Tag Archives: Pontificating

Little Steps

Just a few words this week on the subject of change, which seems to be much on people’s mind in a variety of contexts in recent days. I don’t pretend to be an expert on politics nor on activism, but studying history has given me a certain perspective that I think is frequently lost.

It’s nothing especially profound, just that change, real significant change, takes time. Generally it takes a very long time. One of the examples I use in my Western Civ classes, towards the end, is that it wasn’t until 1909 that a minimum wage for men was established in the UK. That was after decades of hard-fought struggle of various kinds, to achieve something we would absolutely take for granted as part of society today. It was part of a wider fight for the rights of workers that literally spanned a century and more, and many would say is still going on, with tiny incremental gains and advances here and there the way it got done.

That’s how it almost always happens. Change is almost always a series of small victories that take too long to win and can seem like not enough when we get them. But that’s how the struggle works. One step at a time.

If a person takes the position that if they can’t have everything they want, right now, that they’d rather take nothing than an incremental step, and perhaps even further suggest that this is the morally superior position to take, well, I question how much you actually believe in the cause you claim to advocate for. Yes, it would be marvelous to get everything we need in a bold stroke. Absolutely, you should dream about the goal you ultimately want to see achieved. That’s how you keep yourself going in the struggle.

But if you really believe in that goal, then you take every step, however small, in that direction as a victory. No, the job’s not done. But there’s a little bit less of it to do than there otherwise would have been, and that is good. If you believe in the goal for the goal’s sake, then you take every tiny creeping step towards it as a triumph. And the struggle continues.

Thanks for reading.

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On Piracy

All right, I lied.

The thing is that I did have something I sort of wanted to write about, but by the time it got to be time to write it yesterday, my energy level was in the sewer and I convinced myself it was a bad idea. I’m finding my energy levels to be incredibly volatile in the current situation (and this is not becoming a ‘pandemic’ entry, I swear) and that’s something I’m gonna have to adapt to.

However. Here’s what I wanted to write about.

Piracy, and not the ‘fun’* kind. There was a bit of a Fuss about book piracy last week and into this week, and I had some Thoughts, but was really going to let it go (because, basically, who the fuck am I) but then I saw a friend in the world of music with similar issues, and since this is clearly a thing, here we go, for what it’s worth.

This is especially fun because I get to argue with me from 30 years ago.

I didn’t have pirated books back then (it wasn’t really technologically practical) but I did have pirated videogames. Almost every game I had for my computer back then was copied. If you had asked me, I would have had my reasons. Video game publishers are big companies and won’t miss the money. I’m a broke kid who wouldn’t be buying a game in any event, so it’s not like they’re out money. They got money from a sale at some point, this is just basically lending the games around. And on like that.

My friends and I copied music for each other, too (those double-deck cassette players seemingly purpose built for the task) and again, the thinking was (if we bothered to think very much about it) that musicians were clearly rich as fuck, we were not, and so it was, in a way, only fair.

I know exactly when my thinking at least started to change. It was year 1 of my ill-fated foray into journalism school, and we had to write an article on an issue in society. I chose software piracy and did some interviewing; one of the people I talked to was a family friend who had some sort of job with IBM. (Look, again, 25 years ago) I raised a question: ‘What do you say to the argument that people copy software because it’s too expensive?’ His reply: ‘That if you can’t afford a BMW, it doesn’t mean you get to steal one.’

I wrote up my mediocre article and it got the grade it deserved (the idea of me as a journalist gets more hilarious the better you know me) but the point is, and I remember this quite distinctly – I never really came up with a counterargument to that point. I’m not going to claim some moral epiphany here, I still had pirated software for years afterwards, but I also know my certainly about the whole deal had been fractured.

Basically, since then, the more I’ve learned about every creative industry (creation of computer games included), the more I have learned that basically all of my assumptions about them were wrong. There are, of course, titanically wealthy authors and musicians who no, probably don’t feel it much if they lose a sale to piracy. But for every one of those, there’s at least dozens who are just scraping whatever income they have out of their art, either literally to get by, or to see if they can (in this strangely terrible world we have built for ourselves) afford to divert time from things they know will make money to their art.

Everything that gets torrented or downloaded kicks those decisions in a particular direction, and the net effect is going to be less people making art, and more people giving up on it as a thing they can do. It would indeed be lovely if our society was such that people who feel art in their soul could pursue it for nothing but the joy of it, but the world we have thus far chosen to build requires all of us to make money somehow. If there’s no money in art, for most creators, the decision will have to be to do something else.

So there will be that small number of people who make a living at it, the gate to getting into that group will be exceedingly narrow, and the array of voices we will have in whatever field of art we’re talking about will be less. And we will be worse off because of it.

It doesn’t take much thought to carry this a little further and realize that the people who will suffer most from this are those whose position in society is precarious to begin with, the marginalized and underprivileged. Those are the voices we need to amplify, not stifle by making pursuing their art something they literally cannot afford to do.

This is without getting into the wider issues here: similar to the artists themselves, there are of course tremendously wealthy and powerful publishers of art. But there are also lots where, even if we know the name really well, the margins are razor thin, and the decisions about how many things they can put out, or if they are even going to continue to make a go of it, are absolutely impacted by how much of their stuff gets stolen.

Even for those big publishers that, no, probably aren’t going to close the shutters because a thing was torrented, they are making decisions based on sales. So, do they give that particular author another deal (and thus, get more art in your hands), or do they not? If the sales aren’t there, they won’t, and so your artistic world just got a little smaller.

For every piece of art we consume, there’s also a bunch of work we often don’t think of attached to it, as well. For a book, there’s editors, layout people, cover designers, agents; a whole pretty-darned-rickety industry that gets that story in your hand. Even if the artist themselves, or the publisher, is crazy rich? Gonna bet that most of those other people attached to the project are not. All of them are ultimately depending on someone paying for the book to get paid themselves. The whole thing gets closer to collapse the more of us decide we’re not paying.

Basically what this all comes down to is recognizing that we do, as a society, value art. Almost everyone I have ever known likes some type of it – there’s either music they like to listen to, stories they like to read, images they like on their wall, games they like to play. We surround ourselves with art nearly constantly.

The bizarre thing is that for a society of art-lovers, we seem strangely reluctant to pay for it. Can’t we just enjoy it? And again, it would be lovely if that was the case. But, every piece of art we enjoy exists because of someone’s labour, and it almost always comes to us because of many people’s labour. To say ‘nah, I’m not gonna pay for it’ or ‘you should give it to me for nothing’ is to say that you think the worth of that labour is zero, and that’s a terrible judgment to make.** It’s especially indefensible if you claim to be on the side of workers, and ordinary people.

If it’s really what you think, though, at least have the decency to not call a thing literally worthless and then also insist on taking it at the same time.

We all love art. Love the people who bring it to you as well, and please don’t steal it or help facilitate it being stolen. Our world needs art very badly, and we’ll have less of it if we starve our artists.

Take that, me from 30 years ago.

Thanks for reading.

* – Real piracy was not, in fact, fun or charming and the transformation of brutal vicious killers into whimisical jolly good fellows is an interesting phenomenon that we are absolutely not getting into.

** – there is an (I hope) obvious exception here for providing access to art to underprivileged people who would never be able to experience any of it otherwise, which is another objectively good thing to do. However, these should always be things that the artists consent to being a part of. And no, ‘you can tell us and we’ll stop’ is not anywhere near the same as getting permission before you begin.

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Down the Line

I’m gonna try not to do too many of these, but this is gonna be another coronavirus-adjacent blog today. I don’t think we should reduce our entire existence to this very strange thing we’re all in the middle of, so I’m going to make a special point of writing about some other things in the weeks ahead, but this week there is one more thing I want to look at real quick.

Since my last entry, the restrictions put in place by the government have gotten more stringent, at least here in Canada. The limits on us have gotten more extensive. I have seen several people who I think of as intelligent and wise wondering if what we’re doing is even working.

And, of course, the uncomfortable answer is that we can’t tell yet. We’re still probably a couple weeks from seeing if all of this effort has made enough of a difference. Especially when we’re stressed out and worried, that’s not easy to swallow. Heck, I’m not great at ‘wait and see’ and the best of times.

But right now, that’s what the world demands of us. We’ve got to do the right things, and trust that we will see the results we want a little bit down the road.

It occurs to me that that is kind of true about a lot of things, even in ordinary life. My fitness routine is certainly like that – I do the work in the gym and out on the road and trust that I’ll get the results I want down the line. Usually, that’s a wait of at least a few weeks before I can see that it’s made a difference.

I think it’s like that with writing, as well. I work hard at creating new stories, improving my craft, and making contacts in the trade, and although the results thus far have been relatively small scale, I try to trust as much as I can that I’ll see the results of it all in the end. I have taken the best advice I can from people who know what they’re talking about, I do the best with it I can, and … I shall wait and see how it works out. Hopefully it will look somewhat like what I’m hoping for, down the line some.

It’s not an easy thing to do, while it is easy to lose patience.

But a lot of the time, all we can do is the best we can right now, and wait to see the results shake out after some time passes.

That’s it for this week.

Thanks for reading.

All shall be well.

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All Shall Be Well

Well. Things certainly changed a lot in a week.

As I write this, my local government has asked everyone to avoid all trips outside of home except for essential ones, and we are all being asked to observe social distancing whenever we do go out, because of the COVID-19 epidemic. I’m sure that wherever you are, you’re experiencing some manner of impact on your life, too.

This time last week, I was going to work as usual, with just a directive to wash our hands more diligently than usual. By week’s end, the college where I teach was shut down indefinitely. I was still pretty blasé about it all – I figured I would go to the gym, I would see my friends, god help me I might write something. Then things changed again, and most of those things would not be happening. (The writing, I still have no excuse about)

It was a bit heavy. Mostly, I feel relatively calm about this strange situation we are all in, bothered only occasionally by a nagging sense of being in the first 20 minutes of a disaster movie, when all the characters think everything is going to be fine, and the audience sits there knowing that it won’t be. But I really think it is, ultimately, going to be mostly ok, although this is a strange situation we’re in, huh?

The historian part of my brain always rummages around in the past looking for meanings, and comparisons, and the last couple days I’ve been thinking of Julian of Norwich. If you haven’t heard of her, Julian was an ‘anchorite’, a person who permanently withdraws into (mostly) solitude and separation from the world in order to live a life of religious devotion. During her life, Julian survived the Black Death (part of why she comes to mind, currently), the English Peasant Revolt, and lived through a time of general famine and unrest.

She might have regarded our present crisis as being pretty tame.

But, beyond her embrace of isolation, and ability to find meaning in it, I also think Julian is useful to keep in mind for another reason. Despite all the difficulties that she must have witnessed in her life, through her writings (she probably wrote the first book in English by a woman) we encounter a vision of religion summed up in a message she believed she received directly from Christ – ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

In other words, she believed that people, despite being inevitably imperfect, and the imperfect society they created, would be all right in the end. It’s maybe a more positive perspective than we’re used to getting, especially from the 14th century.

Julian of Norwich lived through tremendous upheaval and change, and came through it believing that everything would be ok. Historians can certainly find lots of times in the past when people must have felt like their worlds were ending – the Fall of Rome (slow-motion though it was) is an easy one, and the 14th century is another. But, as much as it undoubtedly felt that way in the moment, we know that eventually things settled down. Society was not the same, but it was rebuilt and recovered, and went on, changed though it was.

We’re living in an unusual moment right now, and at certain moments, it can feel heavy and ominous. But history teaches us that in the end things will go on again, maybe not exactly as they were before, but they will go on. Perhaps there’s ways they’ll be better – maybe we’ll appreciate our connections to the people around us a bit more, having had distance imposed on us, for a while.

It’s a bit weird and scary right now, but we can get through this, if we look after ourselves and look after each other. Things are on a bit of a pause, but we can get through it together. We’re incredibly connected, even in our isolation. We can reach out in ways Julian of Norwich could not have imagined, and be there for each other in ways people in the past would have found astounding.

All shall be well.

Thanks for reading.

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End of Season Grump

End of another series of Doctor Who, and I have a grump. I liked a lot that they tried to do this year – a lot of ambitious storytelling effort and trying to do things that were genuinely different, and some of it worked. But man, I didn’t like the wrap-up.

Some of that last episode was fun – the ‘Last Cyberman’ mastermind getting casually chumped by the Master was darkly hilarious – but I felt like there were a variety of problems with the writing, and I especially didn’t enjoy the new reveals about the past of the Doctor. Part of it is that it’s such a major retcon of the show’s history (and not a retcon that works especially well, in some ways), but that kind of thing is sort of the inevitable consequence of a TV show that is sort of like following a comic book, at this point – so many different writers and creators that all want to make their mark on the character and their world and some will take big swings. A lot of it will go away.

So this might have just been a big swing that was a miss for me, but I think it was especially so because I don’t like the idea of rewriting the Doctor into being a Very Special person with a special destiny and a double-secret past. I think the character is so much cooler as a frankly mediocre member of this strange race of time travellers who – not out of any secret agenda or inborn destiny – just decided to change their lives and start doing good things.

It’s kind of the same thing I liked about Rey, when she was still Rey from Nowhere. You don’t have to have the special bloodline or the destiny written in the starts to start being a hero. Anyone can do it, which means everyone can do it. It’s the same message from the end of Into the Spider-Verse – anyone can wear the mask. To me that’s a message we kind of need, these days, and it’s a much cooler one than ‘the Special Person will do the thing’.

(I am also increasingly disappointed, as much as I do enjoy Sacha Dhawan’s manic Master, that we’re apparently just pretending Missy never happened now. Of course, the Doctor never got to know that in the end, Missy really was on their side again, but you would think the whole issue of Missy seeking redemption might have come up in at least one of their conversations, at some point.)

Anyway, I still like Jodie Whitaker as the Doctor very much, I enjoy a lot of the things they’re trying to do with a show that’s going to take some big swings, but I am somewhat hoping that a lot of that infodump we got in the last episode (also: not great storytelling, there) turns out to be some kind of misdirect or ploy by the Master. Because no sir, I don’t like it. Also, get off my lawn.

(Also, you’ve gotta do better if you want to cliffhanger me than ‘oh gosh the Doctor is in prison’. Putting the Doctor in jail is never going to work for more than about thirty seconds, and everyone who has ever seen the show knows it)

Thanks for reading.

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Teaching

Once again, I am giving my thoughts on the new season of The Expanse the push because I’ve thought of something else to write about. On some level, I’m probably thinking that my take on The Expanse isn’t particularly insightful. Anyway. Maybe we’ll both find out next week.

This week, I want to write about teaching a little bit. It’s the start of a new semester, so of course I’m thinking along those lines, and we had some teaching-related conversations at work today. I’ve been teaching a while now, many classes, many students. Mostly I teach history and I like to hope that a good proportion of my students have gone away knowing more about history and why it’s important than they did before, and that some of them will have gotten better at particular skills than they were before. I know I’ve encouraged some in pursuing their studies, which always feels great.

However, of late I think most about a different sort of impact that I’ve had on some students, perhaps not very many, but some. A few years ago now, I had a student in one of my Western Civ classes who always looked bored and, frankly, spaced out during class, who never participated in class discussion, and who I therefore (probably not very fairly) didn’t think a great deal about. I figured they had found themselves in a mandatory class they didn’t much like and had, like a lot of students in similar situations, just kind of gritted their teeth and got through the thing, which I understand completely.

At the end of the semester though, this student sent me an email. I still have it in my inbox. They thanked me for the course, which they said they had enjoyed very much, which is always nice to hear, but then went on to say they had particularly liked the part about the Renaissance, when I spend some time imparting a bit from my honestly-not-that-deep store of art history knowledge. This student, as I now learned, was really into art, and they said that some of the analysis of paintings I had done in class had changed the way they looked at art when they went to galleries.

I emailed back and thanked them for their kindness and said I was glad they had taken something like that away from my course, and I’ve never heard from them again. (Nor, I should say, would I expect to) I think about that interaction a lot, lately, though.

Partly because if they hadn’t sent the email, I never would have had any idea about what that student had taken away from that Western Civ course. We can’t always see the effects that we have on people in our lives, even through things that may not seem that consequential to us. I’m not an expert in Renaissance Art, I hadn’t done anything special for that one specific class, but it did something for that student anyway. Even when we feel like we’re slipping through the world like shadows or a submarine in the depths, we’re almost certainly leaving something in our passing.

I also think about it because when I teach, of course I hope students learn something about the past, and they learn how to think analytically, and how to make a logical argument, and perhaps learn how to write. All of that is important, of course it is. Some of it could be obtained in various other ways and places, perhaps most of it. But something like helping someone interested in art see it in a way they hadn’t before? That’s not just some information they might never need, or skills they might never choose to use, or a way of thinking that might not resonate for them. That’s something that will stay with that individual their whole life, and it’s pretty cool.

It’s also, not incidentally, the kind of thing you only get when you have teachers in classrooms, teaching subjects they are passionate about. It is (I flatter myself) an example of education working well, and it’s why I am proud to stand in solidarity against cuts to education whenever some wrongheaded government brings them forth. Currently, my brothers and sisters in the Ontario school system are engaged in such a struggle. Some will be on the picket line tomorrow.

Solidarity, comrades. The fight is important and it is worth it.

Thanks for reading.

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Another War

I was going to write about Season 4 of The Expanse by way of getting back into my regular blog schedule tonight, but then a bunch of missiles hit air bases in Iraq and it looks very much like there’s going to be another war. War, and the various ways it is awful for people caught up in it, is one of the themes of The Expanse, but I’m not going to be over-clever and try to use one to talk about the other.

I remember the first Gulf War – hardly the first war in the Middle East, but the first that I have meaningful memories of (I have vague, fuzzy memories of news stories about the Iran-Iraq war, but wouldn’t have known where either Iran or Iraq were, at that point). I was 16, had basically never been out of my tiny, extremely ethnically homogenous, little town and had been raised on a reasonably steady diet of uncritical books and movies about the Second World War. I was, therefore, entirely on board with the publicly stated reasons for the war, and I remember being excited to watch all the live coverage on CNN. I remember being excited as well when the Canadian Air Force started doing combat missions, because ‘we’ were really in the war.

That ‘we’, as I recognize now, being a fairly complicated concept, especially with me safely at home on the couch in my parents’ basement, next to my budgie. And then of course the whole thing is rather more complicated now than I thought about then, the bloodshed and destruction CNN was eagerly pumping onto my TV screen built on a foundation of half-truths, lies, and hidden motivations. As is often the case.

As we (that word not becoming any less complicated) careen towards yet another, or maybe simply ‘more’ bloody conflict in the Middle East, I’m sure that once again the reasons why we’ll be told it was necessary will be an admixture of truth, lies, and distortion, and the real truth as to why one or several people felt this to be essential will likely not surface for a long time.

It mostly strikes me that we have been bombing the crap out of the Middle East for most of my life now, 30 years of it, all driven by the argument that it will make things better, when all it has done is made so many people’s world irreparably worse. CNN is not the channel I have on at the moment.

It’s not great, and one expects there is more bad stuff ahead of us. I can’t say I have a lot of confidence that it will result in anything good.

I have to believe, though, that we (and here I mean that troublesome word as widely as possible) can progress. We can do better. Each of us can try to do something good each day, and try to push this strange world we have made in a better direction. We can try to win the argument in favour of kindness, and justice, and understanding. I have to believe that one day, no-one will want to tell lies so that they can drop a bunch of bombs any more.

Be good to yourselves, and each other.

Thanks for reading.

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Communities

Battling a sinus infection this week, but I still wanted to write something, especially since there has been what we would have to call an explosion in the world of Canadian spec fic since I wrote last. As many/most of you will be aware, over the past few days it has come to light that ChiZine Publications, one of the larger markets for horror and dark fantasy in Canada, has been run with all manner of ongoing bad behaviour, ranging from financial malfeasance to sexual harassment to bullying to racism.

Many of their victims are gradually sharing their stories, and by and large the writing and creative community has rallied around them. This has been heartening to watch, especially in contrast to the feelings of anger, disappointment, and sadness all the stories of pain and abuse will have caused anyone who heard them.

I’m intensely grateful for my little community of creatives, who support me in the stuff I do, give me a pat on the back when I need it and a kick in the ass when I need that, and who I know will have my back if and when I ever need it. It’s easy to feel good about a community like that.

And yet. What the ChiZine episode teaches us, far more than that there are bad people out there (because surely, we knew that already), is that we need to work constantly on our communities. What was going on at ChiZine went on for as long as it did because people were afraid to share their stories, afraid of being ridiculed, ostracized, various things.

So, as well as I think the overall community has reacted to what we’ve learned about ChiZine and their victims, obviously we could have been better. We could have done a better job identifying bad actors in our midst. We could have made it clearer that if people spoke out about abuse they had suffered, that they would be helped and believed. We could, no doubt, have done a better job of putting together the pieces of the puzzle that we did see. (For my part, I had heard that some of the ChiZine people could be difficult, and that the could be mean to people they didn’t like. That doesn’t sound like much, but I also never thought to inquire further.) So, I think the SFFH community in Canada is pretty good in some ways, but also has work to do in others.

Finding out you have work to do isn’t the worst thing in the world. Just about everyone and everything does. We just need to learn the lessons, and get at it.

Be grateful for our communities. Keep working on them, too, because they can always be better.

Thanks for reading.

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With Help

On the weekend, a man did something many people had thought was impossible.

Eliud Kipchoge ran the marathon distance in a time of 1:59:40, becoming the first person to ever do it in under two hours, and breaching a limit that some had said was absolute. It was, especially for fans of distance running, something really exceptional.

Kipchoge’s feat came with a significant ‘but’ – due to the use of a rotating formation of pace runners, a pace car, a deliberately flat course, and other forms of assistance, the time is not an official world record. Some people have discounted it entirely, mostly with the argument that it doesn’t count if Kipchoge had help.

What rubbish.

Every runner who has ever done the marathon ‘had help’. They had coaches and training partners, friends and family who encouraged them and supported them, rivals to inspire them. and on and on the list goes. I would argue that no one has ever done a single thing in this world ‘without help’. There are always those who went before us and showed the way, the people who worked with us, who did things so we didn’t have to, who told us we could, and told us we should.

That’s why I was as excited to see Kipchoge’s immense achievement, just as much as I will be whenever someone (probably him) does it in a competitive setting. He still ran around 21 kph for two hours. However much help he had or had not, he still ran every step of that thing.

It’s important to keep in mind about the things I do in my own life – not that I will ever do anything to put beside Kipchoge. It’s easy to minimize our achievements, because someone else is better, or what we did wasn’t perfect, or we ‘had help’. You know what? It’s true every time, and it still doesn’t change that we did the bloody thing.

Yes, with help.

Just like always.

Kipchoge, perhaps with the level of self-assuredness one needs to do things people say are impossible, seems unbothered by the qualifiers people want to put on his monumental accomplishment.

I will never run like him, but I’m gonna try to think just a little bit more like him.

Thanks for reading.

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Limitations and Demons

Hello again.

So, week before last, I received what I felt like were some rather urgent reminders of my limitations. Work was getting busier, the time commitments for Can*Con were rising, and I was trying to keep all my other things ticking over as well.

I was tired. I was (more) irritable. I didn’t feel like doing anything. All sorts of things (like, say, writing this blog) had shifted over from ‘yay, now I get to’ into ‘aw fuck, I have to’ territory. I got sick. Basically I was given a whole bunch of signals that, for a variety of reasons, I was trying to do Too Much Stuff at that moment.

Eventually, the penny dropped and I put some stuff down, until the waters recede just a bit and I’m ready to carry those particular weights again. It’s all fine, even if Real World concerns meant that some of the things put on pause were ones I wish I could prioritize. Alas. But, everyone has limitations. Nobody can do an unlimited number of things, and the size of the load we can carry varies over time, often for reasons not under our control.

Usually, hopefully, I figure it out before the urgent signals begin, but in any case, it’s ok to adjust and deal with things on the level I’m capable of handling. Eventually I’ll pick all that other stuff back up again, and I’ll actually enjoy it and be good at it instead of grinding away at it low on energy, inspiration, and competence.

I know I will, too, because the day after I skipped my weekly blog entry was the 15th anniversary of my sobriety. My addiction is a demon I will wrestle until the day that I die, but I have 15 years worth of proof that it isn’t too strong for me. We have struggles, we have limitations, we have demons. But we have our strengths as well and there’s a way through most things if we don’t quit on ourselves.

Sometimes, ‘not quitting’ means taking a step back and taking a break, because you’ve got to fight smart more than anything. But our demons? We don’t have to back down from those.

I’ll be back to pick up everything soon enough. Thanks for reading.

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