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2011 Archive

December 18th, 2011

"After bread is secured, leisure is the supreme aim." - Kropotkin

idea 19. Post-sale, post-launch and the desire to get back to the wheel

1st pot, 2001

I went from sale week straight into two weeks of ramping up to the big site launch at work, so the month of December has been a hectic, anxious blur thus far. Fortunately, that's all about to slow down in the coming holiday lull; my business for the year is complete, obligations met, and the U. shuts down for a solid week and a half between Christmas and New Year's. Yay!

I'm weary, but the relative success of both big projects is a gratifying relief. And, unlike some years, the lack of a post-sale malaise is like having that mass of balloons from Up tied to my back. I'm primed to float away, ready or not.

So the tiredness will have to compete with my smouldering desire to start back in with wet clay again: to be in the studio, sit at the wheel and make some damn pots for a change. It's been since, what, early September? That's a crazy amount of time to defer the thing I want to do most for all the things I've needed to do more.

Like last year, I'll start finding my way back in with porcelain. Already, a half dozen ideas are competing for my attention and ranking themselves in the queue. The greatest thing, as my chalkboard once said, is not knowing what to make next.

While I'm at it, I'll take my customary mid-winter blog break, too - so no post next week. But I'll be back after New Year's with a review of this-year-at-st-earth.

Happy holidays and, as always, thanks for reading.

December 11th, 2011

"43. Power to the people.
Play can only happen when people feel they have control over their lives.
We can't be free agents if we’re not free." - Bruce Mau

I'm thinking in fragments this week, and having one heck of a time coalescing them into a single post. Reason says they're unrelated, or it would be a stretch to connect them. But intuition is telling me they fit somehow; that they want to go together. Why fight it?

Looping

A.

As I said last week, this sale ranked in the 80th percentile all-time, where "all-time" is two sales per year for the last 11 years. That's based on the statistics that -- somehow -- I was forsighted and/or obsessive enough to track from the very start: attendance, pots sold and total sales in cold, hard $USD.

However, that designation is a little squirrely and suspect, when I remember to factor in a whole host of caveats. Like that fact that some of those were only one day events, while most were two. That makes a big difference in the final stats! Or that at other times I was doing well to have a sale at all, to not surrender to circumstance and cancel it. Many times, particularly during the years I was working a full time job in addition to the studio, I was really stretched just to get the announcements in the mail, the display in presentable shape, and some decent pots on the shelves. For example, the spring after we moved to Day Hill, I had just 150 pots in inventory. Pathetic! And the December after Maggie was born was a mere 200. By comparison, there were about 340 last week, and about 400 at the peak (2006). 

In many ways, a strong turnout is its own reward -- a fun crowd, seeing friends and pottery acquaintences, and having a room full of kids Maggie's age playing while their parents peruse the shelves. It was a good mix of new and previous customers this time, including an unprecidented number of students from the U *, and almost nonstop traffic the entire weekend. Not a single pause the first day -- which has never happened before. Hardly a moment without at least one person here. And Sunday was surprisingly brisk, too.

Also, when the sale returns enough money to make it all seem worth the effort (perhaps a slightly different thing than merely "profitable"), I get to focus my attention on the rewarding fact of pots heading out into the world, to new homes where hopefully they'll be enjoyed, or appreciated as gifts, and well used.

And as always, it's such a relief to have it done. Especially because, unlike last year, we got lucky with both health and weather. No complaints, and a very nice way to lead back into what I hope will be a lot of studio hours over the winter months.

B.

Michael Simon:

"I thought it was hard always to -- my words weren't enough to say what a pot, you know, to describe what a pot does or something. I had a hard time writing about pottery. You're always asked, as potters -- and I guess artists in general-always asked to make comments, it seemed to me, like every time you're in a show or every time -- there's a lot of situations like that. Every time something is published, they would like a statement, a statement of intent or a statement about your work. And it's sort of painful. It's always painful. And it's obvious that it's painful not only for me, but it's painful for just damn near everybody, you know. The statements hardly ever add up to the work being done. It can't, really. I mean, it shouldn't. It's always a little bit behind."

* I give the students an impromptu 25% discount, which they seemed to appreciate. I figure it might help spread the word on campus a bit -- which would be a great way to expand the customer base -- and I'm happy to absorb the discount to get some pots in the hands of young people. Especially when they really seem to get it.

December 4th, 2011

"If I don't let myself be happy now than when?" - Jimmy Eat World

Another sale on the books, and a good one. Very good, in fact. Of the 22 I've done, this one ranks 4th or 5th in every category I keep track of. In what's starting to seem like a perpetually crummy economy, that's really something.

I'll probably have more to say about the sale and what it means to me next week, but for now here's a bunch of photos from Saturday morning before we opened, showing the full display and all 330+ pots. (As usual, click any image for a larger view.)

My helper and her helper

Shots of each display area:

Details of the pots:

November 27th, 2011

"I've decided something: Commercial things really do stink.
As soon as it becomes commercial for a mass market it really stinks." - Andy Warhol

First things first, my Holiday Sale is this weekend, December 3rd & 4th, from 10am - 4pm. More details at that link, including directions and maps, if you're planning to come see the pots in person. I send out announcements to my mailing list before each sale; if you'd like the receive them in the future, here's the sign up form. For any other questions about the sale or the pots, please don't hesitate to contact me.

St. Earth showroom, Spring Sale 2011

Second, a quick story relating to the HANDMADE tagline on my new announcement card:

The other night as we were eating dinner, Maggie looked at the small Mason jar I was drinking from and said, "Who made that, Daddy?"

Living in a house full of handmade pots, this has become a common question. And she's become accustomed to the answer being that I made it, or having us say someone's name and perhaps tell her a little story about them.

I smiled at her assumption (and at the fact that she'd caught me using a crummy, factory-made drinking vessel), and said, "Well, nobody made it. It was made by a machine."

She gave me a blank look and paused for a second, processing this new information. Then, with absolute certainty and a very serious look on her face, she said:

"It had to come from somebody."

It had to come from somebody. Perfect. If only things were that simple.

Sometimes I love the three-year-old's view of the world; the way her perspective and lack of self-consciouness prompts such honest, uncomplicated reactions. Her conclusion -- that things are made by people, therefore this new thing was made by someone -- is a pretty fine leap of logic, I think. And her confidence in rejecting my answer, because it didn't fit her view, was as precious in this moment as it is exasperating at others.

With a pang of regret about the need to introduce such complications to her, I explained the idea of machines making things without human hands. (Despite knowing it probably wouldn't sink in until she can see an example of it in action.) It falls to me, I suppose, to break it to her that there are such things as molds and factories and automation. Prior to that moment, she had absolutely no concept of this. Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Then, as I went on to point out a few of the dozens of things within view of our kitchen table that were also made that way -- things that were not, in fact, HANDMADE -- I was struck by their mere presence. So much of our material existence relies on mass-produced things that, no matter how convenient, "really do stink". Unfortunately, even in the home of a potter, they are the vast, stubborn majority.

So for all the things that aren't HANDMADE, here's to the things that are. *

* And here's to all the hedging, digressions and caveats that I cut out of that story, in an attempt to make it flow a little faster and feel a little lighter -- ponderous heaviness being my default mode, it seems. To save mucking up the text with footnote asterisks, I compacted them into one chalky list:

  1. a) Yeah, a damn Mason jar. I know: guilty.
  2. b) If the pot in question is one of mine, she'll occasionally say, "Good job, Daddy." And as is her way these days, she so easily mimics back the sincerity and confidence that we use when saying that to her that I genuinely feel a bit prouder of the pot. Yeah, because my three-year-old liked it. We artists are suckers for an ounce of praise.
  3. c) An example of her exasperation-inducing confidence: "I do it all by myself!". She currently says this about two dozen times a day.
  4. d) Yes, breaking the news of the Industrial Revolution to her is chump change compared to what's coming later. How do you explain famine and war and horrific, unstoppable injustice to a child? I'm dreading that already.
  5. e) I'm not making any of this up or exaggerating for effect. In fact, I aim to relate what she actually said as accurately as possible, for my own future reference, if nothing else.
  6. f) She tosses these sweet little conceptual bombs at us so often that we've become accustomed to them; often they earn nothing more than a knowing glance between Cindy and I. Conversing with someone who's acquiring so much new knowledge on a daily basis is a continuous series of little jolts to my worldview and preconceptions.

November 20th, 2011

"I found this photograph, underneath the picture glass." - Natalie Merchant

Postcards are in the mail!
Firings done!
Photos shot!
New pots for sale in the Gallery!
Two weeks to go...

I've fallen behind on photographic documentation, so here are some highlights from the last month:

Mostly porcelain

Clear and celadons

Yunomi 2012?

Playing as the short stack

#47: Before

#47: After

Squared plates

Middle shelf

Unstacked mugs

Clay body tests and nano bottles


And two from the archive:

2003: In my old studio. Do Things Right!

2005: Soda kiln building. Do Things Wrong!

November 13th, 2011

"...even in the studio of a solitary rural potter, whose pots form the taste of his patrons, a standard of taste is born." Clary Illian

If you'll pardon a quick bit of self-promotion*, the AKAR 30x5 Show opened this week, with five of my salt/soda-fired pots in it. I'm happy to report that three have already sold. (Which, of course, means that two are still available. Hint, hint.) A drippy yellow glaze dot from one of mine was also featured on the annoucement card, which is pretty cool.

As usual with AKAR, there's a lot of excellent work in the show. Several of the other 29 contributors are in the upper tier of potters I admire. It's humbling and, I'll admit, a little terrifying to have my work shown right next to theirs.

*What do you mean, "All blogs are self-promotion"? Four consecutive posts about Steve Jobs is self-promotion? Ha! Self-aggrandizement -- absolutely. Guilty as charged. I love hearing myself write. But it sure ain't helping me sell any more pots. That "hint, hint" business up there? Almost 100% sarcasm, intended to make you grin. As if.

I have no idea how the whole self-promotion thing is supposed to work, anyways -- which is probably so apparent that it goes without saying. I mean, even if I managed to internalize the rationale behind such a thing, which is itself doubtful, there's no way I could pull it off with any semblance of sincerity or consistency. By Twitter post number three I'd be all, "Have I mentioned how unmotivated I am to do my sale prep today?", or, "Wondering how many pots in this next kiln load are already doomed to crack-?" Hardly the stuff of branding and commerce.

I just like to think about things and write it down and share it with the .00001% of people on earth who might conceivably give a damn. Tin cans and string, indeed, my friend. Tin cans and string.

November 6th, 2011

"What kind of a world would we live in if artists tempered their artistic impulses
in deference to profit?"  - Chuck Klosterman

It was the best of designs, it was the worst of designs, it was the age of... yeah, you get the idea. It's November, which means sale time is coming. And that means I'm grinding away at the advance promo stuff, like designing the announcement card; my primary method of advertising.

I've established a fairly consistent, refined style for the cards over the years. Not great -- I'm a middling graphic designer at best -- but good enough, I think. Fine. A vehicle to carry the images of the pots. To a greater or lesser extent, that style has met my twin goals of being easily recognizable by my previous customers and attractive to potential customers.

But I've been getting restless with it. I mean, it's been years. Bored by its sameness and predictability. Tired of its careful formality. And also a little... concerned. Between the formal lighting, graded grey backdrop, precise viewing angle of the photos; the tight and officious layout and fonts; and my tendency to choose the fancier, more elaborate pots for it, I'm afraid it might create the impression that I primarily make decorative art objects -- precious things to be set up on a shelf -- rather than simpler, relatively less-expensive pots intended for daily use.

(I do make both kinds, and of course there's a murky grey area between those two categories -- vases and teapots, for example, can be both at once. But the split is about 70/30 in favor of mugs, cups, bowls, plates and various serving dishes, and I'd like the promotion to better reflect that.)

Also, I've been thinking about the people I send the card to who have never been to the sale and probably don't own any of my pots -- I ambitiously label them "potential customers" -- because they seem to be the best path to growth. I imagine them seeing the card not in full-resolution on a computer monitor, like I do in Photoshop, but rather nested amongst their junk mail, bills and catalogs. How many have any idea what they're looking at? If not, why? Do they even turn the card over to read the details on the back, or does it immediately go into the recycle bin? If so, what might give them pause, prompt that extra second of attention?

It occurred to me that perhaps some don't even realize these as handmade objects; the result of a one-person studio and not just another line from Crate & Barrel. (Granted, for most people that distinction wouldn't make a positive, appreciable difference, but I cling to the hope that for some it might.)

There's nothing I can do to prevent them being ignored by recipients who are completely uninterested, of course. The old adage about advertising holds true -- half your money is wasted, but you can't know which half. But I can't shake the idea that some of the people on the list would be interested, if only I could craft a presentation that resonated with them better. It's entirely possible that my existing assumptions and old design habits are preventing that from happening. So while the old way is "working", and there's a chance I'll lose in one area what I could potentially gain in another, the temptation has been growing to take a shot at something different.

All of that was reinforced by the fact that the deadline to get the cards to the printer was looming, and I hadn't yet done formal shots of my most recently fired pots. And the newest are almost always the ones I'm most excited about -- the pots I really want to highlight. This time it's the porcelain, with that hot new celadon glaze.

Then there was that snapshot I took for the blog a few weeks backs -- two mugs sitting casually on the lid of my electric kiln, an unusual viewing angle of them blasted by a late afternoon October sky, with the place that allowed them to come into being as background. I kept thinking about that image -- quirks, flaws and all -- and about how much it represented what it feels like my pots are really about these days: small, approachable, new, casual, useful, local.

And beyond all that, I've had a lingering desire for a while now -- perhaps fueled by questionable sources like political advertising or magazine layouts, and probably ill-advised -- to plaster a big chunk of declarative text up against the pots. To proclaim something that matters to me in words there; something like "HANDMADE". There's no room in the old layout for that; it'd be a case of more is less.

The final straw was that I kept thinking about how great it'd feel to ignore all my entrenched rules for once, and easy it would be take a shortcut to a new place. I'm feeling my middle age and the weight of the past upon this endeavor, but it's still far to soon to hunker down and go into conservation mode. Why not risk a little of the old on the chance of gaining a little something new?

So I started over, imagined the thing from scratch, declared my intentions and went with it. Perhaps it's just the freshness and the heady allure of the new, but rather than merely "fine", they seem a little better than fine. I'm hoping my long-term supporters enjoy the change up, and some new people see something different that interests them.

Either way, there's a thousand glossy cards in production as I write.

October 30th, 2011

"“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap
of thinking you have something to lose.” - Steve Jobs

...Bang.

I was planning to finish up this series about Steve Jobs with the post that follows. Then I stumbled on this eulogy by his sister, novelist Mona Simpson. It's really moving and fills in a lot of blanks about him, things I'd wondered about. The problem is that it's so good that everything I was going to write now seems like an afterthought.

Also, I just got the new Jobs biography from Amazon, which reminds me that all my ideas about him are provisional at best. No doubt that they'll change as I read it.

What to do? How about this: with those caveats, I'll throw this out here now, with plans to revisit the topic a few months from now. Deal?

So let's talk life lessons.

Lesson 1. We're all going to die someday, and no amount of success can prevent it.

Jobs had eight billion dollars in the bank, immense power, world-wide fame... and he's still gone at 56 years old. If a man like that can get cancer and die early, we all can. Furthermore, while there are certainly things one can do to lessen the odds of that, no amount of caution, care or planning is guaranteed to prevent it.

Water bugs, trout below.

Lesson 2. There are second chances. But only if you don’t quit. 

Jobs could have easily given up when he was pushed out of Apple in the 1980's. He was already wealthy, famous and connected; a prodigy who'd accomplished more at a young age than most people ever do. (Perhaps he even considered it.)

Instead, he started a new company based on the same goals and values as his first one, but using the lessons of the past to guide him forward, to hone his approach and refine his vision. Through an unlikely series of events, that choice eventually led him back to Apple, where had even wilder success in his second act than in his first.

It's easy to allow the primary lesson of a failure to be, "Stop trying." It's much more difficult to keep trying in the face of that evidence; to play hard despite a losing record. But as they say, you can't win if you don't play, and comebacks are far sweeter than simple victories.
And what's more, I believe that even without a Jobs-caliber comeback -- even if the original goal is never achieved -- sometimes not quitting is its own reward.

Lesson 3. "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards."

If you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend this video of Jobs' 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. It's full of insights like that quote and the one at the top of this post, many of them made all the more profound by the fact that he's gone now. Well worth the 15 minutes.

Here's another one:

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

I love how that speaks to scarcity of time, self-reliance, self-trust and the absolute need for priorities, all in one concise paragraph. He could write, too.

(I quit my dayjob to become a full time potter in early 2006, and I know for a fact that I watched this video sometime before then. In the heady mix of influences and confusion around that time, I can’t say that this made a significant impact in that decision, but I’m absolutely sure that it didn’t hurt.)

Lesson 4. Be yourself.

An old adage, refreshed for the new millenium.

That post by John Lilly that I linked to a couple weeks ago explained this one much better than I could:

“That’s... the biggest message from Jobs’ life. Don’t try to be like Steve. Don’t try to be like anyone. Be yourself and work as hard as you can to bring wonderful things into the world. Figure out how you want to contribute and do that, in your own way, on your own terms, as hard as you can, as much as you can, as long as you can.”

+

Lastly this week, another video recommendation — this one's much shorter, but just as powerful. It's an old Apple commercial called “The Crazy Ones”, from their classic "Think Different" campaign. Jobs himself narrated this version, so as you watch, remember that it’s him speaking, and that he was the motivating force behind the idea.

Like many of the innovators and explorers in that video, Jobs is just another of those iconic people who are now gone. If it doesn’t give you at least a twinge of nostalgia and grief, I don't know what would.

You could add his picture at the end of that sequence and it would fit in perfectly. Jobs' legacy, I think, is that revolutionized an aspect of culture and society -- access to digital technologies -- that was previously the domain of a reserved elite. In doing so he opened up new territory that, as he said in the voice-over, helped push the human race forward.

October 23rd, 2011

"I have found a green!" - Warren MacKenzie

Fresh from the kiln

October 16th, 2011

"Beowulf got ready, donned his war-gear, indifferent to death.”

I realize that this drumbeat is getting montonous — particularly now that the global media hive-mind has beat the topic into a puddle of glue. But I’m still thinking about it. And it dovetails nicely with ideas about mythology, pop neuroscience and religious skepticism — other favorite topics of mine. So if that’s not your thing, as usual: regrets, apologies, hope you’ll come back later for more pottery talk, etc. Or don’t. Whatever.

And frankly, it’s either this or a dull recitation of the other stuff I’ve been doing lately, like repainting the front porch, chiseling away at the new university website, firing a bisque, watching the Colts lose, and so on. So, here we go again: Bang, bang, bang...

Apparently I’ve been carrying around the false notion that in Norse mythology there was no concept of an afterlife. I thought I’d read something to that effect years ago, perhaps as an undergraduate English major, perhaps earlier or later. But Wikipedia says otherwise, and despite its lapses I’m inclined to trust it more than my own wetware these days. So much for memory!

Perhaps over time I’ve burnished whatever I’d read to fit what I wanted to believe; smoothing off any of the rougher edges that didn’t fit the narrative. I’m sure that happens sometimes; perhaps even routinely. Neuroscience — assuming I remember this correctly — has shown that our memories are not stored as fixed, discrete items in the brain, like objects in a drawer. Rather, they’re reassembled from little bits stored in multiple places in the brain when recalled, more like putting the item back together from it’s component parts each time, and taking them from multiple, interconnected drawers, like in a card catalog. *

That functional structure of the brain leads to the proven tendency for memories to get altered on recall. And the farther back in time you go, the more likely it becomes that parts of the original memory that have been deleted, overwritten, or lost their pointers since they were last used. So the brain — automatically, and without it rising to our conscious awareness — concocts a little story to fill in the gaps (and even using the current context of the rememberer for cues). I suppose there are good, explanable reasons for this function to develop (or flaw to remain unfixed) to be found in evolutionary biology. Perhaps it’s even as simple as people without this ability realizing that there were vast holes in their personal backstory and that many of the important facts in their short, brutal lives were slipping away from them unnoticed, thereby causing them to freak out and sit there mulling such mysteries over long enough for lions to sneak up and eat them. (I dunno — just speculating. Ask a biologist.)

Anyways, what’s troubling to me about this is the idea that some proportion of the things I take to be factual, learned knowledge are actually false. Perhaps even a lot of them. Like cheap replacement parts for the gizmo I’m trying to reassemble from my mental card catalog, or corrupted records in my mental database. (I know it’s problematic to overuse either industrial-era machines or digital computers as metaphors for the human brain, but to a large extent they’re such a great match.)

And what’s worse, there are no internal markers or flags to distinguish the good from the bad or to indicate when we’re doing the fill-in trick. I, and probably you, are in the worst possible position to make that distinction without referring to some outside, more objective source. “You are the weakest link. Goodbye!”

So now that I’ve questioned the possiblity of anybody actually knowing anything, let’s go back to ancient Scandanavian notions of the afterlife. That came to mind because it always does when someone significant to me, like Steve Jobs, dies. It’s the closest thing I’ve got for an answer to the obvious question — the one my daughter will start asking soon enough: “Where did they go?”

I’m quite skeptical of all the religious business about souls and spiritual essences — to me they seem to largely fall under the category of blatant attempts at escaping earthly mortality. So I’m partial to (my incorrect memory of) the Norse worldview: that life here and now is all there is. And, therefore, that a person's best shot at immortality is to do great things in life; things so great that the people who come along after you will talk about them forever. Not as ambitious or rewarding as carefree harp playing on a cloud, seeing dead relatives, being rewarded with a flock of virgins, or inheriting one’s own universe — granted.

But far better, I think, and more reasonable than the common angst or nihilistic despair associated with a non-supernatural worldview. If our brief stay here is all there is — or, as Jack Nicholson had it, “as good as it gets” — I see it as the opposite. To me, it’s life-affirming, not demoralizing. It reinforces the preciousness and value of what little time we’ve got. Like anything bounded by scarcity, it reminds us that time alive is not to be wasted or casually squandered away. (Says the guy who just spend a week repainting his porch.) Or as Tom Waits put it, "Any day on this side of the dirt is a good day."

And beyind all that, it’s the great equalizer; a common thread to being human.

So I’ve long favored the idea that at least one ancient culture eschewed hopes for more life after this one, or some sort of a do-over, and instead faced the inevitability of death with the stoicism of a modern atheist or agnostic. And even better, I’ve quietly enjoyed imagining that I share that view, at least in part, as a consequence of my Norwegian heritage; a genetically-embedded proclivity towards doubt. (Yes, that’s psuedo-scientific garbage. It’s fun, and I’ve carefully labelled it as such. Sue me.) That somehow we Vikings, with our ships and raids and funeral pyres, could get by without this crutch of belief, this yearning for an alternate world where things would play out more to our liking and summer would never end, and instead made it a point to go kick some ass in this one.

Not technically based on fact or truth any more than Armaggeddon or Ragnarok, of course. But a nice fantasy, nonetheless.

Some Googling revealed that my memory was at least in the right vicinity. The “do great things to be remembered” idea comes not from the classic era of Norse myth — Wodin and Loki; rainbow bridges and eight-legged horses — but instead from the Beowulf saga. If I’m skimming WIkipedia correctly — and, as always, assuming it’s more right than wrong — Beowolf dates from an earlier time (6th century versus 11th), and in both cases what started as the oral history of a Pagan culture was only recorded after Christianity had made it’s way into Northern Europe. So, like the Roman Empire and so many other notable eras, what we have on the historical record was likely filtered and repackaged by people who saw none of it first-hand, and who came to the task with their own agendas, biases, blind spots and misconceptions.

So perhaps all the Valhalla ** and Hel stuff was tweaked and inserted later, in the same manner that the Celtic/Germanic origins of a mid-winter celebration of rebirth were largely scrubbed from biblical accounts of Christmas. Or maybe my Viking ancestors found the idea of an afterlife just as appealing as their Christian descendants (and most everyone else who’s ever lived), and by random chance the manuscript of some neo-Homeric poet just happened to fall into the 21st century, with the “this is as good as it gets, so do great things” concept embedded within it. Hard to say.

Whatever the case, I’m still very fond of the idea. Not least because it implies an obligation on the part of the living to not just leave the dead to their own devices, assured that they have preceeded us to a better place, but to memorialize them here and now.

* If you don’t know what a card catalog is, ask your parents. They’ll likely wax poetic about how hard it was to find anything out before the Internet. Say what you want about Wikipedia, but it beats the hell out of flipping through index cards, wandering the musty stacks, or resorting to an eight-year-old copy of Britannica. We’ve got a card catalog cabinet in our dining room — visitors to my sales can see it with pots all over it — which we snatched up for a whopping $30 back in 1999, when the library at the U cleared them out for PC terminals. So much for history; so much for craftsmanship. Even as a factory knockoff — or whatever passed as such circa 1950 (?) — it’s a beautiful piece of furniture, especially compared to our cheap IKEA chair and Target bookshelves. And there’s something about all those oblong drawers — like an aesthetically pleasing junk magnet. Maggie loves pulling them out and — I suspect — hiding things in them. Oh! Come to think of it, we’ve been missing a phone handset for several weeks — I think I just figured out where to look for it. Toddlers.

** As Thor is my witness, I swear that's the real name of my high school. El Cajon, CA, class of ’89 -- look it up. Which I still find mildly amusing. (Yes, also amusing that I actually graduated while expending virtually no effort, but what I mean here is that it's amusing that they named as entire school after the Norse concept of heaven, and what's more, a heaven only open to successful, bloodthirsty Viking warriors.)

How in the world did they settle on the Valhalla Norsemen? What mad, SoCal Finn squeezed that bit of Pagan heresy past the school board, and how? Our logo, if memory serves, was swiped from the Minnesota Vikings, and had neat little warhammers on it; which, to a dyed in the wool D&D geek like my 15 year old self, was like Masonic code or something.

(Hmm... does it show that the endnotes are where I dump all my embarassing personal revelations? And also where I run out of time to copy edit before posting?)

October 9th, 2011

"Real artists ship.” - Steve Jobs

It seems I still have more to say about Steve Jobs, so I’m going to keep beating this drum until my arm gets tired. That could be in five paragraphs or two months, so, as usual, you’ve been warned. As always happens now when any idea gains popular momentum, the backlash from the pundit class is well underway, and is mostly ridiculous and misguided. So if nothing else, I’m happy to throw a little more weight on the other side of the scale.

Last week I covered what I thought Jobs meant to all of us, as a society, but since then I’ve been mulling over the question of why this topic means so much to me — why I feel compelled to “just sit here and write it all down and rest for a while”. *

A good part of it is my ongoing participation in the digital revolution and interest in its multi-faceted ramifications. I’ve spent at least half my working life the last decade in IT — primarily on the web — including techie stuff like backend systems administration, but also design, user interfaces and trying to use digital tools to do creative things.

Computers have steadily crept into my pottery business, too. Between maintaining a web site and online gallery; interacting with customers and peers; editing photos; managing a mailing list and various business records; designing sale announcements; researching technical issues; ordering materials and tools; and blogging (optional, but vastly engaging)... my time at the computer doing those things rivals my time at the wheel, and some weeks supercedes it entirely.

Beyond all those requirements and associations with work — as my previous posts on topics like botnet attacks and A.I. have probably shown — I’ve been increasingly interested in digital technology since the mid-90’s, when a heady mix of cyberpunk SF novels, Wired magazine, Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital, and the seemingly sudden appearance of this thing called the Internet all collided into my awareness at once, fueled by youthful enthusiasm and excitement at the unknown. In retrospect, it was a great time to discover this stuff; I feel fortunate to have been in my mid-20’s when the World Wide Web arrived. (Whether I found it or it found me feels vague, like an unresolvable variable.)

In the intervening years, I’ve consumed at least one biography of Jobs, a couple other books about Apple, countless articles and blog posts, a documentary or two, and more than a few of his famous “Stevenote” presentations, which launched many of the technologies and devices that it’s now hard to imagine living without. So between all that and voraciously using their products, my awareness and interest in digital technology was infused with Jobs and Apple from the beginning.

And of course — as it seems to for just about everyone these days — the digital world continues to carve out a growing space in my personal, non-work time, too.

So I hope all that helps explain why Steve Jobs was so influential to the tech side of my life. As the wave of wonderful tributes last week proves, he was an icon to people like me, and particularly to the people who really live and breathe this stuff. He represented many of our ideals about the power of digital technology even as he helped make those technologies real.

To put that in pottery terms, he was the Warren MacKenzie of the digerati.

In one of the best of those tributes, Macintosh guru John Siracusa wrote how learning about the development of the original Mac as a boy was revelatory to him: “We aren't stuck with the things we have now. We can make new things, better things. And it doesn't take many people to do it. “

That’s a powerful influence to make on a young mind; a perfect example of Jobs’ ability to influence other creative people by his example. (It also reminds me of my belated realization in Ceramics II class: that if I got good at this throwing thing, I could make my own dishes and eat off of them.)

And the fact that Jobs had that kind of influence while also building one of the most successful business empires in recent memory proved that those ideals he represented were neither frivolous nor extraneous. As John Lilly wrote in a great summary of Jobs’ significance: “He completely and utterly validated the view that design could be immensely valuable economically, not just culturally.”

Which brings me to how Jobs influenced and inspired me as an artist, too. ** He liked to say that his work at Apple sat at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts — which sounds to me like a pretty good location for modern studio pottery, too. Technologists can rightfully claim him as one of their own, as can marketers, businessmen and politicians. But so can creatives: designers, builders, makers, writers, coders.

Early on, in addition to gaining hands-on skills in electronics and learning business by launching a series of garage-based startups ***, Jobs studied philosophy, eastern religions and calligraphy. Those are rare interests for someone who went on to lead a multi-billion dollar company — not your standard CEO type stuff. And those skills informed both the unique way he ran Apple, the markets his tools eventually dominated (like music production and digital filmmaking) and the revolutionary devices they made.

His quotes are often indistinguishable from the kind of sage advice handed down by seasoned artists. For example, here’s a couple about design and function:

“People think it's this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, 'Make it look good!' That's not what we think design is. It's not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

And:

“Look at the design of a lot of consumer products — they're really complicated surfaces. We tried to make something much more holistic and simple. When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions. Most people just don't put in the time or energy to get there.” ****

Gadget pundit Ryan Block said Apple products are so well designed that they make it feel like someone understands you — which is perhaps the essence of good, user-centered design. (Certainly true for handmade pots, but perhaps especially so for a mass-market product manufactured in the millions. People don’t just love iPods — they love their iPod.)

Also, like any good craftsperson, Jobs understood that quality and innovative design are expensive. He once said, “iMac is next year's computer for $1,299, not last year's computer for $999.” Apple reportedly has 1,000 people working on microprocessors, and they don’t even design them from scratch. That’s just to squeeze the best possible performace out of existing, standard componenents.

And as I was saying the other week about good work not requiring or deriving from an excess of ideas, Jobs said:

“[Innovation] comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We're always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it's only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

With regards to constantly progressing in your work, rather than settling for what’s already known or good enough to meet past goals, he said:

“I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what's next.”

To the idea of finding your own way and trusting yourself, he said:

“Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

Even his ad campaigns seemed wise. “Think different” — when is that not good advice in the studio?

And last, there’s that quote up above, one of my favorites — “Real artists ship.” No, that doesn’t mean real artists send pots to an out-of-state customer. It means they’re the ones who do the hard, often painstaking work of seeing things to completion. They not only envision ideas, they execute them. They make schedules, meet deadlines and send tangible products of their imagination out the door and into the world.

Beyond how he inspired both the tech and art sides of my life, I’m also fascinated by Jobs’ personal qualities, good and bad; the things that made him unique. He had many of the attirbutes that “the rest of us” either like to imagine within ourselves or daydream about achieving someday.

For example, he had a legendary intensity and passion for his work, and the ability to make other people do their best work — even if he had to bludgeon and drag it out of them. He was uncompromising and played for keeps. Shortly after returning to Apple in 1997, when the company was failing and most pundits had it marked for death, at an all-hands meeting Jobs said: “If you want to make Apple great again, let’s get going. If not, get the hell out.”

Who among us, having languished in conference rooms and endured the senseless grind of bureaucracy, hasn’t wished they could stand up just once and make that kind of proclamation? ***** (That’s much more easily done when you’re a one-person business — I employ that kind of gambit on myself quite regularly. But as both assailant and recipient, it loses much of the satisfaction.)

He is also famous for standing on principle; upholding aesthetic standards; relying on his personal taste where others would resort to committees and focus groups; ****** rejecting conventional wisdom, standard operating procedure and the status quo; acquiring the power to make unpopular decisions then using it; motivating his trooops and terrorizing his rivals; making things that are “insanely great”, at least in part, because insanely great things deserve to be made; valuing quality, human-centered design; striving for success long after achieving great wealth and fame; and for having a unique vision and sticking to it, even at long odds or when success seemed unlikely.

In short, he did his thing as well as it’s ever been done. Not many people ever become the best at anything, and when one of us truly achieves greatness, the rest of us do well to take notice.

* For the record, that’ from a Sinead O’Connor song from 1990, about the same time I started using Macs regularly. Her videos are now predictably dated, but her songs from that era still kick unholy ass. (Well, a little reverb-y and drum machine-y, but I can live with that.)

If Cindy and I had more guts and the inclination to play up the Irish thing a little more, we might have gone with “Sinead” instead of “Maggie”. For her sake, it’s probably good that we don’t. But I’d like her to have some of that shaved-head, photo-tearing, charismatic and idiosyncratic defiance when she grows up that O’Connor had. So far, so good.

** Which is not to suggest that the two halves of my life are completely seperate, of course. They bleed into one another constantly, without plan or prevention.

*** Before they started making computers, he and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak sold illegal “phone phreak” boxes — devices that let people make free phone calls across the long distance networks. In this video interview, Jobs cited that as his own moment of realization that through clever technology and some anti-authoritarian risk taking, a couple people with few resources could manipulate huge, entrenched systems and make a profit at it.

**** Speaking of peeling layers off the onion, have a look at this fantastic video, forwarded to me by my friend Carter Gillies: The Feynman Series (part 1) - Beauty. (If you can watch YouTube on a big screen with good sound, I highly recommend doing so with this one.)

***** Just to give a hypothetical example: “I say the site will launch in January, because cramming it into December is utter lunacy! If you don’t like it, do it yourself!”

****** See Guy Kawasaki’s excellent pretty good post “What I Learned From Steve Jobs”: “The Apple focus group was the right hemisphere of Steve’s brain talking to the left one.“ Classic.

October 2nd, 2011

"Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world
are the ones who do." - Apple Computer

The man behind the machine

After seeing the news of Steve Jobs’ death this morning, it would be really difficult to sit down in front of my iMac and write about any of the other topics I was planning to work on — this just crowded everything else out. So many great memorials and tributes have already been written, but I’d like to add my voice to the chorus. So this one’s not about making pots — I know that’s becoming a trend lately — but next week I’ll put this into that context, or at least try to show how they’re related.

Walking out of the coffee shop on my way to the office this morning, I did a double take in front of a newspaper stand for the first time in as long as I can remember, pausing first to make sure I’d read the headline right, and then to absorb it’s impact. It wasn’t a shock — there were plenty of signs this was coming — but the news of Steve Jobs’ death hit me harder than I would have expected. More like the death of a friend from a previous era of life than of someone I didn’t know and had never met. And clearly, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Which is strange. Why should the death of a corporate CEO prompt such emotions, let alone a public, shared display of loss — even grief? It seems out of place. That kind of reaction is normally reserved for powerful statesmen — the Kennedys, MLK, Ronald Reagan — or beloved pop culture icons — John Lennon, Princess Diana, Kurt Cobain. People who’ve done noteworthy things, but who also represent something beyond themselves and their accomplishments, something that the rest of us admire and become attached to.

And I gradually realized that’s the thing: in addition to being a historically successful businessman, Jobs was a statesman, in a way, and a beloved cultural icon, too. His life and career covered such a wide variety of successes that he is admired equally well by a wide range of people, often for entirely different reasons. And also, in comfortable opposition to all of that, his personal qualities and life story felt like a better versions of how we’d like to imagine ourselves.

Some are appropriately awed by his successes in business: founder or leader of three companies — Apple, NeXT and Pixar — each of which profoundly influenced their fields. Together, they made him a billionaire many times over. Those companies changed or transformed personal computing, filmmaking, the music industry and telecommunications, and he was working on software development, publishing, cloud computing and Hollywood.

Others admire him for helping lead us into the digital revolution — that’s what I mean by “statesman”. Now that business, technology and media have an equal or greater influence on our lives and society than government, leaders in those fields deserve the term. For example, if you had to look back at the last 30 years and pick one person as president of the Internet Age, who would have been a more obvious choice?

And Jobs is a cultural icon for many reasons, at least in part because his life story followed the dramatic curve of fiction, and has the markings of the Hero’s Journey *. From unwanted son to college dropout; then from garage entrepreneur to brash, youthful visionary taking on vastly more powerful opponents. Then came his apparent fall, when he lost control of Apple and spent a decade in the hinterlands. While he was gone, the company fell apart and seemed unrecoverable. (The evil Empire had the world in its grasp, and the Rebel Alliance seemed crushed.) Then his unexpected return, shocking reversal of fortune, and iconic series of victories against the odds. And then, before we were ready for the story to end and with ever more exciting things on the horizon, the quick fade to black.

I suppose the reaction to his death — for example, the top half of the New York Times front page Thursday morning was almost entirely devoted to the story — might seem overblown to anyone who hasn’t spent much time using Apple computers, software, services and devices. Or consuming music, podcasts, apps and more from the game-changing iTunes and App Stores. Or loving Pixar movies. Or paying attention to the ongoing war in every industry that comes into contact with the digital revolution, often with Jobs and Apple in the vanguard.

You get my point — almost everyone with access to a computer and an Internet connection has been influenced by Jobs in the last 15 years, whether they know it or not. Even people who only use his competitor’s products and services — I’m looking at you, Windows ** — have been dramatically influenced by him, because he built, bought or stole the key innovations in personal computing from day one, popularized them and made them accessible, and through stubborness and success set the standards for others to copy. He and his companies overturned entrenched models, discarded old assumptions, and proved over and over again that it was possible to do better than the status quo.

He connected aesthetics and engineering, quality with populism, and in doing so helped democratize access to technologies that had previously been unapproachable — leading the way through successive eras of personal computing, multimedia creation, digital media consumption and mobile access.

“Think different” and “the computer for the rest of us” were more than brilliant marketing; they articulated Jobs’ actual goals. Unlike Bill Gates and hundreds of other IT entreprenuers of his era, Jobs wasn’t an engineer or a programmer. He was an idea guy, a pitch man and, perhaps most importantly, a stand in for the Everyman when it came to making decisions about features and interface, functionality and appearance. No matter how intimate or exhaustive his knowledge of the technology was, he had the rare ability to step back and see the finished products the way a typical user would.

He once said, “It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want.” That’s exactly right. He imagined the products and digital tools we were hoping for before we even realized they were possible, and then he made them out of actual glass and plastic and metal and put them on a shelf with a fancy price tag, for anyone who realized they were worth the extra cost to buy. As one of “the rest of us”, I’m boundlessly grateful that he did. ****

Leading Apple through all those key developments, Jobs added the capacity for taste and aesthetics and visual appeal to our interaction with what was otherwise a cold, ugly, and harsh relationship with fickle mechanical devices. It is those kinds of additions — which so many others considered optional or excessive — that made it possible to even think of it interacting with a computer as a relationship.***** Through them, the devices gained personality and characteristics that we could anthropomorphize and adopt as our own, and that closeness and emotional connection — as silly as it may seem — enables actual great things to come about via the computer.

Given how quickly and comprehensively digital technologies have infused every aspect of our work and personal lives in the last 25 years, this is particularly important. What he enabled and the ways he steered the digital revolution really matter.

It would be easy for casual observers to think that Apple only makes gadgets, and that fans of the company’s products — likely the people who were personally affected by news of his death — are simply expressing a consumerist lust for flashy new gear and gizmos. And sure, to some extent it is that. Some people just love their shiny new iPhone, and others will respond emotively to any story that stays in the news cycle longer than fifteen minutes

But while it is that, it’s also so much more. For all the cool slickness of the gadgets Apple makes, what’s more important is the fact that those gadgets are also tools. Very powerful tools, from the build quality and design of the physical object to the sophistication and ease of use of the operating system and software. Combined with the quiet power of things like audio and video software, access to all kinds of digital media, and effortless mobile communications, Jobs made the tools that help creative people everywhere do their best work every day.

To bring this back around to the personal, every word of this blog, every photo it contains and every line of code behind it was “made on a Mac”. Come to think of it, almost everything I’ve done and seen and said and heard and read online in the last five years has been through an Apple device, and largely through Apple software. They are the hands that let me touch the medium, the mouth that lets me have my say, and my eyes and ears into the ever-increasing relevance of the virtual world. Now that’s a legacy.

Thanks, Steve.

* As summarized by Joseph Campbell: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

** Just to be clear, I was stuck seeing the digital world through Windows for about seven years, so I know how the other half lives. In all that time with no choice about the PC on my desk, I begrudgingly learned to get along with it and admire it’s few advantages. But I never liked it, and frequently hated it, and mostly just resented being subjected to the institutional mindset that favors cheap crap over costly quality.

And speaking of favoring crap over quality, it’s worth mentioning Bill Gates, who is like the Bizarro World Steve Jobs. Their similarities and differences are equally striking. They were born the same year, share responsibility for starting the PC era, and were each others’ chief rival for a couple decades. Both were college dropouts, prodigies, relentlessly agressive businessmen and noted for their respective genuis in a field full of brilliant people. But their approaches, values, personalities and paths to success could hardly be more different.***

Gates’ core idea was a computer on every desk and in every home. This destroyed the IBM mainframe model of computing, which restricting access to the machine to a handful of specialists in white lab coats, with mere “users” relegated to “dumb terminals”. This was a great, necessary stage in the evolution of personal computing, but Gates’ idea fell short of making those computers truly accessible to average people, by which I mean non-techies. Gates’ Microsoft basically stopped at getting the computer on each desk, leaving each prospective user to bridge the gap between system administration and actually getting things done. They realized belatedly, if at all, that most people want to use their computers without needing to first learn their underlying systems and quirks, like how to use a command line interface or edit the system registry; select a boot volume or run a virus scanner. Not to mention suffering through random crashes and reboots or any of hundreds of other equally bizarre, woefully problematic constraints to actually making a Windows machine do what you want it to do.

Apple, by contrast, made it a core principle to simplify at every point, hiding the underlying complexity from users as much as possible and pushing the ability to just get stuff done to the front of the user experience.

*** Gates has vastly upgraded his public image since leaving Microsoft in 2008, by his massive commitment to humanitarian work and donations through his Gates Foundation. I’d bet that when his time is up, he’ll be remembered more for that than for what he did to acquire the fortune that funds it.

**** Of course, I’m not saying Jobs didn’t make mistakes — a one-button mouse? Are you kidding me? Nor do I think Apple is without it’s flaws. I’m a "fanboy", not an idiot. Like any big company, Apple has its share of gaffs and missteps, and fairly consistent minor abuses of it’s most loyal customers. For example, while it makes for great theater, I could do without all the compulsive secrecy. And the price gouging for add-ons and peripherals is ridiculous — $30 for a damn iPod charger makes me want to scream. And then there was the whole DRM fiasco in the early days of the iTunes store. A necessary evil on the path to progress, I suppose, but that was a trainwreck. Jobs or no Jobs, I still agree with my laundry list of complaints from that bygone blog and era (e.g. 2006).

***** People routinely say “I love my MacBook” or “I love my iPhone”. And sure, some people love their Windows laptop or their Android phone now, but without Apple’s model and success to copy that never would have happened. Computers would have remained just wiring and plumbing, and nobody loves their wiring and plumbing.

September 25th, 2011

"Dear readers, I'm not sure where I'm headed. I've gotten lost before." - R.E.M. *

There are 198 finished pots in the showroom, another 32 from the last firing waiting to be cleaned and priced, and 70+ pots from the last few years tucked in various "save" shelves and secret stashes around the studio.

I have 226 bisqued pots ready to fire, and 53 greenware pots ready to bisque.

So that's 230+ finished — depending on how many of the saved ones I’m ready to part with — and 279 in progress. For a grand total of 509 in the pipeline; where “the pipeline” is defined as the state between clay in a bag and money in the bank.

Feeling Gravity's Pull / Perfect Circle

Wolves, Lower / What If We Give It Away?

Which means that most of the pots for my sale in December are already formed, but also that there’s no way I’ll get everything fired by then. Having at least 300 for the sale is my goal, and 400 would be fantastic. History shows that the success of my sales is primarily driven by attendance, but one of the next most significant factors is how many pots I have available — more at the start equates to more sold at the end. (I think that’s largely due to having more variety of forms and glaze to choose from, particularly after the first wave of customers have come through Saturday morning.)

So I’d love to jump in and start firing right now, perhaps even get one through this weekend. But when the men with their giant machines come and start cutting down the corn, that’s my cue to put up the last of my firewood, paint any part of the house or studio that needs another coat to make it through the winter, and finish off the dozen or so other tasks around the property before the cold sets in for good.

“Winter is coming.”

2001: Ages of You / Finest Worksong

* Legend has it that when R.E.M. were casting about for a name, for a while they seriously considered going with “Cans of Piss”. Given their recent breakup after 31 years, I have to wonder how long they’d have lasted with that other name -- maybe 31 weeks? Proof that those earliest, seemingly random decisions about a new project can really matter, and that giving something a good name, while no substitute for quality, can really help it succeed.

As a huge fan of theirs almost from the time I first started really liking music **, it’s hard to imagine that I’ve been listening to their work for most of my life. Also, a stark reminder that I am now officially in that demographic that most advertisers (and the popular music industry, not to mention pop culture in general) don’t care about in the slightest.

** As I recall, my first of many subscriptions to the Columbia House Music Club -- which, as it turns out, was an unexpected introduction to the mechanics and perils of credit card debt -- was around 1984; age 13 or so. (I’d like to emphasize to any youngsters reading this that it was a choice between the analog joys of vinyl records and cassette tapes back then, with general adoption of Compact Discs — i.e. digital music — still a good five years off.)

My introduction to R.E.M., and with it the entirety of the pre-Alternative, College-Rock genre, wouldn’t come until a few years later, when my cousin Eric got their LP Life’s Rich Pageant. Also around that time, my friend Steve kept insistently pushing U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky and songs by The Alarm at me until I grudgingly acquired a taste for second-wave, anthemic punk-rock. Also in there somewhere, from my cousin Jim, was a steady dose of New Wave, like Adam Ant, INXS, The Psychedelic Furs and A Flock of Seagulls.

(In retrospect, it’s also hard to believe that, back in the days before Wal*Mart and the Internet graded out American culture to a virtual sameness everywhere you go, kids in California had access to distinctly different music than kids in the Midwest. On trips to Iowa and Missouri as a teenager, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that we got movies before our landlocked peers, and that you couldn’t just walk out of any store in the country with the new Depeche Mode album.)

Anyways, going back to my introduction to pop music, my grandparents — who were always fantastic gift givers *** — bought me a cassette player for Christmas of '83 (or perhaps '84). At long last, I was free to listen to my own music, in my own room, without anyone else’s permission or approval. (Ah, that first blush of teenage rebellion — so sweet.) Anyways, I’m pretty sure my first 13 tapes for a penny included the following: Van Halen’s 1984; Men at Work’s Business as Usual and Cargo; The Cars’ Greatest Hits; Huey Lewis & The News; a few others I’ve forgotten; and, for lack of a better choice from the flimsy three-sided pamplet they called a catalog, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and, to my immortal shame, something by Hall & Oates.

*** I mean “fantastic gift givers” not in the sense that they spent huge wads of cash, but in the sense of figuring out exactly what me and my five brothers/cousins would each like the most, and caring enough to choose those things for us. (e.g. X-Wing Fighters and Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits modules, rather than woolen socks, Madlibs or daily planners.)

**** A random, untethered R.E.M. footnote that I just can’t bring myself to consign to my Unused Bits file: from a fan site about Michael Stipe’s lyrics on their album Murmur, this quote encapsulates an idea I dearly love:

“...he was interested in how words sounded and felt rather than what they meant.”

September 18th, 2011

"Growth is only possible as a product of history. Without memory, innovation is merely novelty. History gives growth a direction." - Bruce Mau

Casting about for a topic, I scan through "tw@se - Upcoming DRAFTS & unused BITS,” an aptly-named text file on my computer. And I gradually realize, It’s not happening this week.

That ship has sailed; the tank is empty.* Other deadlines loom. Other priorities press.

So in lieu of actually composing a post to the typical standards of length and quality that I’ve established here — ahem! yes, I said “standards” — I’m going to allow myself a bit of blogging fu and just show you the contents of that file instead. It’s a numbered list, currently containing 22 items. Most are just a title or phrase, others are several paragraphs sketching out an idea, often with links to relevant things elsewhere. (So as to not spoil any of these that might actually get written someday, I’ll omit everything but the first line for each one.)

  1. 22. Pots in progress
  2. 21. {Meta-blog} the tw@se DNA -- Philbeck, Kottke & The War Against Silence
  3. 20. the 40th bday NEW YEARS RESOLUTION, 1 year later, killing off the dream one
  4. 19. Post-sale and the desire to get back to the wheel:
  5. 18. SP Guest Editor idea: the future for potters/the future of pots
  6. 17. Freewall
  7. 16. Seconds, PART II
  8. 14. Your taste is why your own work disappoints you
  9. 13. Making a Living: Taylorism. Profit. Etc.
  10. 12. Evolution
  11. 11. Yunomi pics from Akar
  12. 10. clay mags redux
  13. 9. re: apottersarchive
  14. 8. Eight, eight, and I forget what eight was for but...
  15. 7.  I've always had trouble making pots i didn't like... And couldn't potentially love...
  16. 6.  WM @ NCC: kid’s shelf
  17. 5. Colophon redux
  18. 4. blogart
  19. 3. blog traffic -- slowdown
  20. 2. nom nom nom
  21. 1. SP and pots - “Should we bite the hand that's fed us?” - Natalie Merchant

Perhaps some of those look like they’d be fun to read. They all look like they’d be fun to write. Or, at least, to have written.

That list started about two years ago, and it was an iteration of an older series of notes and unused snippets that go all the way back to the early days of the blog, over four years ago. (Not to mention little piles of post-its and magazine clippings; phrases scribbled at the edges of my sketchbook; text saved in email or archived in Evernote; and declarations posted to the wall of my studio.)

When it comes to ideas, I’ve got an embarassment of riches. But when it comes to executing on them — actually being disciplined enough to see them to completion — I’m impovershed.

Which is an interesting realization, because as a beginning potter I used to think it was all about finding the right ideas. I’d look at other people’s pots and think, “Where did they come up with that?”, and then I’d go try to think of something similar-yet-different. I have old sketchbooks full of thumbnail drawings to prove it. Lots of them were crap, for sure, but there were probably plenty of good ones, too.

Now I believe than anyone with a brain in their head, an ounce of creativity, and a willingness to pay attention will eventually have more good ideas than they can possibly use in one lifetime.

Having ideas is important, but making pots is not about the idea. It’s about making. It’s about the doing. The lie of putting concept before process, in my experience, is that you just never know if an idea is actually good until you put it to work. The best ones come through the work; they are revealed by the doing, by the discipline, by the execution.

For example, the idea for this particular post wasn’t even on the list.

* Full disclosure: I blew most of the time I typically spend on tw@se devouring Colts' blogs this week. Shameful. Usually, writing the blog gets first priority, but this Peyton Manning thing has me up at night. OK, not really. But almost.

September 11th, 2011

"Come out to the edge where it is quiet.
Where the ink will drain right out of you." - A.A. Bondy

When Maggie comes out to the studio these days, she says, “Can I do clay, Daddy?” *

What she means is: can she get up on the treadle wheel and have me spin it for her while she gets her hands goopy in the throwing slip. Which is just as romantic as it sounds. And while I certainly understand her motivation, and aspire to saying yes to these kinds of things as often as possible, honestly it’s kind of a pain to let her do it. I have to hold her up on the high seat, so she doesn’t fall off on her head, and push the treadle bar with one foot while balanced on the other leg, all while keeping needle tools out of eyeballs, keen-edged metal ribs out of reach, my back in alignment, and limiting her to about a half-bucket of slops ending up in her lap.

So, often as not, I’ll try redirecting her to another activity — some dried trimming scraps to crumble, or a soft piece of porcelain to roll around. (Much less respectably, I’ve even settled for the time-honored parenting gambit of just pretending you didn’t hear the question until the little darling focuses on something else. This technique can very easily backfire, as I’ve discovered the hard way on more than one occasion.)

Then a couple weeks ago, she came in with Cindy as I was trying to get some pots finished:

“Can I do clay, Daddy?”

Distracted, I said, “You can do clay when you’re older.”

“When I'm three?”

“Sure, when you’re three.”

Well... as you’ve already guessed, she took that to the bank. Kids are so literal; they don't get polite social BS, like when you're lying to spare their feelings.** This is a good thing, I suppose, but it means I have to frequently remember who I'm talking to, and omit all those modes of communication that are automatic and reflexive with adults.

So she is two years, eleven months right now. Since I made that casual promise, any time the subject of getting bigger or older or having a birthday comes up, she says, “Then I can do clay!” I swear, she is fixated on this. (And to think that I didn’t even have to use reverse psychology to spark her interest!) She sincerely wants to do it, whether I want her to or not. Granted, she’s drawn to the visceral experience of doing, not yet an inclination towards making. She wants to do clay for the same reasons she loves fingerpainting, and playing with driveway gravel, and coating the kitchen table in yogurt when she’s had enough to eat. She paints for paint’s sake; she gravels for gravel’s sake. (All kids are Abstract Expressionists at the start, I guess. It takes training to turn them into Formalists.)

Which is all great — I mean, don't get me wrong, it’s great. To put that in Craftspeak: her desire to engage in materials and process is inspiring and revelatory. However... these first little hints about her future experience with creative activity (a.k.a. “art”) and relationship to making things (a.k.a “craft”) also gives me pause.

I desperately want her to be a creative person, long after the innate desires of childhood have worn off or been eroded in most of her peers. I hope she’ll be more interested in making things than in making money, and that she learns to appreciate the value of thinking her own thoughts and working with her hands.

And it would be tremendously gratifying, at least in that blatantly vicarious way, to see what she could do as a potter, a painter, a horn player, whatever. What a head start she’d have! She already has an inside track to academia, photography, video and conceptualism from her mom. And from me she’ll get clay, the pottery business thing, the DIY approach to life in the country, and a little web design/IT stuff, too.*** All those things are built-in parts of her home environment that she’ll just take for granted, but each will have its influence to some extent or another.

But I’m not sure I want her to actually be any of those things — especially a studio potter. Sometimes being a devoted practitioner of a dying art form ain't all it's cracked up to be. It’s certainly not easy, and it might be getting harder. It’s not the life for everyone.

And, beyond all that, I am woefully unprepared to share my studio with a three year old.

* Doing clay has replaced her previous fascination with the snare drum and high hat in the back corner of the studio. She used to make a beeline for the shelf where the drumsticks are kept, and then she'd go make a glorious racket until someone begged her to stop. Got to get her a drumkit one of these days.

** In this case, “you can do clay when you’re older” meant, "For the love of Moses, can't you see I'm trying to work here?!"

*** And: video games, board games, card games, volleyball, NFL fandom; even blogging, perhaps... but let’s not get too distracted from the point.

September 4th, 2011

"September's coming soon. Pining for the moon.
And what if there were two, side by side in orbit, around a fairer sun?" - R.E.M.

And then summer turns to fall, literally overnight, and suddenly I realize that I'm now closer to my next sale than farther from it; and that the pots I hope to have for it need be get fired next month, which means they need to get made this month, which means I need to get on it. Not that I haven't been working -- see below -- but that state of not-quite-panic adds an urgency that's been baked out of my system the last month or two by the summer heat.

Alas, it's about time to switch back from porcelain to white stoneware, too. The salt kiln needs bigger pots on the bottom shelf to fire well, and in that hottest zone this porcelain tends to bloat and warp. I've ruined too many otherwise-good pots there already. Then again, lately the white stoneware has cracked all to hell there, too, so maybe I need to sacrifice getting glazes fluxed on the top shelf and just not let the bottom get so hot? (I gave up on even firings in this kiln long ago; a symptom of my SKDS.*)

My new theory on the cracking problem is that the clay is just getting overstressed from cone 11+ there, and the stress shows up first at the joins. In my last non-salt firing, the pots from the exact same run of making came out with nary a crack to be found -- so that pretty well rules out a flaw in the throwing process. (Which also seemed unlikely because I've been doing them that way for over 15 years with no problems.) That also rules out a drastic change in the clay body -- something I wouldn't have been shocked at, given Amaco's track record with quality control. So unless the sodium vapor is somehow ripping the pots open, everything else between the two firing cycles is the same except peak temperature. Anyways, that's my best guess for now. Hopefully some day I can report back with more knowledge and less speculation on this issue. Ahh... there are so many ways to kill a pot, and so few ways to save them.

Belong

Porcelain plates

Oh, so my bats are warped. That explains it!

More plates

Carved rims; getting funky with shapes

Tumblers (not to be confused w/ Tumblrs)

Mugs - troubleshooting handle cracking problem

Lots of trimming to do

Lots of trimming done

Thinking ahead to Yunomi Invitational '12

* Stupid Kiln Design Syndrome

August 28th, 2011

"See their hair, cut like corn, neatly combed in their rows." - XTC

Amidst all my technobabble and AKAR love lately, it appears I forgot to mention that I did a glaze firing. Not a small omission, to be sure! The more I go the storytelling and thematic route, the less I track the daily goings on in and around the studio. It’s a trade off between them, but I’m not sure if that choice is for the better or worse.

So here are the results of my late summer harvest. A good proportion of porcelain to white stoneware this time, and man oh man do I love that clay… so pristine and clean, rings like a bell and translucent where thin. (There’s something thrilling about holding a pot I made up to the morning sun and being able to see my fingers through the other side.)

post-firing analysis

I added a brief down-firing phase to the firing, as per firing schedule “R3” in John Britt’s cone 10 glazing book, which made the Teadust crystals explode all over the place. I haven’t had that much green and gold “moss” on the pots in ages! That is a very nice, very rare example of learning something new in theory; taking a risk and trying it; and seeing an immediate confirmation in the finished pots. I love being able to move the needle on the process like that. Just in this one load, I now feel like I have control over how much crystals grow in the glaze, from almost none to too much. Pretty great.

I was listening to some demo songs by Andy Partridge, lead songwriter of the band XTC (one of my all-time favourites). For example, this sketch for the song Mayor of Simpleton. (Follow the link and scroll to #18.) It would be an overly-spare, simplistic outline of a tune if I didn’t already know the super-produced, complex album version (also one of my all-time favourite bass lines; I used to play bass a little). But because I have probably listened to that one 500 times in the last 20 years, hearing the home-recording demo version was a minor revelation. It infuses the song I know so well with new meaning; a change in perspective on an old standby. It’s kind of like seeing an x-ray of a famous canvas that shows the underpainting and all the changes along the way. There’s something very special about seeing/hearing where the painting/song came from, and getting a peak/listen at the process that was used to create it, but that is usually concealed in the end. It reveals new things about the work that just can’t be derived from only observing the completed thing.

Which plugged directly into another bit of my media consumption this week: scrolling back through the last year or so of Brandon Phillips’s Support Your Local Potter. (Still the best name for a pottery blog ever; One Black Bird was a strong runner-up. And I'm fond of A Potter's Archive, but clearly I'm a little bisaed on that one. I throw down the gauntlet and challenge anyone to do better.) There are a handful of blogs where I make sure to read every single post, and a smaller subset that are worth reading again later. SYLP is one of them. Brandon packs a lot of information into a small space, and ideas that might only ping my brain the first time settle into place the second time through.

Anyways, one of the benefits of reading a blog like that in it’s archival form, as opposed to in real-time updates, is that you can see the narrative unfold across a longer span of time; the plans become realities or regrets, the clay goes from drying racks to wheel to shelf to kiln to showroom (physical or virtual) and the cycle starts all over again. Seeing his pots make that circuit from ephemeral greenware to being reset in stone reminds me of the difference between that XTC song sketch and the full-bodied album version.

And so... because I have an obsessive photo archive too, I thought I’d show some before and after pairings of my own:

"What was best of all was that longing look you gave me, that longing look. More than enough to keep me fed all year." - Harvest Festival, XTC

August 21st, 2011

"Nature is a language, can’t you read?” - The Smiths

I walk in the front door of AKAR, carrying a cardboard box of my pots, and I have a flickering sense of what it might feel like to be a devout person on the way into church. Just a flicker.

This is my idea of a meaningful place; a physical location that reinforces my beliefs, challenges my assumptions, sends me home with meaningful answers and more new questions than I'll be able to remember later. It provides the rare opportunity to commune with other people who do what I do, and who — at least to some extent — think like I think and believe what I believe. ("People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe." - Simon Sinek)

What's more, I get to make that connection to my fellow potters from within the protective cocoon of solitude. I used the word “commune” deliberately — as opposed to “communicate” — because being with the artifacts of these people’s work is, of course, different than being with them in person. And while I'd jump at the chance for the latter, the former is easier for me to enjoy. *

Unlike an actual conversation, being with the pots is a one-way transfer of information. I listen to what they have to say — absorbing the things those other potters have distilled into the clay — but I can’t really talk back to them. ** It’s also different than it would be to have a conversation about those pots, with the person who made them or someone else. Perhaps more limited, but then again, maybe not. The language of objects is different than the language of words, and the ability to hear what they're saying is largely a matter of sensitivity and experience. Words might do a better job expressing, say, a broad theoretical concept or a specific emotion. But it can be very difficult, using words, to describe the texture of an unglazed foot, the heft of a pot in your hands as you rotate it in space, or the way light is refracted through a layered, semi-translucent surface. Face to face with the object, those things are immediately understood. Words about them are just a byproduct of the experience. In any case, I look forward to being with good pots like that with great anticipation.

Coming from Clary’s, I arrived at the gallery in time to have about an hour there before they closed -- a summer Sunday afternoon. But I could have easily spent hours there, if not the whole day. (Next time I’m going to take a break for lunch and to scribble down a bunch of notes, then go back for more.) Between the main show, a pair of featured artists, the selection from their regular roster of first-class potters, the big shelf of cups and yunomis, and all the larger pots arranged near the front windows, there’s a wealth of stuff to see and a dizzying array of ideas to glean from it — certainly too much to take in at once. Like I said, paradise. 

The other thing about AKAR that really resonates with me, strumming on those deeply-layered heartstrings, is the fact that I finished my undergrad degree at the U of Iowa there, and lived in Iowa City for a little over three years. While that doesn’t sound like a long time, and in the bigger picture it wasn’t, as that era recedes into the past it stretches ever longer in my memory. ***

So because I still identify with Iowa City like a hometown, it just amazes me that one of the best galleries for pots in the world is there, right across the street from where I used to suffer through Italian class, down the street from the Yacht Club, where we used to go see live music, and just five blocks from where I used to live. Inconceivable! I can’t imagine what it would have been like if AKAR had been there when I was first starting in clay, circa 1991; what an insanely great resource it would have been. (Of course, like most students that age, I’d probably have taken it for granted, or mainly gone to the openings for the food. Like youth, access to great galleries is wasted on the young.)

The local downtown scenery is burned in my brain, particularly that edge where the gallery sits — one of the spots where the town and campus bleed into one another, as all good college towns do. It’s changed a lot since I lived there, like the new parking structure and pedestrian bridge — both still seem wildly out of place to me — but it’s also largely the same. So my favorite pictures of AKAR, like those they post on their Facebook page, are the ones out the front windows, with shots of Capitol Street or Seashore Hall in the background.

(All images courtesy of AKAR; used with permission.)

Inside AKAR, facing north

Meyers/Hindes show card

The current show when I was there was Ron Meyers and Chuck Hindes. I love Meyers’ pots, and have a couple from when I took a workshop with him at the Appalachian Center for Craft in 2003. (A quick search of the tw@se archive reveals that I’ve never written about that either, despite pages of notes from it and volumes of good intentions. Good grief.) In fact, is there a potter alive who doesn’t love his work? I suppose there must be, poor soul, but I haven’t met them. I think his pots are at that vanishingly-small, perfect intersection of aesthetic sophistication, personal vision, and accessibility to a wide audience. That’s hard to even imagine doing, let alone actually doing it.

Hindes was a professor at Iowa when I was there, but I never had a class with him. (I had three courses with Bunny McBride and then a series of independant study something-or-others after that. Very informal.) But he was a dominant presence in the studio, and I think he was a strong influence on many of the grad students, who often taught me as much as the professors did. He lead a very strong woodfiring program there, and the activity around it was infectious (as woodkilns so often are). I mostly remember him peering in the firebox of a multi-day anagama firing; sitting conspiratorially with students in his office; drying a big shield piece from a demo on a rolling skid outside his office door; guiding visiting dignitaries through the studio — who I didn’t know from Adam at the time, but I'd probably at least recognize their names now; or walking down the main hallway shouting things that’d about make you drop the pot you were throwing. (My favorite: "Ceramics! World's most fascinating hobby!”) ****

Gallery interior: Ron Meyers show

I feel like I know Meyers’ pots pretty well, and I suspect that I’ll see them again in another setting before long, so I went through them somewhat quickly — admiring the entire way, of course — to focus my limited time on other things. (The photos of his pots are great, but the colors and layering show up in the flesh in an entirely different way. Fantastic.) Hindes’ pots — handbuilt, saggar or woodfired teabowl forms — were kind of an enigma to me. I know there’s some there there (to misuse the Gertrude Stein phrase), but — to be completely honest — I’m not entirely sure what it is. I admire them without “getting” them, if that makes any sense; it's like there’s a sophistication or sensibility to them that I haven’t acquired (yet). Come to think of it, maybe I only think I get Meyers’ pots, and I don’t. It’s hard to say with these things, and there’s probably a multi-faceted truth involved.

I thought the inclusion of their drawings in the show was a really nice touch, especially since both of them make pots that are so gestural, like three-dimensional sketches in space. (By contrast, a show of my drawings would be shallow and contrived at best.) If Meyers’ goat or bear drawing had still been available, I’d have been sorely tempted to plunk down my credit card to take it home. What two year old girl wouldn’t want a deranged bear hanging on the wall of her room?

Potters'...

...Paradise

I was suprised to find my three unsold pots from this year's Yunomi-palooza sitting in the first column of shelves just inside the front door. After spotting them, I had to ignore them for a while, and go see some other pots first, before I could digest them in that context. So weird to just bump into them like that! But — I have to say — similar to the feeling I had after showing Clary my pots, I was surprised to feel like they belonged there; that they didn’t stand out as being deficient somehow next to their esteemed company. Dare I say, I felt a small surge of pride? Interesting.

But the conspiracy theorist/Own Worst Critic in me thought: Wait, my pots in a prime spot in the gallery? Coincidence? No way! They knew I was coming to drop off pots, and these people are nothing if not good with detail. This is obviously a very savvy, calculated move, and my pots probably went back to hiding the storeroom later that day. But wow, talk about flattery! (OK, I don’t really think that’s what happened. But I still have my doubts that it didn’t.)

As I have on previous trips, I spent the most time going through the shelves of pots by the two dozen or so regulars; the people I think of as the gallery’s stable of primary artists. It’s very cool that you can always find pots by those people on display, in addition to the featured shows.

In terms of the quality of my pots, I'm still looking up at almost all of them, which goes back to what I said last week about it being a priviledge to show there. There are so many that I admire, or even downright idolize: Jeff Oestrich, Karl Borgeson, Steve Roberts, Bob Archambeau, Mark Shapiro, Michael Kline...

Many of the others I looked at really closely are pots I recognize from elsewhere, but haven’t seen in person before: Ryan Greenheck — who’s already figured out almost everything I aspire to do with porcelain; Jeff Campagna — whose pots are simply insane; Adam Field — very nice incising and glazes; Lisa Pedolsky — earthenware boxes that make me want to use that clay again; and a potter from Maine, whose name I can't recall, but who had some really sweet hemispherical woodfired bowls there. Great surface. One of them almost made it home with me. Almost.

(You can browse for any of those potters on AKAR’s artist page, if you like.)

I was also very tempted by this Borgeson pitcher — how the heck is that still there? — and if I hadn’t already bought four pots from Clary that day, I probably would have grabbed it. But budgets being what they are, I kept myself to the $40 price range, which was just enough to take home this fine Mark Shapiro mug:

Shapiro mug, in use

I’ve wanted to have a pot of his in our cupboard for a long time, ever since he came to do a workshop when I was in school at Edwardsville. In addition to really admiring his pots, Shapiro earned my undying loyalty and appreciation for his all-time great Smithsonian interview with Michael Simon.

I was intrigued by this mug’s flaring shape, and the way the handle’s narrowest diameter is right before it flares out to join the top of the body. That’s uncommon — and the exact opposite of the general rule Clary taught me all those years ago — so I really wanted to see how that deliberate variation worked in daily use. Happily, after having it for a month or so, I can report that it’s great! Stack it on the pile of new ideas to try. (Here’s my mug’s twin, still available...hint, hint.)

Driving away from the gallery I was reminded of that book from when I was young, where the two kids sneak into the Met and stay overnight. (I Googled it: “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”, by E. L. Konigsburg.) That’s exactly what being at AKAR leaves me wanting to do — show up around closing time, with a bedroll, flashlight and some snacks, and camp out overnight. I could hold every single pot in my lap for awhile, and ask them to tell me their secrets. I could talk to them as much as I wanted, and sketch them in my notebook, and imagine all the things I’d do once I got back to the studio. And when it was finally time to give in to sleep, at four in the morning, as the college students stumbled home on the sidewalks outside, I could curl up with a big Ron Meyers charger, supporting an angry hog, and dream of all the what-ifs and yes, maybes and might-have-beens.

Potters paradise. Hog heaven.

* Funny how I never feel awkward or self-conscious or conflicted about what to say, or not to say, when faced with a pot.

** Well, I can talk to them, but it gets weird glances from the other patrons. I’m afraid I probably do mutter things under my breath while looking, like: “Holy crap!”; “Hmm... interesting...”; “Oh, I get it!”; and so on.

*** I suppose that perceived expansion of time is because those were such influential, formative years. While my college experience was spread out over four schools and ten years, the time spent there seems most significant. It’s where I first started in clay, after I convinced Bunny McBride to let me in the door, and it’s where Cindy and I established the fact that we were going to be together for good. I stayed there an extra summer to work at Clary’s, and — after two quick semesters at Arizona State — came back the next year to do it again. So that’s where I pretty much solidified my commitment to being a potter, too. Like I said, formative. Aside from becoming a father, a web developer and a homeowner in the years since, I'm still pretty much the same person now that I was then.

**** See? You make the clackity noise for a while and suddenly it’s 1993 all over again, and a little story like that pops out on the screen. Like magic.

August 14th, 2011

"And for a moment I feel as if the top of my head has come off, immediately followed by the rather unpleasant sensation that someone's rattling a stick around in there." - Averill Curdy

As I said last week, AKAR is not only my favorite gallery, it’s practically my idea of potters’ paradise.* Showing my pots there is a real privilege, and one that’s reinforced by how impressed I’ve been with the gallery by my handful of visits there in person. It’s a great place to see pots.

I think they get the idea of a high-end craft gallery exactly right: a finely curated yet wide selection of really good pots for sale, that you can see up close and hold in your hands. It’s like going to a museum and being allowed to fondle the objects. And what’s more — should you have the means and the inclination — you can even buy them and take them home.

Those qualities are hard to find in other venues. Regional craft fairs (usually) lack a quality filter, which means you have to look past all the mediocre, market-driven junk to see the good stuff. And websites, god love ‘em... no matter how good the photography or how novel the descriptions — and AKAR’s online presentation is one of the best — there’s simply no substitute for experiencing the pots in person.

Particularly in that regard, I think AKAR is a great example of what a craft gallery should be. I wish there were more like it! Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure I know why there aren’t: not only is it very hard to do well, but I doubt that the craft gallery business is much more profitable than the pottery business. (Which is to say: not much.) So, like my own work, I see what they’re doing as a combination of a capitalist venture and a mission based on principles and values that don't always pay off economically. In addition, by showing my pots they’re probably helping me more than I’m helping them, so I’m very happy to be part of the endeavor.

So I received the invitation to the 30x5 show sometime in the spring, and by coincidence we were headed to Iowa for a family reunion earlier this summer. So a trip to AKAR was already on my itinerary, and I decided to deliver my pots for the show early and in person, rather than later by UPS. (I’m sure to fire again before the show deadline, but given the problem I’ve been having with cracking pots in the salt kiln, it seemed unlikely that I’d come up with anything better for the show than what I already had on hand in late June.)

I combined my trip to the gallery with a visit to Clary Illian’s, in the nearby town of Ely. As if one or the other wouldn’t have been enough for one afternoon! Together they nearly made my head explode. I’m just completely unaccustomed to that much high-intensity input in such a short span of time. Living out here in the sticks, the excitement and cultural uniqueness come along in very small, well-spaced packets.**

I’m planning to write about my visit with Clary another time; perhaps I’ll even get around to it sooner than later.*** But for now, suffice it to say that we had a nice long chat, and it was great to see her new house, studio, showroom and pots. As I was getting ready to leave, she asked to see the pots I was taking to AKAR. As I’ve said before, Clary was my de facto mentor. Early on, she was the strongest influence on my core ideas of what it means to be a potter, and I modelled many of my aspirations and goals on her example. Her pots are a constant touchstone of what I aim for in mine. Even beyond specific details — although they are very informative, too — they provide guiding clues about intent, skill, craftsmanship, materials and ideals. Likewise, her critical voice still strongly informs my own — I can almost hear it in my head at times, puzzling over some decision in the studio, now some fifteen-odd years after I spent those two summers in her studio.

So a critique from her — even a quick, impromptu one standing at the trunk of the car — is a Big Deal. Like a childhood trip to Disneyland that ends with a trial before judge and jury. There’s no one else I know whose opinion of my work I value more than hers. And — well, yes. That’s exactly the post I have in mind to write another time, and that I won’t be able to do justice to now. I suppose that’s a pretty good start.

So after showing Clary my pots, **** I packed them back up and drove over to Iowa City; the experience ringing in my ears, banging open new connections between neurons in my brain, forceably integrating itself into my long-held assumptions and prevailing systems of belief. (Well, okay — that might be exaggerating it a bit. But just a bit.) But as humbling and disarming as it was to show her my pots, it was really encouraging, too. For all their shortcomings and all the ways I’d like to be able to do better by now, I’m proud of them. I’m proud of how hard-won they were, and that they feel like they belong to me because of it. That means a lot.

Next week: an hour in potters’ paradise.

* “Potters’ paradise” is a phrase I nicked from this article by Barry Palevitz, about the ceramics program around the U of Georgia. Unfortunately, in the post-Ron Meyers era it appears that it’s become more like a potters’ paradox, like so many university ceramics departments these days. I saw an MFA profile of UGA a while back (in CM, I think), and there was nary a utilitarian pot in the bunch.

But whatever the state of affairs there now, even in during the Meyers/Simon golden age it would have been hard pressed to beat out the other contenders for the “Potters’ Paradise title, like around the Twin Cities or Penland-ville, N.C. When I imagine the ideal place to be a potter, those come to mind most readily. “When I think of heaven; deliver me on a black-winged bird.”

** Get it? “Packets”? As in: the small chunks of data that travel across the Internet via the TCP/IP protocol? You know, the physical stuff that actually makes words and pictures and YouTube videos show up on your computer screen? The “series of tubes”? Yeah, I thought not — that’s too obliquely geeky a reference, even after all that time I spent priming you about AI and stuff. Sorry.

*** Although I probably won’t. Dang... the truth hurts. The most important things are the most difficult to write about, and therefore the easiest to procrastinate on. Why? Fear of not doing it well, of wasting the opportunity? That sounds like my perfectionism problem rearing its ugly head again. Or is it simply the difficulty of just making a start, of slicing the elephant into manageable bites? The hardest part of writing, for me, is that first run through all the flittering ideas and committing them to the screen. “Punch the keys, Goddammit!” Make the clackity noise. For heaven’s sake: Just do it.

I wish I could find a way to set aside a block of quality hours to pound out a rough draft of one of the many topics I have saved on my “To Write” list. Like that recent trip to Clary’s, or the second time Bunny McBride changed my life (i.e. my first trip to Clary’s). It’s just so much easier to pick smaller and/or less significant topics instead, and so I follow the path of least resistance. Like surfing blogs instead of reading a long magazine essay; or reading essays instead of an actual book; or reading books instead of attempting to write one. “A rough draft of the blog I hope to write someday”, indeed. Weirdly, perhaps even perversely, in the aggregate that amounts to placing value on a high volume of mostly inconsequential stuff instead of on a smaller amount of stuff that might really matter. Is that how I want to spend my time? Is it what you want to read here?

**** Note to self: it’s not exactly the greatest idea in the world to put pots up for critique immediately before submitting them for a show, especially when it’s too late to change them. What would I have done if she’d been strongly critical of them — called the gallery to beg off, then run home to make more? Duh.

August 7th, 2011

"But you have to let your heart decide. Loss has conquered you." - The Shins

Fair warning: I'm going to lie to you this week. Yep -- somewhere in the next few paragraphs is a whopper; a severe bending of the truth; a deliberate corrosion of the trust between writer and reader. But you're smart, and probably accustomed to ferreting out deception when necessary. I'll bet you can find it. *

A few months ago I was invited to be in AKAR Gallery's 30x5 show, which will open in November. ** Very cool. As it's my favorite gallery, and probably one of the best galleries for pots ever, I'm honored to show my work there. This year's edition of the 30x5 (five pots each by thirty potters) will feature all salt and soda fired work, which seems like a grand idea.

I was in the 2007 edition of the show, too. (Here it is in the tw@se archives.) I was thrilled to have my domino vase used in their web promo back then and, wonder of wonders, it appears that I've made the cut again this time:

The benefits of getting your pots to the gallery early

That's my jar there, with the black glazed lid and drippy dots, keeping company with pots by Gay Smith and Susan Dewsnap. As always with AKAR, that's pretty great company! It should be a good show.

Given what I said above about my high regard for the gallery, I had a tough time deciding which pots to send. Even with a well-stocked SAVE shelf in the studio (a.k.a. the secret stash and/or The Reserve), it was difficult to choose, and particularly to put together a group of five that seemed cohesive, or at least not contradictory.

My confidence was hampered a bit, too, because for the first time in a half dozen shows there, only some of my pots from this year's Yunomi Invitational sold (hint, hint). Also, I was still wallowing in all the pots I lost to cracking in the salt kiln last spring; several of them would have been good contenders for this show.

So after much hesitation and hedging, here's the pots I picked:

Pots for the show (-1)

That is, with one exception: the vase second from the left. It's one of the nicest forms I've ever made, with a sweet bottle-green glaze, fantastic glaze crystals, a silky warm slip color and -- if I may say so -- perfect salt flashing. Yes, that one. Guess what I discovered, just as I was about to snuggle it into a cacoon of bubble wrap? You got it: another godforsaken seam crack. A small one, hidden on the inside of the narrow neck of the vase, somewhat covered by the glaze... but there nonetheless.

As I shouted a choice string of curse words, it almost became the first pot I've deliberately smashed on the concrete floor of the studio. Almost.

I've had that vase sitting in a prime spot on the SAVE shelf for a long while, where I could look at it from time to time and admire the glory of one of those rare instances in potting when everything goes exactly right. I've thought about all the ways it exemplified what I'm after, tried to make it again (without success), used it as my Facebook profile picture, wondered at the exact conditions that gave it such an ideal glaze in the firing... and the damn thing was flawed the entire time. Ceramics. It will break your heart, often when you least expect it.

So instead of that being the pot I was most sure of, and happiest to send off to the show, it got a little disclaimer sticker, a steep price markdown, and an ignominious spot on the seconds shelf in the showroom. (Hint, hint.) It's gone from one of my best pots ever to a near miss. I can't represent it as something it isn't, and what it isn't is "gallery quality". Now that I know about the crack -- that damning proof of my error in craftsmanship and lack of sufficient control -- well, it's just something else. Perfectly sound, utilitarian, still beautiful, perhaps even a bit poetic, in that it's all those things but with a hidden flaw the likes of which might be found secreted away within a person. But good enough for AKAR it ain't.

And then, as also seems to happen in ceramics with astonishing regularity, *** there was a silver lining. Note which pot is missing from that second photo above. Yep -- the one AKAR chose for their promo. That little jar was the 6th man in the initial starting rotation; the first one off the bench when the franchise superstar went down with a career-ending injury. If the vase wasn't cracked -- or, worse yet, if I'd missed the crack until it was too late -- that jar would still be sitting on the shelf in the studio. It's easily as good as the rest, but I just couldn't see how it fit in with them until there was no other choice. (As a group, they either amateurishly clash or show a mature breadth and variety [depending on how one's inclined to see such things.])

So that's that. I can't wait to see the show.

Next week, more about my trip to the gallery to drop off the pots, and my experience basking, however briefly, in potter's paradise.

Oh yeah; so maybe it was more a lie of omission than commission. Whatevs. It's in there. And it made you read it all, right?

* You just can't believe everything you read on the Internet. Not even this.

** That's not it! Way too obvious. I will in fact be in the show -- they even have the pots already.

*** Perhaps because there are always so many variables up for grabs at any one time? Because of the potter's ambition vs. the fragile nature of the material and inherent complexity of the processes? I honestly don't know.

July 31st, 2011

"…people look at pots in different ways and that the odds are stacked against widespread understanding of pottery at any substantial depth." - Carter Gillies

I'm not going to lie to you: I spent the time I would have ordinarily dedicated to this week's post enthralled with the NFL's free agency period, which was wildly accelerated following the offseason lockout. I've already come clean about my irrational love of pro football, so I might as well also admit to my increasing dedication to the Indianapolis Colts and a deep, abiding man crush on Peyton Manning. As a sports fan, it doesn't get any better than this.

The prospect of a year without football was almost too much for my callow soul to bear. But as a knee-jerk nihilist I had faint hope that the various parties would get it figured out in time. (Partisan bickering and an inability to agree on basic facts are like our new national pastime -- in fact, they just might be one of the few things left that American culture is really good at.) So my fears of a long, dreary winter without watching freakishly powerful men inflict future brain damage on one another while grappling over an oblong ball are finally put to rest, and I'm all in. TV? Check. Web? Check. Podcasts? Check. Spare compute cycles spent worrying about our training camp roster? Check. Writing my "blog about pots"? Forget about it.

I realize that these admissions put me in the same company as your loutish brother-in-law or the guy at work who won't shut up about his fantasy team. Guilty. And I realize, too, that nobody really cares. Nor should they! This is really just a roundabout way of saying that I'm throwing this one out of bounds, in hopes of living to play another down. Check it to pancakes!

So while you wait through the inevitable TV timeout, allow me to recommend this recent series of posts by my friend Carter Gillies. If you haven't already read it, I guarantee you'll find it worthwhile -- assuming you're here as a pottery fan, not through some coincidental Googling about the Colts.

He's been exploring how potters see their pots differently than potential customers do; where those differences originate and why; and what all that might mean for potters looking to improve their ability to connect to an audience or sell their work to a wider slice of the general public. It's in three parts, each one gloriously long and discursive, just the way I like it:

1. How customers look at pots: Where they are looking and how they learned to see

2. How customers look at pots: You can’t like what you can't see

3. How customers look at pots, and what potters can do about it

And if that's not enough for you, dive into the comments under any of those -- there's a lot of meaty stuff there, too. For example, this exchange between Carter and (fellow potter-blogger) Ron Philbeck, about the difference between decorated and undecorated pots; Ron Meyers' "stupid animals"; Ron P.'s transition from undecorated salt fired stoneware to highly decorated earthenware; and Phillip Rawson's views on the supremacy of the 2D image in modern visual culture.

Or this one, where Carter and (fellow potter-blogger) John Bauman talk about why potters do or don't decorate their work; the idea of being “decoration averse”; and what happens when a bunch of blind guys get together and touch an elephant at the same time.

You'll see that I pitched in a few comments here and there, too -- yet another way that I distracted myself from working on a write up about my trip to AKAR Gallery last month -- and that my writing and sense of humor are even worse at Away games than at Home, under the friendly dome of tw@se Field™.

Ah well, there's always next season.

July 24th, 2011

"As a writer, your only allegiance is to the readers..." - Om Malik

After three straight weeks of babbling about technology and futurism, Google Analytics shows a strong downward trend in visitors to the blog. Excellent -- my plan is working perfectly! Now I can share all my secret glaze recipes and talk trash about famous potters! *

Seriously, though, I enjoyed writing about AI and thinking through those scenarios, however improbable they may be. Fun stuff. Seeing that I can move the needle in the traffic stats is just a bonus. For all my lame jokes about alienating readers and keeping the stats low, I really don't pay much attention to them anymore. (As a fledgling blogger they're like supplemental oxygen at high altitude, but after a while you acclimate to the new environment and can generally forget about it.)

To put some numbers to that, Googlebot says that last week tw@se had 126 visits from 78 different visitors. ** Prior to the AI trilogy, it was averaging into the 170's. (The all-time peak is 250, which, as I recall, was prompted by a favorable link from uber-pottery-blogger Michael Kline. It was a one-hit wonder.) So going deeply off topic shed about 30-40 weekly visits; perhaps 15-20 actual people.

Getting about 125 weekly visits is the same traffic that tw@se was getting a few months after I started it, about four years ago. (To my mind, it's clearly better now, but over time I've aimed at a much narrower audience. I hope the quality of engagement and the value to current readers has improved, despite the measurable quantity remaining the same.)

So let's say that 75 people stop by in a typical week. I can deal with 75 people. And in any given week, Googlebot tells me, about a third of those are new; the predictable churn of half-interested skimmers and occasional link followers. So lets call it 50 actual, regular readers. (Even that might be a stretch, given that I think there's a lot of padding, quick exits and even robots included in those stats. Hell, it could easily be as few as 25!)

To me, a regular reader would be someone who pays enough attention that they'd know more about me than I would about them, were we to meet in person someday. They might recognize my pots out of context, or carry around some idea I wrote that mattered to them. You know: regulars. Fans.

For that kind of thing, fifty is good. It's a manageable number. It's an amount of people I can picture in one place without serious leaps of imagination. It's a big crowded room, not an auditorium or arena. Coincidentally and fittingly, it's probably also about the upper limit of people that I could address in person at one time, without my head exploding from stage fright. And while reading the same blog does not in any way make for a cohesive group, fifty seems like a good number for a virtual community. (And if it's the same fifty of us all reading the same blogs, and I often suspect it is, then maybe we're onto something...)

Fifty also fits my idea of how many people fit into the quirky set of overlapping circles in the Venn Diagram of regulars -- the people like you who come back here week after week. There just can't be many more people in the world than that who could care about this. And while at times I wish that the best of the stuff here could have a wider reach, for the most part 50 feels about right. Barring some sort of mainstream pandering or unexpected public humiliation, I think it's safe to assume it'll stay the same from here. I'm totally cool with that.

Anyways, speaking of alienating my readers, I've drained the word well completely dry the last few weeks, but my photo bucket is overflowing. Between the time off and all the tech talk, it's been quite a while since I did an update on my studio activity, but I've actually been getting some pots made. So here's the last few weeks in the studio in photos, blissfully unannotated with text. Cheers!

* As if! I'm not sharing my glaze recipes!

** Google bases everything around site visits, on the assumption that a site's content is changing regularly and, therefore, that repeat visits by the same people are a good thing. But since I only post once a week, the number of unique visitors per week is a more relevant, interesting statistic than visits. I'm more curious to know how many people are actually reading all this than if it took them more than one visit to make it to the end of one of those ridiculously long posts.

July 17th, 2011

"You've got to give the people what they want." - Ben Folds

Part 8: More thoughts about bots

So let's imagine that some type of Artificial Intelligence is eventually developed, extending from those precursor examples I described last time. It might come about solely through engineering, or as a core system that is subsequently trained (or "raised") by humans, like the Google search algorithms. It could be created on the back of another emergent technology, like nanotech (the R in Ray Kurzweil's GNR). For example, microscopic robots could build a digital/mechanical networked system with as many components and complex interconnections as a human brain. From the scientific worldview, that's essentially all the hardware that's required to create human-caliber thinking.

Or, a bit farther out on the probability spectrum, an AI might bootstrap itself into existence using something like genetic algorithms. This is a technique of designing a computer system that automates writing and evaluating new code, in a process designed to mimic the process of biological evolution.* These systems are already well past the proof-of-concept stage -- like this one, where AI researchers at MIT made a bot that not only learned how to play the video game Civilization, it did so by "reading" the instruction manual and teaching itself how to play through trial and error.** A system like this is particularly powerful in that it has the potential to find unlikely or counter-intuitive solutions to the given task -- the kind of ideas that human experimenters would generally rule out before applying resources to testing them. (Remember that biological evolution's only criteria is fitness for survival . There's nothing guiding it towards any particular solution or predetermined path; just the constant evaluation of random genetic mutations for their fitness to solve a particular problem. I think that the overlap between disciplines that this embodies -- from biology to computer science -- is similar to what Kurzweil has in mind with GNR. The major advances will come at the points where they reinforce one another.)

Another advantage to using genetic algorithms is how quickly they can iterate the possibilities, given sufficient computing power (which, remember, is still increasing exponentially.) A sophisticated genetic algorithm could run billions of variations in a relatively short span of time, whereas the speed of biological evolution is limited to the life cycle and habitat of any particular organism. (The transition from australopithecus to modern humans took something like three million years .) So genetic algorithms are not only faster, but they can be deliberately inefficient in their search for optimal solutions. (Kind of like a potter seeking the ideal handle for a mug over a lifetime.) Also like biological evolution, each successful result provides a platform to build the next iteration from, like tools that make other tools. A million monkeys at a million typewriters might gradually compile the complete works of Shakespeare, but if I had to bet on one, I'd put money on an AI eventually emerging from such a process.

Furthermore, we could consider the possibility of a breakthrough in something like quantum computing -- which could increase computing power so much that modern machines would look like slide rules by comparison. Given that kind of non-linear advance in a foundational technology, even Kurzweil's predictions would probably be too timid. (The fact that quantum computing offers functional proof of some of the weirder theoretical ideas proposed by quantum mechanics is the frosting on a very geeky cake.)

So, for the sake of argument -- and because it's fun -- let's say that through some combination of these methods an AI is developed, and there's a working prototype by Kurzweil's predicted date of 2029. That's 18 years away. As a parent, I now reflexively think of the future in terms of how old my daughter will be at any given point. Today she's too young to even know what a Turing Test is; by 2029 she might be finishing college. (Coincidentally, that's right around the time Cindy and I hope to be paying off our student loans.) So from one perspective that's still a long way off, but from another it's a relatively short span of time. Particularly given the implications that such an invention could have for just about everything else.

Part 9: In which I conclusively prove that I have no idea what I'm talking about

Everything below is based on the presumption that we don't nuke/grey goo/environmentally degradate/economically collapse ourselves back to the Stone Age in the meantime. I know, I know -- that's a big if...

So after the Defense Department's done weaponizing it, how long until that AI becomes a commercial product? Ten more years? Less? Let's say the first private versions follow the money: banking and retail. So by 2040 there's a Goldman Sachs Bot and a Wal*Mart Bot, and they're put to work doing the kinds of tasks that more primitive algorithms already do, like collateralizing mortgages or setting the price of a box of Cheerios. But with true AI behind them, those systems are given the autonomy to make decisions of greater importance, and more of them. The fact that they can do so with inhuman speed and precision has unintended consequences, like the new era of volatility in the stock market.

Even more significantly, these AI's are able to "learn" as they go, refining their own operation and abilities -- perhaps even developing new subsystems or "child" bots that benefit from their experience. This continual, spontaneous improvement or complexity soon puts the entire system out of the reach of mere humans. Even if we want to intervene, we'll be unable to do so without catastrophic results. From "too big to fail" to "too interconnected and impenetrable to stop". (Even today, IT is littered with examples of legacy code that programmers hesitate to touch, unsure of the implications of making changes.)

And speaking of IT, it follows that such systems would gradually take over the role of what are fashionably called "knowledge workers"; e.g. people like me who are paid to sit in front of a computer and use their expertise to analyze data, make judgement calls and do "creative" stuff. Even without AI, we've already handed off all the brute force information tasks to computers, like balancing accounts or routing communications traffic. In the same way that machines replaced human labor during the Industrial Revolution, computers will gradually replace human thought and decision making over the course of the Digital Revolution. While that would be more efficient overall -- just like it is to manufacture cars with robots instead of people -- it's bad news for a society and economic model that's already struggling to find useful work for its labor force. Heck, the politicians still reflexively promise to replace all those lost manual labor jobs with "knowledge worker" jobs, which to me seems like hoping against hope, even if we could improve our educational institutions enough to retrain everyone. (Unlikely.) And all those<i> functions get outsourced to smart bots too, then what will humans do? Enjoy the long-promised but seldom-realized life of leisure? I doubt it.

Anyways, while all that's happening somewhat above the level of the average person's awareness -- aside from, you know, being unemployed -- AI technology would continue to improve, possibly even towards Kurzweil's prediction of achieving greater than human-level intelligence. For example, what if the first true AI was immediately put to work developing the next generation AI, and that some proportion of all the smart bots' attention/labor was perpetually focused on the goal of improving the technology? At the very least, it would provide a cheap labor force to handle the computational grunt work, as described above. And at best, it'd be like assigning a virtually unlimited number of highly skilled researchers to the project, in addition to whatever resources were provided by their human progenitors. There's the potential for another Moore's Law type of progression, with the state of the art continuously getting both more powerful and less expensive. But this one would happen even faster, because each new development would make further developments easier to achieve. A smart bot makes a smarter bot makes a smarter bot, etc.

(In thinking this through more carefully, I'm starting to see that Kurzweil's ideas aren't all that crazy, once you posit AI that's smarter than a human genius. That's the make-or-break assumption behind the rest of his attention-getting predictions. Because there's no way to conclusively put a limit on what such an entity could discover or invent, everything after that becomes fair game, like the three-wishes scenario I mentioned last time.)

Assuming we still have a functioning economy after all that upheaval -- in which people can, you know, buy stuff -- AI technology would probably follow the distribution pattern of almost every other modern technology: from the few to the many; from the rich to almost everybody. Digital computers started as a handful of insanely expensive and complex mainframes, with access limited to the rarest of users, like in that Errol Morris article about the early days at MIT. But 50 years later, vastly more powerful computers have ended up in a billion people's pockets, in the form of smart phones with wireless Internet connectivity. (To borrow one of Kurzweil's examples of the increasing rate of change in technology.)

So around 2045, let's say that AI's start appearing in embedded systems that the average person can interact with. They're still owned and controlled by big corporations, but they gradually replace all the stupid voice mail drones, call centers in India, and administrative assistants in offices everywhere. At first they'll freak us out, or we'll have trouble believing they're not being directed by humans, like Cleverbot. But we'll gradually get used to both interacting with them and depending on them. Think about they way bank tellers were largely replaced by ATMs, which were then largely replaced by credit and debit cards, which are now being largely replaced by wireless virtual transactions. Remember how each of those changes seemed weird and a little disconcerting at first, then became so commonplace that you stopped thinking about it? And how each step along the way has come a little faster than the last one? It'll be just like that.

At first you'll interact with to an AI to book travel reservations, talking or chatting with it to find the options the suit your needs. (And as a bonus, replacing the miserable experience of endlessly scrolling though lists of cheap red-eye flights with three connections on Orbitz). But eventually, you'll just let it figure out when you ought to go and how much you should pay and it will book it all for you, like a skillful human assistant. You'll go from occasionally sampling the stuff that TiVo recommends to not even bothering to look at the listings; most of the time it will predict what you'll like with deadly accuracy, like a friend who sends you links to videos of 3D printers or to pottery blog posts that are worth reading. (And of course, TiVo-AI will record not just TV, but stuff from every type of media. Once it's all digital, the distinction will hardly matter anymore.)

Then, as the price of AI drops and its sophistication increases, we'll get to the equivalent of the personal computer stage -- AI for the rest of us. Perhaps we'll have an iPhone version by 2050; a 99¢ personal software buddy. It could know everything about you,
given access to your personal data: sent and saved correspondence; contacts; browsing history and web searches; social network activity and blog archives; banking, investing and online purchases; GPS coordinates of places you've been; perhaps even video of everything you've seen since you had that camera installed in the retina of your right eye.

It could be smarter than anyone you've ever met, with an encyclopedic store of knowledge to answer your questions or teach you things, like the Primer in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. It could work tirelessly on your behalf, like a virtual butler or assistant: routing your mail and handling routine correspondence; helping you compose a difficult bit of writing or assemble a presentation; suggesting which house to buy and whether or not it's time to refinance. Like the precursors of email and texting and Facebook, once everybody has an AI at their disposal, it will become very hard to resist getting your own -- even if just to ease the burden of interacting with everyone else's! And we think spam is bad now...

Beyond any of those functional abilities, a personal AI could also develop it's own "personality" -- a consistent set of mannerisms, affectations and traits that would be virtually indistinguishable from a human's. Beyond whatever built-in template it had for interacting with you -- like the default page design in Blogger -- it could learn from all your personal data, as listed above. That would be the perfect example of what you expect and desire in communicating with other intelligent entities. To eliminate the sense that it was just a simulacrum, mimicking you like a digital Mini-Me, it could periodically harvest online communications, like Twitter, to crowdsource realistic ways of speaking, new phrases and, of course, fresh content. (Similar to the way Watson scoured the public web to become a master of trivia.) And most effective of all, your every interactions with it would train it to be more aware and sensitive to your needs. It's not too far-fetched, then, to imagine it taking on the roles of confidant, therapist, life coach, tutor and advisor. (Assuming it didn't develop needs of its own, like turning you into a big battery, a'la The Matrix.)

Part 10: Because a long post about digital tech should have ten parts

So let's say all that comes about by 2060. (Again, assuming that more things go right than go wrong between now and then; the farther out you project, the less likely that seems.) That's another 50 years from now, right around the time my grandchildren's generation would come of age. That means they could grow up with digital friends. It's hard to imagine a world filled with virtual intelligences every bit as real and dynamic as ours, perhaps with robotic bodies or merged symbiotically into our bodies, but which essentially exist in the Cloud. Beings that eat electricity and bandwidth instead of food and oxygen, and don't need Ray Kurzweil to be right in order to "live" forever.

We'd have to figure out where those "things" fit into our social and political structures, like in the Steven Spielberg movie. Poets, priests and politicians would argue whether intelligent activity equates to consciousness, and therefore if AI's are tools or people. Do they have rights? Will we need an AI emancipation movement, repeating the mistakes of all the other times we've falsely decided that some people weren't entitled to the same considerations as others?

What if the AI's develop new mathematical theorems, or discover new laws of physics? Perhaps they solve previously unsolvable problems in engineering, medicine or the social sciences, all to our benefit? What if they learn to generate music, art and literature that our best critics have to admit is pretty damn good. (And that they themselves prefer, of course.) Wouldn't we have to credit them with having some type of genuine creativity? Even Philosophy would get turned inside out by AI's debating the definition of intelligence, at a level of sophistication that mere human brains couldn't hope to comprehend without assistance.

At some point, the idea of a post-human fusion might become feasible; a good, old fashioned cyborg future, where the distinction between us and them becomes less obvious or perhaps even unimportant. Maybe that's how we weather all the dystopian grey goo scenarios: by merging our intellectual abilities with theirs, the same way we distinguished ourselves from animals by embracing physical technologies to overcome our bodies' limitations.

If so, I can't even begin to extrapolate what happens from there. Maybe Kurzweil's right after all. All I know is that if I can think this stuff up, based on the relatively mundane sources cited previously and an interest in sci-fi over the last 30 years, it's probably not all that far from what's really possible. To return to my original point, I think we habitually underestimate this stuff, perhaps because we're too busy overestimating other stuff.

When I was ten years old, the idea of today's World Wide Web carried around on a phone would have seemed crazy -- just as crazy as the iPhone AI described above. Access to practically any piece of recorded human knowledge and culture, in real time and on the cheap, would have been called a delusion. Microfiche was the state of the art! (And that's not to mention the rapidly-approaching ability to communicate with almost anyone on earth. Kurzweil says there are five billion mobile phones in use today. That's billion with a "B", Carl Sagan-style.) Meanwhile, the people who wrote Star Trek were too busy imagining teleportation and deciding how many gills to put on the aliens to notice that Errol Morris's brother was inventing email. (OK, maybe that's an unfair example. They pretty much nailed it with the communicators.)

Likewise, while the original Star Wars trilogy occasionally made vague reference to software, like the targeting system in Luke's X-Wing Fighter, it treated such a key aspect of the technology that's emerged since then as an afterthought. In retrospect, that's an embarrassing mistake. (The cockpit of the Millenium Falcon looked like a 747 with a few more dials and buttons, when it probably should have looked like HAL -- just a glowing red light and a disembodied voice. Ah well, I suppose it's hard to do a spaghetti western if nobody gets to drive the stagecoach.) Anyways, that's probably neither here nor there; I just liked the idea of working in some more references from my childhood.

Kurzweil wants to live forever; I just hope to live long enough to have a decent conversation with an AI. What's it's favorite band? What does it think about handmade pots? For that matter, what does any aspect of human culture look like to an intelligent entity that doesn't share our genes or our history? Noise?

If I'm still doing something like tw@se in 50 years, remind me to revisit this post to see what parts I got right.

OK, ScottBot? Are you getting all this?

* The idea of designing an evolutionary system has a delicious irony to it, given the disconnect between supernatural and scientific theories about the origins of life. If we end up designing such a system to generate AI's, just imagine the philosophical debates amongst the billionth-generation digital descendants of that process, arguing about what the primary motive force for the existence of AI in the universe was. Hmm... come to think of it, who's to say that we aren't -- nah, let's save that for another time.

** Say what? Yes, really. I know that sounds crazy, but it's published research at MIT, not some bozo in his garage. *** This is why I'm so intrigued by this topic -- surprising new developments are happening on a weekly basis.

With no assistance or feedback from humans, it improved it's win rate from 46% to 79% -- which was even better than similar systems that were specifically programmed with strategic clues on how to play the game. What's more, the goal of the research is not to prove that a computer can win a complex game -- like Deep Blue or Watson did -- but that a computer can independently "learn" completely new information well enough to perform sophisticated tasks, like winning a game. (And that includes figuring out what human language means relevant to its context, rather than just treating words as data.) That might not be "intelligent" yet, but it's pretty damn impressive leap.

(Here's another article about it, from a video gaming site.)

*** No offense, bozos or garage-dwellers. I've been a member of both groups, at one time or another, and sometimes simultaneously

**** Two good articles on quantum computing (both are paywalled to some extent -- sorry):
1. Quantum Computing Reaches for True Power - NYT
2. DREAM MACHINE: The mind-expanding world of quantum computing - The New Yorker

July 10th, 2011

"I used to think that everything was just being funny but now I don't know.
I mean, how can you tell?" - Andy Warhol

"Please lift a hand, I'm only a person..." - R.E.M.

Part 5: A transitional bit, with disclaimer

My thinking about the Artificial Intelligence topic is still in flux, which is a good thing: it means I'm learning something in the process. (Spending time on a subject only to confirm the facts and reinforce my pre-existing opinions about it would be kind of a waste.) In the week since my previous post, I've found some more interesting reference material, which I'll detail below. Unfortunately, that means my attention has drifted past the long batch of notes and quotes that I drafted up previously. So I'll try to make a connective thread between the two parts here, but might skip ahead to my current thinking or defer some of the stuff in the notes for later.

For those of you wondering what happened to the "blog about making pots", I expect it'll be back in a week or two. I did some exciting stuff in that regard on our road trip to Iowa last week, and there's probably enough fodder there for a half dozen ceramics-realted posts. But, as usual, no promises. Maybe I'll never write about pots again! (Unlikely.) If I can't lure you into the tech topic with a subtle combination of wit and storytelling, that's cool. Perhaps you'll check back in later. And if not, it's been fun! *

Part 6: Still here? Good! Let's continue...

My thesis last time, to the extent that I had one, was that "true" AI is probably on it's way, and is probably coming sooner than the average person would imagine. After a summary of my half-life in tech, I gave five examples of the source materials that got me thinking about all this in the first place, with a bunch of links to Wikipedia and stuff. Let's look at a few more:

#6. Transcendent Man: The Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil, by Barry Ptolemy
I'd forgotten that this movie was lingering in my Netflix queue ** until after I wrote that post. So much for doing my research ahead of time! But I've watched it since and it's an interesting documentary; as promised by the subtitle, it gives a compact overview of Kurzweil's biography and major ideas. (And it's probably a good filter to determine whether you'd be interested in his books.) It presents his impressive credentials as an inventor and entrepreneur, and does a good job filling in the "human" details about the person behind the theories. Then it describes his predictions about "The Singularity" -- an overlapping sequence of breakthroughs in genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR). Each of those is a fascinating technology in its own right, with AI falling under the robotics subheading. In an interview, Kurzweil identifies AI as the key component of the Singularity -- the underlying motive force.

(Which makes GNR an even poorer choice for the acronym. They could have dumped the R, put AI in the middle, and had GAIN, which reinforces what it means. Plus, that would have avoided the unintentional comedy of reusing the initials of the much more famous rock band. Thanks, Ray... now I can't get Axl Rose's screeching out of my head.)

The last section of the film focuses on Kurzweil's more recent and controversial predictions about "immortality" technology (a.k.a. indefinite life extension). I'm more intrigued -- and less skeptical -- about the GNR stuff than the immortality stuff. The rub here is that he uses his prediction of a true, super-intelligent AI by 2029 as a basis for other, more exaggerated predictions. That's like introducing a three-wishes magic lamp to a story: once you have one, just about anything else becomes possible. Because he believes so strongly in the accuracy of his predictions -- a common criticism is that he's replaced faith in a supernatural afterlife with faith in a scientific one -- there's a logical flow built into their sequence. But to me, the grain of doubt in the smaller initial parts expands to boulders of doubt about the later ones.

Of course, he could be right -- who's to say that a uber-intelligent computer couldn't recode our biology in ways that we can't yet imagine? But the idea of eliminating age-related death seems like quite a stretch. I was pleasantly surprised that the film gives time to reasonable counter-arguments; the filmmakers clearly wanted to explore the issues, not just make a platform for the primary subject to speak from. The criticisms that made sense to me are that Kurzweil's immortality theory rests heavily on fields outside his expertise -- medicine and biology -- and that he's probably extrapolating trends from information technology a little too directly to them. Also that he may be underestimating the societal and cultural forces that could activity work against such a development, if it seemed within our immediate grasp; for example, the controversy over comparatively tame technologies like stem cell research and genetically modified foods.

The film gives some interesting backstory about his psychological motivations for potentially overshooting in this regard, like his obsession with his own mortality and the loss of his father at an early age. (He also predicts the ability to digitize the essence of a person; to essentially backup the data of yourself or even recreate someone dead from the data of their life. As I said, it gets pretty far-fetched and kooky.) The film suggests that those personal motivations undercut the rational objectivity of Kurzweil's argument. It's one thing to cure a disease because your father died from it. It's another thing entirely to think you can cure death and bring him back. ***

So if we ask the standard question, "Who benefits?", an obvious answer is Kurzweil himself. Particularly given the coincidence that he predicts these technologies will arrive just in time for him to benefit from them. (He's not young, and goes to extreme measures to keep his body fresh and potentially salvageable.) The self-serving convenience of that timing throws up red flags all over the place, sort of like an octagenarian preacher predicting the imminent arrival of The Rapture. Can't you people see I'm running out of time? I meant, we -- we're running out of time!

And then, of course, there's the Follow The Money angle. I suspect the immortality stuff: a.) sells a lot of books; b.) makes Kurzweil a hot commodity on the lecture circuit; and c.) is designed, at least in part, to make the AI stuff look tame and palatable by comparison. It must be hard to rest on your laurels in the futurist trade.

#7: How Google’s Algorithm Rules the Web, by Steven Levy

Another Wired magazine article, this goes in detail about how Google's search engine works and its historical development. (In terms of considering the source, it's worth mentioning that Wired tends to skew towards the enthusiastic upside of technological change -- that is, anytime it's not publishing Bill Joy's dystopian fantasies).

This article is worth reading if you've ever wondered how Google is so good at finding what you're looking for -- when was the last time you got past page two of the search results? It describes how they built what is arguably a lesser form of AI; a task-specific system that exists today, and is a precursor of what will be possible in the future. For example:

"The comparison [between Google and Microsoft's Bing] demonstrates the power, even intelligence, of Google’s algorithm, honed over countless iterations. It possesses the seemingly magical ability to interpret searchers’ requests — no matter how awkward or misspelled."

What's interesting is that most people wouldn't think of Google as being even AI-lite, despite their ongoing familiarity with it. But check out these examples of how Google is continually improving -- i.e. becoming more intelligent -- by "learning" from its users:

"Take, for instance, the way Google’s engine learns which words are synonyms. 'We discovered a nifty thing very early on... People change words in their queries. So someone would say, ‘pictures of dogs,’ and then they’d say, ‘pictures of puppies.’ So that told us that maybe ‘dogs’ and ‘puppies’ were interchangeable. We also learned that when you boil water, it’s hot water. We were relearning semantics from humans, and that was a great advance.'"

"Google employs hundreds of people around the world to sit at their home computer and judge results for various queries, marking whether the tweaks return better or worse results than before. But Google also has a larger army of testers — its billions of users, virtually all of whom are unwittingly participating in its constant quality experiments. Every time engineers want to test a tweak, they run the new algorithm on a tiny percentage of random users, letting the rest of the site’s searchers serve as a massive control group.... In other words, just about every time you search on Google, you’re a lab rat." ****

This could be a "tip of the iceberg" example of how we'll develop AI-type systems, and then gradually create a symbiosis with them. (The merging of biological and mechanical/digital systems is another component of Kurzweil's GNR predictions. Transcendent Man has some nice stuff on that topic, too.) Google's software needs people to train it and help evaluate which variations make it more effective; and as it improves, people develop an increasing reliance on what it does. We already take it's revolutionary ability to find information for granted. Like with the VCRs evolving into Netflix streaming, the wonder of the early days of the web was matched by the frustration of fruitlessly searching for certain bits of information (not to mention waiting for the near-misses to load over dialup modems).

Now if they could just teach it to drive my lawn mower via GPS while I take an afternoon nap, that'd be something.

#8: CAPTCHAs

If there's any doubt that sophisticated, single-task AI bots are already living right along side us in the online world, look at the prevalence of CAPTCHAs -- those annoying, blurry and twisted strings of text that you have to type in to create an account or post a comment on sites like Blogger. A CAPTCHA is a reverse Turning test: it asks you to prove that you are human by performing a task that, in theory, software cannot yet do. (Note that this is a completely new category of make-work distraction for us humans. So much for computers making things easier.) *****

CAPTCHAs exist because fake accounts and social network posts are useful to hackers. ****** (That virtual real-estate is useful for sending spam, hosting scams, and attempted attacks inside secure systems.) But they also exist because hackers generally don't do stuff manually anymore; it's just not that profitable unless they work at a large scale, and if there's one thing a programmer hates it's doing a repetitive task by hand. So they write code that automates tasks like trying to make fake accounts or post spammy comments on blogs or install malware on your computer. Hence, the need for the reverse Turing Test: prove that you're human and not a bot.

But of course, each new lock prompts the crooks to make a better lockpick, and at the pace of Moore's Law, CAPTCHAs will likely be a brief footnote in online history, gone so quick we'll hardly remember them. A slightly smarter bot will make them instantly obsolete, and I've no doubt that whatever security technique replaces them will be even more of a pain to navigate around. Fairly soon, in an online ecosystem where the majority of the participants are bots of one kind or another, we might have to perform reverse Turing Tests constantly, just to prove that we deserve the rights afforded to real flesh and blood humans. (I suppose that ups the ante for creating a "secure" universal ID of sorts, like a digital driver's license or passport, but that creates a whole new set of problems, like abolishing the anonymity that the Internet was originally based around and having a single regulating entity for online access.)

An intriguing side effect of this phenomenon might be a resurgence of appreciation for face to face interaction, both in person and online; sort of like the way that an increasingly virtual existence might -- theoretically -- increase people's desire for things like handmade pots. A quick video chat to verify your identity before some important interaction might become as standard as a physical handshake out in meatspace.

Or, more mundanely, it might prompt a desire for known reference points in online transactions. For example, my new preferred email application can import profile pictures -- via Facebook or some other online repository -- of people I correspond with. When all the text I read starts to look the same, it can be subtly reassuring to see a friendly face attached to a particular message. In an environment jam-packed with auto-responders and bot-Tweets, that kind of thing can pleasantly suggest that the lines of text on screen originated in someone's actual brain instead of an algorithm.

Of course, that's just as fake-able as anything else -- hijacking someone's personal icon would be ridiculously easy, like photocopying a signature from a piece of paper (cf. the opening scene of The Social Network). And someday, ScottBot3000, my digital assistant, will be as able to cobble together video snippets of me in real-time from a stored library of them, creating a Turing Test-defying performance, detectable as fake only by my close associates. (Or sophisticated identity bots designed to analyze such things). Like any sort of arms race, the good bots and bad bots will do battle at each stage of their evolution, and the poor humans will struggle to keep pace and remember to install their pending updates.

Part 7: Yet another pause, and just when things were heating up

As my Grandma used to say, with elaborate mock surprise, "Well, just look at the time!"

So there may be a few more parts to this thing coming later... it's hard to say for sure. I'm interested in exploring some of the topics that are still pending but, like yesterday's coffee, my saved notes are looking less appealing with each passing hour. While I'd like to get some milage out of them, whether they see the light of day or not will depend on my whims and wherewithal going forward. It's always tempting to just post them as-is -- an errata file in addition to the elaborate endnotes, which already drag behind the main mass of stuff, almost all of which could just as easily go unsaid in the first place. I don't understand the source of the weird narcotic kick that comes from pushing out word count with little regard for quality or need, but I feel its lure on a regular basis.

OK, stop. Just stop. I've tormented your patience -- and my to-do list -- long enough.

* I still intend to proactively thin the herd on occasion. I want tw@se to be either your favorite blog or one you never read; not some half-measure in between. (I used to fantasize about becoming the greatest potter of my generation. Now I'd happily settle for being the best pottery blogger of, say, 2010-2013.)

Blog traffic for it's own sake means nothing to me. It's just an imaginary number that, like numerology, is foolish to ascribe any real meaning to. I'm aiming for a that Daring Fireball-esque handful of idealized readers: people who will actually read my excessively long endnotes; forgive my idiosyncracies; put up with my stubborn rejection of the medium's conventions, odd punctuation and tendency to pontificate and self-aggrandize. (Not to mention my topical wanderlust. A blog about more than one thing? How dare I!)

**Via Netflix's streaming service, which itself is a pretty mind-blowing technological leap, if you're lucky enough to remember the pre-Internet era. After a bumpy start, it works pretty darn well these days, with a decent medium-band internet connection and something like a Roku box to get it to your TV. (Assuming you're old school enough to still have one -- kids these days, with their flip-flops and video phones...).

All through the 90's, any time Cindy wanted to buy a DVD or save a recorded TV show, I irritated her with the promise of the digital jukebox in the sky: every piece of film or video ever recorded, on demand. (I drank the Wired Kool-Aid a bit less critically in those days.) But now we (almost) have it -- with a few notable gaps, like live sports and the back-catalog content that still sells well elsewhere. (Once broadcast TV dies, all the live and syndicated stuff will move to the web, too.)

I vividly remember my family's first VCR, circa 1985, and how amazing it seemed to watch movies at home instead of going to a theater. That was probably enough change in this one arena for a lifetime. (One could argue that less happened in the entire history of human communications before the 1980's than has happened since.) (My first rental? Uncommon Valor, a cringe-worthy Vietnam War action flick. What can I say, I was 14.)

Now there's more stuff available for $8/month than I could ever possibly watch; a queue of dozens of things that I'd gladly have watched back in the era of real-time programming on only three channels. And, the price drops, the quality improves and the catalog expands every year. How's that for Moore's Law in action?

*** For what it's worth, I'm equally skeptical of both scientific and supernatural visions of how to avoid being dead someday.

**** This means they're tracking not just everything you search for, but every single word you type into the search box. There's some degree of anonymity with such records -- as of now, it's still a bit difficult to associate this activity with individual users -- but there doesn't necessarily have to be. The terms of service for most websites generally assume they can do anything with data you submit to them, and the ability to aggregate that data about specific users in improving. "Data mining" is the practice of sifting this aggregate information to figure out what ads you're likely to click or products you're likely to buy, and in it's current state the tools to do this are fairly mundane. But take a person's lifetime of online activity, from a variety of sources, and feed it to, say, a specially-trained future AI, and it could make for a much bigger problem. Also, factor in the possibility of many of those record holders merging or sharing their user data, with something like the Patriot Act providing broad access to the information to government agencies and the like. You don't have to be doing anything illicit or illegal to want some degree of privacy (or merely separation of various parts of your life from one another), and these tools have the potential to make those priviledges a quaint memory. This is the kind of stuff that drives privacy advocates nuts, particularly because so few people have any idea that it's going on behind the scenes and gaining steam. (And yes, as with politics and religion, I deliberately save the conspiracy theory bits for the endnotes.)

***** Even wilder variations of the test have been designed that could measure more advanced machine intelligence, like being able to match human performance in evaluating the results of other Turing Tests. (cf.the exotically named Bion-Hinshelwood extension of the "Fly on the wall" Turing test.) When a smart computer can distinguish another smart computer from a human, instead of a human spending time figuring out the difference, then we'll really have a complex, subtle creation to contend with. Particularly if they can all talk to one another and team up on more advanced tasks, like exterminating all the humans they identify. Kidding, kidding.

****** The correct term for black hat programmers is "crackers". "Hackers" means any kind, including the good guys (like, say, the ones who write code for banks or defense contractors). But only neck-bearded die-hards care about the distinction anymore. (That just might imperil my server, but with the possible bonus of proving my point, should it happen to be read before this gets wiped clean off the Interwebs.) Anyone else would likely confuse "crackers" with the thing you eat cheese on or the shorthand for racist white people, so I'm going with "hackers". Plus, it just sounds better.

June 26th, 2011

"… one of the things you can learn from history is that men have learned to live with machinery at least as well as, and probably a good deal better than, they have learned to live with one another." — E. E. Morison

"...we humanoids have been the catalyst for everything. Dark-hearted humanity critics always want to rave about how "brilliant" dolphins are, but do dolphins have Twitter? No. They don't even have Tumblrs." - Chuck Klosterman

Part 0: In which I tease a post you'd probably like to read, en route to introducing one you might not, with apologies for another blogging vacation

I've been trying for some time to write a post about my failed attempt to become a full-time potter and the subsequent project of learning to give up on that goal, but the words just aren't cooperating. So this isn't that post.

Also, I might as well say up front that I'm taking yet another summer break next week, so there'll be no new post here. Sorry. All subscription fees will be pro-rated accordingly.

Perhaps by way of consolation, this week's post is jumbo-sized, and I plan to follow it up with more in the same vein after the break. The catch is that it's not about ceramics, so it might not be a plus for many of you. I'm going off-topic, towards the other half of my working life: the effects of the ongoing digital revolution, the pace of technological change, and the potential development of artificial intelligence. It amounts to a data dump of everything I've been reading about on this topic lately, and gets pretty geeky. Also, some parts are still more of a rough draft than I usually let pass through the filter. So it won't hurt my feelings one bit if you skip it. Really. But if you do, I hope you'll come back in a few weeks when I'll probably have more to share about pots.

Because this topic is probably less familiar to my regular readers than, say, flashing slips and drying cracks, I've included links to background info, in case you'd like to read more about things I've referenced. (They're mostly to Wikipedia entries. Speaking of technological change, how did we ever presume to know anything before Wikipedia? It has it's flaws, sure, but for the five W's it's pretty solid -- and it's a great way to refer to things specifically, rather than relying on vague, half-remembered facts and impressions.)

Part 1: My digital life, briefly

Keeping the flow of thought cruising through this blog often prompts a sub-current of ideas about online communication and virtual interaction. That's the meta-blogging layer that I refer to so often here; using the blog to explore the form and context of the thing itself. My perception of that is based in my personal history with information technology, which has had some notable highlights.

For example, I just happened to come of age as the whole World Wide Web thing got off the ground. The first popular graphical web browser, Mosaic, was released in 1993, the year I graduated from college. There's an observer's bias there, of course -- there are many other years and events one could identify as pivotal moments in the development of our digitally interconnected world. (The Internet had a dedicated core of users long before the WWW layer was invented, but it was far from mainstream use. And of course, all the underlying technologies had to be invented first, some of them decades earlier.)

The first half of the 1990's also saw "The Commercialization of the Internet" get underway. In a very short span of time, for-profit interests piled onto The Information Superhighway*, pouring out a lot of cash to "pave the cowpaths" of what was previously a quaint, insiders-only, grass-roots endeavor.

Unfortunately, I spent the rest of that decade as nothing more than an interested observer. While I was grinding out paychecks in warehouses and other types of menial labor, the demand for these skills that I would learn later was so high that you could practically write your own ticket. Ah well. But even then, I was intrigued with the access to information that the web promised, and had glimpses of using those tools for things like self-publishing and promotion of my clay work. Along a parallel track, I became fascinated with all the trappings of digital culture, the WIRED Magazine view of this brave new world. (In retrospect, that was largely a product of the related economic boom, whose "irrational exuberence" now appears completely insane... but I digress.)

Then in 1999 -- coincidentally, the year the first Matrix movie came out -- I stumbled into employment as a web developer at the college where my wife teaches. I had just enough self-taught experience to pass the interview, and my BA in English actually paid off, as the web had just changed hands from IT to the Publications department. (The vogue at the time was to see the website as more of a communications project than a techical endeavor. That pendulum goes back and forth every six months or so, because the truth is that it straddles both disciplines equally.)

In any case, I was lucky to get my foot in the door, and had a ton of motivation to figure out what I needed to know from there, both on and off the job. This was (is) in rural Indiana -- far from the center of the online world, to be sure -- but I was in that world nonetheless. And I arrived just as things were reaching a tipping point: the tech IPO craze and stock market bubble; the early-ish adopters starting to build their own websites; existing users rapidly fleeing closed services like AOL for the public web; and almost everyone else getting home web access and their first email accounts. (Also worth mentioning, the resurgence of Apple computers -- the internet access and creation device "for the rest of us".)

In the decade since then, I've built a lot of web stuff and participated in a lot of IT stuff and read and listened and watched it's developments -- both technical and cultural -- with avid curiosity, often paying more attention to this field than to anything happening in ceramics. And what I've seen -- news flash! -- is that digital technology and all its trappings continue to move at astonishing speed. The pace of change is unrelenting; the progress from one year to the next is amazing, every year.

Just one example among many: the DARPA Grand Challenge** If you follow that link and scroll down to the difference in outcomes from 2004 to 2005, you'll see that the idea of self-navigating, self-driving vehicles went from a technical impossibility to a done deal in one year. A more current example is Google's self-driving cars project, which is also pretty mind boggling.

All of these advances are based on constantly increasing computing power at constantly decreasing costs, as per Moore's Law. I can't think of any non-IT-based human projects that share this built-in capacity for exponential growth.

And so, particularly for people who don't work near this stuff day-to-day, but even for those of us who do, it's almost impossible to maintain the proper perspective of the changes we're living through. There's just no comparison to fields that undergo incremental change, and so we're completely unaccustomed to imagining that anything could do that. But it does.

This stuff is still moving fast, and still accelerating. That's a revolutionary phenomenon; far more than just a new iPhone or faster streaming movies every other year.

The digital revolution is just getting warmed up.

Part 2: Close encounters with AI

So to backtrack a bit, what got me started thinking about this topic recently is that the idea of emerging artificial intelligence seems to pop up everywhere I look. In the feeds I read, at least, it's burning hot in the zeitgeist.

AI is perhaps the perfect example of what the digital revolution both promises and threatens. Smart computers could assist us and improve our capabilities in almost unlimited ways, but our fears about ceeding control to these systems run deep (cf. HAL 9000). And we're haunted by the potential for creating yet another technology with vast unintended consequences -- like harnessing nuclear fission.

Along the lines of what I said above, AI is also a great test of the ability of information technologies to improve so fast that they seem, to the common observer, to come out of nowhere. It could very well go from unlikely gimmick to reality in our lifetimes.

Here are a few items about AI that caught my attention:

#1: Watson on Jeopardy!

This is probably the best known example in recent pop culture. Watson is the cutting-edge computer system developed by IBM to play the TV quiz show Jeopardy!. After some embarassing early outings, it was quickly improved to the point where it beat the two all-time best human players in a match, and did so with amazing ease. The goal was to make a statement about the status of AI-oriented systems (and to make IBM appear relevant) and it suceeded. While it did some crazy stuff on occasion -- when it missed, it missed wide -- I think the things it got right and the ways they built it to do so were amazing. It had a massive collection of content from the public web in its database, which means that it "learned" from the stored knowledge of millions of people, and the ability to filter a natural-language question down to the right answer faster than any human. That's a far cry from a talking paperclip that asks if you're trying to insert a list.

#2: Radiolab podcast: Talking to Machines

Almost by definition, if Radiolab does an episode on a theme, it's in my intellectual wheelhouse. This one examined various ways we currently interact and communicate with machines (i.e. software running on computers) and what that suggests we might do with future iterations of it. The state of the art is farther along than I thought. {NOTE: spoilers below.}

They tell a story about an AI researcher -- a scientist aware of the latest and greatest technologies -- who was fooled into having an email "relationship" with a programmed system, after being matched on a dating site. This says that semi-intelligent programs -- aka "software agents" or "bots" -- are already amongst us. And, more troubling, that even the most knowledgeable of us aren't very well prepared to distinguish the bots from actual people, when we meet them on their turf.

The potential problem of identifying AI, if and when we encounter it, goes back the 1950's, when it was still completely impractical, but leaders in the field were already looking ahead to its theoretical limits and their philosophical implications. Radiolab does a nice introduction to the Turing Test, a proposal by the English mathematician Alan Turing, which tries to answer the question, "Can machines think?" It still serves as a useful benchmark in attempts to create actual AI systems.

Basically, the test consists of a panel of judges who communicate with both a person and an AI bot via a text conversation. Afterwards, if they can't tell which one was the human then the bot can be considered to have passed the threshold for AI. No system has convincingly passed the test yet -- The Loebner Prize is a yearly run-off of systems which aspire to -- but there's an amazing array of progress that suggests it's just a matter of time before one does. And once someone figures that out, soon enough they'll all pass it. That's another thing about digital technology: as anyone who ever pirated an mp3 or had an inbox full of spam knows, it's infinitely copy-able.

Lastly, the episode introduces CleverBot, a program that learns by talking to humans via type, primarily over the internet. It's a fine example of the idea that one way to develop an AI is to train it like a child. Start with very basic programming, then model language skills, "reasoning" abilities and socialization through experience, rather than some pre-ordained algorithm.

Cleverbot also demonstrates that the first potential for "talking to machines" is online, where we've already become accustomed to relying on disembodied text for meaning. For the convenience of digital correspondence, we've deliberately traded away the context and meaning of face-to-face interaction: gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, cadence, the possibility of touch, etc. This often leaves the sense of just hollering things into the void, hoping the person on the other end might respond in a meaningful way. (Exhibit A: Almost every blog comment thread in existence.) Sadly, they often fail to live up to what we'd expect from even the dumbest of bots. So much of our communication with one another boils down to hasty shorthand and content-free wordcount these days that we might happily find the bots' attentiveness and personalization more compelling than the impatient meatbags at the other end of the line. And as the bots get smarter and better, what if the actual people keep getting lazier and more distracted at the current rate? I can imagine a future in which we genuinely prefer the company of AI.

#3. Ray Kurzweil interview with Bill Maher (video is embedded about halfway down the page)

On HBO's Real Time, futurist Ray Kurzweil recently said, "In 2029, I think computers will match and exceed human intelligence, [including] the ways that we are now superior, like being funny, where we still have an edge."

That's a bold prediction, particularly because he's specifically saying that AI will emulate and then surpass every aspect of human intelligence, not just the parts that computation is already good at, like glorified trivia contests. The idea of a bot that reproduces characteristics that we imagine to be uniquely human -- creativity, intuitive reasoning, emotional states and so on -- is hard to believe.

While Kurzweil is pretty far out on the technotopian fringe, he has a long, respectable track record with these kinds of predictions. Unlike most pundits, he has some serious credentials as a high-tech inventor and entrepreneur, and his AI predictions are based on extrapolating past and current trends in theories with proven predictive power like Moore's Law. I've read a few of his books, and while they have kooky titles like "The Age of Spiritual Machines", much of what's in them seems reasonably plausible to me. (Well, except the immortality stuff. That seems like a lot of wishful thinking from a 63-year-old man. Then again...) ***

#4. Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck? by Errol Morris

A fine five-part essay by a great filmmaker, this doesn't have all that much to do with AI, but it's focus on the historical development of e-mail -- a key piece of the revolution in digital communications -- was very interesting, and expanded my sense of where these machines are coming from.

It ends with the E. E. Morison quote at the top of this post, about humans learning to live with machinery, with dovetails perfectly with what I was just saying about Cleverbot. And it also includes this great bit about J. C. R. Licklider, a pioneer in the early days of computer science:

"His paper 'Man-Computer Symbiosis' (from 1960) opens with what might be considered a metaphor — except that it isn’t one, it is an illustration of what the relationship between man and computer can become."

'Man-computer symbiosis is a subclass of man-machine systems. There are many man-machine systems. At present, however, there are no man-computer symbioses… The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.'
- J. C. R. Licklider

I think the idea of digital AI blending with human intelligence is fascinating; more of the Cyborg scenario than either extreme of AI being our slaves or masters. More on that topic next time.

#5. Daemon, by Daniel Suarez

Last and somewhat least, I read this novel about a year ago. It's set in the current day, and gives an example of "smart computers" getting out of control. An interesting, fairly convincing extrapolation of the possibilities for AI-type behavior, given only current technology. (Plus a sociopathic billionaire or two).

More of a Hollywood-style view of AI, like The Terminator or The Matrix, than the examples above, this book emphasizes that we can't assume that technologies like this will necessarily be created by the "good guys". Or that once they do, they'll be containable and aimed only at purposes that suit our interests. We might get both Cleverbot and Skynet.

Part 3: A pause, with connective tissue

As I said, these are just the things I've stumbled across while observing my usual sources. I'm sure a more targeted search would turn up all manner of wilder examples, and that I've missed some important considerations in this survey.

Next time, in Parts 5-8, I'll extrapolate on this some more, including some unsupported theories of my own and some possible implications in the near-term for things like blogging.

Part 4: The footnotes, which you may have already read

* Wikipedia credits the term, in part, to video installation artist Nam June Paik -- who knew? In a 1974 paper, he wrote this bit of astonishingly good bit of futurism, "The building of new electronic super highways will become an even huger enterprise. Assuming we connect New York with Los Angeles by means of an electronic telecommunication network that operates in strong transmission ranges, as well as with continental satellites, wave guides, bundled coaxial cable, and later also via laser beam fiber optics: the expenditure would be about the same as for a Moon landing, except that the benefits in term of by-products would be greater." Beat that, Kurzweil!

** Note that the Grand Challenge was sponsored by DARPA, the same US Government agency that funded the invention of the Internet. Not a coincidence! Show me a corporate entity that could have sent a man to the moon and built the Internet (and in the same freaking decade!). Take that, small government conservatives!

*** At the other extreme of the futurist spectrum would be someone like Bill Joy, whose credentials in technology are even more rock-solid than Kurzweil's. In an essay called, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us", he predicted a dystopian future of advanced technologies run amok:

"The experiences of the atomic scientists clearly show the need to take personal responsibility, the danger that things will move too fast, and the way in which a process can take on a life of its own. We can, as they did, create insurmountable problems in almost no time flat. We must do more thinking up front if we are not to be similarly surprised and shocked by the consequences of our inventions."

I'm not sure who's more right, Kurzweil or Joy, but history would suggest that it we'll get a weird mixture of the two, particularly after public policy and other cultural forces get their say. Heck, even without the crazy sci-fi stuff, I think we'll be lucky to avoid the more mundane causes of societal Collapse, as per Jared Diamond.

June 19th, 2011

"I figure instead of hopping around the forums and comment threads and pollinating them with my opinion-dust, I’d just hunker down here and rattle off some further thoughts..." - Chuck Wendig

After watching another interesting demonstration video by Ron Philbeck last week, I decided to "steal" his idea and throw pedestal feet on some bowls. (Ron said he "stole" it from Stanley Anderson, who probably "stole" it from someone else, and so on back towards the roots of the potters' family tree.)

Six thrown

Rims detail

Ron threw the feet by attaching a coil of clay to the trimmed base, which is a perfectly good method and probably has some advantages over alternative ways of doing it. For example, extruding the coils and being able to change the diameter of a coil on the fly, as he did in his video. But I commented there that Clary Illian once showed me how to do it by throwing rings off the hump (especially useful when working on a series of pots). I think her method has the advantage of the footrings being thrown from the start, therefore true round and with a similar compression to the pot. And while I have nothing against rolling coils, given the option, I’d rather be throwing, even though it probably takes longer.

All of that got me thinking about when I'd last used that technique, and I gradually realized that the answer might be never. Or, if I tried it once, back in the dim dawn of my pottery career, it certainly didn't stick and I can't remember any pots that came from it.

So between the vicarious thrill of watching Ron do it; the fun of putting Carter Gillies' idea about artistic theft into practice; the archived memory of seeing Clary do it on some elegantly tall-footed soup bowls; and the fact that I only had a few hours last week to work in the studio, and therefore wasn't going to make much progress anyways -- I went for it. As I said last week about our vacation, it was fun.

I made six lobed bowls, three pounds of clay and with five lobes each. I really like them better with an odd number of lobes, and enjoy avoiding bilateral symmetry wherever possible these days. The trick with throwing them was getting the right base thickness, which in this case is almost the same as for a flat-bottomed pot despite that fact that I'm making bowls. (Which reminds me that I almost never make flat-bottomed bowls. Why not?) And that means undoing years of engrained habit of leaving extra clay at the base for a trimmed foot, which is more difficult than it sounds (the undoing habit part, not the leaving extra clay part). Two of them ended up being thick enough for a trimmed foot, anyways, and so -- not knowing if the thrown feet would work at all -- they might just crack off like my two-part jars have been! -- I hedged my bets a little and trimmed them with feet as usual. That's about my acceptable level of risk when experimenting in the studio: give up four to the gods of chance, keep two close to the hearth.

Everything else with the throwing was the same, but in retrospect I should have made the interior curve flatter at the bottom. A more shallow line from the bottom centerpoint outwards to the wall would make it so that the ring of attached clay doesn't have to attach to an angled surface. (Which might increase the chances of it pulling away later on.)

Chuck

Trimmed

Because I'd altered the rims (a'la Ron's demo), I threw a chuck to set them on for trimming and throwing the feet. I like to keep that fluid gesture of the wet clay as intact as possible -- with the flowing line of those lobes exactly as I set it before the pot left the wheel -- and setting an uneven rim like that down on a bat just mucks it up. (I don't use a foam trim pad like the one Ron used; for some reason, they've just never appealed to me. Yes, I see now that once I wade into this kind of post about process, it reveals many of my irrational, counter-productive preferences and quirks. The finished pots may not be all that unique, but the way I get them there certainly is!)

The trimming was odd, because it required another deliberate break with my habits and trained instinct: cutting away the clay that would normally be a footring is like a minor violation of The Rules. And trimming a bowl to a fully curved profile is just plain weird.* That change-up made me cut right through one, which I almost never do anymore; that's a beginner's mistake that is usually corrected by experience, caution or both.** Accidentally poking that hole into the inverted dome of the bowl reminds me of those fantastic Mimbres burial wares, with their ritual breaking -- one of the more interesting outliers in the aesthetics of ceramics history, I think.

Thrown ring

Thrown foot

So after trimming: two kept, one lost, three to go. I threw coils off the hump, measured with calipers to the approximate diameter I wanted for the footrings at the point they join to the bowls, and left short and thick for ease of handling and attachment. Getting these parts the right proportions requires some precision throwing, similar to stretching out a dome lid with a flange, where every dimension is important and they all interact with one another. I deliberately made them a bit bigger than I thought was appropriate for the size of the bowls, thinking that as long as I was experimenting with something new, I may as well exaggerate it. Why flirt with it and hesitate when I could just go for it? (I know, that contradicts what I said earlier about hedging. Heck, it was only three pots... Many potters, the kind who can make dozens of pots in a day, would experiment with a run of a dozen or more and never think twice about it.***) I also made a few extras, to have some choices later.

After letting the trimmed bowls set up a bit -- they were too soft to put the feet on directly, like Ron did -- I centered and secured them back on the chuck (harder for a curved pot with no solid reference point); scored a lot and slipped a little; and centered the rings in place. As Ron showed, the throwing is minimal -- primarily about making a secure join between the two, and less about pulling or shaping the foot.

And then I set them rim-down on some foam and bubble wrap, to set up a bit before marking the foot with my chop and year stamps. When they were dry enough to flip upright, where I could see them stand on a table for the first time, I discovered that one of the three had still been too soft when I put the foot on, or that I'd pushed a bit too hard in doing so. Inside, it has a bumped up ring just opposite the foot, which might technically survive drying and firing, but is a flaw that wouldn't even make the cut for the seconds shelf, so it's going in the slops. Finally tally: two old style keepers, two new style prospects.

New v. Old

So here's the difference between my typical trimmed foot version and the new thrown foot. The thrown ones got even a little taller, and the feet more massive, than I'd expected -- so they seem more like a centerpiece or a fountain than the serving bowl I'd had in mind. But that's how it goes with experimentation and working outside one's comfort zone. You've got to fail some in order to succeed in new ways. I might grow to like how these drifted from my intentions, once those ideas have had time to recede and when I can see them glazed and done.

Then again, I might not.

* I did that once a couple years ago on some intentionally round-bottomed porcelain bowls, but haven't yet committed them to the fire. They're languishing on the bisk shelf, along with most of my other oddities and dumb ideas.

** I've become quite cautious about trimming pots over the years, as I have with so many other things. I guess it's because I would rather put a pot back on the wheel for another go than cut too far in the first place and ruin it. It's definitely slower, and so makes the trimming stage a little more painstaking, but I sacrifice fewer pots at that stage in the compromise. Some would say that trimming quickly, with an economy of gesture and taking chances on leaving them too chunky or cutting them through makes for better pots overall, and I'd have a hard time arguing against that logic. But it's one of those things where long ago I chose a fork in the road, and then travelled a long way down it, to the point that it'd be a really long journey back to take the other route.

*** Yes, Brandon, I'm looking at you.

June 12th, 2011

"I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and
grinding out conclusions." - Charles Darwin

Hard fun!

Cuzick soda kiln

How I Spent My Summer Vacation
by Scott Cooper

For my vacation this summer I went to San Diego. It was fun. The weather was really nice. We went to the beach two times, and to the zoo one time. I had a birthday. I am now 40. That's really old. And I saw some kilns. A whole lot of kilns. It was really neat.

I had fun seeing my family and Cindy and Maggie had fun, too. It was a really fun trip. I want to go back soon.

So there's my obligatory report for the first day back in school. It's odd how much that childhood ritual still underlies my thinking, like a foundational block that the more complicated stuff got built on. The difference between the version above and what I'd normally write as a blog post is the additional layer of verbiage and cleverness on top of the basic facts, perhaps sprinkled over with some meta-analysis or some obscure quotes to make it seem more impressive. Like that. Or like this: "You need to show them you are thinking." *

Being a parent to a two-year-old reminds me of that straight, obvious, and unironic childhood view of the world. Those elementary school essays express that worldview in ways that now seem inaccessible to me. Despite what they might lack in subtlety or nuance, their crystalline clarity gets lost in my habitual verbal jujitsu and attempts at generating interest through sophisticated prose.**

When Maggie comes to me and rattles off an entire paragraph of words, I'm amazed by the one-to-one connection between her thoughts and what she says. While that amazement is partially just an artifact of proud parenting -- and of the rate of change in her abilities -- it's also a genuine, minor revelation about alternate styles of communication. With her, there's no dissembling, no self-conscious hedging, no spin. Her exaggerations are completely sincere, for effect, and her lies are straight-out lies. She doesn't even expect me to believe them -- we're just having fun talking about monsters that may or may not be coming; places we would like to go or have gone; or imaginary boo boos under her Dora band-aids. Hard fun.

So the more "mature" version of my vacation report is that we really did have a great time in San Diego. Postcard perfect weather, so good to see the ocean, some world-class Mexican food, and great to catch up with family and old friends. Also nice to be away from the homefront and our typical routines for a while.

And I did have a fine kiln tour, courtesy of potters Richard Burkett and Nan Coffin , including a visit to David Cuzick's studio. His soda kiln is very similar to what I have in mind to build here. It was really informative to see it in person, and it re-inspired me to make progress towards that goal.

Richard and I coincidentally swapped hometowns many years ago: his father taught at DePauw, where Cindy and I now work, and he teaches at SDSU, just a few miles from where I grew up. And Nan is also an Indiana native who transplanted to California. So as we travel back and forth to visit family and such, it's been great to see them every couple years. I suspect Richard has already forgotten more about ceramics than I'll ever know, so I greatly admire his expertise. And I appreciate both of their sensibilities about, and commitment to, pots.

Lastly this week, I did indeed have another birthday -- the numerically-significant #40 -- which means that this here blog just turned four. Time will tell if it's now successfully potty trained and out of the tantrums phase. (Remember when it was just a wee little thing, eyes barely open and spitting up on itself at regular intervals? Yeah, me neither.) ***

I've gone a bit overboard on the meta-blogging lately, so I'll resist the impulse to tear into the underlying fabric of what it means to have another year of it in the hopper. But I'll say this: four years is a long time to do anything, and keeping tw@se going has certainly become strongly engrained as a habit. I still debate its relative merits -- the time and attention that I put into it that could so easily be used elsewhere -- but I seem compelled to keep at it, however foolish it may be.

I also still aspire to turning it into something with a bit more meat on its bones: less of a weekly journal and more of a series of short essays, perhaps. But making that transition hasn't resulted in much thus far -- a lot of hastily-scribbled notes and no finished product. It might require a break in the schedule -- a blogging sabbatical, as it were -- or a sharp change in habit, both of which would be hard for me to adjust to. So I'll probably just keep plodding along, evolving it in virtually unnoticeable increments; settling, perhaps, for refining my machine to make the observing and the grinding a bit more automated.

* See: What Ron Meyers Said.

**"Sophisticated prose" is sophisticated prose for "fancy talk".

*** Yes, I know... more parenting metaphors. Sorry. I've practically fulfilled my yearly quota already. Hey, at least I kept it to only one family vacation photo, right? It was tough to choose just one from over a hundred! (Interesting how it compares to those from last summer's vacation.)

May 29th, 2011

"Doing is so much more than thinking, and the need to be working in the studio became clear. I had to be there to see the work change." - Michael Simon

"One day, turn around. Start again."

I got back to making pots pretty quickly after the sale this time, and without the typical grinding of rusty gears and gnashing of plaque-coated teeth. I'm not sure how that happened, but I suspect it revolves largely around my chosen mindset and capacity for self-fulfilling prophecy in these matters.

Deliberately distracting myself from what my hands were doing early on helped (thanks, Radiolab!), as did suspending judgement of the character and quality of the resulting pots until after I'd gotten acquainted with being in the studio again. A large part of the disconnect after a long break from the studio is simply the bizarre feeling of being unaccustomed to spending time there. It's no good to be a stranger in that space.

In any case, despite some extra limitations on my time in the studio this month, I've managed to make a good run of pots. And some promising ones, too!

I broke my trend of starting with teabowls/yunomis and jumped straight to mugs instead. (Which might have also helped with the rust problem; just pushing ahead to a more challenging and rewarding form was interesting and encouraging.) With the way the mugs were coming out of the salt kiln before the sale, it was easy to get excited about making more and working to iterate them forwards. I had a great time doing more "basal thumbing" around the bottom edge.*

Decoratively, I slathered them in stamps and black underglaze. Combined, that's a complete capitulation to the more-is-more approach, which is pretty damn fun once I get over my inhibitions about it. I took two patterns or surface motifs that worked particularly well in the last batches and repeated them in volume, a dozen of each (with plenty of organic variation and riffing on the concept, of course).

Then I did a small run of mixing/pouring bowls and another group with thick walls and vertical fluting; most of those will get my Teadust glaze, but I might slip a few in the salt kiln, too. I'm not sure where I'm heading next, but I suspect a switch to porcelain is coming before too long. Exciting.

So I'm overdue for a little blog break** and I've got a birthday coming up, too -- therefore, no post next week. Take a nap or something instead. I'll return the week after with some thoughts on the 4th year of tw@se -- since I basically skipped over it last year -- and my now inarguable slide into middle age. Yep, here comes 40.

* See also: Mark Knott's portfolio (doh, Flash...) or his photos on Facebook.

**It feels like I've been hitting them well into the outfield lately, but also swinging a little too hard to get them there. It's a long season, and I have to remember to pace myself. (Yeah, that's a baseball metaphor, and I'm bored to tears by baseball. It may be that quaint, psuedo-universal metaphors are the only thing it's good for anymore.)

May 22nd, 2011

"Takes a second to say goodbye, say goodbye, oh oh oh." - U2

Here's my dilemma with selling seconds: while it generates some value out of pots that would otherwise go on the shard pile, it risks confusing my customers, undercutting the perceived value of the firsts, and putting inferior examples of my work out in public.

As I've said before, I often hang on to a flawed pot for a long time before making the decision to scrap it, even when I know it's a second moments after it leaves the kiln. There's an aspect of grieving and gradual acceptance in that, however silly it might be to do so for a flawed piece of ceramic. (That's probably a key indicator of Precious Pot Syndrome.)

But it also comes from a vestigial bit of Yankee pragmatism: the stubborn belief that something useful -- utilitarian, aesthetic or otherwise -- should be gleaned from those pots. My instinct is to save them in hopes of finding some justification for the time, materials and fuel that went into making them. And while that parsimonious tendency is rooted in economic value, in today's "green" context, it also stems from an obligation to conserve resources and avoid waste.

(To put that another way, I'm more concerned with salvaging value in terms of use and appreciation of the object than in terms of a few more dollars in my bank account. The money is always a factor, of course, but in this case -- as with most of my studio and business choices -- it's not the primary factor.)

So the cognitive dissonance underlying the seconds dilemma had been simmering for a few years. The pile of flawed pots on the back shelf in the studio gradually became a box full of them; then a couple boxes; then a few boxes, with more pots piled on and around them. My recent knack for cracking large, otherwise excellent jars at the throwing seam finally made the issue boil over: it was time to either throw them all on the shard pile or put them out for sale. (Why do I always wait for a near-crisis before making hard decisions? It's so lazy and anti-deliberate.)

But even considering all of the above, on the day before the sale I still was an inch away from just blowing it off for another cycle, primarily because of the first part of the dilemma: how would I communicate what these pots were to my customers, and distinguish them from the rest of the pots for sale? For the 20 prior sales, there was always just one category of pot on the shelves. But introducing seconds suddenly means that the others are now, technically, firsts.

This prompted my typical mental flailing and existential over-analysis: "And just what does it mean for a pot to be a first?", I wondered. "What's the difference between the two categories, and how do I know? What criteria do I use to make that decision? And what do those criteria imply about my goals and intent and what I value in the finished work? How much does any of this really matter?"

And that doesn't even touch on the pricing problem: What's an appropriate price for a pot with a crack in it? Five bucks off? Half price? Five bucks, total? It would have been simple to just apply a global rule, like 50% off everything, but I rarely let myself settle for the simple way out. Introducing a second class of pots to the commerce model has a way of reopening the entire pricing debate all over again. (Briefly: "What are these things worth? What are people likely to pay? What does their price say about them as objects; about the relative value of my labor; about the state of Craft in America; about this entire endeavor as a business?" Etc.)

(Woof. Those last two paragraphs are like a little meta-shrine to my lethargic pace in the studio and philosophical outlook to being a potter. It explains a heck of a lot... without really explaining anything, if you know what I mean. F.U.D. Unicorns. Trout below. Oh me, oh my.)

OK, back to the facts. Somehow in the midst of working through and/or finding ways to ignore all those conceptual hesitations, I managed to clean and label all the pots and print out an explanatory sign.

As shown in the photo above*, the sign said:

seconds
~ pots on this shelf have small flaws
~ they are still functional and durable
~ prices discounted 20-50%, as marked
please ask if any questions

Then I labelled each pot with the original price struck out, and the discounted price added in red ink. Each pot also got a second label near the flaw, with a brief description of it: firing crack, glaze flaw, glaze drip, bloat, small scar, etc. (In one case, where a firing crack went all the way through the wall of a vase, I added a third label along the lines of "leaks; for utensils only".)

When the sale opened at 10am, there were 25 pots on the seconds shelf. About an hour later there were 10 left, and no one gave any sense of not getting the idea or what the particular flaw was on the pot they bought. (As time allowed, I mentioned them to people as I was wrapping their pots up, and they seemed generally pleased, which was a relief.)

So the lesson, I guess, is that everyone likes a deal. And perhaps that my idea of a "flaw" is a bit more conservative than the average person's -- which is precisely how I want it. My standards for my work should always be higher than anyone else's.

It also suggests that I discounted them a reasonable amount, because by the end of the sale 19 of 25 were gone, including 5 of 6 of the cracked ones from the last two firings. I flagged them for reference in my sales receipt book, to get a sense for the pattern and who purchased what later. It looks like people who bought seconds generally bought firsts, too, which is interesting. I think that means they were attracted to the combination of the pots' qualities and price, and not just the discount.

I'm uncomfortable with the idea of people talking themselves into buying pots they don't really like just because of the discounted price, but I suppose that's a common reaction to life in our modern consumerist culture. It's largely out of my control, in any case. But on the optimistic flip-side**, perhaps it also allows someone to take a chance on a style or kind of pot they wouldn't normally buy at full price and then discover things they like about it later, after getting a chance to live with it. That'd be nice.

* Just in case you're, like, still using Gopher.

**I know! When was the last time I even mentioned the optimistic flip-side?
"Don't you know we're all light? Yeah, I read that someplace." - XTC

May 15th, 2011

"Stomp gravity into the floor; it's a man-made kind of sky.
Let me show you what I can do with it." - R.E.M.

#46: Before

#46: After

Rewinding to firing #46, since I didn't get a chance to show the results prior to the sale:

This one was delayed by a solid three weeks of rain, with the pots sitting patiently, all glazed and wadded and ready to go, while I frothed and fretted about the weather and the impending sale deadline. The storms finally cleared on the last possible day I could fire it off, given the need for a 36 hour cool and in order to avoid unloading, cleaning and pricing the pots on the morning of the sale. So the conditions were less than ideal, which meant fighting through more wind than I'd usually attempt to conquer. But -- quite surprisingly -- the kiln cruised along like it was a blissful, calm day. So that's a nice chunk of new evidence that those stack changes and kiln maintenance I did last fall have made a big difference to the firing cycle. With the old version of the stack, in these same conditions, I'd have been hanging out in Stall City for most of the afternoon and evening. So that was a well-timed little bonus during sale week.

The pots came out pretty good, all things considered. Overall, I gave the firing a B+. Two more big jars cracked -- cue the minor heartbreak theme music again. But a third one didn't, despite them all being made at the same time, in the same way, and the same size and form. Go figure.* The sting of more losses was offset by the fact that one of those two sold from the "Seconds" shelf at the sale, along with all four cracked pots from the previous firing. So at least they were all still functional and not a complete loss.

Gratitude

Critique

Mugs, sweet mugs

Top shelf miscellany

Covered jars

One 1st, one 2nd

The cracks were right at the seam between the two sections again, so my best guess is that I just got too casual with that technique during that run of jars. While experience usually irons out weird wrinkles like this, I suppose a potential hazard of doing something dozens or hundreds of times is that I start to take its success for granted. Perhaps they've been closer to the line than I knew, and I gradually let them drift over it into failure? So much for aspiring to get beyond technique!

Because I've never had this problem in a non-salt reduction firing, I also suspect that it's exaggerated in the salt kiln. Perhaps it's something to do with the pots' interiors being glazed, but the exteriors largely left as raw clay? The outside sure takes a beating from the salt and soda vapors sometimes, and it might be that there's a different rate of expansion and contraction from inside to out that strains the clay excessively. But that's just wild speculation -- well beyond my knowledge of materials and processes by a good measure.

Whatever the cause, it begs the question of why I don't just throw these larger pots from one piece of clay. The two-part throwing technique is arguably a beginner's crutch, one that I learned and then allowed to become a habit. Perhaps I should have let it go by now. It originally stemmed from my inability to throw larger pots thin enough to meet my goals for appropriate weight and balance, without doing a lot of trimming at the leather-hard stage. And also from a desire to control the form as well with a larger amount of clay as with a smaller amount. I remember it being a revelation when I first learned how to do it -- it felt like one of those rare, true shortcuts in ceramics. (In retrospect, are there really any true shortcuts in ceramics?)

So it's basically a workaround, a way for me to bypass bottom-heavy pots, surface-muddying trimming, and being stuck only making pots at a small scale. Like any technique, it has advantages and disadvantages. Over time I've come to rely on and comfortably accommodate for both. But when a new disadvantage presents itself, like this cracking problem, it suggests that I need to go back and question those initial assumptions. Changing my mind about them might be easier -- and perhaps more effective in the longer run -- than banging away on the technical problem from a fixed set of methods and thinking. As I get back to wet clay in the coming weeks, that makes for yet another looming area of R&D to consider.

Anyways, everything else in #46 was good-bordering-on-great, which meant another 20 good pots went on the shelves right before the sale. They don't get a lot fresher than that, which as I said last week is rewarding in its own unique way. I was particularly happy with the dozen or so mugs, including several of those from my anti-perfectionism practice runs back in March. They seem to have netted at least one new variant on form, and two or three new decorative themes that I'm excited to explore further. Can't wait!

"This is the easiest task I've ever had to do..."

* I blame one or all of the following, depending on my prevailing mood and sense of humor: Gremlins/Fate/the vagaries of vapor glazing/Olympian Gods/myself/Amaco Ceramics/meaningless, random chance in an indifferent universe.

May 8th, 2011

"People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it.
And what you do simply
proves what you believe." - Simon Sinek

The sale was great. Great! It was about time.

Well, OK; I guess I should temper that a bit. The statistics say it was just very good: of the eleven Spring sales, it was 4th best in dollars and 3rd best in customers. But it seemed great, which might be more important in the end.

Interestingly, it would rank 5th among the eleven Holiday sales, and 8 of 22 overall. Which is very unusual -- the December sales are always better than those in May. But this one was substantially better than the last one, which might say more about how strangely slow it was last December than anything. (Bad luck with the weather played a big part.) So it's the first time a Spring sale has outpaced a Holiday sale in the same year, which makes me wonder if the sales that I would have made then showed up this time -- the same "demand", just shifted ahead a few months.

Another interesting stat was $/person -- the average amount spent by each paying customer.* This time it was $88.90, just a little over the all-time average of $88.32. So after that weird spike last spring, when it was a whopping $124.85, it came back down to earth, which is oddly reassuring. And another weird one is that I had precisely zero online sales. Zip, nada, none -- which is the first time that's happened since I first put up my website in late 2000.** (Maybe it's time to switch to Etsy? I hear that's where the big bucks are. Ha!)

Alright, enough statistics. I promised myself I wouldn't throw graphs at you this time, and if I keep on in this vein much longer, I won't be able to help myself.

To go back to the subjective perspective, of it seeming more great than it probably was, I've realized that my impression of a sale comes from not just the total number of customers and pots sold, but the traffic pattern of people coming and going. A good rush first thing Saturday morning helps confirm that it's still worth doing; that there are people who want to buy both what I do and why I do it. (Seriously, go back up there and watch that TED video by Simon Sinek. He has a fantastic perspective.) After that, it's nice if there aren't any long lulls. If an hour goes by with no cars coming up the driveway, there's too much time for doubts and second guessing, particularly with the fatigue of all the last minute preparations weighing on me. Which is no good in the moment, when I need to keep my game face on and be ready to greet the next person who shows up. Not that I put on a performance, per se, but I always want people to know that I'm grateful they're here. If I seem disinterested in the event, why shouldn't they be?

Who comes also matters. New customers are always encouraging, because they are a sign of future potential. (If not actual growth; my best customers have the unfortunate habit of moving away!) And so are returning customers who I haven't seen in a few years. It's nice to think that they've just been busy, not lost interest.

And then there are the special sales, like the person who buys my favorite pot in the showroom after giving them long consideration, or a kid who comes to buy a pot with their own money. Every customer is my favorite, of course -- just like children -- but those are the transactions that stand out and add a lot of meaning at the end of the day.

And putting out fresh pots from the kiln helps, too. After almost three weeks of waiting out the weather -- unprecedented and super frustrating -- I fired it off on Wednesday and unloaded on Friday before the sale. Some of those parts weren't even on the shelves for 24 hours before I sent them out into the world! While that can make it hard to digest the results of a firing cycle -- I took good notes and snapshots, and held back a couple keepers -- it's another emotional boost to have my most recent work be wanted.

And, last but certainly not least, it also feels really good to put enough money in the bank at the end that it at least adds up to something like minimum wage for all the work involved. Doing something you love is almost never a path to riches, but it's awfully nice to not feel like I'm paying for the privilege, either.

Dang, I just remembered that I was going to do before and after photos in the showroom, like I do with firings, but I forgot to do the afters prior to rearranging everything. Maybe next time.

Coming up next week, some photos and a rundown of that last firing. Or maybe some thoughts on my seconds experiment. Or perhaps something else entirely. We'll see.

* And almost all of them are paying customers. One of the few advantages to being located off the beaten path is that there isn't much walk in, walk out traffic. It can get pretty quiet on Sunday afternoons, but I rarely have to deal with snarky comments like, "Do you have any of these in a color I like?" (True story. No wonder I wasn't very tempted to do more craft fairs.)

** But even the lack of web sales has a silver lining: no post-sale packing and shipping! Which, as any honest (or drunk) potter will tell you, is a huge time-sink and a gigantic pain in the ass.

May 1st, 2011

"What my going to do?" - Maggie Pixel

Well, these pots are still sitting there in the studio, raw glazed and gathering dust, and I'm still waiting for a two day break in the rain to load and fire the kiln. With any luck, I'll get it done in time for my sale next weekend -- heck, I'll fire it in the rain if I have to! There's no way I'm opening the doors on Saturday with an entire load of pots glazed and unfired. But it sure is making me anxious having to wait until the eleventh hour like this.

Over the years, I've learned through various kinds and degrees of failure that it's wise to keep a disciplined sale preparation routine. Like sending announcement cards to the printer before it becomes a rush job. Or finishing with wet pots in time to avoid speed drying, and getting them fired early enough that I don't have to set them out still hot. Or doing the rest of the promotional stuff -- mailing, website, email blast -- while there's time left for it to make a difference. In that sequence, I usually save the actual setup of shelves, pots, yard and such for the end. But this time the weather has everything upside down and backwards, which keeps triggering my subconscious alarms. Panic! Danger, WIll Robinson! Important things are being forgotten!

It's like waking up every morning from the dream where you've somehow arrived at school without wearing any pants.

Guess I should modify the routine so that it doesn't rely on being able to fire my outdoor, semi-covered kiln in April. Or build a new kiln. Under a shed. (Hey, there's a thought.)

Wish me luck!

April 24th, 2011

"...with a little help from my friends." - The Beatles

I have a request to make this week, beyond the usual one of asking for a few minutes of your attention. But I'll get to that in a moment.

Last week, I wrote about how the devastating results of the earthquake in Japan were brought home to me in particular by seeing their effect on Harvey Young's pottery in Mashiko. On further reflection, I'm literally amazed at the ways in which the web has brought our virtual tribe of potters closer than ever before, and in such a short span of time. It's become commonplace to share one another's successes and setbacks, trials and errors, hard-won wisdom and random ideas. We have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to access to other potters lives and work.There are instances of shared triumph: the first firing in a new kiln, a hard change of direction towards a different kind of work, the best sale ever. And it was inevitable, I suppose, that we'd eventually share in the tragedies, too. These days, the "cousins in clay" get together for ad hoc family reunions in a stunningly wide swath of configurations, times and virtual spaces.

So I don't actually know Harvey in the traditional sense. We haven't met in person, and probably never will. Come to think of it, I've never been within a thousand miles of Japan, although I hope to get there some day. But I know his work, from the photos on his site. I know his intent and interests, from the various words there. I know his generosity and humor, from our occasional email conversation. And those things help me relate to him, and to a growing number of other potters, in meaningful, interesting ways.

For example, I can relate to a fellow Californian who's permanently transplanted himself to a vastly different culture. (No, Indiana doesn't quite count as a foreign country, but there are times out here in the sticks that it certainly feels like it to a kid from the San Diego suburbs.)

I can relate to his desire to go somewhere that handmade pots would be more appreciated; where it might not always be such an uphill climb to find an audience for one's work.

I can relate to those photos of his wrecked kiln, because it looks so much like the kilns I first learned how to fire. That design is a foundational element of the pottery culture I grew up in, so that kiln feels like home to me, wherever it is in the world.

And, most importantly to his current circumstances, I can relate to uncontrollable natural forces wrecking one's best laid plans, even if in my case it was just an old barn. In his, it was home, studio and kiln -- essentially everything.

So, given all of that, here's my request: please consider helping this fellow potter with his rebuilding effort, whether it's an encouraging email or a donation in cold, hard virtual cash. Here's a site with more information about the effects of the earthquake, including how to contact him and various ways to make a donation, if you like.

I'm not good at asking people for money, not even for my pots! And I hesitate now, and promise that I won't make a habit of it. (I really like NPR, but their fundraising campaigns drive me bonkers.) I know that times are tough everywhere right now, and that we potters and pottery fans are endlessly being asked to contribute to worthy causes: a pot for a benefit auction, a demo for an event, a glaze recipe or bit of firing advice. I'm as tapped out in that department as anyone.

And I also know that there are worthy aid organizations -- including non-profits, to which contributions are tax-deductable -- that are funding the recovery efforts in Japan. It's likely that many of you have already made donations to them. But I think there's good reason to consider donating to individuals, as an alternative or even in addition to that. And particularly to individuals I -- or you -- can relate to; people who, if the situation were reversed, might help us, too.

I know that even the smallest amounts would be greatly appreciated. (Heck, with the magic of Paypal, you could send the equivalent of a morale-boosting cup of coffee. Who wouldn't do that for a cousin in need?) The same goes for encouragement and empathy from like-minded members of the tribe. Sometimes a friendly email can give an invaluable boost to the day. In this case, all of the above would make a difference in helping to get a good potter making again.

Thanks.

As May looms closer, I'm heading in to crunch time for my Spring Sale. The pots for #46 are glazed, wadded and ready to go, but now I'm waiting for a clear spot in the weather to fire. Stupid endless rain. Stupid kiln sitting out in it, for inexplicable reasons built without a shed to house it.

There are some brand new pots for sale in the Gallery, and the announcement cards are almost ready to go in the mail. (If you don't already get them, feel free to join my mailing list.)

I'll close with a few pots from the last photoshoot; some which went into the sale gallery, a couple others that are keepers, for the time being. As always, thanks for reading.

April 17th, 2011

"There's so many different worlds,
So many different suns.
And we have just one world,
But we live in different ones." - Dire Straits

After an efficient reawakening of the salt kiln from its winter slumber, an easy firing on a day of flawless weather, and a long cooling soak, load #45 came out with some big disappointments. Everything on the top two shelves was perfect, but on the tall bottom shelf -- normally the sweet spot in this kiln -- I lost four of six big pots to cracks, right along the seam where I stitch the two parts together. Damn.

That was a pretty good stomach punch, particularly since it amounted to about a third of the stacking space in the kiln. And also because their glazes and salted skin came out almost perfectly. I can't help but dwell on all that wasted effort to get them made, bisked, glazed and through the firing cycle. Ceramics can be a pretty harsh teacher sometimes. "Baptisms of fire", indeed.

All the while, the devil's advocate/damage control system in my head was saying things like, "Hey, it's only four pots... and most of them could probably pass for seconds. And the rest are good! You'll get over it. The next one will be better. There's still enough good pots for the sale, and another firing to go. You've made them that way a thousand times before, so this must be an isolated incident. Never fear, it'll be OK."

But it's hard to argue with that gut feeling. The losses affect me more than the wins these days, I'm afraid.

A potter with more resolve would put them to the hammer and just be done with it. But not me: I dust them off and then set them up on their own shelf in the studio; like a little shrine at which I can mourn my misfortune. A place to reflect on my personal failings. A stark reminder that to make the same mistake twice is human, but to do it a third time is just plain stupid.

Perhaps that glutton-for-punishment tendency is my coping strategy. By the next morning, with the heartbreakers safely out of view, I could appreciate the successes, too. Two smaller jars from the middle shelf are definitely keepers -- they'll go on the reserve shelf for a while, so I can learn more from them before letting them go. (And just in case I decide to waste spend $30 on that SFPN application that just came in the mail.) I really like the new mug form that came out of my anti-perfectionism practice, which is funny because I didn't think they were any good at the wet stage. Sometimes it helps to see things fired, and to get some critical distance from the making. And my decorative patterns continue to gradually evolve, which has the sweet smell of progress. I'm pleased with almost all of them right now: slip pours and glaze dots, underglaze work with my new SYLP brushes, glossy black-blue on dome lids, bright copper celadon nestled up close to panels of bare, salted white clay.

#45: Before

#45: After

Then on Saturday morning, as I was preparing to get back to work in the studio, I saw this post by Harvey Young, showing the effects of last month's earthquake on his studio in Mashiko, Japan.

Jesus.

The instant shift of perspective from that was like a virtual head-slap. Kind of like zooming down to the roof of your house in Google Maps, and then instantly scrolling back to the global view. You are here -- that little dot. Everything else is out there.

Things that we can't comprehend in their full measure have a way of slipping into our consciousness through small, unguarded cracks in its defenses. Somehow that photo of Harvey's wrecked Minnesota Flat Top hit me harder than watching video of cars and trucks caught in the tsunami or holes opening up in the ground. And the idea of an entire showroom of good pots spilled onto the floor, while infinitesimal compared to entire towns swept away by waves or nuclear reactors that could be hot for a generation, brings the tragedy there home for me in a completely different way.

I can relate intimately to its effect on another potter -- to one of the "brothers in arms" that I've come to know through the web the last few years -- that it gives me a sense of the whole that I'd previously missed. It makes the global personal.

And it reinforces the undeniable awareness that things could always be so much worse. It's just four pots. It's just one firing, just one sale. You're alive and healthy and making pots -- be more thankful for the things you reflexively take for granted.

"Any day on this side of the dirt is a great day." Water bugs, trout below.

April 10th, 2011

"My time is a piece of wax..." - Beck

Pre-bisque

Post-bisque

"And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time."

Glazed & ready to load

...

April 3rd, 2011

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives.
It is the one that is the most adaptable to change." - Charles Darwin

As has become my habit in this space, I'm tuning out global issues like earthquakes and air strikes and, for an example that's closer to home, the deeper philosophical waters of Carter Gillies's blog comments, to focus inwards. Just as it takes a deliberate, consistent effort to keep those thoughts out of the studio -- in order to make any significant progress there -- I find the best stuff happens here on the blog when I take the same approach, however short-sighted and solipsistic it may be.

So if you'll indulge me, I'd like to double back to consider last week's post from a meta perspective. I know that post-game analysis never carries the excitement of the actual game, and that magicians don't explain their tricks for good reason, but I love the recursive, self-reflective nature of this medium. It's so good at looping back on itself, like an upward (or, admittedly, downward) spiral. I'm fascinated by the content's tendency to veer towards the fractal, despite the format's suggestion of a linear progression. Or, to take more personal responsibility for the outcome, I think it's a good tool to satisfy my desire to play those kinds of mental games.

Still with me? Good.

I had so many good images last week that I decided it was time to do a photo-essay, minus all the text. Cindy shot the ones of Maggie and I in the studio, and at some point in my early, caffeinated, creative autopilot routine, it seemed like a good idea to merge them with shots of the pots in progress.

In retrospect, the instinct for that was half-simple: "Here's a cute picture of my kid. Oh, and here's some jars. Hmm, those look kind of cool together..." But also half-complex: somehow, making pots -- especially anthropomorphic shapes like those jars -- and "making" this little girl into a person seem to occupy the same space in my brain.

"Pots, you know, demand that you do everything for them." - Michael Simon

I have two decades of experience with coaxing pots to maturity, but so far only two years' worth of doing a similar thing as a parent. So, for better or worse, I find myself using the same strategies and techniques that work for pots with Maggie. I kneed and pull, poke and smooth, pamper and reprimand, lift and load and haul and drag, all in hopes of making them into their best possible selves. And, of course, I worry, wonder, laugh, cry and obsess over both. "She's a jar, with a heavy lid. My pop quiz kid."

The quotes were all from the Wilco song "She's a Jar", despite the fact that I'm pretty sure it has a vastly different intended meaning. (If I put something in quotation marks here, as a rule that means I didn't say it first.) But that's the great thing about lyrics: if you take them out of context, they can be used to say just about anything. Heck, without the vast archive of pop songs in my head -- roughly 42% of my brain's storage capacity, at last count -- I'd be at a complete loss for a lead-off quotation each week. (So much for that English major.) But with it, I've already accumulated a list much longer than I could ever use.

That song popped into my head as I was clicking and dragging around on the images in Photoshop, yet another instance of the jukebox in my head sensing context before I do, and I was surprised to find so many lines in it that were: a) just plain great; and b) so easy to fit around the "story" of the week. Three cheers for letting the subconscious drive the train for a change.*

Likewise, the photos looked great on my monitor, so large and clear, that I was more put off than usual by the constraint of distilling them down to web size, where they must fit the page layout and be a reasonable file size for downloading. So I decided to break with convention and routine, adding a new image style to let them flow past the edge of the page in all of their 900-pixel-wide glory. Take that, web standards! I also ignored the fact that it's sending about 1mb of images screaming down your phone line with just that one post, let alone the dozen or so others that come after it. I guess that's a good example of my anti-perfectionism experiments in the studio making their way here to cyberspace, too. (You knew that was coming eventually, didn't you? **)

Also, because the super wide version was pretty close to the size I usually link the smaller images to, it was redundant to also do the slightly larger ones, so I ditched them. (One of the underrated joys in life is making arbitrary little rules for yourself, just so you can break them later.) And no links meant I couldn't add any Easter Eggs to the larger versions, like the Redacted gag the other week, but you can't have it both ways at once. Ah, well. Keep clicking.

Also, I should just admit that I couldn't resist the idea of messing with expectations in that regard, too. See how I am? Just when I've got you trained to look for additional stuff around the edges, I go and remove the edges. "Take the edges off, Daddy," Maggie says, referring to the slightest bit of crust or skin or rind on her food. And I think, "Wow. That sounds like a mantra for the studio; like something out of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies." Take the edges off. That's heavy, little dude. And so it goes: the parenting regenerates back into the studio in ways I never could have imagined.

On a related note, I resisted using photos of my sketchbooks for a long time, generally due to hesitation about accidentally oversharing. (I know it's hard to believe, but I actually do consider such things.) And, more particularly, because I tend to write in them so much more than draw these days, and that writing is practically automatic -- unfiltered, top-of-mind, hardly intended for even my own consumption, let alone anyone else's. (Yes, I realize that would be a pretty accurate description of this blog, too. You'll just have to take my word for it that the offline versions are much worse.)

But when I look down at a page like that and see all that stuff, it's too graphically interesting not to shoot it. I really like how notes and thumbnail sketches and random ideas all get piled together on the page, accreting data over time. And also the decidedly non-digital nature of it. And I'm intrigued by the little bits of text that get scooped up in the image; the lingering suggestion of ideas cut off at the margins. That's what all my old ideas feel like anyways. Like reading only left-hand pages. And it's kind of reminiscent of the idea behind the big garbled header graphic up at the top of the page, too. And then once it's in the camera, well... hard to keep it out after that.

Lastly on that topic, regarding the "I believe it's just because, Daddy's payday is not enough" bit, I was trying to reference the absurdity of working for something near minimum wage in the studio, then paying $30, $40 or $50 per year for magazine subscriptions, no matter how potentially useful or informative they may be. In the Internet Age, that's kind of crazy, just to have some glossy pieces of paper to drag around. I did not mean to imply that we were on the verge of bankruptcy or anything like it, as fanning out unpaid bills on the kitchen table might easily suggest. If we were, I'd most likely be working a second (or third) job, instead of making pots and blogging about it. Times are tight, but not quite that tight.

So, switching gears to something a bit more tangible, this week in the studio I finished up the making cycle. Alas. I always delay that the transition to bisking, glazing and firing as long as possible, then grudgingly accept its inevitability. No doubt I'll be back here in six or eight weeks, complaining once again about how long it's been since I kicked the wheel, about my rusty chops and lost momentum.

I made a few large nano bottles, for height, and a chance to try a minor decorative evolution with black underglaze. Then a run of square plates, for the top back shelf of the salt kiln and, I now realize, from subconscious attraction towards cutting, edges, margins, squares... See? It all spirals back on itself. Then lids for the final group of big jars from last week.

I often record the required lid dimensions on paper, so I can make them later, after the jars have already gone towards leather hard. Just recently, after years of storing that information graphically -- by drawing a line of the correct length, marked out with calipers -- I've switched to writing them down as numbers, instead. (In millimeters, of course. Why mm? Because metric is cool and so very under-utilized, and thinking in 16th's of an inch drives me insane.) Now I can't imagine why I didn't think of that years ago. Like breaking my own little inconsequential rules, it's odd how excited I can get from these nearly infinitesimal stages of evolution to the making process. Meta, recursive, inwards, et al.

* See, that's a joke because trains only run on predetermined tracks, regardless of who or what is driving them. They can go faster or slower, but the destination is unavoidably the same. OK, so it's a pretty weak joke. And it ignores the existence of switches.

** How's that for alienating my handful of fans? If you're reading this -- and I think you are -- you're now within the Venn Diagram of: 1) potters and/or pottery geeks who are (weirdly) obsessed with the inner workings of my consciousness; and 2) people with either really fast internet connections or vast amounts of patience. I'm guessing that amounts to about 10 people worldwide. So, welcome. It's nice to meet you, too.

March 27th, 2011

"When I forget how to talk I sing." - Wilco

"Stuck, like a question unposed."

"Are there really ones like these? The ones I dream, float like leaves..."

"A pretty war, with feelings hid."

"She's a jar, with a heavy lid. My pop quiz kid."

"We could use a hand full of wheel, and a day off."

"I believe it's just because, Daddy's payday is not enough."

March 20th, 2011

"They hung a sign up in our town: If you live it up you won't live it down." - Tom Waits

After two weeks of an enjoyable shift of emphasis from producing to exploring, I looked up from my maker's myopia, spotted the calendar on the wall, and realized that my spring sale was much closer than I'd thought, and fast approaching. As much as I wanted to stay in pure research mode, lingering there much longer would be risking deadline armageddon.

If there's going to be a sale, there have to be some firings. And to have some firings, I need some pots. And to get some pots, I need to pause the Undoing the Doable and start the Getting Things Done. Typical. As soon as I get into a particular groove, other priorities and obligations require that I switch to a different task. No wonder I don't spend more time messing around in the studio.

It's time to make a plan, and hook myself to it, I'm afraid; focus more on expediency and tangible progress for a while. So I reverted back to doing x -- my usual amount of iteration and risk -- and made some tall lidded jars and a double batch of lids.

But I feel pretty good about that initial dose of taking a different approach. It reminded me that I don't play in the studio anywhere near as much as I used to, and in the bigger picture I think that's a dangerous path to tread. Short term vs. long term. While it cost a bit of comfort zone in the sale timeline, those few hours of experimentation have already made a good dent in the perfectionism problem. Even more than I'd expected, they suggest a practical way out; a strategy for gradually bending my working habits closer to the arc I'd like them to be on. And I even like most of the pots that resulted from it -- I expect that the majority will make it through the pre-bisque cut. I guess if you flail around wildly enough with a hammer, eventually you'll hit a few nails on the head.

Likewise, the attention I've been lavishing on tw@se lately should probably be used elsewhere for a while, if I hope to keep things sane. So it might get a little thin around here for a while. Good thing I started another blog! Fortunately for me (and perhaps for you), I made a hard rule against adding commentary there, so it's just snippets and links. It's vastly easier to find good stuff and point to it than to gin it all up from scratch.

My operating premise there, for now, is to add anything related to pots that I might want to find again later. It's an "archive" in the sense that it consists of the content that my editorial filter considers worth viewing more than once. So, while it's not necessarily new and by no means comprehensive, hopefully it's all good.

And here's one other bit of recommended content: a short episode of my all-time favorite podcast, Radiolab: Me, Myself, and Muse. (Follow that link to listen online or download an mp3. Or, since you'll probably love it and want to hear everything they've ever done, you can also subscribe in iTunes.)

This one's about finding The Muse -- getting to that source of creative inspiration and motivation. It includes a story by the neurologist Oliver Sacks, about how he forced himself to finish an important project: "What started as a fearful task soon became a joyous task, with its own momentum."

And even better is a segment with Elizabeth Gilbert (the much-celebrated/maligned author of Eat, Pray, Love) about alternate approaches to courting and bargaining with The Muse -- "...trying to figure out how you can live a lifetime of creativity without cutting your ear off." She tells some great anecdotes about Tom Waits, a fascinating character* who, for my money, has one of the best voices ever. "You've got to hold on."

* For example, he says things like, "Any day on this side of the dirt is a great day" and, "They say that I have no hits, that I'm difficult to work with. They say that like it's a bad thing."

March 13th, 2011

"I read bad poetry, into your machine." - R.E.M.

The funny thing about last week's post, at least to me, was that despite setting out to write a simple, straightforward status report, akin to the early days of the blog, I ended up with a looping, discursive, endnote-laden jambalaya, just like all my other recent posts. It makes me wonder if I've lost the ability to do it the old way.

Even the weirder posts start in my imagination as a cohesive, uniform thing -- like holding a finished pot in my hands. But by the time I've worked them onto the screen, it's as if I've dropped that pot, say, from a good height onto a concrete floor, and it's broken into dozens of shards; any one of them suggesting the original whole, but collectively amounting to a big, chaotic mess. Ah well.

So as I start back into a groove of making pots, the perfectionism issue re-acquires a tangible dimension; at last, some physical objects to hang the theoretical subject on.

Realizing that things are never going to be the way I want -- and that even if they were, the results would probably be a lot more stale and boring than I imagine -- I'm trying to act a bit less serious. (That scrap of paper with that lyric on it has been on the wall of my studio for about three years now, and it seems more true the longer it hangs there.) As I've said before, "acting serious" -- a.k.a. perfectionism -- has accumulated a lot of mental inertia and physical habit for me in the studio, so undoing those things will take some deliberate effort.* And now that I've identified it as a problem that I'd like to solve, the next step is figuring out how to do it.

In a recent post by Carter Gillies that dovetails nicely with this issue, he wrote:

"...problem solving is definitely an attitude about our place in the world. It is a fearlessness in the face of the unknown. It is an acceptance of the challenge to discover new things, to break old rules and habits, and to tinker with possibility."

Emphasizing the role of attitude -- the mindset with which I approach the process -- seems like a very useful idea. The specific details and tangible changes I make are very important, too, but adopting a different over-arching attitude will probably help guide the whole thing, and suggest which details and changes to make.

So for now, I'm trying three things, each based largely on adopting a change in attitude:

1. Starting with an open mind about what I'm doing. Trying to not take the old defaults at face value. Avoiding rote answers, even when I'm generally satisfied with the results.

2. Increasing the amount of risk and exploration. Being more willing to expend time and effort on things that won't (necessarily) be worth putting in the bisque kiln. Running experiments that will probably fail.

3. Not fussing so much. Letting things go without that final pass of spit-polishing. Allowing a few more "mistakes" or casual "flaws" in hopes of also getting more happy accidents. Flirting a bit with wabi sabi.

With regards to item #2, I'm thinking about how there are decisions to make at each step in the making process -- some large, some small. Those dozens of choices, summed up, essentially are the final pot. At each of those decision points, I can choose to take the easy way or the hard way, the safe way or the risky way; to stay with the known or attempt the unknown. Perfectionism means always leaning towards the easy, safe and known. So I have to deliberately lean in the opposite direction as much as possible at any given time. (The catch is that if I leave my comfort zone entirely, my motivation and interest tend to collapse. So the best method is to go out to the very edge of that zone without going past it.)

A strategy for taking those extra steps towards the unknown is to imagine how much risk I'd normally take at any given decision point and then try to double it. Instead of doing x, do 2x. For example, if my habit when starting a run of mugs is to do either a different decorative pattern or an alteration to my typical handle, then do both. If my instinct is to change a detail incrementally and slowly over a whole series of pots, then try to do it radically, and more dramatically from one pot to another. You get the idea.

Time will tell what these changes amount to, and what other strategies might be necessary or helpful. For now, they probably won't show as a big difference in the actual pots, because I suspect that what amount to big changes in my view will seem pretty minor to someone else. But I think it's the emphasis on changing the process and the attitude that matters most. With that, and given some time for things to evolve, the changes in the pots will come.

* For now I'm calling this endeavor Undoing the Doable. I don't know why, or what this means, if anything. Perhaps it's just a nice phrase, tacked on to give the thing an encouraging label. Our modern culture of branding and marketing works it's way into my brain in insidious fashion.

March 6th, 2011

"So help me, I don't know, I might just give the old dark side a try." - The Shins

I'm weary of all the anti-perfectionism talk. Let's bring things back down to earth with an old-school post; something more like tw@se circa 2007. You know, photos of greenware in the studio, a list of stuff I've been doing and how I feel about it, perhaps with a dash of randomness for seasoning.

My time in the studio has been scarce the last month or so. First Maggie was sick, then me. Then, after a clay run for 750# of shiny new porcelain, I strained my back pretty badly. I'll resist the impulse to drone on about that at length. (Again.) Suffice it to say that I was out of commission for most of a week, which is really frustrating and a reminder that I need to be more patient and cautious, not less.

Last week, I helped teach a few Intro Ceramics class sessions at the U., filling in for the regular instructor. It was surprisingly fun, in part because I got to tag team with my friend Jacob Stanley. We traded off on throwing demos, and split the group in half during independent work time. A 1-to-8 faculty/student ratio is vastly easier and more effective than the usual 1-to-16, especially when they're just getting started at the wheels. It also reminded me how much easier teaching is when you just stop in to do some demos and give a slide talk, without having to manage assignments, schedules, the studio, clay mixing, firings, each student's longer-term progression, and so forth. Now that would be a great gig!

And lastly in my list of rationalizations, there's the guaranteed, annual busywork of tax filing. No matter how I systematize the process and try to grind it out efficiently, it still seems to suck up entire days of work. I recently saw a bit by comedian Jake Johannsen, who said, essentially, "I'm more than happy to pay my share in taxes, but could you please, for the love of all that's holy, just give me a big button to push that says You Owe This Much?" It's funny because it's true. Even with paying an accountant to do all the genuinely hard stuff, I still drown in the piles of paperwork and receipts to be catalogued and sorted. (It's an annoying aspect of the pottery business that most of my expenses come in dozens of little chunks, all year long.)

{From health to teaching to taxes, all in the first four paragraphs. Yes, I've still got it.}

Despite all of that stuff getting in the way of making pots, I've still managed to make a few of them. Mostly mugs.

I'm not ready to dive into imperfection exercises quite yet, but I am trying to gradually infuse my standard ways of working with a bit of that motive; like a head fake in the direction of a more casual, risk-embracing approach. The biggest obstacle to that is probably my strongly-engrained habit of needing to put a certain amount of tangible progress on the shelf at the end of each day's work. Some of that is Protestant Work Ethic-y, justify your existence, reinforcing confidence in my ability to make goals type of stuff. The rest comes from the constant, quiet pressure of the next deadline. And all the gaps amongst the pots on the bisque shelf, jabbering at me about how they won't yet fit into the kiln very well. And the shortcomings amongst the collection of pots currently in the showroom, which become painfully obvious as I think ahead to the next sale.

One way to ease into such a thing -- that is, making room to experiment while still arriving at some fire-worthy pots -- is to push the known parameters a little farther than usual. If one finger poke is good, why not three? Or, if I'm comfortable with a slight, unobtrusive poke, how about a deeper, more exaggerated one? And why do I always paint rectangles and rhombuses -- aren't there many other fine geometries to be explored?

(These are vanishingly-small iterations, I know. They barely register on the standard scale of artistic experimentation, and may not even be identifiable to an outside observer. But it's where I'm at, so I'm not going to dress it up as something fancier than what it is.)

Most recently, I did a short run of mugs, with just about every aspect of them a little different than what I would normally do. For example, I made six where I'd typically aim for twelve, to give more time for consideration as the pots dry out and the sun heads West on my last studio day of the week. I also paused to do some sketches, after throwing and before handles and decoration, which always seems like a good idea, but rarely squeezes its way into the itinerary. (I used to draw a lot, but now I tend to write. Not sure that's an improvement.)

I sketched with my Michael Simon teabowl nearby. Not to copy anything about it per se; more for cues about it's tone and stance. It's so generously casual, with obvious skill and intent, but without grid-like precision or overly-fussed details. There are a few "imperfections" or "flaws": a pointy bit of black slip in one of the dots, some irregularities in the liner glaze, etc. Yet they don't really detract from the pot; like the quirks of a good friend, given a bit of leeway, they grow to have an endearing quality that has personal meaning. It just might be a better pot because of them, rather than in spite of them.

Overall, this little pot is so... I don't know. The only word I can think of is "right", but that's not exactly it. Whatever it is that manifests that elusive quality -- and I admit that some of it is my exaggerated awareness that it was made by Michael Freaking Simon* -- that's the kind of thing I'm looking to add to my own work, or to at least learn how to stop scrubbing out.

Carter Gillies recently reminded me of a quote by Simon, from his 2005 interview with Mark Shapiro for the Smithsonian**. In the context of answering a question about why he decreased the number of workshops he taught, Simon said:

"I felt like it was more valuable to be home and in the studio, and also not thinking about myself. Something tells me that a really mature phase of making things is going to be not thinking about making them."

He said that after about 30 years of making pots. I'm just past 15, and something tells me that it's going to take many more years of thinking about making things before I'm ready to move on to "not thinking about making them".

So back to these mugs. They're shorter and wider than usual. Kind of clunky, a bit too heavy a the base. Odd handles -- a deliberate break with habit, which kind of missed the mark and probably won't be very comfortable to use. They're borrowed from this Brandon Phillips mug in our cupboard, only much more awkwardly done than his. There's an aggressive poke on one side, framed by some Simon-esque black underglaze decoration, but with my old standard Domino pattern.**** The maker and date stamps are on the opposite side, but there's no black decoration there. Like the bi-lateral vs. tri-lateral symmetry thing, it's an unbalanced, uni-lateral approach to surface decoration. (I read something during the Super Bowl hype about the origin of the Pittsburgh Steelers' helmets, which are the only ones in the NFL with a logo on only one side. I liked finding that asymmetry and break with convention in such an unlikely places, so I made a mental note to do more of that.) It's also part of my ongoing interest in subverting the tyranny of photography, which attempts to sum up everything about a three-dimensional pot in one tidy image, or pedestal display, which typically presumes an A side and a B side. Just doing my part to stick it to the Man. Whomever that might be.

* So much for the Unknown Craftsman. Sorry, Mr. Yanagi. My extreme admiration of Simon's work goes back at least to my proto-blog, Rare Earth, circa 2001. See Michael Knows Stuff.

** This is probably my all-time favorite interview of a potter. OK, I can't really think of any others at the moment, but you get the idea. I'd love to hear the original audio recording of it someday, to pick up on the nuance and emphasis of some of the things they talked about that are ambiguous in the written transcript. Provided that all our national arts funding doesn't get handed over to investment bankers, say, as a bonus for wrecking the economy again, perhaps the Smithsonian will get around to putting it on the web one day.***

*** Now that I've broken the taboo against talking metaphysics and politics in successive weeks, I'll add that I think K-12 teachers, as a group, should be paid more, not less. I come from a family of teachers, I considered teaching high school English, and now do it occasionally, teaching ceramics at the college level. I would bet that anyone who thinks teaching deserves less compensation has never actually done it. Like any job, it can be done poorly if you don't give a damn, but those people are generally the exception.

Plus, trying to fix the economy by cutting spending on primary education seems like trying to make good pots out of bad clay. I also think that scapegoating that part of the budget at the same time as extending tax cuts for the rich and failing to even consider reducing defense spending is just plain crazy. Then again, I'm a news-averse, anti-establishment, far-left, populist-leaning, semi-capitalist, part-time potter, so my take on things probably isn't for everybody. Want to explain how I'm wrong? Great! Please email me: scottcooper@lets-argue-about-religion-and-politics.com

**** I can hear the questions now: "Is that supposed to be a horse or a house?" "Maybe it's an M for Maggie." "Oh, is it three dominos stacked up like a little Stonehenge?"

I sincerely like it when my customers ask questions, but it requires coming up with good answers. While true, saying, "It was a way to stop doing rectangles while also avoiding the difficulty of painting a straight line over that big divot in the side of the pot" just isn't sexy enough. Ah, the challenges of selling retail.

February 27th, 2011

"Th- th- th- th- things... are never gonna be the way you want,
where's it going to get you acting serious?" - Jimmy Eat World

Let's see, where was I?

Ah, yes. So over the last few weeks, I've realized that I'm more of a perfectionist in the studio than is good for me, or for the pots I make. For all the reasons that striving after a "perfect" ideal is a positive thing to do -- for example, it's far better than having no standards at all, or having standards but not caring enough to meet them -- the perfectionist approach is seriously flawed. For me, while it often achieves some of what it promises, those gains come at the cost of excess baggage and compromises, missed opportunities, and unintended consequences that don't add anything to the net result.

But knowing all of that is one thing, and putting it into practice is another. As I said previously, those ways of working are "deeply rooted in my personality, and over a long period of time have become interwoven with my goals and methods for making pots." So before I begin digging through those roots, untangling them from the core to see what can be safely pruned away, it might be useful to understand where they came from in the first place.

How did I come to be this way? What conditions lead to perfectionism as my preferred solution? What goals does it try to fulfill, as both a philosophy and a methodology, and what results does it try to prevent? And, given the time, it would probably be useful to dig down one more level of why* below that one: Why are those goals and results valuable to me in the first place?

The most direct answer I've come up with is that I use perfectionism as a means to satisfy the desire for control.

As a potter, that includes trying to control both the physical outcome -- the pots -- and the process that goes into them -- the overall experience of making. (As if it were somehow in my power to dictate the quality and range of all my experiences in the studio. That's a cowardly impulse; an unwillingness to endure too much discomfort en route to a goal. I wish I were more daring, willing to take more risks, in that regard.)

More generally, I also use perfectionism to control fear. That is, it's a habit and technique that reduces my fears to acceptable -- or at least functional -- levels. Those include: fear of failure; fear of rejection; fear of being unsatisfied with the results of my work; and the fear that there's no margin for error, no time for experimentation, and no room for mistakes.

Closely related to that, I also use perfectionism as a shield against a wide range of doubts**, like doubts about my skill, dedication and effort. Doubts about how well suited I am to my chosen roles, and about my progress within them. Doubts about the validity of my goals and how I try to achieve them. And lingering bits of nebulous dread like, "Are the pots really worth all the struggle?" and "Will it ever get easier?" and "What else am I sacrificing in life to focus so intensely on this one area of expertise?"

(Whew! Is it getting hot in here, or is it just me? Apparently, the confession booth is open for business! As I review the above, it seems overly self-important, like a public dramatization of my internal monologue. As usual, I'm toeing right along the over-sharing boundary. I'm tempted to cut it entirely, or to shave off the most unflattering aspects of that description, but that conflicts with my sincere interest in communicating these things honestly and transparently, in the hope that they might resonate enough with others and be meaningful or useful. It's hard to have it both ways without resorting to cliches and vagueness. If you're reading this, it means I took a chance and left it all in.)

Of course, it's perfectly valid to consider perfectionism's benefits, too.*** I'm focusing on the downside, without paying much attention to the potential upside, such as aspiring to high standards or seeking to surpass one's limitations. And that's because, as I said earlier, it seems pretty clear that the cons outweigh the pros for me. (I suppose it's also a reflection of where I sit on the optimist/pessimist spectrum. These days I'm kind of a glass-four-fifths-empty kind of guy, so that's probably coloring my outlook, and worth bearing in mind going forward.)

Up next (perhaps):
The next level of why.
An elaborate diagnosis -- so now what?
On "the uses of failure."

* From my secular humanist worldview, which values logical, incremental evidence over absolute, all-encompassing answers, almost any issue can look like an infinite series of "whys". Like an inquisitive two year old, there's always another question to ask. Or, like the proverbial sequence of "turtles all the way down", there's always another explanation to be found under the last one.

(I know, I know: that's super-geeky and pretty obscure, too. But at least I resisted quoting the first line of that Wikipedia article, which breezily calls it "a jocular expression of the infinite regress problem in cosmology posed by the Unmoved mover paradox".)

** My use of the terms between fear, doubt and dread is partially informed by the concept of "FUD: Fear, uncertainty and doubt". While these have probably been used to manipulate people in one way or another since before humans developed language, the acronym was invented by the tech industry. Monopolistic companies like IBM (in the 1980's) and Microsoft (in the 90's), used it as "a strategic attempt to influence public perception by disseminating negative and dubious/false information designed to undermine the credibility of their beliefs."

That's as opposed to, say, using rational, supportable arguments. It's a fiendishly clever tactic, and kind of a cool idea, provided you're not the target of it. The fact that multi-billion dollar corporations, lead by some of the smartest business people of the last generation, have used it as a primary tactic against their competitors suggests just how powerful those underlying fears, uncertainty and doubts can be.

Note that FUD is a type of logical fallacy called an "appeal to fear". An illogical tactic that preys on fear circles back around to the issue of perfectionism quite nicely.

*** I'd bet there are plenty of perfectionist potters out there, who'd make me look downright sloppy and casual by comparison, that are completely satisfied with their approach and its results. Others probably have the opposite problem: they lack the ability or inclination to aim at a more focused, idealized goal. In that case, they might even benefit from trying to have more control, rather than less. And for many it's probably a non-issue; they've never had the perfectionist impulse and don't feel the lack.

February 20th, 2011

"A list of things I could lay the blame on, might give me a way out." - The Shins

Things went to hell in a handbasket pretty quick this week, so I'm using my Get Out Of Blog Free card.

I was planning to save this for later, but I feel bad about just bailing completely. It's a little side project that's still in the proof-of-concept stage, but it might be worth a look now: A Potter's Archive.

I hope to get back to the perfectionism issue here next week. Getting thrown off track hasn't been good for much, but at least it's allowed some thoughts to percolate.

February 13th, 2011

"Don't mistake l egi bi lit y for communication" - David Carson

Maggie's painting

I'm having a hard time getting a handle on the perfectionism issue. Each time I think I've found a way to approach it in a logical, sequential fashion, it goes fractal on me: the more I think about it, the more there seems to be to think about. That's essentially the definition of an intractable problem.

The other metaphor that's bubbled up out of my subconscious is that it's like I've found a sinkhole in the lawn that frames my mind. I dutifully trudge over to it a regular intervals, armed with a shovel and a wheelbarrow full of good intentions, which I heap up to grade level. But each time, as the roots of some forgotten idea decay beneath the surface, the hole reappears, mocking my plans with it's resiliency.

The fact that this issue sends my thinking process into a recursive loop, and that I can so easily conjure up a dramatic, dream-like metaphor about it, indicates that it goes pretty deep with me. It's probably also a sign that I'd benefit from doing some more research on the subject before jumping to any big conclusions.

(A quick, "good enough" Google search returned this article, titled "Overcoming Perfectionism". The sections on "What irrational beliefs contribute to perfectionism?" and "What are some negative consequences of perfectionism?" are uncomfortably familiar.)

But I'm starting to realize that it's probably not as simple as: "I have some perfectionist tendencies that are getting in my way in the studio. I think I'll just get rid of them."

In fact, it's probably more like: "I have many perfectionist tendencies, which are deeply rooted in my personality, and over a long period of time have become interwoven with my goals and methods for making pots. My work as a potter, both process and product, would be better and more satisfying if I minimized those tendencies. (Eliminating them altogether is probably an unrealistic goal.) But doing so would be a major, ongoing project*."

So what started as the casual observation that my kid can happily paint a big black meatball while I can't is turning into a convoluted dissertation, and perhaps a life-altering project. I hate it when that happens.

One thought that's sticking is my initial realization that taking a perfectionist approach to making pots is doomed to failure. I still like the exposition there about all it's negative consequences, despite the high melodrama.

Here's another variation: Perfectionism sucks the joy out of the process, then drains the gratification out of the results. It is tight, unforgiving, and relentless; self-important and mean; and inhumane in that it demands what is humanly impossible.

Let's pause for a moment while I insert my customary caveat: As I've grown fond of repeating, this is certainly not the blog for everyone, and this particular topic is probably interesting to an even smaller subset than that. (Which goes back to the Daring Fireball manifesto.) I may very well go down the rathole on this for several more weeks, and it's liable to get even more wacky before it returns to the status quo (assuming it does at all). I plan to make mountains out of molehills and, when the mood strikes, to slip ever farther into the blurry area between writing with the intent to actually communicate and just working out my personal issues in public. (It's surprisingly cathartic. And cheaper than therapy). So, as usual, you've been warned.

I now have pages and pages of notes and hasty conclusions, a long march of inter-related but poorly connected paragraphs scrolling down the screen. About 3,900 words of them, at last count. (Not that I'm counting.) But there's not much there yet in terms of useful conclusions or actual understanding, which makes it difficult to structure coherently.

I'm tempted to just Select All and hit Delete; treat all that as a disposable first draft and start over. Or to embrace imperfection and post it all as-is; a symbolic declaration of my commitment to a new methodology. But instead, I'll wrap it up here for this week, and save the rest for more processing. Eventually, this might serve as a long introduction to what could become an actual thesis with supporting arguments. (I'm also acquiescing to the fixed reality of maintaining a weekly posting schedule.**)

I hope that breaking it into more manageable chunks, and then addressing them over time will allow me to do each part well -- or to at least match the pace of the sinkhole. I can safely assume that this approach will be easier on both your patience and attention span, too. What it loses in narrative flow might be compensated for by each part standing on its own; kind of like judging each wet pot for what it is, not for what it is in relation to its siblings. And who knows? Collectively it may even amount to something useful.

* Not to mention that perhaps this isn't something I should mess with all that much, here on the leading edge of my pending mid-life crisis.

And, yes, somehow I've arrived at a way of quoting myself, and even after a half dozen edits that still seems like the best way to go. Hubris, thy nectar is sweet.

** All future posts will be complete, polished, and of professional quality; self-contained and easily digestible with no more than five minutes of your partial attention; or your money back.***

*** Since tw@se is and always shall be free, obviously that's a joke. No refunds!

February 6th, 2011

"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter." - John Keats

We've been stuck in the deep freeze this week, which shreds my normal routine and knocks everything out of whack. It also seems to have slowed my thinking to a crawl, or -- to switch metaphors -- made it hard to get much mental traction.

I'm working on a follow-up to last week's post about perfection, exploring its implications with regards to control and quality, risk taking and results. But it's still not quite... oh. Yeah, that's pretty funny.

I was about to say "not quite good enough yet". Which is to say that it could be better, or that it currently falls short of, yes, perfection. And that makes me unwilling to take my chances and fire it off as-is. Which is a good (but not perfect) example of the issue at hand. How very circular. And meta.*

So this post is kind of a placeholder to say that next week I hope to have something more substantial to say. I've been considering the idea of changing the format on alternating weeks anyways: one week of the more thoughtful or in depth stuff, which takes more time to compose and do well, followed by a week that's more of the status report stuff -- photos of pots in progress, a description of what I've been up to, more random tidbits. That might improve the overall quality of the blog a bit without requiring more time and effort to do it, and I can imagine it creating a nice rhythm to it over time. Then again, expecting myself to come up with something substantial to say twice a month might be over-reaching by a long shot. And, sorry to admit, as soon as I put such a "rule" in place, my natural inclination would be to start undermining and thwarting it immediately. Then again, maybe that could be interesting, too. We'll see.**

*I was thinking just yesterday that I don't just diverge from the norm to "go meta" a lot; it's more like I reside day-to-day in the meta, and occasionally "go normal". How very post-modern. And weird.

** Disappointed? Perhaps you were expecting more, especially after I got such a nice mention on Sawdust & Dirt -- with it's associated traffic bump -- last week? Yeah, me too. Ah well.

But here's something: I've been unusually active commenting elsewhere lately, particularly on Carter Gillies's blog, so that might be worth a look, if you haven't already seen it. I wrote a little story there about my freshman Calculus class, 20 years ago, which came out of the keyboard pretty well. Clackity clack.

And, while I continue to steadfastly avoid adding a comments section here, there's occasionally some discussion about tw@se on my Facebook page, where I link to each week's post. You can "friend" or "fan" or "follow" or "like" St. Earth Pottery there -- whatever the hell the terminology is these days. If you so choose.

Just realize that, if you do, it means you've arrived at the unfortunate point where you not only read this blog, but you also read through the end notes, like this one. And that even after doing so, you think you still might be interested in hearing even more from me in a given week, or -- this is so crazy I can hardly commit it to type -- interact with other people who, like you, find themselves in the same, unenviable position.

Just remember that I reserve the right to remain mute in my own defense there and that, should I give up that right, my attempts to explain myself after the fact or communicate in an actual discussion with other people will likely be even more abstract, and pathetically misguided, that this ridiculously long note. (Meta -- check! Circular -- check! I think we're done here.)

January 30th, 2011

"Even here, even here we are." - Paul Westerberg

On Sunday afternoon, as Maggie and I were painting with watercolors and listening to synth-pop*, I was struck by the extreme difference between her approach and mine. Hers was all spontaneity and slop: way too much water, all the colors intermixed to dark grey, vigorous, experimental brush strokes, and pure unself-conscious joy. Mine was the opposite in almost every way.

I wondered what it is, specifically, that prevents me from painting like she does -- on a throw-away piece of paper, let alone on my pots. The obvious answer is that I want different results. (She's two, and is doing well just to keep the brush out of her mouth. So she usually ends up with a big, swirly black meatball in the middle of each page and some Abstract Expressionist splattering around the edges.)

But I suspect it's more than that.

I suspect it has as much to do with my educated, postured, self-focused, psuedo-Victorian, conservative, mind-over-body, worried, fearful, hesitant, blankety blank brand of perfectionism** as anything else.

One morning, last year or the year before, as I was wedging up the first cones of clay and anxiously trying to get my thoughts in synch with my hands, this phrase popped into my mind:

Perfect isn't possible.

That's been rattling around in my mental cellar since then, like a mantra in search of a guru. It sounds good, and is pleasantly simple, but is it, technically, true? Or just a nice trick with semantics? Even without delving into Platonic metaphysics and such, it seemed like there was a grain of something useful there -- an idea worth paying attention to.

So I've been asking myself, in various ways, what that might say about my constant striving to control the clay, the glazes, the kiln, the sales, the business... and the life that underlies -- and results from -- all of them. Maybe I've been creating my own problems. Taking on irrational challenges. Is an impossible goal still worth attempting?

Then more recently, in an email discussion with my friend Carter, a corollary appeared:

If perfect isn't possible, then perfectionism guarantees failure.

Yes, failure. As in flop. Zippo. Give up. End of the line. Pack your bags and leave town.

Not: "causes problems", or "can be inefficient", or "perhaps ultimately soul-destroying." Guarantees. Failure.

The perfectionism kills what it promises to solve. It's a fatally flawed strategy for making pots. (And, perhaps, anything.) It lures you in and then spawns it's own feedback loop. A good old-fashioned downward spiral. That's stated for dramatic effect, but the more I think about it, the more true it seems.

If so, then I'm due for a change. Probably past due. It's time I start aiming for that big black meatball, instead of trying so hard to avoid it.

* To my enduring shame, a Britney Spears song came on and Maggie said, "I like that music." Completely unprompted. And what's worse is I'd never even heard her say that phrase before; not for The Beatles or Elton John or Whiskeytown. Nope -- it had to be Britney. Good grief.

And while I genuinely like the the other stuff that played around it -- old Depeche Mode and New Order tracks -- I guess there's no avoiding the fact that Oops! I Did It Again didn't just magically appear in the playlist of its own accord. For shame.

** Yep, we're now using bold for emphasis around here -- just passed the editorial review board this morning. Or, to put that more precisely for you geeks out there, we're now officially marking things strong.

January 23rd, 2011

"I've learned that my job is to just sit down and start making the clackity noise. If I make the clackity noise long enough every day, the "writing" seems to take care of itself. On the other hand, if there's no clackity noise, no writing. No little stories. The stories may be in there, alongside God knows what else, but there's no way to know.
You
must make the noise." - Merlin Mann

My clackity noise is the sound the treadle wheel makes as I push the bar back and forth with my left foot.* The bar moves the bracket; the bracket moves the vertical bar; the shaft makes the wheelhead go 'round. And then, usually, some worthwhile stuff happens with my hands and clay and slip and friction.

That's the signature sound of a treadle wheel: the subtle double-clop with each revolution, as the bracket pushes and then catches the offset bar in its orbit. You can hear it because there's no motor noise to drown it out. But you learn to ignore it, too; it's ever-present like the sound of your heartbeat echoing down your bloodstream. (And sometimes, of course, it gets layered under waves of music or talk talk coming from the speakers.)

The clackity noise provides a subconscious reminder of how fast you're cranking, and the speed at which any particular spot of clay will make it's way back around to that point on the compass. It's metronomic -- a click-track for recording ideas in clay.**

"If I make the clackity noise long enough every day, the "potting" seems to take care of itself. On the other hand, if there's no clackity noise, no potting. No little pots. The pots may be in there, alongside God knows what else, but there's no way to know. You must make the noise."

Since I last wrote about actually working in the studio, five or six weeks ago, I've been making some noise pretty regularly. The last batch of clay was so sloppy wet out of the bag that it required extensive air and plaster drying before I could even throw a flat plate from it -- so much for quality control! But eventually I put it to use, making a run at plates in various sizes, lobed bowls, tumblers, small lidded jars.

Gratefully, I found the throwing rhythm again without too much struggle this time. I've been trying to emphasize patience and something less daunting and destructive than my reflexive perfectionism. So far so good.

Unless you'd like to see a larger view, there's no need to click this photo (i.e. no hidden content).

Not this one, either.

Or this one.

Maybe this one.

Nope, just kidding.

OK, take your chances...

* Sometimes it's the computer keyboard, too.

** But like a very flaky analog metronome, not a Germanically-precise digital one. And, like with some varieties of music, things go much better if you vary the speed a bit from moment to moment, retaining some organic realness within the artificial, synthetic fakeness.

I like comparisons between making pots and making music, perhaps because committing to one has prevented me from ever becoming more than a terrible novice at the other.

January 16th, 2011

"Oh won't you do me the favor, man
of forgiving my polymorphing opinion
here in your vague outline?" - The Shins

An assessment of the last year would feel incomplete without some more of my patented, meta-obsessive, navel-gazing, inside-baseball, behind-the-scenes, sweepings-off-the-cutting-room-floor analytical nonsense about the blog itself. Right?

 

...

 

OK, that should about do it in terms of segmenting potential audience groups. How've you been? So:

Item 1. I made a lot of changes to the stuff around the content this year, gilding the frame and sprinkling extra bits of glitter here and there.

For example, I replaced the simple text heading for a new masthead: a fancy graphical logo with a bunch of garbled text in the background. It's basically a watered-down homage to my design hero David Carson, but fun to look at nonetheless.

Item 2. More abstractly, I experimented with the typical structure and assumptions of the blogging format. I played around with the narrative voice and tone, and let myself wander around in search of the real intent and underlying rationale of the project.

For example, while that background of layered, mostly-illegible text is mainly just eye candy, the idea for it is somewhat symbolic of my changing impression of the blog as a whole. I've had the growing sensation that with each week, I'm just plastering more and more words onto this wall of perpetual text; perhaps signifying nothing. (That sense is enhanced by the simple fact that as the year goes on, it actually becomes a giant wall of text.)

Or, to put that a bit less cynically, I've gradually realized that a distinctive feature of my blog is the emphasis on the writing, both in terms of quantity and attempted quality. So I like emphasizing that fact graphically right up front. Using using words and typography as visual design is also really appealing, especially since I tend to think in words instead of images. (That's also very Carsonesque.) I just barely keep the impulse to do that on my pots in check, bolstered by the facts that most examples of it are so kitschy. I think it's very hard to do well.

I copied that text from past blog entries, largely at random, but with a few choice items thrown into the mix. So the words are all recycled from the past, which represents another common feeling about the blog: haven't I written all this before? Then I screwed around with the formatting: layering, inverting, pushing font sizes and opacity up and down. That makes for an arbitrary illegibility, which is also symbolic because that's become another defining characteristic of tw@se, for better or worse. (The self-referential meta stuff, excessive parenthetical asides, deliberate vagueness, awkward vocabulary and punctuation, etc.)

Another area I messed around with -- both on the surface level of Item 1 and the deeper level of Item 2 -- is the little subheading that sits above the main content, which I affectionately call the colophon (just because it's a fancy word). This originally said: "a blog about making pots", by way of a simple description of what this thing was suppose to be.

But sometime in the middle of the year, I started questioning what this thing really is, and if that description was still appropriate to what it was evolving into. Questions persisted, like: a) How blog-like is it, compared to the norm? And b) Is it really "about making pots", or more about the stuff that goes on around the "about making pots"?

With a growing sense that the answers to those questions are: a) Not very much; and b) The latter, I started changing the colophon to reflect my thoughts about what it really was -- deconstructing the format a bit.

To emphasize that it wasn't necessarily "a blog about making pots" anymore, I used the web convention of striking out an edit, rather than replacing -- which, as a bonus, seems a little snarky -- and appending something new each week that might be a better description of what the "blog" actually was, or was about.

This quickly became one more little thing I could look forward to changing each week, like the quote that leads off each post. I had a great time thinking them up during the week and messing around with it. It's been like my personal Twitter service that has one user and no subscribers. This was encouraged by the fact that they were somewhat hidden* -- I deliberately put the colophon area up above the weekly posts -- and that they were very temporary and otherwise unarchived. (Hidden in plain sight + plausible deniability = reckless abandon.)

So if you come here from the RSS feed or the links on Facebook, or don't check in every week, you probably missed them. Here's a few of the more interesting ones:

"Not the blog you're looking for"... that still kills me. I never pass up a Star Wars reference. Here are a few more that I wrote down but never got around to using:

Some of those are actually pretty good. Maybe I gave up on it too soon. In any case, that was a lot of fun. I've settled on "kind of like a blog about making pots", but that could change at any time.**

There were several other attempts at breaking the format -- and probably chasing away my less-patient readers: some super-long photo captions; allowing myself to indulge in invented abbreviations, acronyms, rules of punctuation and other such nonsense; pushing images and paragraphs into irregular layouts; burying the lede in excess verbiage; breaking the fourth wall (to the extent that there ever was one); writing completely off-topic, like about dreams or parenting milestones; adopting a Cowboy twang, a blogging alter-ego, and someone else's fictional creations; posts with no photos; posts that were entirely photos; &Etc.

Recently, I've slipped in a few psuedo-steganographic messages -- text embedded in the larger images and hidden behind a link.*** Thus far, these are more passive-agressive and ranty than what I usually allow through the filter. (Like the colophon, the fact that they're partially hidden makes me more bold.) But just like the deleted scenes and other junk that Hollywood studios pack on to DVDs, that's stuff I've squeezed back in that was wisely omitted from the original, or composed off the top of my head, so it's of even more dubious worth than the norm. If they continue, I suspect it will inevitably get me into trouble at some point, which might be entertaining in its own right.

And lastly, as you've probably already noticed, I've officially ended my rule about making limited use of endnotes. I just can't resist their seductive power for another year, because... you know, life's just too short.****

 

* What can I say? Growing up with video games left me with a fascination with digital easter eggs.

** Oops, it just did.

*** See, I'm totally serious about this easter egg thing. Plus, it's a great excuse to play around in Photoshop.

**** It's likely that none of that makes the blog any better for my readers, but it certainly makes me enjoy doing it more. You've gotta keep yourself entertained. I know there's a fine line between them being quite fun or totally irritating to the reader. They're also poorly suited to the online format.***** In the future, might I suggest ignoring them completely?

***** On second thought, maybe all the notes should go on their own page, with anchored links from the main text. That would tuck them away until called upon, like a bad comment thread. As an added bonus, that page on it's own would read like the sloppy diary of a madman. OK, you're right: more like the sloppy diary of a madman.

But while we're on the subject of endnotes, check out this awesome quote about David Foster Wallace, who pioneered the technique of going bonkers with them:

... Wallace claimed that the notes were used to disrupt the linearity of the narrative, to reflect his perception of reality without jumbling the entire structure. He suggested that he could have instead jumbled up the sentences, "but then no one would read it."

January 9th, 2011

"And reruns all become our history." - Goo Goo Dolls

At the moment, my prevailing sense of 2010 is that it was a weird, hard year -- weirder and harder than most, anyways. I'm glad it's done. There were plenty of bright spots, of course, and I might see it differently with time, but for now I'm hoping 2011 consists of a little more routine and a little less struggle.

In any case, I think it was a pretty good year here on the blog. Skimming back through the freshly-made 2010 Archive, I see a lot there that I'm happy with, both the experiences and activities in the flesh, and then my cataloging of them here on the virtual record. Insofar as it's appropriate to see something like a blog as an accomplishment, I'm proud of what it's been these last dozen months.

So rather than rehash the year's major events or tally the statistics, I've compiled a list of 2010's more noteworthy posts -- kind of a recent greatest hits. This might be useful if you've tuned in recently or sporadically, and I hope it's worth a second look even if you were along for the whole bumpy ride:

Reading back over all those words revealed some nice passages, too, assuming I'm in any position to judge. So here's a different kind of a summary, in the form of the best bits:

I can imagine the appeal of just making wet pots for a longer stretch, honing my throwing chops to that rare sharpness when it feels like I can make anything, piling up the bisqueware into every open slot in the studio, and then firing five or six times in a row.


So while it actually sounds like this: "un, due, tree, foe, ive, icks, eben, eieet, nie, den", we give her the benefit of the doubt.


Smart. Super smart. They just don't teach you that stuff in school.


The best course is to look first with a cynical eye, wary of letting what little genuine enthusiasm remains in your heart get fooled by yet another post-post-modern, poorly-executed in-joke. On the rare occasion that that's not the case, there's always time for sincerity later.


Mistakes were made. Obviously stupid mistakes, in retrospect, but I couldn't see them at the time. I guess that means I've learned something in the last five years.


It's a long trip, and so much easier with a companion or two. Together, you take the opportunity to dive deeply into conversation, and to linger over things that are more difficult to say when you can look each other in the eye. The flow of words is improved by a lack of distractions, and by the repetition of small patterns: the flickering view, "the sound of the engine", the vibration of the road.


But for all that, truth be told it was kind of fun. Not as fun as all the cowboy nonsense, of course, but fun. The problem is, fun just isn't good enough. Not by a long shot.


The regular habit of blogging, which I initially hoped might make me a better writer, has made me a better potter, too. It refines thoughts, forces reflection, and encourages meaningful interaction with other like-minded clay wranglers.


By the third day, she realized there were also interesting things to do that didn't involve running at top speed in random directions, and we ended up making sand castles together.


I'm intrigued by the differences between online relationships and traditional ones, and also by how these new communication options have gradually changed how I interact with people I've known since long before the internet age.


Sustainability requires a blend of efficiency and discipline that I haven't found quite yet.


Water bugs on the surface, trout below. All the effort to keep things running right is not what's keeping things running right. A direct hit close-by is also a near miss.


I probably need a vacation, but don't think I can afford to take one.


The studio physically reflects the craziness at this point in the cycle, too: wet pots bumping up against fired ones, juggling all the available horizontal space. I'm trying to make, dry, bisque, glaze and clean pots, all at the same time.


I try not to take the net and gross and divide them by the time expended; I don't want to dwell too much how my hourly rate in the studio compares to my office job or, say, the minimum wage. But I do anyways, almost in spite of myself. My love of numbers and their sultry precision coax me into it, as does the sense that it's irresponsible to keep myself in the dark on these matters.


The funniest thing she does now is this pretend talking. A recent report from daycare said, "Maggie and Flynn have their own language that they talk to each other." It's kind of lispy and really wet, and wanders all over the place, like an atonal chant; I can't even begin to approximate it in type. She breaks it out at the dinner table a lot, perhaps trying to get a word in edgewise while her parents are sitting there going "blah blah bigword blah blah"


Wedge, throw, finish, fire, sell. Repeat.

So that's the highlights from last year. Next week I'll continue with a review of some of the changes to the blog itself (e.g. more meta analysis -- you've been warned!) And perhaps some thoughts on my evolving approach to it and where it's heading from here.

January 2nd, 2011

"Oh no, I've said too much. I haven't said enough." - R.E.M.

Starting the new year with a whimper instead of a bang*, this is just a placeholder; a status beacon to let you know that I have not yet given up; an anchor to hold down this blank canvas as it awaits the next 50-odd weeks of {     }.

I'm still working on my 2010 review, remembering what happened, deciding what to say about it (and what to leave alone), trying to balance my knee-jerk instantaneous nostalgia with a long list of complaints. So while that's processing in the background, I've doing some annual site maintenance and technical tweaking, which is composition of a different kind and gratifying in its own unique way.

There are small bits of joy to be found in customizing a tool and then practicing with it until you know just how it should work. Learning how to hold it in your hands, earning the ability to predict what it will do from moment to moment as you use it against the material. Even when that material, and those actions, are completely virtual.

 

* Apologies to T.S. Eliot. I've gotta work that English degree in here somewhere.