but what about the cat?

When I really want to make time I take off my glasses and let the text blur as the pages flip by. Collating the scores of volumes of The Gentleman’s Magazine could absorb much too much time if I let my eyes stop at every intriguing heading or story. It was the original “magazine”, (the editor appropriated the French word for “storehouse”) founded in 1731 as a digest of everything an educated man might want to know about. Original contributions and excerpts from other periodicals and books cover the political, scientific, and military news, poetry and publishing, the stock market, births and deaths, natural history, letters from readers, engravings, etc. etc. Every issue is packed with temptation for the curious, and, of course, I often succumb.

My project is to review each volume for any damage or loss before offering the set for sale through my Library’s online store. A few years before my retirement, the Library decided to deaccession a huge number of old periodicals. Why many (like TGM) were ever made part of a public library collection remains a mystery, but I was determined to rescue as many as possible from the dumpster and put them into our store. Even the most intresting and historically important periodicals are a slow sell, though, and they mostly sat in storage waiting for attention – a classic someday project.

A grand project for a volunteer in other words. Now I can give them that time and attention, and there’s no guilt if I let myself get distracted from time to time by a report on the troubles in the colonies or an engraving of a very toothy hippopotamus or a funny news story.

from volume 47, 1777

Historical Chronicle
February 22

The ship Phoenix, from London to Gainsbrough, was unfortunately set on fire by a cinder’s falling on a cat in the cabin, and the cat’s running frighted into the half-deck, where was stowed a quantity of hemp, which instantly burst into a flame, and, more than 20 barrels of powder being on board, so intimidated the ship’s company, that they quitted the vessel, to preserve their lives, and soon after she blew up.

a poet on ‘memory’

I don’t think I can speak at sufficient length about the importance to the poet of avoiding or ignoring Kodak moments. If a poet seeks to make or keep memories, how will she ever know which ones contain true power, which would assert themselves on their own? Perhaps her very definition of memory would change if she didn’t get her Kodak moments developed. Maybe memory would not hold individual scenes at all; maybe it would have no detail; maybe it would not rise up–the pines of that morning in Yosemite scraping the interior of her skull; maybe it would be nacreous, layered regions of pleasure and attraction in the mind. Any sense of tint in the depth of the gleam would arise so slowly as to be imperceptible. I am speaking of the memory that might result from repetition. I am interested in the long ways of knowing, where the mind does not seek strangeness. We must be less in love with foreground if we want to see far.

from Synthesizing Gravity by Kay Ryan

Memory does not do our bidding, even when we are most intent on fixing a moment or an experience in our memory. Perhaps it’s just as well. Perhaps we should struggle less to make “perfect” memories. Perhaps we should fret less about all that we can’t remember. We must be less in love with foreground if we want to see far.

A word I’m pleased to learn: “nacreous” meaning lustrous, as mother-of-pearl. Nacreous gleams of memory, a wonderful image.

“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.”

wounds of melancholy

( in medieval Estonia, a student hopes to make a fresh start at a new University)

Laurentius sighed in exasperation, closed his eyes, and started making a serious effort to get to sleep. The carriage shook monotonously, the wheels engaging the furrows in the weathered road surface with a regular measured rhythm, like the swinging of a clock’s pendulum. He imagined that the carriage was a large golem made by Rabbi Eliyah, with people stuffed into its stomach like strips of paper, each one with the name of the Lord written on it. But how does that strip of paper feel inside the mchine’s stomach? Does it have its own place there, or is it just passing through, whiling the time away in boredom? What is it like inside a human? Where does the soul come from, and where does it go? What about inside his parakeet?

Laurentius shook his head and looked around uneasily. He didn’t want to get bogged down in those kinds of thoughts – he had to make sure he stayed rational. But he couldn’t help himself. Fragments of thoughts, individual sentences and memories permeated the edge of his consciousness like blood soaking into a bandage. This was the wound of his consciousness, which he dressed and treated, but to no avail. Laurentius had tried to immerse himself in learning, literature, theatre, other people’s company, anything to soothe this wound and help it heal. But it festered; the same thoughts kept recurring and the bad blood kept rising to the surface.

from The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal

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.

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

you’re old when…

“…maybe I’m getting old.”

“Don’t be cute. You’re not even fifty.”

“What’s that got to do with it? At my age, not long ago, people were already old, or almost. My father died at fifty-seven; my other didn’t live much longer. Now everybody wants to be young; I understand, but it’s a bit stupid. It seems to me the fun in all this is being young when you’re young and being old when you’re old; in other words: you’re young when you don’t have memories and you’re old when behind every memory you find a bad memory. I’ve been finding them for a while now.”

from the novel Outlaws by Javier Cercas