Day 44: Employed Once More!

After 3 1/2 months of unemployment, during which I submitted countless job applications, became a regular on LinkedIn, learned the routines of the Texas Unemployment Benefits system, and sat through numerous interviews, I’m excited to report that I have a new job!

In a couple of weeks I will be starting at Nvidia as a Senior Python Developer, working on the tools for their GPU cloud. I’ve met the other people on my team during the video interview process, and they all seem like a bright bunch, so I can’t wait to start working with them!

It’s been difficult these last few months. It started with the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, which has affected everyone. Then came the layoff, with DataRobot letting 25% of its workforce go, including yours truly. It really wasn’t much consolation that I was only 1 of the 40 million or so in the US who lost their job in those few weeks – it still hurt.

Still, I have had it better than most. My wife still had her job, which was super-important financially. We also had some savings, so we weren’t living paycheck-to-paycheck like so many Americans have to. And it did give me some free time to work on my photoviewer software, and practice my newly-discovered sport of disc golf. It also gave me the chance to perfect my sourdough bread technique (yeah, I know – how cliché!). But there is only so much to do when largely confined to the house.

Which is why I started this daily writing exercise. Not just to fill the time, but to get down some of the thoughts that have been in my head for a while, and polish my rusty writing skills. And while it’s been difficult to always find something to write about, I have noticed that writing itself is feeling more fluid.

I will continue this daily project until I start the job on July 20. After that, I will continue to write, but just not on a daily basis. Going through this exercise has helped me enjoy writing more, and improved my ability to let a piece out into the wild without first obsessing with endless editing. That is probably the best thing I’ve gotten out of it.

Day 43: Scarcity and Value

How do you price art?

There is one aspect of economics that everyone understands: the law of Supply and Demand. It’s pretty obvious: useful/desirable things will be valued more highly than stuff that isn’t as in demand, and scarce things will cause people to offer to pay more.

I’ve found something
No one else is looking for
I’ve found something
That there’s no use for
And what’s more
I’m keeping it to myself

Wire, Single K.O.

For this discussion let’s assume that the art in question is “desirable”, so that there is a certain level of demand for it. The determinant for price will therefore be how scarce it is.

There is a fundamental difference between a painting, in which the creative effort results in a single item, and a recording of a performance, which can be duplicated and replayed an infinite number of times. The artist can only sell their painting once, but can sell as many videos as people want.

This same issue comes up with media such as photography and print making: there really is no limit to the number of copies of a single art work that can be made. In the days of negatives, the act of making a positive print was itself part of the creative process, because the printer (usually the photographer) had to have a feel for how to balance overall exposure with local dodging and burning. The great photographer Edward Weston trained his son Cole to learn his precise printing techniques, so that Cole could continue to make prints that would be as close to the artist’s vision as possible. So while in theory an infinite number of prints could be made, there is a practical limit.

But digital photography throws all of that out the window. The artist can make whatever corrections or other changes they want to the digital file, which can then be reproduced without loss forever. So how does one determine a price for something like this?

I’ve recently begun to submit my work to several galleries, and have had some success – just yesterday I got notice that one of my photos was accepted for a show! But I’ve seen several Calls for Entry for exhibits that have a requirement that any submitted work be part of a limited edition. A Limited Edition is when the artist decides that there will only ever be a certain number of prints made, and each print is “numbered” so that they buyer knows that they are one of the few owners of that piece.

I call bullshit.

Art’s value is in the piece itself. If it moves you, makes you think, or just is stimulating to look at, it has value. The fact that only a few other people can enjoy that particular piece doesn’t change the experience; it just creates an artificial scarcity to prop up prices that otherwise can’t be justified.

Paintings are scarce, by their very nature. Digital photographs are not.

I’m not playing this game. Sure, this might keep me out of some galleries, but those are probably not compatible in spirit with me. With a calibrated monitor, I can create a digital file that can be printed exactly the same anywhere in the world. If you like my work and want a print, I will sell you a print. I won’t say “sorry, but I’ve sold all the prints I can make of that image. You’ll have to find one from some art dealer or collector”.

The digital transformation calls for new ways of thinking about art. The music business learned that lesson with the advent of the .mp3 file. The photographic business will need to grow to accommodate this new digital reality.

Day 42: One Step At a Time

Lately I’ve been reading people who are upset at the state of the world, and are angry that it won’t change fast enough. It’s absolutely true that Joe Biden isn’t the guy who is going to change everything. It’s true that the Democrats have done more than their share to get us to where we are, and have a vested interest in not shaking the boat too much. It’s true that they won’t be leading the charge to overturn the institutions that have gotten them to where they are, as most of them have done pretty well under the current system.

Given that disappointment, many are falling prey to the “it doesn’t matter” attitude about elections. Why bother voting for Biden when he won’t do nearly enough to make the country as good as it should be?

Because improving this country is a journey, not a single step. The end game may be an ideal that we can never reach, but we need to keep moving toward it. This November, one of two old white men will be elected President for the next 4 years. Neither of them is exactly what this country needs. But it should be clear that one of them will move the country closer to where we need it to be than the other. We’ve seen how disastrous the Trump years have been, and there is no reason to think that he will mellow or see the error of his ways if he were to have a second term. He has always shown us exactly who he is.

We have to have a much longer viewpoint than just the next election. One election will never make enough change; it is a much, much slower process, with the old two steps forward, one step back dynamic. Remember how exciting it was watching Barack Obama take the oath of office, thinking that a new era of racial equality was upon us? Yeah, that didn’t exactly work out. But it did provide a glimmer of hope that will keep us moving toward our goals.

We need to start electing people who want to make radical changes. AOC is one of the young voices who is saying the right things; we need to get more people like her into office. It’s telling that she is characterized in the press as an “extremist”, yet nearly all of her main policies enjoy a large majority of approval among the nation as a whole. By electing more and more people who aren’t afraid to call out the faults in the current system, we can make some actual progress in creating a better system.

Day 41: Grammatical Pet Peeves

For better or worse (mostly worse), I had to attend 12 years of Catholic school when I was a kid. My parents (well, mostly my Mom) were very religious, and wanted to make sure that I had lots of God in my daily routine. Grades 1–8 were in a school run by nuns, and for the most part they were nice enough, but there were several who definitely had a sadistic streak. We even had one nun whose main M.O. was to make you place your hand palm down on your desk, so that she could whack your knuckles with a metal ruler. These nuns ruled by fear, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was deathly afraid of incurring their wrath.

One of these scary nuns was our English teacher, and that included learning all about grammar. In everything you said or wrote, your grammar had to be impeccable, or you risked injury. As a result, these things are etched deeply in my brain, and to this day I still can’t relax when I hear incorrect grammar.

The thing that set me off on this line of thought was yesterday being the 4th of July (American Independence Day, when we declared our independence from England), there was lots of quotes from the 18th century founders floating around. The one that irritated me, and has irritated me since I first read it, is in the Preamble to the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Preamble to the US Constitution

Why should that bother me? It’s the phrase “a more perfect union”. The word “perfect” is an absolute: something is either perfect, or it’s not. Therefore, one thing cannot be “more perfect” than another. You can get better, you can become closer to perfect, but once you are perfect, you cannot be more perfect.

Now why does this matter? It doesn’t! Everyone who reads that understands that it means “a better Union”. No one thinks the authors are treating perfect as a matter of degree; the intent of the words is clear. Yet every time I hear it, a voice in my head screams “No!!! That’s wrong!!!”. I think that this is the result of childhood trauma brought about by those sadistic nuns – a sort of long-term PTSD.

Speaking of absolutes, here’s another one: unique. It means “one of a kind”. It means that there is nothing else like it. So why do we hear things “one of the most unique experiences you can have!”? Or “she dresses in a very unique style”. Again, the meaning of those sentences is understood: they are using the word “unique” to mean “different”, as things can differ from each other by varying degrees. Still, every time I hear unique used this way, I cringe.

There are some grammatical patterns that have arisen long after my childhood, so I guess I can’t blame the nuns specifically for my aversion to them, but I think my tendency to notice these things is their fault.

Have you every heard someone say something like “I’ll try and do that by tomorrow”? The phrase should be “try to do that”. The first form says two things: “I’ll try”, followed by “do that by tomorrow”, neither of which makes sense by themselves. This is a form of lazy expression, like when people say “I should of left earlier” instead of “I should have left earlier”. “Should of” is forgivable in speech, as it sounds nearly identical to “should’ve”, but in writing there is no excuse for it. But there is no such similar-sounding justification for saying “try and” instead of “try to” – it’s just wrong.

So how about you? Are there any particular phrasings, ungrammatical or not, that irritate you when you hear them? Or are you one of the fortunate people who can accept that communicating meaning by emitting a series of sounds is amazing in and of itself, and leave it at that?

Day 40: Your Place in History

I have one of my favorite tweets pinned to the top of my timeline:

“Right now” is tomorrow’s history. You can either be a spectator, or you can help to shape how things will be.

Even if you are a spectator, you are shaping events. Think about all those people living in Germany in the 1930s: of course they didn’t know that Hitler would start the mass murder of Jews in the 1940s, but it wasn’t much of a surprise either. Early in his career he told a journalist “Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews.”

It has been commonly assumed that the average German had no idea what was going on while the Holocaust was being carried out, but that notion has been debunked. It was written about in newspapers, usually in terms that de-humanized the victims. But most people alive then couldn’t be bothered to speak out: maybe they secretly agreed with the Nazis that Jews were subhuman and deserved to die; maybe they were afraid that they would face retaliation if they spoke up. Either way, their decision to do nothing enabled the Holocaust to happen.

A common time-travel fantasy is to send someone back in time to kill Hitler before he rose to power; with hindsight I don’t think any of us would hesitate to pull the trigger if we had such an opportunity. It would have been much more difficult for someone back in the 1930s to do so, however: they may not have liked Hitler, but he hadn’t revealed his true monstrosity yet. He hadn’t yet committed the acts that we now associate with his infamy. The more they did nothing, the stronger he got, and the more difficult it became to oppose him.

And so it is with today: we have monsters in power who say horrible things, like calling white supremacist marchers “very fine people”, or that Mexicans coming to the US are “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists”. These monsters take the refugees coming to our border, and rip children from their parents, isolating them in cages. They’ve shown what they want to do. They’ve shown their true nature. And others have shown their support for these ideas by keeping them in office, free from consequences when they abuse their power.

So here you are, in the middle of this history. Given the parallels to the rise of other fascist, authoritarian leaders, and knowing where this can lead, what will you do? Will you sit this out, saying something like “I’m not into politics”?

By the way, “I’m not into politics” is a subtle way of saying “I don’t care what horrible things are happening to others, because they aren’t affecting me”.

Don’t be like that. Don’t be a passive enabler of our history. Instead, speak out against racism. Speak out against hate. Speak out against exploitation of workers. And not only do you need to vote, you need to get at least 5 other people who would otherwise not bothered to vote into the voting booth. We need overwhelming numbers of people working together in order to reverse the current negative trend, and help to make this time a brighter spot when future generations read about our history.