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The Northern Spy
March 2010

Critic! Critic!

Rick Sutcliffe

Just as there are 10 kinds of people in the world--

those who understand binary notation, and those who do not--so there are two kinds of people in the world, those who build, and those who tear down. The Spy prefers to be one of the former, and on the occasions when he becomes a critic, tries to be constructive about it, even when this is not easy. (There are two kinds of critics, the constructive, and the ….)

He's also too aware of the ironic paradox inherent in essaying to criticize criticism. After all, he could be said to impugn himself in the effort--note the old saw about finger pointing implying three more are pointing back at the pointer, and also the conclusion at the end of this critical editorial. Still, metaphysically messy and self-referential a task though it may be, someone has to sweep the philosophical Augean stables from time to time.

Remember the days when Apple was so routinely savaged by the GoC (Gang of Critics) that the company was nearly driven into the ground --despite that their products of the day weren't all that bad. (Well marketing was another matter, but....) The Spy's been noticing lately that following a few blissful years' hiatus, membership in the GoC seems to be growing apace. You see this in the number of IT columns along such lines (the motivation for this editorial), for instance in attack comments from the jealous concerning Apple's iPad and other recent products, the percentage of nasty reviews of hardware and software products, the occasional pillorying of companies or their executives, and the infighting between the various open source philosophical camps. Hey, to take an example, iPad.0 in and of itself certainly won't change the world, but the new paradigms it embraces and generates will have a profound affect on aspects of modern society, and not to be ignored, on Apple's bottom line. Deal with it, detractors. You may end up buying one.

For his part, the Spy has often wondered whether Apple's critics merely want to justify the money they misspent on a PC. This would be of the variety: "If I could only make that upstart little company fail, it would prove I was right all along in what I bought." But this is just a suggestion. Only the critics know their real motives.

GoC growth is also apparent in reports coming out of the Vancouver Olympics, particularly by British reporters, who uniquely among their brethren practice "journalism" as the quintessential Fleet Street blood sport. Now, the Spy carries no particular cheer-leading brief for the Olympics, because apart from Hockey, it's mostly a big yawn to him, but it does seem that someone who makes a living out of savaging others' best efforts ought to get a life, or at least a change of career. After all, their targets, unlike them, are trying to do something both positive and well.

With respect to this same event, the Spy notes that hockey is very nearly Canada's state religion. When the national team loses, the whole country are suddenly qualified to critique the goaltending, defence, offence, coaching strategy, management, and team selections. There are other experts, folks. Moreover, losing a game is not, after all, the end of the world as you know it. Perhaps, given similar high feelings about soccer (football) in other parts of the world, there is something to the theory of sport as a surrogate to war. That doesn't make it a good idea.

Unrestrained accusatory criticism is also, unfortunately, endemic in two critical (sic) western institutions that have come to be practised solely in an adversarial manner bordering on total war--politics and the law. In both it is accepted technique to accuse opponents in the strongest available language of every imaginable (imaginary is often more like) fault, failing, or crime in the hopes of making something stick long enough to either move from opposition to government, or get one's client off, either on a technicality or by blaming someone else--anyone else, even society as a whole. This is the "Madame Premier, will you tell this house when are you going to stop beating your husband?" syndrome. Whatever happened to reasoned debate, the weight of evidence, or taking responsibility for one's own actions? Whatever happened to the good old concept (albeit based on a mistaken Bible translation) of "men of good will"?

The Spy has declaimed on this subject before, expressing his concern over the way elections are fought. But when acrimonious criticism and abusive language become the norm in the practice of government, the latter is at risk of drowning in its own cesspool. As they also become endemic in our collective way of thinking, the accepted way to do law, sport, IT, and politics of all kinds, the Spy fears western society is becoming uncivil society, in danger of choking on its own acrimony.

Likewise for the practice of law. In a suit over, say, an accident, opposing lawyers routinely make up out of whole cloth entire collections of vile accusations against witnesses opposing their client--the person was drunk, biased, lying, prejudiced, or ill-motived in some other way--it all goes into the statement of claim. What if it is all known to be fabrication? The goal in an adversarial system of jurisprudence is not to reveal truth, it is to vindicate, to win--at any cost. Since there are no penalties for lawyers who make outrageous false claims to get their clients off, and they are seldom rebuked, the practice has become accepted. The Spy notes that in his own fiction, it is a capital offence under the laws of Greater Hibernia to accept money for the practice of law, the plot heroes and heroines are builders, the villains destroyers.

Truth was once highly valued--so much so that, for instance, proper parliamentary procedure (a cornerstone of civilized discourse) bans any suggestion being made at a meeting that another person has lied. Since such a charge, speaking to motive as it does, is nearly impossible to prove anyway (how many perjury trials have you ever heard of), this prohibition is reasonable as well as necessary. Yet outside the protected chambers (and within them as much as can be got away with), politics, law, and the conduct of other business, are, like British journalism, often conducted as blood sports.

That fallen men and women are but sinners is an adequate explanation in some quarters as high-level theory, but somehow less than satisfactory in practical terms. (See the Spy's Third Law.) The Spy believes that the foundations of our very culture are crumbling in the face of its failure to deprecate the role of savage critic and re-engage the notion of reasoned and civilized discourse.

Of course, criticism as a way of life is endemic in other registers of the Spy's life--academia, the literary world, even churches.

We academics have an understandable tendency to fall in love with our own learning, particularly with that one big idea that formed the kernel of our dissertation lo these many decades past, and through which we still long to filter our entire discipline. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, until a competing idea comes along. The unfortunate upstart who then dares tilt at the establishment needs a tornado shelter, though not for research grants, equipment, grad student offices, tenure, or promotion, of which there will suddenly be none. Yes this is somewhat a stereotype. No, not all of us are like this. But life in the academy can be that way.

For their part, the literati, able to imbibe deeply from a river of vocabulary well-spiced with vitriol, are capable of raising criticism to heights (taking it to depths?) not dreamed of by mere mortals (unless we use the wrung words to make our pints). Woe betide the aspiring author or artist with new ideas or the provincial publisher or producer with the temerity to offer them exposure. New York and Toronto, firmly fixed as the centres of their respective literary and artistic universes, force the newcomer into the sad choice of either paying to orbit until sucked into the black hole (something akin to a sorority hazing), or suffering the indignity of being emitted as packets of high speed radiation. No, this is not universal--some new ideas do escape into the wild. Besides, though the denizens of these centres have barely noticed, the eBook phenomenon, epitomized by iPad-like devices, is the harbinger of their entropic death, thus relegating this particular critical choke point to the moot dustbin of history once and for all.

It will of course be replaced by their electronic equivalent, for if all the world's a stage, then only a portion of its people constitute the audience. The rest are critics. (There are only two kinds....)

Last, and by no means least of these three supporting examples, deeply religious people passionately desire to be right about doctrine (and there is no shame in this; they are dealing with issues of eternal life and death, and had best get it right). However, they sometimes fail to guard against the errant leakage of this principle into other aspects of this mortal life, thus coming to imagine they are also right about everything else. Of course, that implies everyone else is wrong about the same things. Critical weapons dressed up in religious language can prove the most harmful of all, ruining friendships, even whole churches. The Spy knows a diverse group of young adults from a variety of church backgrounds, who, asked about the worst experience of their lives thus far, without exception cited a church split.

The reader who quails at relating to a religious experience is free to re-read this last example with the substitution of any other kind of organization--sports, civic, political, hobbyist, musical--they all have their "Church splits", and for comparable reasons of ego. Indeed, and with due respect to Peter, Dilbert, and others, it seems to the Spy that a single dedicated and unrestrained critic--much less an entire local chapter of the GoC--is a greater threat by orders of magnitude to the survival of an organization or a project than competitive pressure, societal change, economics, corruption, government interference, mistreaks, or even gross incompetence.

All the latter threaten only the organizational entity's existence, but sustained destructive criticism inevitably brings its people to ruin as well. A thorough GoC is not so much about facts or issues as it is about ad hominem attacks that destroy confidence, careers, even lives--all without a pitying look back at the roadkill its juggernaut has flattened, and all without a thought that the drug of criticism, like any other, inevitably and mercilessly destroys the addict even more thoroughly.

And, returning for a moment to that unique organization called the academy, the Spy will put it on record that the University's proper role is NOT to critically deconstruct the student's world view and beliefs so that they can be reconstructed in another pattern--it is, rather, to provide the student with both the knowledge and the techniques to discourse with the world's great ideas in one or more disciplines at sufficient depth both to gain nominal admission to the academy by virtue of graduation, and to become mutually useful in society as a learned and competent practitioner of said discipline(s). We're not there to play critical mind games with our students.

But getting back to IT (what started all this rambling), the GoC here do, unfortunately, have abundant grist for their mill, for our landscape is indeed rife with unsolved problems, the wreckage of attempts to solve same, and the new problems generated thereby.

Granted, commercial software, besides seeming to exist in a semi-permanent alpha state, never catches up even with five year old and already obsolete hardware. Moreover, as our faithful reader well knows, the Spy has always been at best unimpressed by big software's major practitioners such as MS. On the one hand the giant once produced Excel 2004, the best all time software product, not merely in its own (most important) class but in any category. On the other, its other products are mediocre to poor, and more recent versions of Excel for the Mac are crippled. Well, it makes sense to someone, even if not here on the ground. It seems to the Spy, however, that one company's easily documented faults in this respect represent someone else's opportunity to--ahem--excel, if not at least provide a challenge for the GoC to find some ointment in the fly.

The Spy himself has a chequered career as a software reviewer--recalling with shudders the so-called "educational software" of Apple ][ days, for instance, much of which was so bad in both respects that it wasn't even wrong. Things are orders of magnitude better now, and it is the rare piece of software or book indeed that he cannot say several very good things about, or at least offer constructive criticism toward making it so--and most he actually recommends.

Granted also, he is all too aware of the IT landscape being littered by dozens of multi-million (even multi-billion) dollar projects that ultimately failed, thereby validating the Spy's Fifth Law. But there are well-understood management techniques that, properly applied, do avert most such disasters. Pay attention to your software engineering teacher, kiddies.

Yes, and there's the plethora of cheap hardware put out by the box assemblers, and designed to fail, not in the ten years that are standard for the automotive and large appliance market, but in a mere three, or whenever the next version of W*nd*ws arrives, whichever comes first. But on the plus side, this represents a window (sic) of opportunity for Apple to sell quality. Even bad examples have their good sides.

Moreover, hold your tongue, O critic me. Would you destroy it all to go back to the pre-technological era? Just so. Technology doesn't answer all the questions or meet all society's needs. That doesn't happen in this life. It doesn't even ask the right questions in the first place--people have to do that themselves. But it collectively represents a set of tools we are better off having than not, even though they, like any, can be used for either constructive or destructive purposes. The Spy prefers to do the former, and most of the time does not fully understand the GoC's or other vandals' motivation for the latter.

So, forgive a bit of speculation here. Is the lure of consuming criticism similar to that of just one more drink, another needle to mainline, just one more snort of crack? Does it feel good to put the metaphorical knife into someone else's gizzard and take a good rip? Is the buzz a critic gets fundamentally not so much about being "right", or even about "winning" the debate, but rather about the power to put down (expression used advisably) other people's ideas, words, works, motives, character, and very person?

It seems to the Spy that the GoC typically tends to: - be desperate to prove the perfect rightness of their own cause in exacting detail (concede nothing), - lose perspective on relative importance between themselves and what (whom) they criticize, - be so outwardly focused they cannot scrutinize their own actions (a.k.a. "the log in the eye syndrome"), - have no concept of going too far (each level of addiction requires a more potent dose of the drug of harsh words and actions to achieve the same high), - spread the criticism around to add weight to it through the attempt to gain allies, - instead by that very broadcast create far more enemies for themselves than for those whom they criticize, because most people eventually find constant complaining both arrogant and distasteful, - be impossible for others to correct even when caught fudging the facts, without the putative corrector becoming a new target of vitriol.

There is a delicious irony in Christ's "blessed are the peacemakers", because the opposite is often more nearly true this side of the transition to another life. This is a blessing those who come between warring factions must await. Also see James 1:26 and 3:5ff.

So where are we going in all this? On the one hand, as in all cases of stupidity necessitating legislation (self-referentially contrary to the Spy's First Law), governments and their agencies have acted to protect at least the workplace from the GoC. Workplace bullying (the new term for harassment) or otherwise creating a poisoned working environment, can now, at least in British Columbia (via WorkSafe BC) and in other jurisdictions, attract fines of up to $35K for both the perpetrator and the organization that failed to have constraints in place to prevent the savagery from getting out of hand. Criminal charges can also be laid. On the one hand, protection like this is a GT (Good Thing, especially for government job creation and social engineers). It has the potential to reduce the number of victims and the severity of their injuries. On the other hand, the very need for government to intervene in such a manner, especially when it can neither keep its own house nor that of the courts free of the same kind of abuse, illustrates a fundamental social failure. Civilization can only survive a limited number of civility deficits before it becomes something else.

On a more personal level, our reader should take all critics, this one included, with a huge block of salt, no matter how persuasive and eloquent they pretend to be (and even if they seem to successfully wrap themselves in their country's flag or in a religion). Even in the rare event they have the facts right (and a GoC feeds on misdirection) their opinion about software or hardware quality, features and bugs, utility, events, or of the law, politics, and especially the people involved in all these, is not the only word on the subject, no matter how seductive the opinion being pressed. Indeed, the more dedicated the critic to the task, the harder the pressing of the opinion, and the harsher the language, the less useful their views are likely to be.

Now lest anyone imagine the Spy thinks himself an exception, and in case the reader has never noticed the disclaimer at the bottom of the main page of this site, it reads in part:

Furthermore, nothing on this site should be taken as investment advice or product purchase advice. Where they appear, recommendations (for or against) are our opinions only, and anyone following them does so at their own risk. Readers should assume Nellie and The Northern Spy are probably mistaken, do their own homework, and take responsibility for their own actions. Anyone who relies on our views and predictions, including us, is right, wrong, foolish, or all three, even when we're right, wise, or both (LOL). Again, any mention of future products coming from Apple or other companies is the result of sheer speculation in The Northern Spy's own twisted mind and does not necessarily imply he or Nellie have inside information, access, or sources, or that they could reveal the latter in the unlikely event they might exist. If we know such a source, we won't use the information.

He tells his adult Bible class similar things: "Don't take my word for this interpretation. Go home, read the Word, and study it for yourself. If it tells you I'm wrong, come back next week and convince me. If you're right, I'll retract". IOW, constructive criticism is welcome here; the other kind does no one any favours. When its nature manifests, the Spy turns his back.

A number of years back, the Spy read an article about a teaching study in which researchers recorded teachers' positive and negative remarks, then interviewed students for their perceptions. They learned that unless the positive comments outweighed the negative by well over a 90-10 ratio, the teacher was viewed as (often overwhelmingly) negative and was therefore entirely ineffective. So, if you're good enough at your profession to consider being a teacher, bring students along and build them up. Don't tear down.

He'll offer such advice to political, legal, and other critics, especially to certain IT and, to the main point here, other columnists in both Canada and the United States: Lighten up and say something positive now and again. Your vitriol affects others all right, but it rots your own soul more than it damages anyone else. The columnist, lawyer, or politician who dies or retires having taken the most scalps doesn't win anything. To put it another way, having a tongue that can cut sheet metal leads only to acid indigestion.

And he'll advise anyone who hears or reads of someone savagely ripping a strip off someone else's face that, regardless of the alleged provocation, the ripper is likely to be far more in the wrong than the rippee, and that the stronger the language used, the greater this likelihood

So, if you routinely believe and follow critics, even if merely for the blood sport spectacle, and particularly if your mentors are the most strident ones, shame on you. The Spy pities you as much as he does them. Why play acolyte to someone who makes a career of being seen as right at others' expense? Can't you see past the person who wraps abusive criticism in the guise of "freedom of the press" or "free speech", when their systematic failure to speak responsibly will surely enchain both? Surely it is obvious when a chapter of the GoC routinely and exclusively dishes out harsh criticism against everyone in positions of authority that they are primarily messaging their own authority problem. (Don't give such persons authority; they inevitably abuse it then, too.) And, in the IT realm specifically, if a columnist never has anything positive to say about others' work and products, surely it is time to read someone else (no columnists' names in Canada or the United States either stated or implied, to protect the…).

To put it constructively, and in deference to the fundamental paradox here, this columnist will exclusively criticize all those critics who fail to criticize themselves. Wait. Should that be taken as self-criticism?

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics as well as Senate Chair at Trinity Western University. He is also on the board of CIRA, operator of .ca. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.


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Last Updated: 2010 03 02