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Archive for January, 2014

Sadly, I’ve come to believe that most groups working for social change are dragged down by those I call lifestyle activists – people who believe the right principles, but who have no belief or interest in the possibility of change. Instead, their main interest is to define themselves and denigrate others by expressing activist beliefs.

For example, I recently read a conversation on Twitter about the shortage of women in technology. One lifestyle activist suggested that the problem was not that women weren’t in the field already. A man with a history of support for women in computing commented, “it’s a little more complicated, isn’t it? It’s systemic. It’s not like we just discard all the women resumes,” and the lifestyle activist accused him of patronizing her. He responded mildly, saying he was trying to understand, and she replied that she wasn’t “someone who gives a fuck about helping you.” After he politely bowed out of the conversation, she continued to make sarcastic comments aimed at what he had said.

It’s not surprising, of course, that an advocate for women in technology should get tired of continually hearing the same questions. Repetition of basic questions is rarely endearing. Nor should she be expected to welcome mansplaining – men telling her what she already knows first hand far better than they should.

Yet, at the same time, from the context, the man was obviously an ally. If he asked questions that were too common, he seemed open enough that – unlike most men with similar questions – he could probably be taught something. However, instead of taking the chance to educate him, the lifestyle activist leaped to the conclusion that he was as clueless as other men she had encountered and attacked him.

Not being a total stranger to activism myself, I’m tempted to ask the lifestyle activist what she expects. If you take positions that are outside the social norm, you shouldn’t exactly be shocked that people want to talk about them. You need to set borders so that you don’t spend more time answering questions than you care to and you may grumble in private about ignorant questions and even more ignorant outsiders – but the one thing you should never do is forget that, for other people, when you speak you represent your cause. If you are rude, what outsiders will remember is not that you personaly were rude, but that people who support your cause in general are rude. Those who want to help bring about change can never afford to forget the fact that, by being an activist, you invite others to view you as a teacher.

Sadly, though, the woman in this example was not motivated by any such understanding. Instead, the tenets of feminism were weapons for her personal use. She used them to lash out at a stranger in revenge for past encounters with others. If the idea that she might be hurting her own cause occurred to her, it had no visible effect on her behavior. Her reaction was so far beyond anything justified by the exchange that it looks like nothing except an expression of ego. If the man or anyone reading the exchange didn’t become hostile to feminism in technology, the reason has more to do with them than with her.

This kind of lifestyle activism is not new. George Orwell noted in the 1930s and 1940s that the English left had been out of power so long that most of its members were incapable of suggesting responsible policy alternatives. All they could do was condemn existing policies and reinforce their identity as leftists. You can can see the same sort of reaction today on the left, or in environmentalism or any other cause intended to create change.

Lifestyle activism is so prevalent that I think it explains why society as a whole is so slow to change. Too many of those who appear to be working for change are really busy feeling good about themselves at the expense of their alleged causes.

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Four notes of “Waltzing with Bears,” and I’m there, hearing the song for the first time as it echoes through the middle of the night in the atrium of the Clark Kerr Conference Center at the University at Berkeley, with a couple of dozen people in every costume imaginable singing the chorus as they do their best to waltz.

The occasion was Mythcon XIX. I was in graduate school, with a travel grant to deliver a paper that would eventually become the first chapter of my thesis. Trish and I were staying at Greyhaven, where, Paul Edwin Zimmer had told us, we could stay in the dojo with six witches from Denver. His promise sounded like the start of a dirty joke, but it was true – although he hadn’t mentioned that the witches’ harps would be taking up most of the space.

We were so excited that we could almost have flown south without the aid of Cathay Pacific. About mid-afternoon, we pulled up in a taxi in front of Greyhaven, that famous center for fantasy writers, pagans, poets, Renaissance dancers, the Society for Creative Anachronism hanger-on. “It looks just like the cover,” Trish said of the house, referring to the Greyhaven anthology that had been published a few years back. As the taxi pulled away, I got the anthology out of my bag to confirm the fact.

My first impression was of a house that was semi-dark, piled high with books, and full of people coming and going. Paul, we were told, was not awake yet, being nocturnal, but I soon got lost in the bewildering array of introductions. Somehow, we ended up on the second floor’s porch, talking with Kelson as he build a cardboard boat for a play that would be performed at the conference. When we left, Vancouver had been enduring a hot spell, so we remarked at the pleasant coolness on the porch, although I don’t think Kelson quite believed us.

We felt a little out of depth, since we were meeting many people for the first time. However, Paul rose early to greet us – something that rarely happened – and soon we were off on a conversation that raced back and forth like a terrier out for a walk in the park, and back on familiar ground.

That night, the house held a party. The party marked the opening of Mythcon, but we were made so welcome that it almost felt like a celebration in our honor. Here were all these brilliant people, some of them famous in their own circles, like Vampyre Mike Kassel the poet and Brother Charles (aka The Mad Monk), and we were accepted as belonging to the crowd. It was people-watching on a scale that I had rarely managed before, and I was ready to make the most of it, brachiating from conversation to conversation like an orangutan. I hadn’t been so over-excited since I was a boy.

Mind you, I did worry a bit when an earnest-looking young Unitarian minister and his wife latched on to us, apparently as the most normal-looking people at the party. We weren’t used to thinking of ourselves that way, and the impression made me feel for a moment that our welcome was tentative. But I laughed off the feeling, and the party continued, with more people drunk on words than what was in their glasses.

We spent the next day exploring Telegraph Avenue, and in the evening walked up to the conference center for the official start of Mythcon. It felt like a more subdued version of the previous night, as we worried with Ursula K. Le Guin about our mutual friend Avram Davidson and met Mythies like Sherwood Smith and David Bratman for the first time. We felt so much at home, that somewhere in the evening I found myself volunteering to help with next year’s Mythcon, which was being held in Vancouver.

The next two days were given over to the scholarly papers. I attended some, but what I remember most were the endless conversations and the unofficial events, like the performers doing a dance based on Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, the play based on Diane Paxson’s Westria series in which Kelson and his cardboard boat appeared, and Don Studebaker appearing in his role as Mark Twain in an expensive-looking ice-cream suit and extemporizing answers to questions from the audience.

Most of all, I remember the bardic circles. These were parties where each person took a turn performing or reciting a song or poem, asked someone else to perform, or passed. Presided over by Paul Zimmer in full Scottish regalia, the circles were even more magical than the rest of the conference, going on until three or four in the morning, when we would stagger down the street to Greyhaven and collapse down in the dojo.

I believe it was the second night that the semi-professional singers joined the circle. A man and a woman, they were in High Renaissance costume, each carrying an outsized balalaika. They seemed much more accomplished than the rest of us, and I could see Paul worrying that they might discourage members of the circle who were shy.

Cunningly, Paul started the circle so that the turn of the professionals would come mid-way around, an hour or two into the first round. As they started, I had a momentary fear that would try to dominate, but instead they started playing “Waltzing with Bears,” making waltz-like motions and dipping cautiously as they tried to reconcile dancing with protecting their instruments.

Maybe it was the instruments that got to everyone. Or maybe it was the echoes in the atrium or the contrast between their bright costumes and the dark just beyond the windows, or all these things at once. But whatever the reason, Paul and a few others started dancing to the music as well.

At the end, everyone cheered and applauded, and asked to hear the song again. This time, almost all of us got up, some in suits and ties, others in cutoffs or Medieval or Regency costume. Everyone was laughing. I’m not sure that we didn’t hear the song three times, but before the second performance was halfway through, I doubt anyone was in a condition to count.

After a break, the circle continued another couple of hours. Nothing quite equaled “Waltzing with Bears,” but the members of the circle were mellow after the performance, gradually running out of energy close to sunrise. I think we got three hours of sleep that night, which made the trip home something of a challenge. But the feeling that we had participated in a golden moment lingered for another couple of days, and I have never quite forgotten the moment ever since.

I’ve seen my share of trauma and pain, but my memory of that performance reminds me that the wonderful and the unexpected have happened to me, too. At times, I even look at one of the many Youtube renderings of the song, wondering if it was really written by Dr. Seuss, as sometimes claimed. But after listening to the song, I turn quiet, knowing that the people who made the memory are dispersed or dead, and that I will never have another chance to go waltzing with bears.

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Thanks to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibit, I not only have a greater appreciation of Charles Edenshaw as an individual artist, but a greater understanding of his key role on the Renaissance of First Nations Art in the Pacific Northwest. But, increasingly, I wonder about the man behind the art. What was his inner life like?

Glimpses of his life do exist. In During My Time, his daughter Florence Davidson mentions how her father used to say a prayer, then sit himself down on the low chair he preferred and work for the next twelve hours. I believe, too that Davidson tells how he once said that he was tired of art, and wouldn’t do any in his next life; a great nephew who showed no interest in art but died early is suspected to have been his reincarnation. Haida friends also tell me that a lively oral tradition about Edenshaw continues to exist on Haida Gwaii, and from his art, I infer a man with great powers of concentration and attention to detail who took pride in his work.

But such glimpses are tantalizingly few, especially for such a man and such times as he lived in. Almost immediately, the reliable information trails off into surmises. He was said to have been sickly in his youth, and even in his prime, he looks small and fragile in the pictures that have survived, and possibly not too steady on his feet. His early ill-health is often surmised to be the reason he turned to art to make a living – he simply wasn’t rugged enough to earn a living by fishing and logging, like other men of his generation.

Yet what he thought about his life is completely unknown. Did he ever feel resentful at having to live a sedentary life? Or was he quiet man, content to stay close at home and perhaps see more of his family than most of his generation of men? We simply don’t know.

Nor do we know how he felt about the great events happening around him. How did he feel about the epidemics that wiped out most of his generation among the Haida? Was he grateful to survive, or did he sometimes brood at his work bench, wondering how he survived? Was he proud of the titles he accumulated due to the gaps in the successions? Or did he see himself as a caretaker of the titles, assuming them in trust for future generations?

Similarly, I wonder why he accepted baptism in middle age. Did he hope that Christianity might preserve him and his family from other epidemics? Did he see his culture as ending, and Christianity as a way into the future? Or did he see baptism as a way of hedging his bets, an accommodation that allowed him to preserve more of his culture than opposition would? Perhaps as the leader of his people, he converted to maintain his authority over the increasingly Christian Haida clans and houses. Or perhaps he was genuinely drawn to Christianity.

But we do not know any of the reasons for what he did. We do not even know what he thought of the art that such a central feature of his art. I would give a lot to know whether he ever thought of his life’s work as anything other than a way to feed his family. Did he see himself as an individual artist, the way that those from European and American cultures do? Did he hold himself responsible for preserving parts of Haida culture that the epidemics had left abandoned, or was Haida culture just a commodity that he could sell to make a living?

I wonder, too, whether the man who was known in his lifetime as Charlie among English-speakers be proud or embarrassed to be addressed in tones of respect as Charles. I imagine that a man who had taken on so many names as his importance as a chief increased would have taken taken yet another name in his stride. Still, what would he have thought about his influence on the modern art of not only the Haida, but their hereditary enemies the Tsimshian and all the other nations up and down the coast. Did he ever imagine such a role, even for a moment when talking to Franz Boas and the other ethnographers? Or was he too busy going about his life to ever imagine that anyone else would take take such an interest in his work?

At this point, the only answer to all these questions is that at this point we will never know. Fortunately, we do not have to know, because his art is eloquent by itself. But, historically, the man himself remains laconic, and frustratingly close to mute.

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I once heard someone claim that “aborigine” was a racist term for First Nations people. By analogy to “abnormal,” he interpreted “aborigine” to mean “not of the same origins,” and refused to believe me when I said it was simply Latin for “from the beginning” – that is people who have always lived in a land. However, after doing a little digging, I believe that he may have been right for the wrong reason.

I had always assumed that “aborigine” was a word coined by the builders of the 19th Century European empires. Recently, however, I found that the word was used by the Romans themselves since at least the start of the common era.

The best known use of the word is by Virgil in the Aeneid to refer to the original inhabitants of Italy. As you may know, the Aeneid gives Rome’s ruling class a heroic ancestry, making them the descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who fled the sack of Troy by the Greeks and lengthy wanderings and adventures, settled in Italy. The Aborigines were the local people Aeneas found there, fought with, and eventually dispossessed.

Besides this myth of origins, “aborigine” also seems to have used outside of literature to refer to the city states and cultures around Rome that were conquered during republican times. Eventually, these cultures would absorb Roman culture and receive full rights as citizens, but as late as the last days of the republic, they were considered not quite as good as those born Roman. For instance, the lawyer and orator Cicero may have been a senator and even served in the highest offices of the government, but he was always known as a New Man, meaning someone not born in Rome, or with any pretense to nobility.

In both these useages, the innocuous-sounding word takes on a more unpleasant connotation. In both Roman literature and history, “aborigine” did not refer only to the first people who lived in a country. More specifically, it was a word applied to those conquered by the Romans.

When the word was revived in the days of European imperialism, anyone with even a few years of education was likely to have studied Latin, so this connotation would hardly have been missed. In using the word, the Europeans were comparing themselves to Rome, and the peoples of North America and Australia to those conquered by the Romans. If any were not conquered, they were eventually destined to be. Such a designation for other people is hardly unusual – after all, “Wales,” the English name for Cymru, originated in the Old English word “wealh,” meaning “slave.”

The word is inaccurate, of course. Especially in British Columbia, the First Nations were never conquered, instead being decimated eight or nine times over by disease until they could no longer resist Europeans settling in their lands. This fact remains a basic premise in dozens of lands claims.

However,even more importantly, the word implies that the First Nations are inferior. At the very least, it suggests that they are unfit to govern themselves, and should be controlled by others. As a racial epithet, it might be slightly better than “nigger,” but only because few people today are familiar with Latin, making the insult less obvious.

Still, the insult exists even if largely unknown. I strongly suggest that people banish “aborigine” from their vocabulary except when explaining the connotations, and use “First Nations,” as most of the people denoted prefer. Describing them as aborigines is no more accurate than calling them Indians – and even more insulting.

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Towards the end of 2014, I will have been writing about free and open source software (FOSS) for a decade. The realization surprises me, because I am used to thinking of myself a newcomer. More – I still think of myself as an outsider whose criticisms do not apply to me as much as those who might be called colleagues. Under the circumstances, I hesitate to talk about the quality of coverage that FOSS receives, even though honesty forces me to say that much of it is not very good.

The outlook is not completely bleak. There are some FOSS journalists whom I am proud to call colleagues, such as Carla Schroder, with her practical outlook and wicked turn of phrase, or Steven J. Vaughan-Nicholls who has been reporting and commenting on technology in general and FOSS in particular longer than just about anyone.

However, for every one whom I admire, there are many others who leave me wincing and rushing to analyze my latest article to check whether I am guilty of exactly the same tendencies that I publicly deplore. Specifically, I see at least seven problems with how FOSS is covered:

A lack of journalistic training: I was lucky to have apprenticed at Linux.com in the days of Robin Miller and Lee Schlesinger. Even though I have no formal education in journalism, they hammered into my head the ethical standards of journalism, teaching me about fairness, conflicts of interest and the differences between reporting and editorializing, as well as a dozen other things I needed to know. However, too many of those writing about FOSS – like most of the computer press in general – have no idea that they need anything beyond a fondness for the sound of their own voice. They don’t know how to summarize opposing views accurately, much less that they have any obligation to try. Nor do they check facts. Readers are the poorer for their failures.

A lack of business and marketing experience: Working in business is invaluable for a tech journalist. Such experience teaches you how far you should trust news releases and how a product is brought to market. Unless you know these things, you are likely to be credulous, accepting information that you should be questioning. For instance, when Canonical announced the first vendor for its phones but declined to say who that vendor was, most FOSS journalists focused on the first part of the news and ignored the second. Only blogger Larry Cafiero, who is a mainstream journalist by day, reached the right conclusion: Without the vendor’s name, the news was the manufacturing equivalent of vaporware and essentially worthless.

An imbalance between writing skills and technical expertise: Like the technical writers who crank out manuals, FOSS journalists come in one of two forms. Either they are people who know how to write, or people with expertise. The result? On one hand, you get well-written articles that tend to avoid technical details. On the other hand, you get expert articles that are so arcane that they might as well be written in assembly language. Too few writers seem to strive for articles that are both well-written and expert in their subject matter.

An apocalyptic outlook: Talking about companies and products, FOSS journalists tend to speak in absolutes. Linux will bury Windows one day, and Android triumph absolutely over iOS. What no one notices, however, is that such Conan-esque victories rarely occur except when you are talking about startups and very small companies. When the companies involved are larger, what you usually see is incomplete victories in which market share changes hand, but most of the competitors continue to co-exist.

Quickie reviews: Once you have experience, writing reviews is easier because you know what to look for. Yet, even then, you need time to investigate. But, instead of taking the necessary time, too many reviews touch on the least important parts of their topics, such as the installation program. Nor do they take the time to look for general tendencies in a new release, simply recording a bunch of random observations instead. Such practices frequently make reviews next door to useless.

Too much fanboyism (or fangirlism): It should go without saying that those who write about FOSS believe in it and see themselves as helping it grow. However, loyalty to a cause should not mean blind acceptance of every vagary. As naïve as it sounds, journalists are supposed to deliver the first draft of history, doing their best to tell the truth even when doing so is inconvenient for the causes they support. They may be diplomatic in their expression of the truth, but they are still supposed to express it. This obligation does not make them traitors, as you sometimes hear; if anything, they are being more useful than those who pretend that no problems exist that need to be exposed.

Encouraging personality cults: FOSS is full of colorful personalities. However, although defining an issue as a battle between a couple of people adds drama to an issue, it usually simplifies and distorts it. For instance, the existence of the armed camps of free software and open source is not due just to the fact that Richard Stallman and Linus Toravalds have different personalities and leadership styles, but also to very different motivations shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Were Stallman or Torvalds to die abruptly, the issues would be no less urgent or influential.

In making these observations, I am not excluding myself. At one time or other, I have probably been guilty of all these problems, and one or two of them, I uneasily suspect, may be habitual with me. In fact, part of my reason for mentioning this problem is to identify them so that I can do more to avoid them.

But in addition to being a writer, I am also a reader. While I know all too well that deadlines mean that articles do not always receive the amount of thought they deserve, I also get impatient with the fact that so few articles about FOSS are worth reading or add to my understanding. Many of us who write about FOSS could do much better than we do – but we are hardly likely to try if the problems are never mentioned to begin with.

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