June 27, 2008

The evil of doing nothing

There is a famously misquoted saying attributed to Edmund Burke, which refers to the price that must be paid when "good men do nothing".

Consider these news reports from the last few weeks:
  • NSW, yesterday. A man and his three children were found dead in their own driveway. According to neighbours, it was well-known in the area that the family had problems.
  • Queensland, last week. The bodies of twin babies were discovered by a young sibling, a week after their deaths from apparent torture and starvation. Neighbours "didn't want to report" that other children from the family were often wandering the street naked and asking for food.
  • South Australia, this week. Several children are seriously ill in hospital after police raided two homes where up to 20 children from two families were living in squalor. Neighbours said they had often seen young children in heavily soiled nappies playing outside late at night as adults came and went.
It's not just Australia, of course.
"Why didn't somebody say something?" 

I certainly don't have the answer, which is undoubtedly different in each of the above situations, but as a society we are not at all supportive of individuals who try to report something unusual or suspicious. Such reports disturb the equilibrium of our lives, and frequently raise issues that most of us prefer not to think about. Consequently, it is much easier for these individual concerns to be dismissed as "fanciful", "none of their business", "exaggerated", or even "malicious". 

The equivalent situation within companies and organisations is that of the whistleblower:
"Whistleblowers are usually ordinary people ... who take huge professional and personal risks to blow the whistle on corporate and governmental wrongdoing. ... They are generally harassed, vilified, and fired or forced to resign."
I have been in that situation myself, and it is extremely unpleasant. While there may be some sense of satisfaction at the concerns subsequently being justified, it does not diminish the distressing consequences of speaking out. Just recently, a friend of mine spent a good deal of time deciding whether or not to mention his concerns about a potentially damaging situation in the management team of a large organisation. Having seen the very negative reaction to similar whistleblowing in the past, he tried to formulate his concerns as a polite question, but unfortunately the response was as dramatic as if he had made a direct accusation.
It doesn't seem to matter how it is done, the consequences are nearly always unpleasant for the innocent person making the report.

So it is not surprising that individuals are reluctant to raise the possibility of something unpleasant, when society in general reacts in such an unfortunate way. We are very quick to criticise the neighbours in each of the above news items, but how many of us can be sure that we would be prepared to risk hostility, ridicule, retribution or social isolation by speaking out?

Which brings us back to the quotation mentioned at the start:
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

June 26, 2008

Shiny and New

I have been enjoying myself over the last couple of days by pretending to be a site designer.

As you can see I've changed the template of this blog, after about 3 days of indecision and endless requests to friends along the lines of "Well how about this one then, is that better or worse?". To my considerable surprise, I then proceeded to alter the template itself and included one of my pictures in the banner. (The photo is of a local eucalyptus tree in flower and was taken on one of my bush walks.)

While still basking in the warm glow of self-satisfaction, I decided to start another project I've had in mind for a while, so I've begun building another site about all sorts of people who do not necessarily get the recognition their contributions deserve. A few years ago I created one about volunteer bush firefighters, but there are a great many other groups and individuals who devote their time, expertise, or imagination to make our lives better, and I would like to do my bit to acknowledge them. It is only just a shell at present, but when I have built it up, I will go back to that rather dated bushfire site and jazz it up as well.

Oh there's no stopping me now that I've got the creative bug!

June 23, 2008

Pirates Ahoy!

Here's a cautionary tale for all those who enjoy one or more of the following: 
  • gardening
  • occasionally saying "arrrrrrr" in a silly voice
  • watching Johnny Depp buckle his swash
On Saturday night I watched "Pirates of the Caribbean" for the first time (yes, I'm a little behind the times). I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the irritating presence of the undeniably decorative but very over-rated Keira. 
I also admit to being a fan of the gloriously inane Talk Like a Pirate Day , and when in similarly silly company I have been known to utter a few salty expressions of my own. 

On Sunday I was indulging in a little light gardening to counteract some of the effects of a very enjoyable lunch with friends. In particular, I was continuing my personal attack on an invidious weed called bridal creeper:
"It is regarded as one of the worst weeds in Australia because of its invasiveness, potential for spread, and economic and environmental impacts. ... In South Australia and southwestern Western Australia bridal creeper is considered the most important weed threat to biodiversity."
One of the problems is its tendency to climb and smother native plants, and the dangling fronds of young grass trees make them ideal targets. I am lucky enough to have several of these extraordinary plants, and I am determined that they will not fall prey to the creeper. 
This photograph was taken in my garden - the "double-headed" grass tree on the left is about 2.5 metres high, and probably over 100 years old. The younger one is maybe 20-30 years old.

The weed is a tricky thing to kill, because of the tubers underground, so I gently disentangle it from the grass tree, spread it out on the ground, and then paint it carefully with a mixture of potent herbicide and kerosene. Even so, it keeps popping up year after year, so it's an ongoing battle.

The "leaves" of the grass tree are over a metre long, very stiff, and with needle-sharp tips. ... Can you see where this is heading?

Yes, while I was enthusiastically scrabbling around underneath, I managed to stab myself directly in the eye. Owww.

Being medically qualified unfortunately does not make a person sensible about seeking medical help, so I dug around in a box of ancient medication samples and found some extremely out-of-date eye drops. Not surprisingly, these didn't help at all, and by 9pm I realised I had to go to the emergency centre for "proper" examination and treatment.
Night driving with one eye is not to be recommended, but I made it without incident, was seen promptly (eye injuries are usually a priority) and was relieved to find that I had a deep scratch in my cornea but not a puncture. Lucky! So I was jabbed with an anti- tetanus booster, squirted with antibiotic ointment, fitted with a cheery eye patch, handed a small parcel of medication, and sent on my way. 

It's now Monday, and I'm sitting here in my patch, squinting sideways with my "good" eye at the screen, feeling a teeny bit sorry for myself, but managing (just) to resist the temptation to tie a black bandana around my head and don some gold hoop earrings.
Goodgodspe'd ferrr now, me hearties!

June 20, 2008

Volunteering: ups and downs

1. This week I attended a mentor orientation evening at the University of WA medical school. Each 3rd year undergraduate is allocated a volunteer mentor (qualified doctors with at least 5 years' practice experience), and provided there are no problems, the relationship continues through 4th, 5th and 6th year to graduation. The idea is that the student will have access to someone unrelated to the University and the course itself, so the mentor acts as an advisor, role model, or confidante, addressing any non-academic concerns the student might have during the clinical years. The programme was introduced several years ago and seems to have been a great success. Certainly I wish it had been available when I was a student, and I am delighted to be taking part.

2. A month or so after resigning as a volunteer meta-editor at the Open Directory Project, I applied to be an editor at the Best of the Web directory, where an increasing number of past and present ODP editors, editalls, meta-editors and Admins are now working. This group includes many friends of mine, making it an attractive alternative hobby for me, so I specifically requested volunteer status (for various reasons, I did not wish to accept any payment). I am grateful that they were willing to accept me on those terms, because it provides me with a friendly, relaxing and above all enjoyable place to indulge my interest in making good sites more readily accessible to the average web user.


1. I posted a while ago about joining a volunteer adult literacy organisation, Read Write Now!. Since completing the tutor training course a few weeks ago, I've been eagerly waiting to be allocated a student. Last week I learned that I would be helping a woman from a Middle Eastern country, who had come to Australia several years ago with her husband and children. I was told that she had completed the extensive course of free English lessons offered to all migrants on arrival, had then received an additional year's tutoring through Read Write Now!, and that she wished to continue improving her reading and writing skills in English. 
Such a story is common to many of the students using the organisation, but of course it is necessary for them to have reasonable skills in spoken English, because our four day tutor course falls a long way short of the training required to teach English to speakers of other languages.

Last Thursday we met for the first time. Her religion meant I had to visit her at home, where she and one of her daughters made me very welcome. Unfortunately, despite her frequent smiles and nods, my student obviously understood almost no English at all, and could speak only two or three words altogether. Even when I simplified my conversation to single words and gestures, she was unable to tell me how many children she had, her daughter's name, or whether her baby was a boy or a girl. 
To add to my consternation, the daughter politely informed me that her father "wanted" me to help his wife reach the English standard required for citizenship, as she was the only family member still to achieve this.  

I asked the daughter if any of the children or their father spoke English at home, or if they helped their mother to learn English from the TV or printed material? No, that was the "the tutor's job". Did she go out or meet any English-speaking friends? No, she stayed at home "all the time". Had she ever done a course in English? No, she was "not allowed" to go on her own. Was she able to read and write in her own language? No, she had never received any schooling and was illiterate.

Clearly, this situation was way beyond the scope of my limited skills, and I later contacted the organisation in considerable distress at my obvious inability to meet the family's very high expectations. I was relieved but rather sad to be told that the situation was not at all as they had understood it, and in fact the woman did not even meet the entry criteria for our programme. Her family would be advised they need to look elsewhere for the results they want. 

This was an unfortunate start to my tutoring experience, and I have a new understanding of how life is for women like this who are so effectively isolated and constrained by their culture, families and religion, despite their own wishes to join the Australian community. :-(

2. I have posted several times about my experiences as a volunteer in our local bush fire brigade, and it has been very frustrating for me to have a prolonged absence from active participation while recovering from shoulder surgery. However, I have kept up with brigade news, and been disappointed to see indications of the poor management practices, internal politics and clique-formation which can easily undermine the sense of community on which so many volunteer organisations depend. 
I sincerely hope the problems can be acknowledged and resolved, before they create divisions and cause unrest. 

June 11, 2008

ODP/DMOZ - a final word

Regardless of the shiny new "ODP 2.0" promised by staff in the official blog, the success or failure of DMOZ rests with its community of volunteer editors, and not with the machinery, appearance or marketing of the directory. Of course these things are important to keep it looking fresh, being relevant, and running smoothly, and technical improvements have been promised for several years, so an imminent date is certainly noteworthy.

But in the end, DMOZ is simply a directory of sites edited by volunteers.

So unless those volunteers want to spend their time maintaining and improving it, all the glitz and gloss will be pointless, and the ODP will suffer a sad, slow, and entirely preventable decline. 
It's so simple:
  • The ODP will be fresh only as long as volunteers are finding and adding new sites.
  • The ODP will be a valuable resource only while volunteers continue to create and build categories.
  • The ODP will be useful only if volunteers are writing accurate titles and descriptions.
  • The ODP will be trustworthy only if volunteers are prepared to identify and stamp out abuse.
  • The ODP will grow only while volunteers spend time reviewing applications and providing guidance and assistance to others.
Unfortunately, until the acknowledgment in that blog post (a milestone in many respects) DMOZ management has always seemed unwilling or unable to understand the importance of looking after those volunteers and supporting and encouraging them on an ongoing basis.

This distressing attitude was a major factor in my resignation several months ago, and soon afterwards I posted here about recent research into attracting and retaining volunteers. This subject is close to my heart, as many of my posts show, and over the last year or two I had seen this as an increasing problem for the directory, despite the best efforts of many of us.

The article was general in nature and positive in tone, so it was very disappointing that ODP management responded with an astonishingly personal attack, ridiculing my contributions and openly questioning my interest in the editorial community and the project as a whole. It seems bewilderingly counter-productive for the management of any volunteer organisation to indulge in such an inappropriate and short-sighted attack. Not only does it reveal a distressing lack of respect towards volunteers in general, but it must surely discourage others from contributing too much, lest they be similarly ridiculed.

Well, more than two months have passed, and I still dearly miss being an editor and contributing to such a wonderfully worthwhile project. So despite the lingering distress caused by the above incident I would probably have been ready to return by now, and I had even thought of asking for reinstatement at a less responsible level, to avoid many of the problems which contributed to my resignation. It would have given me immense pleasure to rejoin my friends and resume many of the activities I found so enjoyable and fulfilling.

Unfortunately, several recent events have demonstrated that despite the new additions to the team, DMOZ community management in general continues to be seriously out of touch with the needs and concerns of the editorial community. Without their commitment, support and leadership, the project lacks the team spirit and sense of collaborative effort that made it a fun place to be.
Perhaps one day that energy and enjoyment will return. If and when it does, I will be first in line for reinstatement (if they'll have me back after this post, of course).

Until then, I must turn my back on the ODP. Kudos to a friend for pointing me to a very apt Shakespearean sonnet:
And right perfection rightfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly doctor-like controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall'd simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

June 06, 2008

Happy Birthday DMOZ/ODP! (2)

DMOZ staff has now posted about the occasion, and amidst the historical references and technical predictions is a very welcome acknowledgement of the community of thousands of volunteers whose efforts are too often overlooked. Great to see!

A good graphic too:

June 04, 2008

Happy Birthday DMOZ/ODP!

According to Wikipedia, DMOZ (the Open Directory Project) was launched on 5 June 1998, making it 10 years old tomorrow. :-)

Admittedly it started as Gnuhoo, and almost immediately underwent a bewildering succession of names and owners before finally settling under the umbrella of AOL/Time Warner, who still own it today. Maybe they'll provide all editors with a commemorative medallion (or at the very least a slice of cake!) - especially those stalwarts who have been with the project since the beginning.

In those ten years, 
more than 80,000 volunteers 
have listed 
over 4.5 million sites
in almost 
600,000 categories

Now that is something worth celebrating!

I am sure the official ODP blog will have a suitably festive post, but in recognition of the many friends I made, the great sense of achievement I enjoyed, and the stimulating and eclectic community of which I was proud to be a part, I would personally like to wish DMOZ 

A Very Happy Birthday

For now, I will shamelessly copy the splendid illustration for Mozilla's own recent 10th birthday celebrations, but if someone creates an ODP one, I will be more than delighted to add that here.

[Added]Blog posts from other editors to mark the occasion (in several languages):


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