The second story in The Eutotokens of Learning, which is a collection of stories speculating on a future infrastructure for free to the end user distance education on the internet.
Copyright 1997 and 1998 William Overington.
Henry opened the letter from International Free Distance Education Publishing PLC with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety.
"Oh no!" he said half out loud when he read the contents, his disappointment linked with a feeling that he had half expected this reply.
"We regret" the letter said "that we do not feel that your proposed learning material project on Bessel functions is of sufficient interest ...." and on it went, nevertheless wishing him every success if he might be able to find some other way of getting this material published on the internet.
"They've completely missed the point" he seethed, "it's not a matter of getting it published, it can just be put on a world wide web site, it's a matter of getting a group of people to author a quality package of material by working together."
Over the next few days Henry mused on the possibilities. He could try to do the job himself, on his own. He could give up. He could try to enlist other people in a project himself. But where to find the money. International Free Distance Education Publishing PLC had a major source of advertising revenue, how could he get advertising revenue to fund a project himself. There was some truth, let's face it, in IFDEP's claim that the topic of Bessel functions is a minority interest, but that should not stop the learning material being prepared and then published, for it has academic merit.
Henry went for a walk during his lunch hour the next day. The Bessel function project was still on his mind when he walked past the local museum and art gallery and saw that there was an exhibition of ceramic art taking place. Henry had long liked art and decided to go and have a look. The art was breathtaking. He had not realized that people made ceramics such as these. There were metallic glazes and rich colours galore. Henry was entranced. Suddenly he remembered that he was in his lunch hour and decided to look at his watch. He rushed back to work, avoiding being late by just a few seconds.
The next day Henry decided to go straight to the museum and art gallery during his lunch hour. He realized that he must plan his time carefully. He spent a good half hour looking at the ceramics, some also involving glass with the ceramic, then quietly left the exhibition. On his way out of the building something in a glass case caught Henry's attention out of the corner of his eye. He went over to it. As he got closer he could see that it was a large medieval seal on a document, though as the interpretation plaque explained, the document was so faded as not to be readable without special techniques, but was, in fact, a charter founding an educational institution. Henry remembered the reproduction medieval seals that he had seen on sale in shops for people to collect, but he had never seen any this size. Such things would be very collectable, he certainly would like one.
The next morning Henry had in his mind the idea that the seals could be made of ceramic, elegantly decorated ceramic as in the exhibition or maybe in really medieval looking plain stone fired clay. Well, they didn't need to be copies of actual seals at all; just symbolic seal shaped items, collectable, no particular use except perhaps as paperweights. Collectweights, yes, collectweights could be a name for them. He was still thinking of the Bessel functions project when he suddenly thought of merging the two ideas together. A collectweight as a reward for participating in a project to produce the learning material on Bessel functions.
The next Saturday Henry sat down to write a letter to one of the artists whose work he had seen in the exhibition. He had been back again and had noted the name of the artist whose work seemed to encompass what he wanted. He specified a ceramic cylinder about one hundred millimetres in diameter and about twenty five millimetres high. They were to be solid. The artist could include glass in the design if she chose to do so. The design of the collectweights was to be unique to this project and not to be made available to anyone else outside of the project. He asked how much they would cost each.
"Fifty pounds each!" yelled Henry after he had read the quoted price in the letter from the artist potter! "Minimum of twenty!" "Has no one any idea of the importance of this project!" Henry sat and thought about the unfairness of it all. International Free Distance Education Publishing PLC could start a project on anything they liked just because they could throw money at it and here was something worthwhile and no one was interested. It can't just perish out of indifference by big business.
Henry reconciled himself to the fact that his project on Bessel functions might never get off the ground. Yet, he was not going to let it fail due to people who might help not knowing about it. So he wrote a piece about his ideas and posted it to a newsgroup on the internet in the hope of getting a response. Well, he got a few friendly, sympathetic e-mails, two from people who said that they liked the idea of collectweights and would like to take the course if it were ever published but saying that they knew nothing about it at present. Various other responses appeared in the newsgroup such as one man asking what a Bessel function is and someone remarking that there are far more important topics for which to prepare learning material and so on. However, there was no response that was actually from someone who liked the idea of collectweights AND knew about Bessel functions already AND was willing to spend time preparing learning material for no financial reward.
Henry continued to think of his project on Bessel functions at odd times over the next few months. Gradually he widened his ideas to having collectweights such that there was a unique design for each of many projects. Collectweights could be made of ceramic, or made of glass, or made of ceramic and glass together. The ceramic could be plain or decorated, glazed or unglazed. Yet solid, always solid and the clay always stonefired. Nothing hollow, nothing porous, good solid collectweights.
Then it happened. There in the local paper was a leaflet about classes at the local college. There, Thursday evenings, pottery. He called at the college and got a leaflet about the course. Guidance on individual project work. Yes! Henry enroled. He attended the class and, when asked, explained his idea to the lecturer, taking care not to mention Bessel functions other than in passing and quickly getting down to the idea of a ceramic cylinder about one hundred millimetres in diameter and about twenty five millimetres high perhaps with glass in it. The lecturer was extremely helpful and suggested that Henry try to make a first attempt at a collectweight. He left his first collectweight drying that evening.
Over the next weeks Henry's attempts at making collectweights improved. As Christmas approached he had seen his creations after they had emerged from the kiln. Not quite what he would have liked at first. It was harder than it looked. Yet now he was getting better results. Not yet up to the standard that one saw in publications about ceramics nor in exhibitions, yet he could see himself that his work was now much improved from the attempt that he had made that first evening just a little over two months ago, yet which seemed a ceramic world away. And the glazes, the metallic finishes, the translucent glazes over banded pieces of loosely mixed clays.
And Henry forgot all about Bessel functions.