Early in my tenure for the position at which I continue to work, a letter arrived. Very well stamped, and sealed up in the sort of sturdy finished paper stock that only the most civilized foreign correspondents have available, it contained a poem. In fact, it was more than a poem. It was a sort of revelation.
Somewhere in India, a metallurgist had spent who knows how many hours working out in rhyme and meter an explanation and celebration of ductile iron — or rather SG iron, a label (spheroidal graphite iron) that presumably was more familiar to his circle, or perhaps just more convenient to the rhyme.
Being new to the metalcasting game, that little detail didn’t matter too much to me at first. It was the poetry that drew me in. After all, I was (and am) much more at ease in the literature stacks than in the chemical or engineering sections. I cannot say if that is or was true of the author, too. It seemed to me that he had some proficiency in both subjects – describing in three dozen or more heroic couplets and triplets the origins of ironmaking and the discovery and applications of SG iron, using refrains to praise the material’s strength, its usefulness and workability, and its adaptability.
He managed to incorporate many colorful and instructive images, from nature, from history, from Hindu narratives, and other references, all of it confidently defined and arranged in the epic style that once was a standard for middle and high school study and recitation. It was a remarkable effort, all of it carefully typed on eight pages, sealed and delivered with the assurance that someone would read it and appreciate it. And I did.
But the poem never was published in these pages. If it arrived today it would be a perfect post for our online operation – an insightful metalcasting reference, an object of discussion, and the source of much amusement. At that time, however, the availability of space was the governing principle. It was arcane and obtuse, and just a bit too challenging for most tastes. We had more focus on our subjects, but fewer outlets.
I suppose I am retelling this story for my own amusement now, but there is one relevant aspect. The Indian poet could not have known who would read and evaluate his work. It seems likely he shared it with colleagues, but that’s beside my point. By mailing it here he had assumed that it would be opened and read by someone who understands and appreciates ductile iron. Instead, it fell into the hands of someone who appreciates poetry – but one who had the willingness and the means to research and understand the metallurgy he found so marvelous. His work found an audience of at least one.
My point now is to emphasize how much words matter to the messages we deliver, how important it is to select them carefully and effectively, and to convey those words properly and clearly — and yet how all of it is pointless if we do not have someone available and willing to receive the message.
The world is increasingly chaotic, even dangerous, and neither commerce nor technology can define our goals and intentions or clarify our communication. I’m not interested in “messaging” or “conveying,” which happens often enough with a kind of vacant earnestness — but in communicating honestly and intelligently. Making sure the reader can grasp my point, and having confidence that my correspondents can and will take in mine, is the only way to progress.
Opposite examples happen so frequently that one nearly despairs: every day hundreds of messages arrive with words and phrases deployed poorly, casually, and even deviously, propagating confusion and defeating the cause of wider understanding. “Quality assurance” — a term that features on this month’s cover — is often presented as quality “insurance.” “Assuring” a result is presented as “insuring.” Often, “insuring” substitutes for “ensuring,” which is revealing it is own way.
I do not have to describe how damaging it is to the general public’s understanding that “insurance” is so commonly portrayed as a “benefit,” or even as “care”, rather than a strategic way to guard against catastrophe.
To return to one of my frequent themes, the world that we live in is not getting smaller, as the commerce and technology boosters often insist, but it is getting tighter. We are closer to our colleagues and peers, and even adversaries, because time and space do not separate us as effectively as in the recent past. We have an obligation to ourselves and to each other, to the past and to the future, to express our ideas honestly and carefully — and to expect the same in return.