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Things that are not art- or software-related or written on a trip to the South Pole.

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In Defense of Hobbies

Sunday, May 29 2011 4:08 p.m. UTC

I’ve been thinking about hobbies lately. Though “hobby” isn’t a word I hear much these days, when I was a kid I thought about my hobbies all the time. In fact, I can subdivide my youth into the various hobbies I was interested in:

  • Model trains
  • Model airplanes
  • Rock collecting
  • Shell collecting and study of fish and ocean life
  • Model rockets
  • Electronics
  • Science fiction
  • Skateboarding
  • Gaming (role playing, military, board games, ...)

The first two were big ones. Trains were a first love, and my grandfather had a beautiful old HO-gauge steam train set with which I was obsessed. During one family visit I was allowed to sleep with the engine and tender. They smelled faintly of multi-purpose electric motor oil and of the tablets which were placed in its smokestack which, when heated during normal operation, simulated smoke. I can also remember the smell of the HO-gauge green and white Burlington Northern diesel engine I had, and the excitement and frustrations involved with setting up my first layout in our basement.

My favorite store at the mall was called Hobby Horse [the etymology of hobby is late Middle English hobyn or hoby, from nicknames for the given name Robin, which also, along with Dobbin (aka Robert), denoted a small horse]. Hobby Horse had a glass case with N-scale train engines and cars in crystal boxes which you could shuffle or rotate like a heavenly train-jukebox by pressing green “forward” and “backwards” buttons.

When I was a little older I used to wander off on my own to spend my allowance at the Midvale Hobby Shop. This trip used to involve a several-mile trek on foot out the train tracks on the west side of Madison, Wisconsin (this was back in the days when parents used to let their kids wander around unattended as opposed to driving them everywhere in minivans). After buying gum at the nearby grocery store, I would wander the densely-packed aisles of the hobby shop, lusting after the model airplanes and occasionally buying the cheaper ones that were within my budget. These would get assembled by me and my friends, painted and decal-ed somewhat haphazardly, and then have bullet holes burned in the fuselage with magnifying glasses and sunlight (like plenty of boys of that era, we were obsessed with the Second World War and its aircraft in particular).

Long before it became its own focus of interest, drawing was a meta-hobby — all my childhood hobbies involved drawing. Drawing could be done just about anywhere, required very little hardware (a ball point pen on IBM punch cards worked just fine, thank you very much), and afforded the free ranging of the imagination over any aspect of one’s obsession, whether trains, sharks, or Curtiss P-40 “Flying Tiger” aircraft.

In High School, drawing metastasized into Art, including ceramics, sculpture, woodworking, painting, and graphic design. No longer hobby-like, since it was school, and therefore not leisure time (“hobby” is defined as an activity done regularly for pleasure during one’s leisure time), art was a social nucleus and a way to understand and define who I was — not a mere hobby, but a core of identity.

After childhood, I hardly thought about hobbies at all. A decade-long obsession with physics started (physics is a bit unforgiving to have hobbyists, though there are some); I also went to art school and spent some time growing an art career, and the fastest way to piss off an art student or fledgling “serious” artist is to suggest that he or she is doing it as a hobby.

Now it is another decade or two on and I hardly ever hear the word “hobby” anymore. This may be in part because people have less leisure time to begin with (particularly in the wake of the economic downturn and shrinking incomes in general). It may also be due to the enormous increase in variety and sophistication of entertainment, from video games to movies and television, to social media and other online distractions, any of which could I suppose could be called hobbies but which lack the sort of active creativity I associate with the word.

Last night over dinner with my mom and stepdad and friends of theirs, we were discussing hobbies. Ron’s brother simulates baseball games. He and his pals gather virtually over the Internet (and, from time to time, in the real world), accumulate deep wells of player-related statistics, trade actual real-world players back and forth on virtual teams, and slug out simulated National League games using intricate rule systems. Ron’s brother apparently thinks (and talks) a great deal about this activity despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it provides absolutely no illusion that, if only one worked hard enough, one could eke out some sort of living as a “professional.”

The boundary between hobby and profession seems to be whether the activity is paying the bills (this distinction is especially important to the IRS, which essentially uses the profitability of one’s activity to determine whether expenses in support of that activity are tax deductible). Yet many of my friends in the visual or performing arts, myself probably included, will never support themselves and their families solely on their artistic activities (even art and dance professors still have to teach, and teaching is a profession in its own right). Nevertheless, they would not consider themselves hobbyists — a word that we associate with dilettantism or lack of seriousness.

I think it’s time to rehabilitate the word “hobby.” Unlike professions, hobbies can wax and wane without shame. To have a hobby is to be an amateur, meaning one who loves something. To have a craft, whether it’s needlework, growing orchids, or fixing your car. My dad’s hobby is making deep Web sites for family genealogy and media. I know guys who collect, fix and modify 1970s and ’80s era personal computers. Another friend restores prairies.

At the moment, I am, among other things, a professional programmer. I wonder what it would be like to be a hobbyist programmer. One who programs solely for the love of programming, who has the luxury of taking time to make things as beautiful and as clean as possible, to polish and craft code like a jeweler or a fine cabinetmaker. Instead of walking for hours on the railroad tracks to the hobby store (the store is long gone and the tracks have been replaced by a bike trail), I imagine a similar preparatory activity, walking outdoors among the trees, calming my head and refreshing my body, and then sitting down to engage with … my hobby.


Wednesday, Feb. 17 2010 9:31 p.m. UTC

One thing I love about the Kindle is the fact that you can 'highlight’ text (I never mark inside paper books because it somehow feels like blasphemy, perhaps the last guilty vestige of my Catholic upbringing). It is perhaps less well known that if you connect the Kindle to your computer, you can download a file called My Clippings.txt from the 'documents’ folder and do what you like (within legal limits) with the selections you’ve highlighted.

I think it’s within the realm of fair use to share a few of my favorite tidbits here:

LEAVE A HOUSE empty in Malibu, Tessa told Chevette, and you get the kind of people come down from the hills and barbecue dogs in your fireplace.” — William Gibson, All Tomorrow’s Parties

“That which is overdesigned, too highly specific, anticipates outcome; the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace.” — ibid

“Wouldn’t be a bad job, as bad jobs went.” — ibid

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” — Herman Melville, Moby Dick

“On one side hung a very large oilpainting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted. But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. THAT once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself? In fact, the artist’s design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.” — ibid

“In small towns people scent the wind with noses of uncommon keenness.” — Stephen King, The Stand

“He was a spear-carrier, the army version of a Mafia button-man, ....” — ibid

Sometimes I highlight just a word, a small treat to be shared on a later occasion. Examples:

  • spicules
  • congeries
  • apotheosis
  • fatuous
  • panic grass
  • coverts
  • vixen
  • crumps
  • brindled
  • tawny
  • tophet
  • shitcan
  • neologism
  • obliquity
  • scud
  • ruck
  • forecastle
  • gravid
  • catarrh

These from Annie Proulx, Stephen King, Herman Melville, William Gibson. Pondering words like these makes me love the English Language.

The Cruel Stranger

Tuesday, Nov. 10 2009 2:53 a.m. UTC

Planetary Convergence III

Came across an interesting post today by author R. Scott Bakker, writing on about his novel, “Neuropath.” He has some interesting things to say about the sometimes alien and unpalatable conclusions provided by science, an institution which he likens to a “cruel stranger”:

So here’s the question: What other bitter pills does science hold in store for us? The cruel stranger isn’t finished, you can bet the family farm on that simply because nothing is final in science. So what other stomach churning surprises does it hold in store for us? And what happens if it begins telling us things that are out and out indigestible?

What if science, the greatest institutional instrument of discovery in history, starts telling us there’s no such thing as choices, or stranger still, selves? What if the portrait of humanity that science ultimately paints strikes us as immediately and obviously inhuman?

I have been long intrigued by the ability of science to dish up conclusions in which are difficult to accept. The obvious example is evolution, but evolution is something I personally grew up with and actually find comforting (our literal kinship with the rest of the animal kingdom). However, some of science’s conclusions about the physical world are hard to swallow. Einstein, for one, could never accept the randomness inherent in the quantum theory (“God does not play dice with the universe”). I, for one, am pained by notions such as the inaccessibility of distant stars or the notion of the end of the universe.

The latter idea is particularly difficult and intriguing for me. As a non-theist with strong Buddhist leanings, what I want to believe (so long as I have beliefs!) is that the universe will continue to manifest forever in a sort of infinite, awesome, endless dance of change. However, while the cosmological picture has evolved tremendously even in my lifetime, and will probably change more, the dominant theory (as I understand it) currently has the universe continually expanding at ever increasing speeds under the influence of dark energy, as the stars gradually burn out, grow cold and dark. Ultimately, very little can happen in such an asymptotic universe… certainly not any form of life as we can currently imagine it.

On the human scale, one struggles to accept one’s own mortality, but it is a comfort to think of the world continuing on. Of course, the eventual fate of the Earth is likely evaporation as the sun expands.. But the cosmos will always be there, with new beings, new civilizations, or at least, the vast beauty of astronomical phenomena. Or will it?

Forget mortality, forget the utter insignificance of humanity in the crushing vastness of the cosmos. If the universe itself dies (becomes static), then change itself will come to an end. Where is the comfort in that? Fortunately, cosmology as a science is truly in its infancy (for example the vast majority of the mass-energy in the universe, in the form of dark energy and dark matter, are still almost completely unknown to us), so the picture will probably continue to evolve. But what if science tells us that the universe really has a finite (if very very very long) life span? The Cruel Stranger will have struck yet again… and, certainly, not for the last time.

Man on Wire

Friday, Oct. 9 2009 1:30 a.m. UTC

Still from James March’s “Man on Wire”

Growing up in the Midwest speaking English like everyone else around me, I always thought my native tongue was somewhat ordinary, even ugly. In high school and beyond, I loved studying French for the glimpses it afforded into other ways of thinking, ways which I may have presumed were more culturally sophisticated. French was the language of Baudelaire, of wine and cuisine, of Louis XIV and Napoléon; of Monet, Delacroix, Ingres.

I think it took me many years of reading English prose and making small forays into other languages (something I still enjoy) to truly appreciate how marvelous a language English really is. For one thing, at roughly 1 million words, it far outstrips most other languages in terms of vocabulary (though perhaps half of those are technical terms). The sheer lexicographic heft of English provides enormous expressive power — when several similar words exist for the same thing, one can choose the one with exactly the right associations or poetic impact.

Yet, as with any language, English has words whose equivalents in other languages are more beautiful. “Beautiful,” for example, is not a beautiful word. It sounds a bit prim, or prissy. “Beau,” on the other hand, is such a simple word, barely an exhale, or a sigh. It is far superior to its English cousin, in my opinion.

“Beau” is a word you hear a lot towards the end of __Man on Wire, a film by James March which portrays the efforts of Frenchman Philippe Petit, in 1974, to cross between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on a tightrope. While the film itself is very well made, what is particularly captivating is the story — how Petit and his friends combined vision and inspiration, careful planning, stealth, stamina and, above all, courage, to stage an act which transformed not just themselves, but also the public’s view of the Towers.

I was somewhat incredulous to hear, years after the fact (I was only eight years old at the time of the stunt) that someone had tightroped between the two buildings. Now, of course, the imagery in the film is amped and torqued in gut-wrenching ways by the ghastly absence of the Towers themselves and the collective memory of their destruction, burned on the retinas and the psyches on so many of us who remember seeing them fall on live television. Yet the tears shed by the participants in the film, interviewed decades after the fact, do not seem to be about the fallen towers themselves, but about the purity and intensity of the moments before, during, and after Petit’s walk, and the beauty created, however briefly, on that day — August 7, 1974.

Seeing the film (made just last year) transforms the memory of the Towers from one of trauma to something more like transcendence. One of the film’s ironies is that it invites comparison between the clandestine, overseas preparations of the youthful Petit and his friends to what one imagines the nineteen hijackers’ final months and days were like (it would make an interesting film to try to capture their point of view honestly, but I doubt the world is ready for such a film). The contrast, very vivid, and never stated in any form in the film itself, is an obvious one: the sheer horror of Sept. 11, versus the joy and amazement generated by the simple feat of walking between the two buildings, more than 400 meters above the streets below. Yet perhaps it shows the power of art that such comparisons fade when one is shown Petit’s feat on its own terms. In the space left behind by the towers, one imagines the space between them — and the courage required to face imprisonment by a foreign police force or, equally likely, death at the hands of high winds and gravity. To achieve the impossible — not for the sake of destruction, but for beauty. Comme c’est beau.

Curmudgeon's Guide to Health Care

Wednesday, July 8 2009 6:40 p.m. UTC

Here’s a +1 Google Boost for Jim’s “Guide to Health Care.” Let’s get it done, folks….

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