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Stand Up and Weep

So this past Thursday, April 8, 2010, the North Dakota Board of Higher Education voted to retire the nickname of the University of North Dakota, the Fighting Sioux.  For most Sioux fans, including myself, this is a pretty big blow.  The controversy over the nickname has been ongoing for a long time, but for me, it was really shoved down my throat during an Honors English course I took my freshman year at UND, where videos of the nonsense that had happened at the University of Illinois (“Chief” Illiniwek) were shown.  While I understand the necessity of having such a conversation within a university where a controversy like this is underway, I would normally expect that conversation to be presented in an unbiased manner.  It was clear that the English instructor I had (who wasn’t a very good instructor, either, so it’s probably not the fault of the school, other than putting her in that position in the first place) was biased against the nickname, although the bias was subtle.

My initial inclination was to blame the University of Illinois for putting on such a ridiculous show that started this uprising of political correctness, but I’m not sure that’s fair.  Ironically, my significant other is from Illinois and grew up idolizing Chief Illiniwek and the University of Illinois.  It still infuriates me when I see what a mockery of Native American culture they made with that nonsense, and I let her know it once in a while (don’t ask me why I do this, as it always ends up coming to bite me when I stir up friction in our relationship, but that’s another story entirely).  It is a controversy that has sparked a large amount of debate and has polarized much of  the nation, over the past 15 to 20 years.  That said, I don’t think that the University of Illinois (who, by the way, still gets to keep their name ‘Fighting Illini’, because of the argument that “all Illinois residents are Illini”) and the outrages they put on in any way compare to the respectful logos of the University of North Dakota.

Like I said, the controversy has been ongoing for quite a while, but it really became polarized after the new Ralph Engelstad Arena opened in 2001.  During the opening ceremony, the gracious individual for whom the stadium is named (and the one that gave the money and effort to build the stadium), Ralph Engelstad, spoke on the main ice prior to one of the first regular season games in 2001 against Colorado College.  He stated something along the lines of how he hoped the logo and Fighting Sioux nickname would endure forever.  This, along with the 2,200 Sioux logos in the arena, embroiled opponents to the Fighting Sioux nickname.  In 2005, the NCAA chose to sanction schools that utilized native american imagery, and deemed that University of North Dakota’s nickname and imagery were “hostile and abusive.”

One of the worst aspects of changing the Fighting Sioux nickname of the school is that we lose the heritage and culture that we’ve had for decades.  At the beginning of each home hockey game, the following words are spoken in coordination with a video at the Ralph Engelstad Arena:

The University of North Dakota is the home of the Fighting Sioux.  UND chose the name ‘Fighting Sioux’ in the 1930’s, because the Sioux warriors were the most courageous of all warriors.  The great Sioux nation epitomized honor, courage, pride, overcoming adversity, and winning battles.

This video always makes me proud.  It also always has a tendency to make me pause and think about the Native American culture.  As a child of North Dakota, I have a very strong degree of respect for Native American heritage, probably due in part to the exposure I had to this culture both in school as well as everyday life.  When I was going through middle school, every seventh grader was required to take a North Dakota History course.  Want to know what this consisted of?  The majority of it had to do with the history of Native Americans in the plains.  I wish I had had the chance to take a Native American Studies course at UND while I was there, but other courses filled up my schedule.  Since North Dakota history is so intertwined with Native American history, doesn’t it seem logical that the foremost university in the state would honor this relationship?  This ensures every student of the University of North Dakota has at least some exposure to Native American culture and heritage, even if it’s just in the name and the video at university events.  Isn’t this more noteworthy than a name that serves no educational purpose whatsoever, like “Crimson”?

Do I agree that the Fighting Sioux imagery is “hostile and abusive”?  No.  Do I think that the name should be changed? No.  Do I think that we’re losing culture and heritage because of “political correctness”? Definitely.

My real frustration about this whole situation is not that we have to change the nickname of the University of North Dakota.  My real beef with this is twofold: First, if the University of North Dakota’s logo is “hostile and abusive”, why is it that the Florida Seminoles, University of Illinois Fighting Illini, University of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, and others, aren’t?  What classifies a logo, imagery, nickname, or anything as “hostile and abusive”?  In all the time I was at the University of North Dakota, as well as throughout this controversy, I’ve never seen a decent definition of this stigma.  My second frustration is that the settlement with the NCAA and the University of North Dakota specified that UND had three years to receive approval for the nickname from the two North Dakota Sioux tribes: the Spirit Lake tribe and the Standing Rock tribe.  The Spirit Lake tribe voted to approve the nickname, but the Standing Rock tribe refuses to even discuss the issue[1].  Seriously, after three years, if the Standing Rock tribe can’t even discuss the issue in a tribal meeting, doesn’t that send the message that it’s not that important to them?  I think I would be less frustrated with the outcome if things were handled better.  Yes, I would still be sad to see the nickname go away, but it would be a little easier to swallow knowing that there was a significant number of people out there who felt that the nickname was “hostile and abusive.”  There are blogs out there that claim the vast majority of Sioux tribal members are proud of the nickname and there are blogs out there that claim that the vast majority of Sioux tribal members feel the nickname should have been thrown out years ago.  I think more likely, the majority of all people concerned don’t have a clue what others think besides those in their own little circle of acquaintances.  It just seems that it should be brought to a vote, both so that those in favor of the history, culture, and honor that the University of North Dakota is placing in the traditions and accomplishments of the Sioux nation can voice their opinions, and so the opponents who feel that the Sioux nickname is derogatory and belittling to all Native Americans can show they have support and aren’t alone in their cause.

Just to be clear, I’m not bitter towards those who feel offended by the Native American imagery used by the University of North Dakota.  I do not agree with them, but I do respect their opinion.  They have won a victory with this decision passed down by the North Dakota Board of Higher Education; I feel they should celebrate this and be proud of it.  I do not, in any way, feel hostility or anger toward Native Americans or the Sioux nation of North Dakota.  I simply feel frustration over the process and train of events, as well as sadness for the cultural identity, symbolism, and history that will be lost with this decision.

The bottom line comes down that the decision has been made.  It’s time to move forward rather than look backwards.  In order to accomplish this, the University of North Dakota is going to have to come up with one hell of a cool nickname.  Right now, alumni across the nation are fuming at this decision.  There will be students, alumni, and community members that will oppose this decision.  There will probably even be a loss of funding from alumni who now feel disconnected from their alma mater.  It could even affect recruiting of new students to athletic programs (hockey being a major one, of course).

There will, eventually, be a new nickname, new logos, and even a new tradition.  But, they come at the cost of the old traditions and history, and alumni support, both in spirit and finances.  Many will come back, register themselves with the new tradition and be gently ushered back into the fold.  But some will refuse.  Even worse, this new policy will deny new students the experience of being at a Fighting Sioux hockey game – feeling the intensity, the drive, the spirit of support for the Sioux and the pride of having such a diverse and rich culture living with us in North Dakota.

I, for one, will always be a University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux alumnus.

  1. Bismark Tribune.  Standing Rock Won’t Schedule Election on UND Nickname (2010).  Accessed 04-13-2010.

So, I originally chose to title this blog “The Nothingness of Software.” However, the more I think about it, the more I realize that software is only a small part of what I’d like to write about. I enjoy mythology (yay Lost), literary analysis, symbolism, software development, music, movies, science fiction (in any form), martial arts, and sailing. So, it doesn’t seem logical to focus the blog title solely on software.

I mean, let’s be honest – there’s a lot more nothingness in my life than just software development. 😉

A Bit of Philosophy

I figured I’d start this blog with a bit of philosophy.  Why did I call it ‘The Nothingness of Software’?  Well, there are two reasons.  The first is that software development, from my perspective (and probably from the perspective of management) is like a void: money and tasks/requirements are input, and a small amount of an intangible, unmeasurable resource known as code is output.  It’s kind of like juicing an orange – you go through a lot of effort to produce a very small amount of end product.

But there’s more to it than that, right?  In most industries, a large amount of effort producing a small amount of end result would quickly be analyzed for “efficiency”, and projects would probably be scrapped or “enhanced” to maximize output and profit.  This does happen in software development, but not in the same way as it might in, say, cooking or manufacturing.  If efficiency in manufacturing were down, this situation would be corrected by either decreasing workload, or increasing the number of potential workers (either human or automated).  In software, however, the workload is tied into the end product – can you really ship a software product that doesn’t have feature X when that was a feature that was required by the end customer?  Worse yet, the problem is compounded if we add additional workers – it’s widely known in the software industry that adding new engineers to a late project will only make it later.

But why is this different than, say, building a bridge?  The civil engineers  in charge of creating a bridge over a river have a goal which they can’t skimp on.  My rationale is that 1) a bridge is a tangible object, meaning that you can touch it, feel it, and visibly gauge how much work is getting done on it, and 2) civil engineering is a rigorously developed field – the current standards for civil engineering are the result of evolution over thousands of years (essentially since humankind began).  Software engineering, on the other hand, is the product of evolution of just over 60 years.  Comparatively speaking, software engineers are babies compared to civil, mechanical, or even electrical engineers.

But I said there were two reasons I chose this name for the blog, right?  The other one comes from my martial arts studies.  In Kung Fu, we strive to strike in such a way as to move from absolute stillness to motion in no time.  The concept stems from the idea of the “Wu Chi”, or the void, from which all energy is thought to flow.  We strive to attune ourselves to the void, so as to listen to the messages of the universe.  Sound like gibberish?  Perhaps… it takes some getting used to, and sometimes philosophies such as this don’t lend themselves well to those who haven’t been through years of training to really understand what it means.

What does that have to do with software?  Well, in a sense, software development is a creative process – an art – much like Kung Fu.  In that sense, software development should stem from the void (“Wu Chi”) as well.  So, the “nothingness” in software is actually the creative process.   If you’re a Lost fan, there’s an episode of Lost where John Locke and Boone are sitting on a log staring at the newly uncovered hatch.  Boone comments that they have been coming to the hatch for the last three days and doing nothing more than staring at it.  Locke tells Boone a story about how Michaelangelo, due to his father’s insistence that he wouldn’t use his hands to do his work, was commissioned to carve a statue.  Michaelangelo would come every day and stare at a block of marble for eight hours.  One day, his sponsor asked him, “What are you doing?”  Michaelangelo, surprised, turned around and replied, “I’m working.”  Years later, the block of marble was the statue of David.

Creative inspiration comes from the mind.  Thus, to simply be “doing” something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re working.  Similarly, just because you aren’t outwardly doing any activity that’s visible to the human eye doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t working.  I chose the name for the blog because what I do is software.  Sometimes I feel like, as Jimmy Buffett so eloquently puts it, “I’m stranded on a sandbar.”  So what differentiates a good software developer from a bad software developer, or a good software developer from a great software developer?  These are some questions I ponder sometimes.  Additionally, the software development world is really not what they teach you in a Computer Science department – it’s much more intricate than that.  In a Computer Science degree program, you learn (or should learn) programming skills, software engineering concepts, teamwork, communication skills, problem solving, creativity, and similar technical aspects about your career.  What they don’t teach you is the politics – how people will interact with you and treat you, or ignore you, in the workplace.  Now, I’m not saying all of this is bad.  It’s just sort of a nebulous area.  A void, so to speak, which I call the “Nothingness of Software.”

Welcome to my nothingness.  Please be aware that this is an uncharted void and you may get lost.  Or, you may have found a better path through it or around it.  You can opt not to take this journey with me, or leave anywhere along the way.  I don’t know where we’ll end up, but I hope you and I both learn something along the way.

Helm, set a course for two two seven mark eight six.  Engage.