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The other day, I read that Kodak would no longer be producing analog film. The newspaper did its best to make the new an end of an era story, with people lamenting the end of a tradition. But I admit that the laments left me cold. Technological nostalgia simply is not part of my personality.

It’s not as though I haven’t live through changes in technology. But many, such as the size and fuel of cars, are minor in the sense that they don’t affect the pace of daily life. Whether you ride in a sub-compact or a luxury car, the immediate experience is much the same. I feel the same way about black and white as opposed to color television, despite my fondness for film noir.

Other changes in technology seem improvements to me. A push-button phone is quicker and easier to use than a rotary one, although I remember being fascinated by the dials when I was in kindergarten.

As for typewriters, I understand that some older writers are used to them and want to stay with what they know. But give me a word processor and computer keyboard any day. I remember having to fiddle with whiteout and carbon paper, and having to retype a page because it had too many errors, and I have no wish to deal with these nuisances ever again. Nor am I fond of being restricted to red and black ink and (assuming you were lucky enough to have an IBM Selectric) a very limited set of typefaces – none of which had the collection of accents and umlauts needed to deal with every western European language, let alone anything else. While I took some time to get used to writing on a computer, now I wouldn’t go back to a typewriter at any cost.

The same goes for the old photographic processes that are now being lamented. I put in time at my high school’s darkroom and had a makeshift one at home for a few years, and I admit that there is an esoteric feel to developing films or producing a print with an enlarger (perhaps working in darkness or infra-red light has something to do with that feeling). And for years, it made sense that professionals should stick to the old techniques when digital cameras lacked the features they needed. But those days are at least five years past. Digital cameras and graphics editors get the same results while being cheaper, quicker, less fussy, and more efficient. So why would I want to stick with the old techniques?

Maybe my interest in results is part of why I don’t get nostalgic about technology. I tend to focus on similarities more than differences, an attitude that makes me see word processors and typewriters as means to a similar end. If I can get the same results with less effort from one means, that’s the one I’m going to use.

With this attitude, I’m neither a technophobe nor a technophile. I neither feel threatened by technology nor get excited by new technology, although I do keep informed about areas that interest me. When upgrading makes sense, I upgrade. With this attitude, I’m unlikely to feel any strong attachment to technology one way or the other. It’s a tool to me, and nothing else.

Still another reason I’m not nostalgic about technology is my memory. I have only good recall, but my recognition borders on the photographic. By that I mean that, although I can’t always generate detailed memories unaided, putting the right artifact or place in front of me is like starting a movie on the DVD player – it’s that vivid. So, when older technology is discussed, I’m not under any illusions about it, pro or con. And accuracy of my sort, I suspect, is incompatible with nostalgia. It’s hard for the reworkings of the mind to occur when you can access direct memories.

But the main reason for my lack of reaction seems to be my suspicion that most nostalgia for technology is really a nostalgia for when you are young. Just as most people’s attitudes or sense of prices tends to get stuck somewhere between the ages of 25 and 35, so most people’s sense of how technology should look and function gets stuck at a similar age. So, when people become nostalgic for an obsolete technology, what they are really doing is lamenting the fact that they are no longer young.

That seems just another form of distortion to me, and one that I am determined to avoid. Trying to perceive accurately isn’t always easy or pleasant, but I am determined to attempt it.

Sometimes, an older technology will have advantages that a newer one doesn’t – for example, so far, paper books are still more convenient and portable than ebooks (although that might change). But, for the most part, technological change simply happens, and I am content to observe and stoically accept.

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It is impossible to experience deja-vu for the first time.
I reckon the first time you experience deja-vu must be the second.

– Les Barker

These days, I can’t go to a networking event without meeting at least two or three people who are hoping to start their own high-tech business. Taking “Web 2.0” and “social networking” as their personal mantras, these contacts sound eerily like throwbacks to the dot-com boom. Enough time has passed, I suppose, for people to forget the lessons of that first infatuation with technology. As a survivor of that first era, I could tell them a thing or two, but mostly, I don’t bother. They wouldn’t thank me.

If the old dream was just about quick money, then the whole things wouldn’t be so painful. Most of the dreamers are going to fail, and that’s a lesson that can hurt, but can be valuable. If you find that your thirty thousand stock options are worthless in one company, you can always do what I did, and get another thirty thousand from your next company, continuing the process until reality sets it. You learn about persistence, and eventually you learn that hard-slogging work pays in smaller but more reliable returns – both useful lessons.

But, just like the dot-commers, the Web 2.0 generation isn’t only concerned about money. Most of its members would happily settle for survival as the owners of their own small business. Still more are attracted by being involved with something larger than their selves, for experiencing the sense of belonging that comes with being involved in the biggest trends of the era. And it’s this sense of purpose that is likely to shatter on the pavement when reality sweeps their feet out from underneath them.

Take me, for instance. My first dot-com startup, the pay was three-quarters of what I had been earning as a consultant. I never did believe – not really – that the company would go public and my stock options would let me retire. What concerned me was that we (and it says something about the spirit of the times that, for a non-team player like me, there was a “we”) were going to change computing by introducing GNU/Linux to the world.

Moreover, as the first non-developer hired by the company, I was playing a leading role (maybe theleading role in my own mind) in making that dream a reality, cutting bundling deals, hammering out a features list, going over legal contracts and licenses and discovering all the other thousand and one things needed to bring a product to market.

My second company offered much the same – only better, because this time I was working with big names in the field and being flown across the continent for the sake of my expertise.

Was I self-important to the point of blindness? No question. But other parts of my life were at an absolute nadir, and the dream gave some desperately needed meaning. It’s because I remember that desperation that I don’t want to spoil things too much for this next generation of dreamers. Let them dream while they can.

Of course, if they did ask, I would warn them that being tipsy with meaning doesn’t mean that they should abandon common sense. Half-intoxicated as I was, I never could see why those around me were working long extra hours when they didn’t need to, or sleeping in the cardboard boxes that file cabinets came in, just so they could have the full experience (in the same spirit, many line up for hours for tickets or Boxing Day Sales – not out of necessity but because they don’t want to miss the excitement). Nor could I see the point of those who hung on after I left, working for half pay and then deferred pay, or staying loyal before they were laid off. Too many dot-commers forgot in their quest for personal meaning that business remains business, and my only personal claim to foresight is that I twice remembered that simple fact and ejected before the crash came.

If asked, I would also tell them about my post-dot-com survival, about how, after feeling yourself in the avant-garde, laboring to produce dull and sensible things that people actually want to buy seems pointless and bland. And if you once believed that you were not only in the avant-garde, but leading it, then life in an ordinary office under managers and executives who know no more – and sometimes less – than you do becomes simply an exercise in sustained frustration. I would warn them that their experiments with meaning and work will make them unfit for anything else except becoming consultants in their own small business.

Not that this role is an unsatisfying one – far from it, I would say. After all, iit’s the one that I chose. But unless what you really want is not just purpose, but control of your life, it would be cruel to encourage anyone down this twice-trodden path. You’ll only be disappointed and unhappy, unless you are one of that handful who truly wants that direction in life, one of those for whom the boom-gone-to bust (and it always goes to bust sooner or later, believe me) means a hard-won chunk of satisfaction.

Like I said, I could tell this new generation of dreams these things, but they wouldn’t appreciate hearing them. So I try not to intrude on their dreams, and smile fondly as I hear their excited talk of commitment.

Goddammed kids with goddammed stars in their eyes. I hope they enjoy the roller coaster, and appreciate the ride when they stagger away.

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Once you’ve been an instructor, the habit of teaching is hard to break. That fact, as much as anything, explains why I am not only attending the Open Web Vancouver conference this year, but giving a talk entitled, “Working with the free software media.” Moreover, since Peter Gordon and Audrey Foo, the main organizers of the conference, are kind enough to let me in on a media pass to wander the conference and buttonhole presenters, I feel that’s the least I can do. And considering that I can’t code well enough to say anything worthwhile about programming, and the social aspects of the open web are already being presented by others, I may as well talk about what I know best.

The Open Web Vancouver conference is being held April 14-15 at the Vancouver Conference Center. It’s a rebranding of last year’s highly successful Vancouver PHP conference. Like its predecessor, this year’s conference is mostly a volunteer effort, and takes advantage of both local and international experts to present a well-rounded program to a small audience.

I chose my topic because I’ve been writing about aspects of this topic in my blog for about a year now, and those entries have been well-received – probably because there’s a real need. A few free and open source software (FOSS) organizations, such as the Linux Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center, have people and policies in place for dealing with the media, but most do not.

The truth is, typical FOSS developers tend to be suspicious of the media – unsurprisingly, since marketing communications experts tend not only to have an entirely different mindset and to be absolutely clueless about technology. Yet many projects could benefit from more publicity in order to attract new developers or funding, and much of the community would like to know about them.

I’m still developing what I will say, and I have to admit that my teaching skills are rusty. However, my instinct is to forego the usual slide show, and make the talk as interactive with the audience as possible. Topics I’m considering include an explanation of where the free software media stands between traditional media and free software, why cultivating a relationship is worth everybody’s trouble, and how to pitch news and have more of a chance of receiving coverage.

It occurs to me that, with this talk, I’ve come full circle. When I was a technical writer a decade ago, I used to say that my job consisted of explaining the geeks to the suits. Now, I could be said to explaining the suits (or, perhaps more accurately, the shorts and sandals) to the geeks.

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Today, I had the new experience of helping out with a podcast. Like most people, I hate hearing my voice (it always sounds clumsy and over-precise), and any wishful belief in my own eloquence wilts when I hear all the “ums” with which I punctuate my speech, but I hope I have the chance to take part in another one.

I could hardly be excluded from this one. After all, it was an article I published a few weeks ago, “GNOME Foundation defends OOXML involvement,” that sparked the podcast. Moreover, when Jeff Waugh of the GNOME Foundation first floated the idea, he had me in mind as a neutral third party, and I was the one who pitched the idea to Linux.com, the main buyer of my articles. Admittedly, it was an easy sell, since Robin Miller, the senior editor at Linux.com, is a part time video producer and always looking for ways to extend the print coverage on the site, but I was still the one who got things moving.

After stumbling into the center ring while technical problems occupied Robin and Rod Amis, the producer, and stuttering into the silence, I soon found my tongue. The experience was not much different, I found, from doing an ordinary interview or teaching a university seminar. In all three cases, your purpose is not to express your own opinions, but to encourage others to speak, and to clarify their vague references for the sake of listeners. The fact that there was an audience of about 650 – good numbers, Rod tells me, for a daytime podcast – didn’t really affect me, because I had no direct contact with them.

Jeff Waugh and Roy Schestowitz, the two guests on the podcast, have been having bare-knuckle arguments on various forums, so I was expecting to have to referee the discussion. In fact, the image kept occurring to me of those soccer referees who are sometimes chased off the field by irrate crowds. However, the slugfest I expected never materialized. It’s harder, I suppose, to insult someone verbally, even over the phone, that to fan a flame war on the Internet, and both were more polite live than they had ever been at the keyboard.

Besides, Robin has the voice of someone calmly taking charge without any expectation of contradiction. Perhaps, too, an echo of my old university instructor voice ghosted through my own words.
But, whatever the case, everyone survived. I even think that the increased politeness influenced both Jeff and Roy to make concessions to each others’ viewpoints than they never would have considered online. As a result, I think that the point that the dispute is one of tactics rather than of different goals came through for the first time in the month or more that this dispute has been unfolding. However, I’m not sure that either of the principals has made the same observation.

The show had glitches that better planning might avoid next time. However, I like to think that both sides had a reasonable chance to express themselves, so it could have been worse. The Linux.com regulars are already discussing the possibility of another podcast, and I, for one, can’t wait.

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I’m almost getting afraid to look at a newspaper or any other traditional print media. Every time I do, some writer or other seems to be belittling an Internet phenomena such as blogging, Facebook, or Second Life. These days, such complaints seems a requirement of being a middle-aged writer, especially if you have literary aspirations. But, if so, this is one middle-aged, literary-minded writer who is sitting out the trend.

The Globe and Mail seems especially prone to this belittling. Recently, its columnists have given us the shocking revelations that most bloggers are amateurs, that Facebook friendships are shallow, and that, when people are interacting through their avatars on Second Life, they’re really at their keyboards pressing keys. Where a decade ago, traditional media seemed to have a tireless fascination with computer viruses, now they can’t stop criticizing the social aspects of the Internet.

I suppose that these writers are only playing to their audiences. After all, newspaper readers tend to be over forty, and Internet trends are generally picked up those under thirty-five. I guess that, when you’re not supposed to understand things, putting them down makes you feel better if you’re a certain kind of person.

Also, of course, many columnists, especially those who aspire to be among the literati, see the rise of the Internet as eroding both their audiences and their chances of making a living. So, very likely, there’s not only incomprehension but a primal dose of fear behind the criticism that deserves sympathy.

At first glance, I should sympathize with them. I’m in their age group, share something of their aspirations, and I’m cool to much of the social networking that has sprung up in recent years. Yet somehow, I don’t.

For one thing, having been on the Internet several years longer than anybody else, I learned long ago that communities exist for almost everyone. If you don’t care for Facebook, you can find another site where you’re comfortable. If you dislike IRC, you can find a mail forum. If you can’t find a blog that is insightful and meaningful, you probably haven’t been looking around enough, but surely the Pepys’ Diary page will satisfy the most intellectual and literary-minded person out there. So I suspect that many of those complaining are still unfamiliar enough with the technology that they don’t really know all that’s via the Internet.

Moreover, although I ignore large chunks of the Internet, my only regret is that it hadn’t developed ten or fifteen years earlier so that I could have been a young adult when it became popular.

Despite, my age, the Internet has been the making of me. It’s helped to make the fantasy and science fiction milieu that I discovered as a boy become mainstream– and if that means people are watching pseudo-profundities like Battlestar Galactica, it also means that a few are watching movies Neil Gaiman’s Stardust or Beowulf and moving on to discover the stories and novels that really fuel the fields. It’s given me a cause worth focusing on in free software, and a job as an online journalist that already has been one of the longest lasting of my life, and that still doesn’t bore me. Without the Internet, I just wouldn’t be the person I am today.

Nor, I suspect, would I like that alternate-universe me very much.

Having absorbed the toleration that underlies much of the Internet, I can’t help feeling that criticizing other people’s browsing habits shows a lack of manners and graciousness that is grounds for shame rather self-righteousness. But, in my case, it would show a lack of gratitude as well.

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Like many people who spend their working hours with computers, I’m often asked by friends and neighbors for help. I’m an ex-teacher, and I volunteer at the free clinics held weekly by Free Geek Vancouver, so I don’t mind; teaching is close to a reflex with me. But one thing I do mind – very much – is when I ask the person I’m helping for some information about their computers or what caused the problem and they reply, “I don’t know. I’m just a techno-peasant” or say that they leave such technical matters to their pre-teens.

What irks me is not just the little giggle or the helpless shrug that accompanies such statements, regardless of whether a man or a woman is making themt. Nor is it the fact that the term is at least twenty years out of date. Instead, it’s the fact that the people who make these responses seem more proud than ashamed of their ignorance.

Why anyone would choose to boast about their ignorance is beyond me. Of course, nobody can be an all-round expert. Moreover, if you don’t mentally bark your shins against your own ignorance from time to time, you’re probably leading too shallow a life. But why boast about your shortcomings? Personally, I consider the fact that I am not fluent in another language, and know little about wines or central European history to be defects, and hope to correct them some day. Meanwhile, if I have to admit to my ignorance, I do so shamefacedly, and quickly change the subject.

As for computer skills, surely computers have been around so long that an average middle class North American should know their way around a computer. I don’t expect them to be able to write a “Hello, world” script if threatened at gun point, but how could they help not learning some basic system administration and hardware care?

I mean, I’m an English major with no formal background in computing whatsoever. If I can learn enough to write about computers, then surely most people can learn basic maintenance. After thirty years of the personal computer, defragging a hard drive or plugging in the cords to your computer should be as much a part of everybody’s basic skill set as cooking a meal or changing the oil in their car. Yet, as I continually find when asked for help, most people still haven’t learned these skills.

What’s worse, the implication of these reactions is that those who make them have no intention of correcting their ignorance. It doesn’t seem to be a reflection of class, an implication that they’re too important to bother themselves with details, as though they’re a high-powered CEO and I’m the janitor. Rather, it’s as if, having reached some landmark of adulthood – turning 21, perhaps, or receiving their master’s degree – they’ve decided they’ve done all the learning they need for this life time, and nobody can trick them into doing any more.

As someone who’s always believed in learning, this attitude horrifies me. So far as I’m concerned, the only time you stop learning is when you die. The idea that anyone would want to anticipate this end to learning is hard for me to understand. If nothing else, what are they going to do with the next fifty or sixty years?

Just as importantly, this refusal to learn undermines the whole idea of teaching. To me, the point of teaching is give students the skills they need to function on their own. But when people describe themselves as techno-peasants, what they’re telling me is that they have no intention of learning to function independently. They’re calling me in, not to help them learn to cope for themselves, but as a convenience that allows them to keep from learning.

And, considering they’re asking me to do the sort of things in my spare time that I do in my working hours – and for free — the request is a high-handed imposition. They’re asking me to waste my time for their convenience – frequently not just once, but often for the same problem, over and over.

Despite these lines of thought, I almost never turn down the requests for help. Some people are making a genuine effort to learn, and there’s always a chance that the rest will learn despite themselves. Yet I wonder if any of them guess that I think less of them once I understand that the only thing they’re willing to learn is how to excuse their own helplessness.

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Today, I received the following e-mail. At the sender’s request, I have removed any personal details:

I was wondering if you had any advice for me about how to perform some marketing/pr for my Linux [project]. I’ve started doing interviews with developers and I have created a community news site.

But is there anyway I could possibly get [my project] mentioned in a
magazine like Linux Journal? Is there any free advertising I could take advantage of on certain web sites? I thought you may have some ideas for me because you have experience with this kind of thing. Any help you
could provide me would be appreciated.

I generally receive about 3-4 requests of this sort a year, so I decided to post my reply here, so I can refer others to it:

You’re not likely to find free advertising on sites that will do you any good, so your best bet is to try to get on the various sites as a contributor. Linux.com only takes original material for its main features, but it does have the NewsVac items, the three or four line link summaries on the right of the page that are very popular. And, of course, sites like Slashdot, Digg, and Linux Today are all about links to already published material.

If you have a solid piece of news — which for a piece of free software usually means new releases and unique features — at Linux.com you can pitch a story and write it yourself. However, you’ll be asked to include a disclaimer
that explains your connection with your subject matter, and the article will be rejected if you are being a fanboy. That means you can’t review your own distro, but you might be able to do a tutorial on a distribution’s packaging system, for instance.

Alternatively, you can send news releases in the hopes of convincing either an editor or a writer to cover your news. However, don’t be pushy. Submitting a news release once is enough, and popping back several times to ask if it was received or whether anyone is interested will probably only guarantee that you’ll annoy people so that they won’t cover your news no matter how big it is.

The ideal is to build up an ongoing relation with a few writers, in which you give them stories to write about — we’re always looking — and they give you the coverage you want when you have news that readers might want to hear.

Of course, you open yourself up to negative comments if the software deserves them, but that’s the chance you have to take. However, for the most part, both commercial companies and large community projects find the
risk well worth taking. It’s not as though any of the regular writers deliberately sit down to review with a determination to be negative (although, conversely, they don’t set out to praise, either: We’re not just fans, either).

This process doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient. But, in the long run, you should get some of the publicity you seek.

I don’t know whether this information is useful to others. To me, it seems that I’m saying the obvious, but part of that reaction is undoubtedly due to the fact that I deal with these things daily. Perhaps to others, these thoughts aren’t obvious, so I’m hoping that someone will find them useful

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