn’t immediately find a soul-mate, but neither did I find anyone strongly obnoxious. The strongest antipathy I had was for a couple of women with whom five minutes was not enough to make any connection. By contrast, I also met two women I wouldn’t mind talking to for a longer period.

Ironically, the people I got along with best were not the women I was supposed to be getting to know at all. Instead, they were several of the other men (probably because we had no stake in whether we made a good impression on each other or not), and one of the organizers, with whom I had a common background in graphic design and communications. She was obviously far too young for me, but I had more to talk about with her than I did with any of the other women in the room.

Once the exercise was completed, participants were invited to stay and mingle, but few did. The event had started late, and most people had to work the next day. For myself, I had satisfied my curiosity, and didn’t feel enough desire to continue mingling to justify a late start to my work tomorrow.

Speed dating is supposed to provide a safe atmosphere for people to meet, and I suppose it does that. But for all the claims that it is a modern and sensible way to meet, the experience is not much different from a cocktail party in which the pressure of the crowd means that you are constantly talking to other people. The arrangement is more formal, and, unlike a cocktail party, you have more of a chance of actually having a conversation, but against that, I have to set the fact that the conversations end just as they are getting interested. I would be surprised if anyone finds someone compatible at such events except by random chance.

I had few expectations, so I wasn’t disappointed. But neither am I left with any strong interest in repeating the experience. If I’d had a match (that is if I’d indicated an interest in a woman and she had, too), I’d probably have followed up. However, I didn’t, and I can’t say that I’m particularly upset.

Assuming my experience was typical, speed dating is neither the nerve-wracking or contemptible arrangement I half-expected. But neither does it live up to its own hype. It simply seems one of the strange customs of the early twenty-first century. It may not be the wrong place to look for companionship (let alone love), but it doesn’t strike me as particularly the right place, either.

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In 1984, I fell into conversation with David Brin while pouring over the books in a science fiction convention’s dealers room. He suggested one book, reminding me that it had won the Nebula Award, and I said, “Oh? Was that back when the Nebula meant something?”

Abruptly, I remembered that Brin had won the Nebula Award a few months ago for Startide Rising. I made some strangling noises of embarrassment and stammered out an apology, and he was gracious enough to say, “That’s OK. I used to feel the same way.”

I still flinch at the memory, but not the sentiment. The truth is, with all respect to Brin and many other deserving winners, I’ve never cared for literary awards of any kind, even though once or twice I’ve served on awards committees myself. The recent news that Tolkien’s prose was dismissed by the Nobel Committee in 1961 as having “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality” only reinforces my dislike.

For one thing, technical merit is only one consideration in a literary prize. If nothing else, few awards have any provision for nominating nothing in a given year, and those that do are under heavy pressure from publishers and booksellers to avoid using it.

Moreover, while an award can sometimes be made entirely on technical merit, especially in its early days, or when its jury is hidden, too often nationalism, friendship, and professional interest interfere. For instance, the Nobel Committee has been under pressure for years to see that non-European writers are better represented among the winners. At times, deserving writers have been passed over as too old.

In such circumstances, the criterion of excellence threatens to become compromised. Yet this simple fact can never be admitted. Instead the pretense that the award is completely for excellence is kept up, and the selection process becomes an exercise in hypocrisy. The most that a conscientious member of the jury can hope for is that the eventual award winner isn’t entirely unsuitable.

Fortunately (for the jury members, if not the reading public), such winners aren’t hard to find. Beyond a certain standard of quality, it is frequently impossible to claim in any meaningful way that one writer is more skilled than another, because they have such different goals artistically.

For instance, if you look at well-known 19th Century writers (whom I’m choosing because the canon is much more established for the writers of over a century ago than for living writers), you might just be able to compare meaningfully George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, because they share an interest in psychology.

But how do you compare either one to Charles Dickens? To Charlotte Bronte? Jane Austen? Mark Twain? Henry James? As soon as you ask yourself by what criteria one of these is considered a better writer than another, the whole exercise becomes absurd. The best you can do is point out what one of these writers tries to do that another doesn’t. But these differences don’t mean that one is better than another, any more than differences in physiology prove a cat a superior animal to a dog.

And when you’re dealing with modern writers, the task is even more difficult. With most modern writers, no one has observed what they are good at. Instead, jury members are thrown back on their own powers of observation, or – more likely – upon the perceived wisdom of their generation’s academics and critics.

That, I suspect, was what happened to Tolkien in 1961 (to say nothing of Graham Greene, Karen Blixen, and Lawrence Durrell, all of whom are now recognized as major literary figures). If you take Tolkien on his own terms – as a writer whose important influences are a mixture of Old English and Medieval traditions, popular ballads, and oral storytelling, and as a writer of epics rather than novels – then he is an excellent writer of his sort.

However, in 1961 (and still, to an extent today), none of Tolkien’s influences or intentions were recognized by academics and critics as worthwhile. Tolkien’s tradition is plot-based, and its social observations are metaphorical where they exist at all. He has little psychological perception, even less social realism, and, generally speaking, none of the virtues prized in a modern serious novel.

Under these circumstances, how could the Nobel Committee possibly appreciate Tolkien? Its members would have been like people who are color blind trying to appreciate a painting in which subtle changes of hue are a major element. With the best will in the world, they couldn’t appreciate Tolkien – and, backed by the official opinions of their times, they probably didn’t see any reason to try very hard, either.

Literary awards may be popular with publishers and booksellers, because they can mean increased sales. Yet I can’t help noticing that very few writers of any stature take them very seriously. In fact, in my experience, the more acclaimed a writer is, the less seriously they take any award. They know that the only real competition they are up against is themselves.

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