Literate Email

During my working day, I receive and read a lot of email and text messages. The bulk of this traffic is, at best, terse and utilitarian. Often the grammar, spelling, and structure are atrocious. It is not uncommon for these messages to completely miscommunicate facts and intentions in these text-only media.

On the positive, this environment pushes me to work harder at adapting my communications to use the strengths and ameliorate the weaknesses of the media, to use not only careful diction, structure, and grammar, but also formatting and topic focus to improve the chances for clear communication.

Recently, at the 2021 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference, I re-connected with an acquaintance from previous conventions, and we have started exchanging email.

It is so nice to exchange messages with someone who, like me, takes joy in clear and purposeful verbal communication. In addition, the topic of writing fiction is so much more gratifying than the technical and business topics I generally see in my work email.

What Everyone Is Suffering

As an introvert who is comfortable with that aspect of my personality, I thought I would have no trouble with staying home and avoiding other people, to do my part to slow the spread of Covid-19.

And I suspect I am less uncomfortable than the true extroverts out there.
But after almost a week of it, I am feeling a bit of pressure, cabin fever.

Maybe I should take a walk.

Never Discard The Last One

Just a quick thing that life reminded me of recently: Never throw away the last of any cable you have.

A few months ago, in my office clear-out, I eliminated the last of the pile of HDMI-DVI cables I had.

Not long ago, I found this old Dell monitor with no HDMI port, just DVI.

So I had to buy again the cable I had tossed.

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.

A Colorful Life

Geek or nerd taste (recently re-christened as “popular culture”) comes in a lot of varieties, and there is a lot of overlap.

For instance, if you read science fiction, you probably also read at least a little fantasy now and then.

In an older version of this essay, I said, “if you can name more than four comic book superheroes, you can probably name at least three Norse deities.” But since the Marvel Cinematic Universe, people who don’t even consider themselves nerds or geeks can pass both wings of that test.

You can certainly talk about blurry edges, of course. Science fiction often includes telepathy or other psychic phenomena, which leads to a similar branch of fantasy that is only a short hop from full-on magic and wizards. The continuum from fantasy to dark fantasy to horror is very blurry. Urban fantasy and dystopian science fiction can both be a lot like noir mysteries, with a typical “tarnished knight” hero and unreliable authority structures.

There are a couple of other directions I could push these boundaries, but the point should be clear, that there is some commonality in geek media tastes.

Why does this unruly cluster of art seem to hang together, and why does it appeal to so many? Probably because we all long for a more colorful life. We all want deep experiences of elevated physical sensation and intense emotional depth. We want higher plateaus and brief but significant valleys. As Heinlein wrote in Glory Road, “I wanted … raw red gold in nuggets the size of your fist, and throw that claim-jumper to the Huskies…”

No offense to Robert A, but that paragraph is by far the best part of that otherwise regrettable novel. If the rest of it could grip me like that soliloquy, it would be one of my favorite books.

There it is, of course. We don’t want to grind our way through a mortgage, under-funding our retirement and struggling to pay attention to our day job for decades. We want to live a life, not drag our way through a series of obligations.

We want color, and love, and passion.

(Note that one version or another of this essay has been knocking around in my documents folders for a very long time. I never felt I had developed its full potential, and still it feels like there is a lot more to say.)

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.