“doing” beats “disrupting” in WHY WE DRIVE: Toward a PHILOSOPHY of the OPEN ROAD by Matthew B. Crawford

Ripe seeds of invention everywhere abound, and it awaits only a certain combination of need, of circumstance and, above all, perhaps, of chance, to decide which shall germinate.
The High-Speed Internal-Combustion Engine by Harry Ricardo, 1923

“Ricardo’s “ripe seeds of invention”…begin to germinate around some settled platform…allowing a body of communal expertise to develop. The impatient optimizer may see such an inheritance as an obstacle, something to be swept away in the name of forward progress. Human beings are often bullheaded in their attachment to something suboptimal. Call it loyalty, call it perversity, or call it a cultural inheritance, this conservatism has at times been responsibe for amazing leaps forward, paradoxically enough…tradition can itself be an engine of progress. It organizes the transmission of knowledge. It also provides an idiom for some shared endeavor, and a set of historical benchmarks, such that one can imagine oneself outdoing particular human beings who came before, and who worked wthin the same basic limitations. Tradition thus provides a venue for rivalry in excellence, the kind that sometimes brings a whole community to new and unexpected places.

In this respect, I think it is fair to call hot-rodding an art form.”

This is, I’m certain, the most entertaining and engaging work of political philosophy that I will read all year. Crawford tells great stories about what we could call the “car culture’ to make serious arguments for defending the personal freedom integral to the act of driving, and the human virtues cultivated in making and doing stuff to cars. He attacks the particular threat of the autonomous car to critique the larger issues posed by the intrusion of ‘big data tech’ into our society.

Hot-rodding as an art form is a little tongue in cheek, but he’s not talking about street racing. He describes the ingenuity, creativity, and passionate pursuit of making something better, something imagined and created through a high level of craft. I’m never going to pick up a wrench let alone tear down an engine, but I can sincerely admire the skill and passion that the car enthusiast pours into realizing a personal vision.

His title is what caught my attention. Didn’t quite have me at “Drive” but he hooked me with “the Open Road”. I love to drive and I love a road trip above almost anything. The prospect of the so-called autonomous car fills me first with bafflement – who doesn’t want to be in control and enjoy the physical sensations of driving? – and then incredulity – who thinks these systems would be any more error free or secure than any other bug and hack riddled software that we know? – and then fear and outrage – are some “experts” going to force us to relinquish yet another piece of personal independence and active agency?

I feel more and more uncomfortable with what has been aptly named “surveillance capitalism” (Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) and anxious about its relentless extension into our lives. I have no wish to be a passive engine of consumption, but it is harder and harder to defend privacy and avoid (or even recognize) the little nudges and gentle steerings that intrude into every activity.

“…the Blob that seeks to claim every nook and cranny of human experience as raw material to be datafied and turned to its own profit. What this amounts to is a concentration of wealth, a centralization of knowledge, and an atrophy of our native skills to do things for ourselves.

However one comes down on a contest such as that between…consumer convenience and a living wage, between waiting an extra five minutes to hail a cab versus spending an extra ten minutes in traffic because the streets are flooded with empty Ubers, shouldn’t these questions be decided by us, through democratic contest and market forces? That is not at all what is happening. It is more like colonial conquest, this new and very unilateral form of political economy.”

Definitely a bigger issue than keeping my car keys. That’s important too. I like to drive, I like to use the skills developed over many years and miles of driving, I like making the choice of route even if it’s not GPS “optimal”, and I enjoy (mostly) the interaction with fellow drivers as we share the community of the road.

“To drive is to exercise one’s skill at being free, and one can’t help but feel this when one gets behind the wheel. It seems a skill worth preserving.”

a truly novel laundry idea

One of the delights of browsing among old books is the possibility, the expectation even, that something curious and interesting will turn up. I recently picked up an attractive vintage book at my library book sale which both picqued my curiosity and was full of odd and interesting information

More than I actually want to know about the opportunities, challenges, hazards, and rewards of operating a commercial laundry business but fascinating to browse. My favorite entry describes the unusual technique for bleaching linen devised by a clever Frenchman who must have reaped a great return in advertising value whether or not his method was effective.

OZONIZED LINEN

An enterprising Parisian laundry company bleaches linen by balloon. A few hundred feet up the air is nearly as pure as in the open country, and it is in this ozonized air that the linen is dried by the aid of a captive balloon. The linen is attached to bamboo frames, and being rough-dried while taking its aerial voyage, a considerable quantity is taken at each ascension. There are about six ascents during the day, and an extra charge of from five to fify centimes is made for each article thus treated.

books, a refuge

To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life. — W. Somersat Maugham, Books and You

The walls of books around him, dense with the past, formed a kind of insulation against the present world and its disasters. Ross Macdonald

I really like the image of my library as a mighty fortress in this quotation. It is included in many collections of quotations but none included the text source. One site hinted at The Underground Man where I found something similar.

The walls were lined with books, many of them in foreign languages, like insulation against the immediate present.

Perhaps he liked the image well enough to polish and reuse in another novel. Possibly it’s an example of a quotation being modified as it’s passed around. I am happy to have a bit of literary research to justify a binge reading of Macdonald’s work.

Reading, pro and less so

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
Sir Richard Steele

A man may as well expect to grow stronger by always eating, as wiser by always reading.
Jeremy Collier

We live in an age that reads too much to be wise.
Oscar Wilde

There are times when I think that the reading I have done in the past has had no effect except to cloud my mind and make me indecisive.
Robertson Davies

the writer’s duty according to Doyle

…I am emboldened to say a few words as to my own conception of the art of fiction. That conception is that our treatment may be as wide as the heavens and as broad as the earth, if it does but attain the essential end of interest. All methods and schools, romance and realism, symbolism and naturalism, have the one object in view – to interest. They are all good so far as they attain that, and all useless when they cease to do so…You are right to make your book adventurous, you are right to make it theological, you are right to make it informative or controversial or idyllic, or humorous or grave or what you will, but you must make it interesting. That is essential – all the rest is detail.

But there comes the obvious retort. ‘You say “interesting” – interesting to whom?‘ The difficulty is not really a great one. The higher and more permanent work has always been interesting to all. The work which is the cult of a clique, too precious for general use, must be wanting in some quality. We know cases where obscurity of style has retarded the recognition of really great writers – but obscurity of style is not a virtue, and they were great in spite of it….If you were to make a list of the works of fiction which have proved their greatness by their permanence and by the common consensus of mankind, you would find that no narrow formula would cover them…the only point which they have in common is that each of them holds the attention of every reader.

It is just this power of holding the attention which forms the art of story-telling…It is imagination – and it is the power of conveying imagination. But we do not know what imagination is, and so all our definitions and explanations become mere juggling with words.

And still critics are found to write, ‘The book is interesting, but we confess that we are unable to say what useful purpose it serves.’ As if interest were not in itself the essential purpose!…[to help escape life’s troubles through] the window of imagination which leads out into the enchanted country…The life of a writer of fiction has its own troubles, the weary waiting for ideas, the blank reaction when they have been used, worst of all the despair when the thought which had seemed so bright and new goes dull and dark in the telling. But surely he has in return some claim to hope that if he can but interest his readers he fulfils the chief end of man in leaving others a ittle happier than he found them.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

from the Author’s Preface in The Glorious Hussar, The Best of the Exploits and Adventures of the Brigadier Gerard (originally published in 1902 Smith Elder edition of his work)

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books

As I walked through the tunnels and tunnels of books…I felt myself surrounded by million of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.

Destiny is usually just around the corner…But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.

from The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

the book as keepsake and souvenir: Shots from a Lawyer’s Gun

Among the many reasons I have too many books in my home, one of the most difficult to resist is sentimental attachment. I have practiced a fairly ruthless approach to the memorabilia issue, what might be called the detritus of a life. Precious little of it remains, making what does, perhaps, more precious than any evident value. And books, for me certainly, are among the most potent carriers of meaning and connections. Beyond its intrinsic merit, a book can also serve as a tangible link to a special person, a connection to the past, or a prompt for treasured memories.

I think a well-worn copy of Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey is the only relic of my early school years. Holding it, seeing my name so carefully printed on the endpaper, I feel like laughing again with that lively family and at the memories conjured of my own family growing up.

I like receiving books as gifts but am wary of the danger of conflating gift with giver. I also like to give books, but almost never write an inscription. No pressure, you’re free to pass it on as you like. A written name works a kind of binding magic on me. One day while sorting books for the library book sale I opened an old dictionary to see my husband’s name and college address. It was an artifact of a time before I knew him, finding me somehow forty years later. Of course I brought it home.

My husband and I buy lots of books when we travel, only a few of which, museum guides for instance, might be classified as trip souvenirs. Many will prompt memories of a trip, of course, but that is an incidental function. Possibly only one time did I buy a pretty random book just to have a keepsake. The purity of its purpose can be seen in that I only got around to reading it this month, 17 years later, when a memory of carefree travel seemed especially desirable.

So, my daughter and I were walking across England – I love saying that, and it was absolutely one of the best things I have ever done – when our knees demanded a rest day. We took a tiny bus, slowly, sharing the road with many sheep, into the town of Shap where we spent a delightful day. We watched lawn bowling, walked to some ruins, ate Stilton with apricots (who knew it came in anything but blue?), and found a used bookshop. The shop keeper seemed very dubious about two Americans in boots and packs, and was rather short with my query for “something about sheep”. Undeterred, I browsed until I found something that looked rather jolly.

img_0696

I was looking at a book about English Game Laws, popular enough to have gone to a 6th edition in 1927. The author’s preface was highly humorous and many charming pen and ink cartoon sketches enlivened the text. No sheep, alas, but stories of real life in English countryside seemed a good alternative. I paid a few pounds, tucked it into my pack, and eventually carried it across the ocean to sit until whim should call for it.

So there it was, waiting for this right moment when I really wanted something that would take me traveling again if only in memories. And it turned out to be an interesting and rather entertaining account of a slice of English life and law. The author has a sharp wit and flair for anecdotes. The drawings are a welcome leaven to the mind-boggling intricacies of the laws and their application. The layers of laws, rights, and customs and the contradictions implicit and in practice are beyond the explication of even so skillfully plain a stylist as our author.

Really, although entertained, I felt quite baffled and concluded this was definitely more than I wanted to know about when and when not one may within the law shoot a particular animal/bird, or the circumstances when it is acceptable or prohibited to carry same away. My confusion seemed generally shared among the characters populating the stories of poachers, tenants, and feuding neighbors who seek counsel from Mr. Six-and-Eight in his chambers. At least, much work is made for lawyers and much talk for the pub. As learned counsel has it, “Nothing is certain in law except the expense.”

img_0700

World Book Day

It’s good to have a day for all booklovers to celebrate together. And there’s something particularly comforting in the act of reading right now. There’s the comfort of familiar loved stories, the pleasurable distraction of new ones, and the comfort of the familiar tactile and sensory pleasures of reading.

Wallace Stevens captures the immersive experience in the poem The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

UNESCO actually names this “World Book and Copyright Day”. In respect of same, I will not copy the entire poem. It is available on the Poetry Foundation website:
read the entire poem here

tension rising in Death Going Down

Gaby heard the click of the receiver being replaced on the stand, then she moved away silently. Once she was in her bedroom and had got into bed, she took a packet of cigarettes from the drawer in her bedside table. Long hours unfurled ahead of her like an image multiplied in a house of mirrors. She smoked with relish, tricking her wakeful anxiety with the calm appearance of her gestures, her gaze lost in the whitish smoke that slowly dissipated in the darkness of the room.

from Death Going Down by Maria Angelica Bosco
translation by Lucy Greaves