Archive for the ‘journalism’ Category

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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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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Every now and then, someone takes a harsh view of my journalism – not my how-tos and reviews so much as my commentary. From some people’s perspectives, I am trolling, trying to deliberately create controversy, specifically in the hopes of getting more page hits on my articles. I never quite know how to answer such attacks, because they are so far from what actually happens that I doubt they would believe my explanations could possibly be true.

However, if I did try to explain, I would have to start with the fact that I am a writer, not an editor. Unlike an editor, I hardly think about page hits. Page hits may affect whether a given website continues to buy my articles, and occasionally an editor will veto a suggested topic on the grounds that it has never done well, but otherwise? Planning writing around page hits sounds all too likely to mean writing about topics that don’t particularly interest me, or about which I have nothing original to say. If I wanted to write that way, I would go back to writing technical manuals, which not only pays more, but also pays more regularly.

My first consideration when choosing a topic is whether I can write about it while it is still timely. Online articles are rarely current for more than a few days, and sometimes my other obligations or the complexity of what I would like to say mean that I have no time to do a particular topic. justice, even if it interests me. Rather than do a superficial job, in these situations I prefer to ignore a topic altogether.

However, for me, the biggest perq of journalism is that I get to write about what interests me, restricted only by the need for editorial approval. When I am generating topics, what I think about is: Am I interested enough in this topic to spend the hours that the story takes to write? Are the facts interesting and important to readers? Do I have any perspectives that are different enough from those of the half dozen or so others who might write on this topic that I can contribute something original to the discussion?

Unless I can answer all these questions with “Yes,” I usually avoid a story – which is why I only occasionally write about breaking news. (Well, that and the fact that living on the Pacific coast means that by the time I log on in the morning, writers living on the east coast have probably already filed their stories). I figure that a story that will bore me will probably bore a lot of readers as well, and fortunately most editors regard me as more than a reporter on the beat. Most of the time, most editors will trust my judgment on whether a story is worth writing.

Perhaps I should be flattered that my detractors think of me as a sort of Professor Moriarty of journalism, constantly engaged in manipulations of everyone around me in the fulfillment of some obscure but diabolical agenda. But honestly? I lack both the energy and inclination for the requisite plotting.

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For most of the last week, I’ve been having a troll problem. I’m not going to provide a link, because one encounter with trolls is very much like another. Usually, it starts with a hijacked thread, and involves a lot of generalizations and name-calling based on comments taken out of context, conspiracy theories, and a kind of naive cynicism that insists that I could never have done anything except for the worst of reasons.. This encounter was no different, and, like the others I’ve had, leaves me uncertain how I should respond.

I have no trouble with someone who disagrees with me. I enjoy the benefits of a liberal education, in which differences of opinion are seen as a chance to deepen and expand the discussion. Nor am I young enough to expect everyone to like me – in fact, in most cases, I’m relieved when a troll dislikes me, because I usually don’t think much of them, either.

But as a former teacher of rhetoric and composition, I am by nature incapable of ignoring a fallacious argument – especially if it is directed at me. Let someone judge me by a single sentence from a single work, or misquote or take a sentence out of context, and I’m immediately tempted to leap in with a correction. As I have said many times, if you’re going to disagree with what I’ve said, please make it something I actually said and not something that you imagine that I have said. Whether out of carelessness, vindictiveness, or inability, very few trolls seem capable of reading or reporting with any accuracy or precision, so enticing me to reply is often ridiculously easy.

Not only that, I am all too aware of how others might interpret my silence. Will they go away thinking that the troll’s inaccuracies are true? Will they think that my silence is an admission of guilt, that I am ashamed to reply? Worse, will I think myself cowardly? With such questions buzzing in my mind, I can easily find myself wrestling with trolls before I realize what I am doing.

At the same time, I am well-aware that answering is only going to waste my time. By definition, trolls lack an open-mind, and no eloquence of mine will coax an apology out of them, ever. Anything I say will be taken in the worst possible way, if not dismissed outright, and I will convince them of nothing. If I manage to counter one barrage, another will simply start up from a different direction, often using my replies as additional ammunition against me. Under these circumstances, almost anything else will be a better use of my time.

Usually, I compromise, and confine myself to two replies. That way, I reason, I can satisfy my urge to reply and correct any misrepresentations for any audience without taking up too much of time. This time, unfortunately, I was distracted enough to make several other replies before stepping back, mainly because it has been a couple of years since I dealt with a troll, but I’ll remember next time.

This morning, after the thread’s owner had shut it down, the troll started up again from their own account. I’ve resisted the temptation to see what they are saying, but from experience I can predict it. They’ll revise the encounter to make me seem the unreasonable one, and their friends will chime in with words of support that will make them feel heroic for opposing my Satanic self.

But I’ll let them do so unopposed. I’m annoyed that I let myself be dragged in, and I won’t make the same mistake again any time soon. I never know whether attribute such encounters to hypocrisy, or incompetence, but what is clear to me is that, whatever this last week, it wasn’t a meeting of two minds. Att best, it was only a meeting of one and a half.

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A few weeks ago, an editor requested that I not start an article with a quote. They said it made them feel as though they were coming into the middle of a discussion they knew nothing about. I pride myself on being nothing less than professional, and don’t imagine that I am writing immortal prose, so I used another opening strategy as requested. However, I still believe that the request was more a matter of personal preference than a general rule.

To start with, in any opening paragraph, readers are coming into the middle of a discussion, so the same objection can be raised about any chosen tactic. Perhaps the quote I used wasn’t perfectly suited to its position, but that is no reason to condemn the use of an opening quote in general.

In fact, starting in the middle is a time-honored literary technique. It was recognized more than two millenia ago by the Roman poet Horace, who called it in media res, as opposed to ab ovo, or starting from the beginning. Admittedly, it is usually thought of as a technique for epic poetry or fiction, but a journalistic article is often a form of narrative, too. Personally, I figure that what was good enough for Homer in The Odyssey or Shakespeare in Hamlet is good enough for me.

For another, part of the purpose of an opening tactic is to attract readers’ curiosity. Sometimes the topic is novel enough or important enough that the first paragraph needs no embellishment, but that is an exception. An article published online is competing with thousands of others for readers’ attention, and, so long as you don’t mislead or make exaggerated claims, anything that helps it get noticed seems worth trying.

In this case, part of the reason that I started with a quote is that it is a reasonably uncommon tactic. But, in addition, the quote made an unusual claim, which I was counting on to raise curiosity enough for them to read the next few sentences, where they would learn more clearly what the article was about.

Moreover, because a quote implies a speaker, it is automatically personal and direct. Writers of new releases know that a quote helps interest readers – so much so that many make sure that the a quote falls in the second or third paragraph to keep readers going. In a long news release, writers will often add additional quotes further down to reduce the odds of readers’ attention straying. Although articles are less mechanically structured than news releases, quotes can have similar advantages in journalism. Starting with a quote has a strong chance of attracting readers’ attention precisely because it is so personal and direct.

Anyway, even if none of what I said here were true, a part of me always regards a general rule about writing as a challenge. Tell me that something can’t be done – or worse, shouldn’t be done – and my impulse is to try to do it successfully. So, while I have made a note to avoid using an initial quote any time that I work with this particular editor (who otherwise shows a keen sense of how to improve a piece of prose), don’t be surprised if I use one elsewhere. Being told I shouldn’t only makes me all the more likely to try.

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Say something controversial to me in person, and you usually don’t much of a response. I have to be unusually tired or fed up before I’ll do more than say something non-committal and make an excuse as soon as possible to leave. Often, my withdrawal will be to write about the outrageousness of what just happened, because, in print – having sold some 1400 articles and written some 665 blog entries – I’m not exactly known for my reticence. But occasionally, being silent even in print is forced on me by circumstance, although usually at the cost of biting my tongue hard enough that it needs a dozen stitches.

It doesn’t happen often. I have a naïve reverence for the power of dialog. Unlike my father, who learned in the army that giving your opinion could be dangerous if you were overheard by the brass, I believe in talking, no matter what the consequences. Despite countless examples to the contrary, I continue to believe, very simply and sincerely, that if I can just get a conversation started, I can improve things by pointing out previously overlooked nuances, working to keep people informed, and pointing out possible common ground or solutions that nobody else has raised.

The trouble is, the chance for dialog doesn’t always exist..

For example, once I had the kind of story that every writer dreams about. I had proof of some major financial inconsistencies that an organization had been making for several years running, up to and including a loan made to a former director. It was a rare case of black and white without nuance of gray, and I was practically cackling in anticipation of being a minor league Woodward or Bernstein.

The only trouble was, no reputable editor would touch it. Too controversial, they all said, even though I had evidence. Not the sort of thing we publish, one editor told me. So I fumed and stayed silent, and eventually the story sunk into irrelevancy.

Several times, too, some organization or person I had researched has done and said something rash, and I’ve been in the person in the best position to write a blistering op-ed in reply. And I wanted to, because their actions put one cause or another I believed in into disrepute. Sometimes, I even went so far as drafting a dissection of their actions and possible effects with all the verbal wit of a Dorothy Parker or the polemical skill of a Harlan Ellison (at least in my own imagination). But, in the end, I refrained from publishing.

In these cases, part of my restraint has been my deep-seated reluctance to join a lynch mob. I don’t care for the mob mentality, having been on its receiving end once or twice, and I won’t countenance it; it feels too much like being a bully, no matter how justified.

More importantly, while the organization or person may deserve to be called into account, the causes they represent may not. Yet it is not always easy to separate the organization or person from their causes. An attack on the organization of purpose may hurt the cause. So, once again, I shut up, fuming that I am letting someone get away with crassness or stupidity while seeing no other choice except to attack a worthwhile cause.

So what do I do while such events play out? I listen to favorite music. I go for harder than usual workouts. Sometimes, too, I write other things, including blog entries on the difficulty of silence.

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Parliamentary democracy is far from a perfect system of government. Its party system and first past the post elections are both serious flaws that seem increasingly unsuited to the modern world. However, it does include one concept that I find invaluable: that of the loyal opposition.

To anyone used to another system of government, the words “loyal opposition” may seem like an oxymoron. If someone was loyal, how could they oppose the government? If someone opposed the government, in what sense could they be loyal? Americans, with their system of confrontational politics, have a particularly hard time with the concept.

As a concept, the loyal opposition is reminiscent of the devil’s advocate. The assumption behind both is that questioning decisions and suggesting ways of modifying them makes for better decisions. It is also assumed that, in raising questions and making suggestions, the opposition is ultimately committed to making the government’s decisions better, and has a genuine allegiance to the country.

To someone trying to comprehend the idea, the loyal opposition sounds absurd at first. Since the opposition wants to form the government someday, surely its main motivation must be to discredit the government at every opportunity, rather than helping it to pass better laws or to take more useful actions. And today, to a large extent, people who think this way would be right.

All the same, the concept of the loyal opposition continues to exist. Especially in times of crisis, it allows a government and its opposition to act together. Yet, even in untroubled moments, it is not unusual to learn that the same people who exchange carefully restrained abuse in the House of Commons are in the habit of having a drink together in the evening.

I mention the concept because the loyal opposition is often the position I find myself in as a writer about free and open source software (FOSS). Despite the speed at which FOSS is growing, those involved in the community tend to be a small group. They know each other and, although feuds exist, they often support each other uncritically. They exchange praise easily, and rarely criticize each other – a situation that doesn’t always make for the best possible decisions.

Sometimes, users can correct this tendency by protesting clearly and repeatedly. However, users are not easily stirred up, and too much happens that would be better for a review.

That’s where people like me come in. I am all in favor of FOSS (if I wasn’t, I would be off doing something more lucrative), but there are frequently times when more feedback is useful, when a suggestion of alternatives is needed, or someone simply to say in public what everyone is saying in private emails and tweets. Nobody else is doing these things, so people like me write commentaries that do.

My criticism is rarely as harsh as it could be. In fact, you could probably get an accurate sense of my opinions by how diplomatically I phrase them. But, like the loyal opposition, I believe – perhaps arrogantly – that the community makes better decisions because someone says them at all.

Contrary to the knee-jerk cynicism of the Internet, it’s not because I am a paid troll, or set out to increase page hits by deliberately creating controversy. It’s because, like the loyal opposition, I am convinced that, frequently, voicing dissent is a greater sign of loyalty than unquestioning support.

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