Branding, Journaling, and Writing

Since the layoff from my previous employer was completed on April 26, I have not been writing much, either my journal or fiction. It took me a while to figure it out, and it has to do with the job search in general, and “branding” in particular.

Branding?

The job market and the job search process has changed quite a bit since the last time I had to worry about it. On-line communities such as LinkedIn and Indeed, the wide availability of information about almost everyone, and, for computer and IT work, the constant upheaval of techniques and technologies, make looking for a job in 2019 very different from 2004, which was the last time I was seriously seeking a position.

One of the features of the recent layoff was that I have two months of paid assistance from a job search firm, complete with resume’ development, networking events, research tools, and nagging from a coach. That’s all good, of course.

Part of that process is your personal “branding”, your own special sauce in the job market. It includes LinkedIn profile, resume’, networking briefs, 30-second pitch, et cetera. And it is wearing me thin.

Marketing!

Yes, all that branding hoo-ha is marketing and sales material for myself. Sure, I can see the need for it: you must stand out from the other applicants for a position, you must give the recruiter a reason to pass you to the next level, and you must give the hiring manager a reason to choose you over someone else, someone who might even match the job description better. If you don’t do it, you will probably lose out to someone who does.

Sales and marketing is a challenge for me. I have worked successfully as technology support for sales in the past, where I talk to the techs and produce materials about how our product fills the technology needs of the prospect. I actually like that job, seeing myself as a facilitator for the sales rep, giving the prospective users a view from the technology trenches. But I don’t see myself as a seller; if the rep is the quarterback, then I am blocking and tackling.

The long and the short of it is that thinking about how I can stand out, what I can do better, why I am so special, is exhausting. And it is a vastly different focus than journaling, where my attention is on events, reactions, reasons, and things I can improve about my inner life. A healthy inner life improves one’s outer life, inevitably.

But just cheerleading for Team Me seems to be dangerous, in the sense of believing one’s own hype.

Well, yes I did all that stuff during the time I was an independent consultant, seeking out old customers and contacts, and I am glad I kept it going for a year and a half. I proved to myself that when the chips were down, I could do what was necessary, even if it was not my natural strength.

Am I Just Griping?

So, maybe I can do all this, and succeed in producing a branding package that highlights my strengths and maximizes my appeal. Maybe I am just feeling a little grumpy, a little neglected, a little under-appreciated.

Where was I?

Oh, right, journaling and writing.

The whole point of this rant is that branding activities require a lot of the same kind of introspection that I usually apply to my journal entries. With all this generation of marketing materials, I just haven’t had much energy for the regular journal entries.

And that is also why I haven’t been working much on the fiction. For me, at least, writing begets writing. When I spend time journaling, it activates the energy and desire to work on the fiction.

And, of course, that is the advice I am giving myself, to take intentional time with the journal. I will feel better, and ultimately write more and better.

Well, crud.

For the second time in my career, a RIF fell on me.

As of April 26, I am no longer employed by Anthem. I have some payments coming from them (“supplemental unemployment benefit”, not technically “severance”; the difference is complex and frustrating), and some savings, so I don’t have to panic-jump at the first job I see, so I am settling in for a marathon.

The last time this happened, in 2002, I did get a lump-sump severance, and used it to smooth over the bumps in a couple of years of independent consulting.

That’s less likely, this time. The landscape is different; the demand is much lower for the skills I built that practice on.

So I am taking it a little slower, looking at options, polishing some skills, using the resources, and trusting that the Lord has a plan for me at this time.

A Milestone

As long as I can remember I have loved stories. I don’t remember when I first understood that people made up stories, or when I first thought of making stories myself, but by high school I had an established dream, an assumption even, that I would write stories.
On and off through the years, I have written, attended classes and writing groups, and piled up unfinished works.
In early 17, I found the gumption to begin taking all this seriously. I joined Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and sought out a critique group. I was fortunate to find a group of people of similar mind, who understand the importance and power of fiction, who love to nurture other writers who nurture them in turn.
My writing skills are growing under the attention of this group of story-tellers.
And just last week, I received glorious news, that the 2019 WhimsyCon anthology will include a story that I wrote. Note that this is not a major market, not national in scope, and the pay is only a token.
But this is huge for me. I have never before had a piece of fiction published.

A milestone, indeed.

Hobbiest

“Hobbiest” makes me quiver every time I see it, like it is more than a simple spelling error, more than a stand-alone, single-word error.

First, it shows an ignorance of the “-ist” suffix, meaning a person who does something, such as “hobbyist”, “pianist”, “artist”.

Second, ignorance of the “-est” suffix, as a superlative, such as “greatest”, “meanest”, or “dumbest.”

Third, pronunciation ignorance.  The short “e” and short “i” are distinct sounds, as in “mist” and “nest.”

Fourth, misapplication of the y-to-i rule that turns “knobby” to “knobbier” and “knobbiest”, “funny” to “funnier” and “funniest.”

And fifth, “hobbyist” is a slightly unsual word; it should stick in your head.  Especially if you are a hobbyist, and you are thinking about, reading about, and writing about (in the blog comment that is boiling my blood) the state of being a hobbyist, or the strengths, weaknesses, and practices of the hobbyist.

Pacific Rockets

Bear with me while I dredge up some old memories.

When I was studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Colorado in Boulder, I used to hang out in two different libraries. First, the main library (Norlin), up on the 3rd floor, in the back, where I found “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.”

Second, I spent time in the Engineering library, in the basement of the Engineering building. (I gather from the CU web site that it has moved, now.)

One thing I have always loved about libraries is their used book and magazine sales. You know, stuff that they were going to throw out, but decide to see if they can get some “enthusiast” to pay a few nickels or a couple of bucks for. Quite often, I am one of those enthusiasts. Over the years, I have picked up any number of musty old tomes, as well as stacks of magazines that interested me.

And, now, to the topic at hand. One time, I picked up four issues of a little staple-bound journal called “Pacific Rockets: Journal of the Pacific Rocket Society, Inc.”

I mean, how could I pass those up, at four bits each?

I have the following issues:

  • June 1946 (This may be the first issue.)
  • Summer 1947, Vol 2, No 1
  • Winter, 1948-49, Vol 3, No 3
  • Spring 1949, Vol 3, No 4

Some of the topics in these slim 8-1/2 x 6 inch volumes include spacecraft design, nuclear propulsion systems, range safety protocols, experiments with both plastic and wood as propellant, and an article by Arthur C. Clarke.

This last is apparently the first installment of a transcription of an address that Dr. Clarke delivered to the British Interplanetary Society in 1946.

The whole thing makes me feel like I missed the most exciting decades of the 20th Century by being born too late.

A bit of searching produces a reference to http://www.translunar.org/prs, which page does not inspire confidence, and appears to be untouched in this century. Trans Lunar Research, the organization appearing at http://www.translunar.org/ appears to be nearly as static as its child page.

A little searching on one of the names mentioned in the June 1946 issue led me to Edmund Vail Sawyer and Crescent Engineering, and the next thing I know I am deep in the Smithsonian Institution’s online card catalog.

And that is as far as I am willing to chase this topic right now.

Craft and Art

The distinction between how we use the words “craft” and “art” has been on my mind for a while, recently.  As a matter of fact, it has been a topic that has occupied my attention on and off for a number of years.

As you might guess, there are a lot of essays, videos, blog posts, podcasts, rants, and comments on the Web that address the topic, and if you poke around in a library or bookstore, you can find dead-tree equivalents.

If you spend some time with all this material, you begin to catch a number of themes.  I think they are all missing the point.

Let me summarize the various attitudes about art and craft, then I will explain why I am the only person who has penetrated the mystery.

  1. Art is about itself, and craft is just decorated useful items
    1. You can find this attitude all over the place:
      1. Denis Dutton proposes that “These two symptoms of craft, that craft involves the application of intelligent skill (often some kind of handwork), and that it commonly results in the production of useful objects, are uncontroversial
      2. Craft is functional, yes.  And it can be exceptionally well-rendered, but ultimately it lacks the importance, the impact, and/or the emotional currency of art.
      3. The concept of craft is historically associated with the production of useful objects and art well, at least since the 18th century with useless ones.
    2. Emmanuel Kant heavily influenced this attitude with his ideas that art produces “disinterested pleasure,” meaning that the observer has pleasure in the work of art, but has no use for it.
    3. There are a number of issues with the consistency of this approach.
      1. If an object has utility for observer A, and no utility for observer B, could it be art for B and not for A?
      2. What about objects from cultures who never found this distinction necessary or useful?  Is a Ming vase or Classical Greek red figure pottery art?  If not, why is it displayed in art museums?
    4. R.G. Collingwood seems to be viewed as “the last word” on this topic.
      1. The second paragraph of section 1.1 of this document seems to suggest strongly that Collingwood never learned to make anything with his own hands.
  2. The definition of Art is based in racism, sexism, and cultural bias
    1. This is another attitude that is easy to find on the Web
      1. How about a book called Media and Ethnic Values?  “Elitism and ethnocentrism are embedded in art history and criticism.
      2. The basic argument is that the only things considered “great art” are paintings, stone sculpture, and architecture from Dead White European Males.
      3. The problem with this argument is that current work seems to be dominated by artists who do not fit in the narrow range of this argument.
    2. Laura Morelli argues for a historical viewpoint that the difference between art and craft is largely a matter of historical accident and ground-floor marketing, and that European culture first began to make the distinction in the 15th Century, while most other cultures never saw those distinctions as significant.
  3. The Tate Museum (one of the UK’s heaviest hitters in the art world) has this to say in an article about art and craft:  “It’s not a new question, the boundaries between craft and art have long been contested.”  The comments on this article contain a sampling of most of these prevalent attitudes.
  4. Sometimes, we find expressed the idea that craft is just an attempt at art that did not make the final inexpressible leap to Artiness:
    1. “the main difference is the concept behind an idea, how deep is the idea presented. By deep I am talking about the level of thought and the research behind”
    2. “trying to define something as either one thing or another, when in fact, the two are on a spectrum”

Okay, that should cover the current state of the Art/Craft debate.  I dug through all that for a long time, far past the time when it remained interesting.  You are welcome to look for something new or different there.

So, what is my brilliant solution to this question?

The difference between Art and Craft is that “art” derives from Latin through French, and “craft” derives from Germanic languages.

“Really?” I can imagine you asking, “That’s all you have to say about it?”

Well, no, of course not.  But that is the essence of it.

When we look at American and British culture, and to some degree the other British-influenced cultures, we see a bias associating French-derived words, practices, and artifacts with higher social class.  Anglo-Saxon (that is, Germanic) culture is associated with lower social classes.  This goes back to the Norman French nobles of a millenium ago, ruling over the Anglo-Saxon peasants.  If you want to know how those groups felt about each other, read some Robin Hood stories.

So, when something is labeled “craft”, it is automatically placed on a lower rung of the social ladder than “art.”

But, tracing the root meanings of the two words into their mother languages will yield nearly identical meanings, each of which boils down to something like “skill or ability to make or do something.”

To put it another way, the high-end art scene is just like the cliques and tribes of high school.  They get away with telling the rest of the world that they are a better class only because they use the language of conquerors, and we believe them, at least a little.

So, the next time someone asks, “But is it art?” be sure to tell them, that of course it is.  It is also craft.

Because they are the same.

Tea Tray

Some weeks ago, Barbie got a plastic tea set for our granddaughter Zoe. Zoe absolutely loves to play with it, handing out pretend tea to any humans or stuffies who happen to be in the room, sometimes for nearly an hour at a time. That’s a lot of focus for a two-year-old.

So, I decided that she neeeded a tea tray to keep and use her tea set on. Since the tea set has a Disney Cinderella theme, I used compatible colors, and cut out a Cinderella image from a sheet of scrapbook paper. Here is a picture of the finished product.

Tea Tray

I did not take photos of the build process, but here are some lessons I learned:

1. Do not use cottonwood lumber for anything. It was too soft to bear the joints I wanted to use, and I ended up pegging the joints with dowels to keep everything together. YMMV; perhaps it was just this particular cottonwood board that was the trouble; I have no intention of trying again.
2. Every step of a project builds on the foundation of previous steps. If you choose the wrong lumber, the whole project is on a shaky foundation. Because of the cottonwood lumber, I ended up making decisions and choosing paths that I would not choose for a project built with cherry or maple.
3. One finished project is much more satisfying than a dozen unfinished.

Zoe seems to like the tray, but I don’t think she really understands what it’s all about at the moment.  That’s okay with me.

Water For Elephants

I first read Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen, in 2009.  It is a powerful, dynamic, and hopeful story.  If you have only seen the movie, you have missed a great deal of the texture and subtlety of the novel.

The novel is structured as a frame story in which Jacob, the viewpoint character, in a nursing home, recovering from a broken hip.  He is cranky, and a little forgetful.  A circus is in town, and he is looking forward to the weekend, when someone from his family will visit, and take him to the circus.

In flashbacks, we see his first few months with a circus in his youth, during the Great Depression, as an impoverished veterinary student.  He falls in love with an unavailable woman, he learns how cruel people can really be, how deep true friendship runs, and how easily even the best of us can be pushed by passion to violence and despair.

In the end, redemption from an unexpected source comes in the midst of cruel revenge gone beyond reason.

The book is gritty, as you might expect from a circus book set in the Great Depression.  Not recommended for children or younger teenagers, but adults will be moved by the deep emotional honesty, remembering the burning, self-centered transition from youth to adult.  It shows the bittersweet difference between the fantasy we all have about “adventures”, and the real hard times and fear that are the root of every adventure story.

If you like Water For Elephants, you may also like The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.

Good Idea, Bad Idea: Mind Mapping

A bit of personal history about the concept of Mind Mapping

I first heard of mind mapping in high school, in the late 1970s.  The context escapes me, but I was talking with a teacher about ideas for a paper or a project, and the teacher asked me if I had heard about mind mapping.  He described it as a brainstorming or idea-generating technique, and although I don’t recall his precise words, he described it very roughly as involving a central idea spidering out to other connected ideas, with connections out in layers.  I toyed with it at that time, but it did not really click for me.

The idea of mind mapping stayed with me, though, and through the years of school, and after, I tried it out for various brainstorming activities.  I remember, in particular, trying to break loose from plot blocks when writing fiction.  I am pretty sure I used it a couple of times when creating technical presentations or proposals, as well, but it never became a regular part of my tool set.

A few years ago, our pastor brought up the subject in a conversation, and for a while after that conversation he tried using mind mapping techniques in the sermon notes he passes out on Sunday mornings, as well as in the notes he displayed on a screen at the front of the sanctuary.  At this point, I began to get confused about exactly what mind mapping was.  I was still stuck on the brainstorming definition from a five-minute conversation in high school.  I began to realize that I needed to learn more about the technique, and about its application.

Clearing up my confusion

A while ago, then, I bought a copy of The Mind Map Book, by Tony Buzan, .  So, I have a few things to say about mind mapping as a technique, and about this book in particular.  I am not going to recap the book.  I am just going to talk about my reaction to it.

First, although mind mapping can be used for brainstorming, that is not its strength.  Brainstorming requires fluid speed, popping ideas out in all directions without pruning the list, the tree, the cloud of ideas.  The “Rules of Mind Mapping”, as Buzan lists them in the book, are so restrictive that when I attempt to follow them, it constricts the flow in my exploration of the ideas.

But, if you ignore mind map formatting in your brainstorming, then spend some time organizing, re-structuring, coloring, and sketching, you can produce a consistent mind map that shows you where most of your ideas cluster.  Depending on what you are doing, you can focus on the full or sparse branches.

Next, it can be used for taking notes, as in a lecture or study.   But, you must plan to go through several iterations.  There is simply no way to be sure, when you are learning something new, where all the bits belong, or even which parts are important to include.  So, the way to get the most out of mind mapping for note taking is to get your best “live” guess, then go run a draft or two to get the structure right, and then add color, sketches, highlights, and textures.

Hmm.  That sounds like note-taking advice I got back in high school, except for the mind map format.  Take notes, then later on re-write them, not for neatness necessarily, but to organize it, add your own thoughts, explore questions raised by your notes, etc.  Almost as if “mind mapping,” per se, is not a critical part of the process.

And that’s really the key

The key to a useful mind map is just this:  It is not a first draft.  It is not a draft at all.  It is a finished work, requiring re-working, re-structuring, and re-thinking.  It requires tossing crumpled papers in the trash, crossing everything out in big bold frustration, giving up and starting over.

In other words, it’s a lot like writing.  Or painting.  Or any other artistic or intellectual endeavor.

What’s right about Buzan-style mind mapping

Emphasis On Context

Buzan lists a number of features that make items more memorable:

Easier To Remember
Description My View
Near the beginning Temporal Context
Near the end Temporal Context
Associated with existing memories Referential Context
Associated with other items in the material Structural Context
Emphasized in the material Artificial Context
Appeals to the senses Sensory Context
Interesting to the student Personal Context

In my view memory is all about context.  Another way to view that is associations.  The different things that make a bit of information memorable are contexts, or associations, and learning something requires some way to put them all together in a cohesive structure.

When we study a subject with a lot of internal connections, it has what I would like to call Structural Context.  Natural science tends to have a lot of these:  “The head-bone’s connected to the neck-bone.”  History, when it is viewed as interconnected stories, has them.

But, a lot of abstract studies, or contrived knowledge systems, lack natural structure and connections.  In these cases, structural context lacking, it often helps to add some artificial context.  You can add context by ordering (temporal context).  You can add context by associating sensations with concepts (colored fonts, sketches, associations with sounds or smells).  You get the idea.

And some of the most useful parts of The Mind Map Book are about attaching artificial context to concepts.  Colored pens, stars and underlines, boxes and curves.

There is another technique of artificial context, an ancient concept:  the Memory Palace.  You have probably heard about the technique.  Things like associating an exaggerated representation of the first item with the front door, the second item in the foyer, etc.

A completed final version of a mind map is a web of colored, textured associations, sketches, and words.  A two-dimensional artificial context map.  A useful memory tool.

What bothers me about the book

Okay, I believe that a mind map can be a useful memory tool.  But, The Mind Map Book, what about it?

Excess Enthusiasm

The whole book reads like a political tract, working too hard to convert you to the position that Mind Mapping is the best and only way to represent knowledge.  Frankly, it’s a sales job, of the used car variety.  I found myself wondering if the brakes were bad on this lemon, so to speak.

I believe the book would be more effective with the attention of an editor whose paycheck was signed by someone other than Tony Buzan, someone who could rein in the enthusiasm and push Buzan  to view the techniques more dispassionately.

Junk Science

One of Buzan’s central ideas is that Mind Mapping reflects the structure of memory, and that therefore, by definition, it is the best way to organize information.

There are plenty of examples in the book of people making breakthroughs using the technique, and some of them are striking.  On the other hand, most of them have a hidden leap of eye-rolling illogic.

Repetition

Except for a couple of chapters near the end, the second half of the book is a half-dozen variations of this theme:

If you use Mind Mapping for this situation, it is completely different from all the other uses of Mind Mapping, and utterly revolutionary.  Here are the steps.

1. The same step 1 as all the other uses.

2. The same step 2 as all the other uses.

… etc.

See?  Different from all the other ways to use it!

Few (Useful) Instructions

I found that the descriptions of what a Mind Map should look like inadequate for actually producing them, and the step-by-step instructions too vague.  I suspect that a significant part of Buzan’s income is from live classes on the technique, and that he feared that really good instructions would cannibalize that business.  It felt miserly and disingenuous to me.

De-emphasizes Iterations

If you want to wind up with a usable Mind Map, it is going to require iterations, multiple drafts, trial and error.  Buzan manages to convey the impression that the maps should spring from your head like Athena from Zeus, by virtue of the “natural” structure of the tool.

There is a short and inadequate discussion of iterations, but to me it felt overwhelmed by the rest of the implications in the rest of the text.

Single-Word Branches

One of the Rules of Mind Mapping is that branches should have single words only.  So, instead of “Red Pony”,  would have “Red” -> “Pony” (or vice versa, depending on what you wanted to emphasize.)

I’m not making that up.  In fact, the argument in the book for single-word branches is even more precarious and contrived than that.

Topological Identity of Trees and Outlines

In a very real sense, I believe this is one of the most glaring weaknesses of the book.  Buzan hammers over and over at the idea that Mind Maps are superior to numbered outlines in every respect.  However, topologically speaking, they are identical.  Either one is simply a way of formatting a tree:  A set of connected nodes, each except the root) with one parent, any node may have zero or more children.  The only difference is formatting.

His refusal to acknowledge this fact completely dissolves his credibility.

Recommendations

  1. Get a different book.
  2. Use a stripped-down version of mind mapping to explore a concept space (brainstorming).
  3. Create maps to help remember complex information that lacks natural context.

Lexi’s Brain

My niece Lexi wants to be a brain surgeon, so I decided to get her started.

Inside the Brain Box

It’s like the buzzing “Operation” game, but customized for Lexi.  The items in the cavities represent things she likes or thinks about, and a couple of inside family jokes.  I got some inkjet-printable shrink plastic to create the items.  Getting the sizes and color density right took some trial and error.

Outside the box

It’s all in an ordinary cardboard box, with scrap-book paper glued to the outside.  I suspect that the rubber cement will fail, because I didn’t tuck things in and clamp or weight them, for the most part.  But rubber cement is strong enough and fast enough to use when you are scrambling to get a project together at the last possible minute.

I used a dollar-store battery-powered fan for the buzzer.  Removed the foam blades and screwed a washer to the side of the hub to provide an off-center vibrating effect.  I interrupted the current path at the fan switch, and ran one side to the sheet of steel, the other to some garage-sale tweezers, with a globby, ugly solder job.

I should have taken more in-progress photos, in particular of the process I used for the cavities.  They are just holes drilled with Forstner bits into a scrap of MDF.  The sheet steel was easy to perforate with a stepless drill, then connecting the drill holes by cutting with a Dremel.  Not real neat, but I finished the project in time.  Barely.

The brain image is just printed in ink-jet.  I probably should have laminated it, or at least used a laser printer for a slightly more durable image.

I’m fairly happy with the project, and very happy with Lexi’s reaction, especially when she touched the edge of a cavity and it buzzed at her.

This project was inspired by this one from Make Magazine.