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Archive for July, 2013

Last week at the Vancouver Folk Festival, my dinner was pulled bison on bannock from Salmon’n’Bannock catering. The meal was so far above what I expected that yesterday, when my editor flew into town, I suggested going to the restaurant of the same name. The result was the most memorable meal I’ve had this year.

Salmon’n’Bannock is a small restaurant on Broadway specializing in First Nations cuisine. Its walls are decorated with Northwest Coast and Woodlands prints of decent but not outstanding quality, and the front of the house is staffed with women dressed in black who provide friendly but unobtrusive service.

What makes Salmon’n’Bannock stand out is its approach to the food. Other First Nations restaurants that have come and gone in Vancouver usually took what might be called the hearty approach, serving thick steaks of game and plenty of greasy (but delicious fry bread). In contrast, Salmon’n’Bannock interprets its roots in terms of light, modern cuisine, and does so with considerable success.

For instance, its cured muskox appetizer is not a slab of meat, but a few slivers of meat with blueberry chutney, served on bannock crackers with a few salad greens. Similarly, the salmon platter for two – which I did not eat, but saw delivered to a nearby table – consists of samples of salmon prepared in four different ways (Indian candy, lox roll, salmon mousse, and pickled sockeye), all of which look unexpectedly delicate.

As might be expected, the restaurant focuses on local sea food, especially salmon and halibut. However, the menu also includes extensive samplings of game from across Canada, including bison, muskox, deer and wild boar. Wild rice, sweet potatoes, and salad greens make most of the garnishes.

My main course was bacon-crusted halibut, served with a garlic cream sauce. At any time, halibut is my favorite fish, its taste being far lighter and more delicate than any variety of salmon, but this was by far the best I had tasted anywhere. The flesh was soft and white, and its subtle taste was emphasized by the juice of the bacon and its fat. From the enjoyment my editor took in the sockeye with creamy dill sauce, I suspect I would have liked it almost as much.

Both the halibut and the salmon were served with a selection of zucchini and carrots, and, at our option with large portions of wild rice. The vegetables seemed a bit of an afterthought, but that seemed excusable, considering that the fish were the main attraction of both dishes, both by intent and execution.

We washed dinner down with alcoholic strawberry and rhubarb cider, and finished a fresh berry pie served with ice-cream that left me wanting to sample more of the menu on a second, or even a third or fourth visit.

If Salmon’n’Bannock has a fault, it is that, instead of cooking traditional dishes, it is more likely to take traditional ingredients and combine them in what – judging from their distribution across North America – could not have been traditional ways.

At times, this choice was probably just as well – I expect, for instance, that most modern diners would prefer to eat the halibut with bacon rather than a pot of grease prepared with their auntie’s special recipe. But I wouldn’t have minded an option for fry bread, even though the baked bannock was almost as tasty. Next time, too, I plan to try the Nuxalk salmon soup, the only traditional dish on the menu.

However, for lovers of fish and game, such faults are minor. I can’t think of another casual restaurant in Vancouver (or any restaurant, period) whose fish I enjoyed so much. So far as I’m concerned, the Salmon’n’Bannock is the place I’ll be taking visitors for the next little while. In fact, I don’t think I’ll wait for my next visitors for my next step in eating through the menu.

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Early this week, developer Sarah Sharp complained about lack of politeness on the Linux kernel mailing list, singling out Linus Torvalds as a prime example of rudeness. Having not persuaded many people, she took her complaints public. Soon dozen of bloggers were condemning Torvalds, and hundreds of commenters were either joining in the condemnation or defending him. But, looking at all the responses, I wonder what everyone imagined they were doing. Feeling good about themselves, maybe?

Don’t get me wrong – as an ex-university instructor, who used to give out criticism to students, I know that rudeness is a poor way to motivate people to improve. They’re more likely to resent the criticism than to change their ways. True, Torvalds is more interested in issues than people, and seems to accept people answering his rudeness with their own, but I still suspect that the Linux kernel is a successful project despite his manner, not because of it.

However, the difference between me and the people publicly expressing outrage is that, as fond as I am of expressing my opinions (that is, after all, what I get paid for), I don’t make the mistake of believing that my opinion matters. It certainly isn’t going to improve the tone of the kernel list.

Condemning Torvalds in public may satisfy the need for self-expression. It may publicly align you with the forces of Progress and Good. However, one thing it will never do is to improve civility within the kernel project. Even if thousands of people express their outrage, it won’t do anything.

In every way imaginable, Torvalds is immune to such criticism. If nothing else, I doubt he reads it. Furthermore, he rationalizes by assuming a dichotomy between effective bluntness and politeness that, for all its falseness, gives him no reason to consider reforming himself (although he might welcome a good argument as amusing).

But how anyone imagines him vulnerable to public criticism is beyond me. He has never been before. The kernel is his project, and few developers are going to work on a fork in preference to the cachet of working with Linux.

Even pressuring him through the Linux Foundation, his nominal employer, has no chance of success. Sponsoring Torvalds legitimizes the Linux Foundation, which means that it needs him far more than he needs it. In the unlikely event that the Linux Foundation did try to chastise him, as a mufti-millionaire he can walk away any time he pleases.

In the end, being outraged by Torvalds’ rudeness is no more than elaboration on the idea that you are helping world hunger or some other cause by clicking Like on a Facebook link. It’s easy to do, and leaves you pleased with yourself, but you have confused an expression of concern with effective action.

The Internet allows considerable freedom of speech, and the free software community often has a democratic appearance. However, neither of these facts means that all of us have an equal say in every situation. In this case, the only people whose opinion matters are those who have any chance of making a change – kernel contributors.

Instead of mouthing off in public, if you really want change on the kernel list, lobby kernel contributors, especially Torvalds’ lieutenants. If you are a kernel contributor, come out in support of a code of conduct, and try to enlist other contributors. None of these actions have any guarantee of success, but they have a far greater chance of encouraging change than saying, “Me, too!” in public.

Put so bluntly, the choice of tactics sounds obvious. But the fact that so many seem to think that condemning politeness is enough to cause change suggests that, on some levels, for most people it is not at all obvious. In the end, campaigning for change is slow and unglamorous, and lacks the immediate satisfaction of posturing as rebel via a token gesture, yet it has two unarguable advantages – it is unhypocritical, and it just might work.

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My late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer used to insist that poetry was supposed to be heard. He proved it many times, booming out his verse at bardic circles around the Bay Area and science fiction conventions across North America. His position was a welcome reminder, but I had learned its truth while I was in university during a single magical day.

At the time, I was serious about poetry, writing and publishing regularly, and theorizing about metrics in the little time left over from my academic classes. I was skeptical about the poetic establishment (as any young poet should be), and sure I was going to shake it up (and never be one of those academic poets who taught for a living). When my friend Stuart announced a garden party during which his new poem, a Georgian pastoral, would be read, I quickly took on the voice of the Young Man in the poem.

The day of the reading was one of those hard, bright days that the Lower Mainland sometimes gets in summer. The setting was the garden of Stuart’s parents, which softened the harshness of the day with a mixture of strategic shade and explosions of flowers. Among the guests were Stuart’s girlfriend of the moment and her younger sister of sixteen, as well as my high school English teacher, who lived a few houses down.

I was proud to be taking part and doing my bit to take poetry out of the class room. Aided by a few glasses of wine, I read my part in increasingly rolling tones, like an out of control Laurence Olivier without the talent, intoxicated more by my own self-importance than the alcohol. As always happens when I start reciting poetry, I felt myself taken over by the poetry, and I floated through the rest of the party with a lingering sense of excitement.

But that wasn’t all. When Stuart drove his girlfriend and her sister to catch the ferry to Nanaimo, I went with them. Since we had missed one ferry, we stopped at West Vancouver’s miniature Parthenon.

The place was some millionaire’s folly, with a small temple built on a headland and some credible copies of Classical Greek statues. People used to stop at the first rest stop after the ferry to look down on it and take photos of it with their telephoto lenses and to marvel of the incongruity of the place in the middle of the rain forest.

It’s long gone now, divided into subdivisions after the owner’s death. In fact, it was being dismantled when we visited, the statues hauled from their plinths and a couple of the temple’s columns blackened by fire. Yet, in a way, the ruined splendor added to the attraction. We slipped past the No Trespassing signs in the growing dark, and were soon standing on the plinths, reciting bits of Stuart’s poem, our words booming off the cliffs that ringed the temple on most of its landward side.

For a while, I worried that the sound would bring the police down on us, especially since we were waving bottles of beer and hard cider as we declaimed. I was worrying, too, about how I might get the sister’s phone number before she boarded the ferry. But the sound of our voices was so impressive that I soon forgot such considerations.

Suddenly, the ruins and rocky cliffs reminded me of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” I began reciting it by heart, the sound of my voice much improved by the echoes off the cliffs. I remember experimenting with various pitches, completely overwhelmed by the magnificence of the words rolling through the air around me.

It must have been almost as impressive to the others as it was to me, because when I was done, everyone was silent for a moment, and began praising my delivery. Even I recognized that nothing could follow Coleridge’s masterpiece, and that it was clearly time to go.

I don’t remember dropping off the women, or returning to my parent’s house an hour or so later. But I do remember enthusing to Stuart about the importance of hearing poetry, and turning off the light that night, still glowing from the glory of the sound in the temple. That, I decided, was how poetry should be heard, and I fell asleep full of plans to save the place as a park so that others could enjoy what I had. It was only next morning that I realized I had forgot to get the sister’s phone number, and, even then, I was still so light-headed from the experience that I only minded a little.

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This morning, I booted my computer to learn than an article of mine had reached Slashdot. It wasn’t the first time, nor even twentieth. All the same, the news made me feel that the engines of the world had received a tune-up overnight, and were now purring along the way they were supposed to.

The first time an article of mine appeared on Slashdot, I was less restrained. Actually, I shouted, “Yes!” in the middle of the office and did a sincere but awkward tap dance down the aisles while I punched the sky and alternated between chortles and meaningless ecstatic sounds. Not bad, I thought, considering that four months earlier I hadn’t even heard of Slashdot, the portal site for geeks and nerds.

However, if my reaction this morning was more subdued, it was just as full of satisfaction. As a reader, I may express disdain for Slashdot’s audience, dismissing its members as immature, misogynistic, and possessed of an instinctive ability to miss the point in any given story. Yet each time Slashdot links to an article of mine, I feel the same heady mixture of satisfaction and vindication.

This reaction is only peripherally connected to the fact that I get a small bonus when Slashdot links to one of my articles. By the time I receive that bonus, at least three weeks will have passed, and the bonus is not so large that I can indulge in much anticipatory spending.

Nor is my ego triggered by the fact that a segment of the free software world will be chewing on my thoughts down to the bone like a school of piranhas. After all, I’ve no stranger to comments, and, although I make the point of reading most of what people say about my articles, familiarity has long ago bred indifference to all but the most quirky or thoughtful reactions.

Besides, by the time Slashdot picks up a story, I’ve usually moved on. Even if only a day or two has passed, I’m working on another story – which makes me wonder how actors and writers manage to promote work they did over a year ago on the talk show circuit. How, I wonder, do they keep up the pretense of caring? If they are anything like me, the works they’re talking about must feel as though they were written or performed by someone else.

Rather, my satisfaction comes from the sense of readership. Writing, as most people who’ve tried it will testify, is a solitary business. Mostly, I don’t mind that, since the alternative is to work in an office on projects that are far less interesting, but sometimes the isolation does get to me – not just socially (which is another story), but in the form of self-doubt. Is anyone reading my stuff? I start thinking. Frequently I have to go out and swim or cycle until I’m too tired to maintain the doubting..

However, when an article makes Slashdot, the question is answered with a resounding affirmative. For a day or two – maybe three or four, if the subject matter is especially controversial — at least a segment of the free software is riffing off my thoughts. For a few days more, the number of blogs about my thoughts increases.

I know, of course, that the interest is transitory. Unless you happen to be a George Orwell, day to day journalism is rarely remembered for its thought or style. I know, too, that if people weren’t discussing my articles, they’d be discussing someone else’s.

All the same, however briefly, the interest is there. It never fails to surprise, humble, and even frighten me. But it also justifies me for a moment. For a short time, I have managed to entertain – intellectually, I hope, for the most part but maybe with some humor and emotional appeal and usefulness occasionally thrown in as well. That’s why appearing on Slashdot is better than any award could ever be (not that I’d accept a nomination in the unlikely event that I was put up for one). It’s proof that something I wrote has interested someone other than me — and almost as satisfying the latest time as the first.

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The first time I saw Pong, I knew that massive change was coming – and that I would spend my life against the background of that change.

I was a high school junior at the time. I was in Yakima, Washington, with the other top two runners from my training group with the Vancouver Olympic Club. We had spent most of the day on the bus, and had been picked up at the bus depot by the head coach of the running camp we were scheduled to start the next day. The coach found a hotel for us, warned us of the consequences of getting into trouble before he picked us up early the next morning, then left us to our own resources.

Not that there was much chance of trouble. We were upper middle class kids (middle class, in my case), and our idea of a wild time would have been to have a couple of beers. But we were in a small town in eastern Washington on a Sunday evening, so our chances of getting into trouble were mathematically remote. After experiencing the minor thrill of paying for our own dinners, we had several hours to kill and few resources for making them interesting.

Not knowing what else to do, we started walking. Back then, Yakima’s downtown (or at least the part we found ourselves in) consisted mainly of three or four story stone or brick buildings, the newest of which must have been fifty years old. Had I known the labor history I knew a few years later, I might have been amused myself – if not the others – by finding the locations of famous strikes, but at the time I knew nothing of such matters. All the architecture told me was that I was some distance from home.

We passed a couple of taverns, and looked into one, getting cursed for our troubles. Like many athletic teens, we not only looked our age but a couple of years younger, so trying for a drink was out of the question. We passed a strip joint and laughed uneasily at the thought of what we might do there if we were any more daring.

Another store front turned out to be a makeshift chapel. The minister was preaching to a couple of old men and several rows of empty chairs. He saw us, and gestured for us to sit down, all without interrupting his Baptist-style preaching. One of my friends was tempted to listen for a while, but we dragged him out by his elbows, laughing as though we had found those mythical beers after all.

Finally, we found an amusement arcade. Most of it was filled with pinball machines and mechanical games that haven’t existed now for decades. It wasn’t dusty, but looked as though it should have been.

Still, it was a way to spend our evening – if not one that we were going to boast about. Soon, we we working systematically around the machines.

It was waiting for us in the middle of the third wall, obviously newer than the other machines in the arcade, and resembling what even then we recognized as a computer. “Pong,” it said across the top, and the word was strange enough to be enticing.

In these days of 32 bit, 3-D graphics, Pong is nothing much: just two rectangles that move vertically, but not horizontally, and a square representing the ball that moved at angles rather than in a curve. The sole aim was to get the ball past your opponent’s rectangle – either the machine or another player. But we had never seen anything like it. At fifty cents, it was twice the price of the other machines, but as soon as we saw it, we forgot about all the other machines, feeding quarter after quarter into it and pausing only to get more change or to give the others a chance to play.

After all this time, I can’t speak for my friends. But for me, the fascination wasn’t in the game. No doubt a world Pong champion exists who can contradict me, but there wasn’t much strategy that I could see beyond aiming and trying for an angled shot whose trajectory or increased speed might slip past your opponent.

But as we quickly organized a tournament among the three of us, what kept me interested was the possibilities. I had spent much of summer playing board games, usually against myself, and I understood almost at once that in another few versions, such computerized games would solve my lack of opponents problem. I knew Pong was primitive, but I took it as a proof of concept – as a promise of better to come.

When we were finally quarterless, we found our way back to our hotel room, stopping only for the decadence of bedtime milk shakes. As I lay awake in my strange bed, staring up at the ceiling, my excitement wasn’t about the cross-country camp starting in a few hours. It was about that next-to-mindless game of Pong, and the thought of what might come after it.

The next day, ordinary reality reasserted itself. Yet my conviction about the importance of Pong never wavered. A year or two later, when Space Invaders came out, I recognized it immediately as the next step that I had been expecting. I never thought of taking computer science, my talents being more verbal than mathematical, yet the conviction remained absolute..

Forget reading science fiction. I was living in a science fiction age, and the fabulous promises of Pong would be part of the fabric of my life.

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