Habitations for Mice and Vermin

Books would be precious things indeed, if the mere possession of them guaranteed culture to their owner. You rich men would have it all your own way then; we paupers could not stand against you, if learning were a marketable commodity; and as for the dealers, no one would presume to contest the point of culture with men who have whole shopfuls of books at their disposal.

What is your idea, now, in all this rolling and unrolling of scrolls? To what end the gluing and the trimming, the cedar-oil and saffron, the leather cases and the bosses? Much good your purchases have been to you; one sees that already: why, your language — no, I am wrong there, you are as dumb as a fish — but your life, your unmentionable vices, make every one hate the sight of you; if that is what books do, one cannot keep too clear of them. There are two ways in which a man may derive benefit from the study of the ancients: he may learn to express himself, or he may improve his morals by their example and warning; when it is clear that he has not profited in either of these respects, what are his books but a habitation for mice and vermin, and a source of castigation to negligent servants?

— Lucian of Samosata, from Remarks Addressed to an Illiterate Book-Fancier

Attention as a resource

From the human point of view, a filter focuses content. But seen in reverse, from the content point of view, a filter focuses human attention. The more content expands, the more focused that attention needs to become. Way back in 1971, Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning social scientist, observed, “In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Simon’s insight is often reduced to “In a world of abundance, the only scarcity is human attention.”

— Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable.

Two quotes for the price of one.

Trains, National Character

The trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar, with its gadgets and passengers, represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character. At times it was like a leisurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical.

— Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

Ranch Life, Consolation

There were few sounds to break the stillness of summer. From the upper branches of the cottonwoods — whose shimmering, tremulous leaves if there was the least bit of wind rustled and quivered and sighed all day long — came now and then the cooing of the mourning dove, whose voice always seemed far away and expressed more than any other sound in nature the sadness of gentle, hopeless, never-ending grief. The cattle, that had strung down in long files from the hills, lay quietly on sand bars, except that some of the bulls kept traveling up and down, bellowing and giving vent to long, surly grumblings as they pawed the sand and tossed it up with their horns.

No life could be pleasanter than during the months of fall. The weather was cool and inviting. In the evenings and on the rare rainy days we were glad to sit by the great fireplace, with its roaring cottonwood logs. But on most days not a cloud dimmed the serene splendor of the sky. The fresh pure air was clear with the wonderful clearness of the high plains. We were in the saddle from morning until night. The fall was the time for riding. In the keen, frosty air neither man nor beast would tire, though out from the dawn until the shadows had again waxed long, warning all to push straight for home without drawing rein. Then deer-saddles and elk-haunches hung from the trees near the house, and one could always have good sport right on the sand of the river bed, for we always kept shotgun or rifle at hand to be ready for any prairie chickens or passing waterfowl that might light on the river.

When the days had dwindled to their shortest, and the nights seemed never-ending, then all the great northern plains were changed into an abode of iron desolation. Sometimes furious gales blew out of the north, driving before them the clouds of blinding snow-dust, wrapping the mantle of death round every unsheltered being that faced their unshackled anger. They roared in a thunderous bass as they swept across the prairie or whirled through the naked canyons. They shivered the great brittle cottonwoods, and beneath their rough touch the icy limbs of the pines that clustered in the gorges sang like the chords of an Aeolian harp. Again, in the coldest midwinter weather, not a breath of wind might stir. Then the still, merciless, terrible cold that brooded over the earth like the shadow of silent death seemed even more dreadful in its gloomy rigor than in the lawless madness of the storms. All the land was like granite. The great rivers stood still in their beds, as if turned to frosted steel. In the long nights there was no sound to break the lifeless silence. Under the ceaseless, shifting play of the Northern Lights, or lighted only by the wintry brilliance of the stars, the snow-clad plains stretched out into dead and endless wastes of glimmering white.

Then the great fireplace of the ranch house was choked with blazing logs, and at night we had to sleep under so many blankets that the weight was fairly oppressive. Outside, the shaggy ponies huddled together in the corral, while long icicles hung from their lips, and the hoarfrost whitened the hollow backs of the cattle.

A ride in midwinter was fascinating. The great white country wrapped in the powdery snow-drift seemed like another land. The familiar landmarks were so changed that a man must be careful lest he lose his way. When the sun was out of the glare from the endless white stretches dazzled the eyes. If the gray snowclouds hung low and only let a pale, wan light struggle through, the lonely wastes became fairly appalling in their desolation.

There were few moments more pleasant than the home coming, when, in the gathering darkness, after crossing the last chain of ice-covered buttes, or after coming round the last turn in the wind-swept valley, we saw, through the leafless trees, or across the frozen river, the red gleam of the firelight as it shone through the ranch windows and flickered over the trunks of the cottonwoods outside, warming a man’s blood by the mere hint of the warmth awaiting him within.

The long winter evenings were spent sitting round the hearthstone, while the logs roared and crackled, and the men played checkered or chess, in the firelight.

Rough board shelves held a number of books without which some of the evenings would have been long indeed. As for Irving, Hawthorne, Cooper, Lowell, and the other standbys, I suppose no man, East or West, would willingly be long without. For lighter reading there were dreamy Ik Marvel, Burroughs’ breezy pages, and the quaint, pathetic character-sketches of the Southern writers — Cable, Craddock, Macon, Joel Chandler Harris, and sweet Sherwood Bonner. And when one was in the Bad Lands he felt as if they somehow looked just exactly as Poe’s tales and poems sounded.

— Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt had two ranches in North Dakota: Maltese Cross and Elkhorn. After his wife and mother both died on the same day, of unrelated illnesses, he wrote “the light has gone out of my life,” and retreated to the Badlands to for a period of strenuous self-direction he reference for the rest of his life.

I appreciate the gentleness of the description, and how he ends his portrait of a year on the frontier with a list of the authors who kept him company.

Infinite square feet

I’m thinking of examples of the kind of architecture that’s been showing up, primarily in video games of the last couple decades, typified by cyclopean underground facilities of steel and concrete.

The famous “Welcome to Black Mesa” sequence in Half-Life introduces the facility as an endless labyrinth of impossible, windowless spaces, so twisting and massive that no person could understand the whole thing. It’s made of enormous edifices of poured concrete slabs, bottomless pits, vaulted hangars, towering silos traced by catwalks. An interior space of arbitrary size, nearly endless, such that no single feature seems to be the thing it was built to contain.

Even the lab where Freeman works is hinted as only one of many labs of equal or greater importance, just as we’re given to understand that an Ph.D. is Theoretical Physics from MIT is just barely enough qualification to work there. Gordon’s nobody special, and certainly not impressive. What could be impressive in a place like this? The builders of Black Mesa had infinite resources, somehow infinite time as well.

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Who built this place. Where are the blueprints? Who ran the electrical wires; who worked out the ventilation? These aren’t questions worth asking, because the whole architecture is impossible. It’s an engineer’s purgatory dream, with Freeman lost and wandering not through measureless caverns, but a well-ordered madness of unending corridors and enormous rooms with blinking lights, safety placards, janitorial equipment. He travels a mile into the complex, then at least as far to get out, and not by the same route. Not likely are those the only two paths, either, which asks the question of how many other distinct ways there are in and out. How many other nuclear missiles are secreted there, how many other reactors, accelerators, train systems winding through the bedrock?

Infinity is implied through architecture. I’ll give Valve credit for drawing a modern aesthetic out of the same impulse that makes Piranesi’s 200-year old Imaginary Prisons sketches so uncanny. I’m not sure those game developers were the first to do it, but they’re the ones I know about.

As for the humanities, there’s Borges’ Library of Babel, but that place, (though mathematical) is fundamentally unscientific, un-engineered, un-bureaucratic. It’s gnostic. A soul can exist there, whereas the only thing inside Black Mesa’s bones is rebar.

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If Half-Life is the first, Portal and Portal 2 take it even further. The Aperature Science Enrichment Center lacks even the conceit of being designed for human ergonomics: it exists only to test humans (and robots) with puzzles, thus a room may be of any size and configuration. One gets the sense that GlaDOS has occupied her long solitude by designing an entire hell—and hell’s back stage areas—to which she is constantly making additions at a scale which is unimpressive to an electronic mind and inconceivable to a human one.

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I said I was thinking of examples of this idea of an infinite underground facility, so here are the others I’ve got: Hugh Howey’s Silo series taps into the same feeling, with its conceit of living your entire life inside an underground tube of steel and concrete and stairways and bulkheads. So does Playdead’s recent game Inside, which takes place in a cryptic subterranean research complex, as well as a sort of sunken, Atlantean version of same.

The true face of the earth

The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth. For centuries, highways had been deceiving us. We were like that queen who determined to move among her subjects so that she might learn for herself whether or not they rejoiced in her reign. Her courtiers took advantage of her innocence to garland the road she traveled and set dancers in her path. Led forward on their halter, she saw nothing of her kingdom and could not know that over the countryside the famished were cursing her.

Even so have we been making our way along the winding roads. Roads avoid barren lands, the rocks, and the sands. They shape themselves to man’s needs and run from stream to stream. They lead the farmer from his barns to his wheatfields, receive at the thresholds of stables the sleepy cattle and pour them forth at dawn into meadows of alfalfa. They join village to village, for between villages marriages are made.

And even when a road hazards its way over the desert, you will see it make a thousand détours to take its pleasure at the oases. Thus, led astray by the divagations of roads, as by other indulgent fictions, having in the course of our travels skirted so many well-watered lands, so many orchards, so many meadows, we have from the beginning of time embellished the picture of our prison. We have elected to believe that our planet was merciful and fruitful.

But a cruel light has blazed, and our sight has been sharpened. The plane has taught us to travel as the crow flies. Scarcely have we taken off when we abandon these winding highways that slope down to watering troughs and stables or run away to towns dreaming in the shade of their trees. Freed henceforth from this happy servitude, delivered from the need of fountains, we set our course for distance destinations. And then, only, from the height of our rectilinear trajectories, do we discover the essential foundation, the fundament of rock and sand and salt in which here and there and from time to time life like a little moss in the crevices of ruins has risked its precarious existence.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Suicide

I once knew a young suicide. I cannot remember what disappointment in live it was which induced him to send a bullet carefully into his heart. I have no notion what literary temptation he had succumbed to when he drew on a pair of white gloves before the shot. But I remember having felt, on learning of this sorry show, an impression not of nobility but of lack of dignity. So! Behind that attractive face, beneath that skull which should have been a treasure chest, there had been nothing, nothing at all.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Fashion

When cuffs disappeared from men’s trousers, fashion designers gave interviews explaining that the cuff was archaic and ill-suited to contemporary living. It collected dust, contributed nothing. When the trouser cuff returned, did it collect less dust and begin at last to make a contribution? Probably no fashion designer would argue the point; but the question never came up. Designers got rid of the cuff because there aren’t many options for making trousers different. They restored it for the same reason.

— Ralph Caplan

Artificiality

“It’s a kind of heresy to say so, but I think our race has made forms more beautiful than what was here before us. Sometimes god’s handiwork is crude. There is no more ugly thing than a lobster. There’s not much pretty about a caribou. It has an ungainly walk and its touchhole voids droppings when it strains in harness. Was there a straight line on earth before we drew one?”

— Marcel Theroux, Far North

In a book that’s easy to compare to Cormac McCarthy, this may be the most stylistically comparable line I happened to note down.

Design, a concise definition

Design is the intentional solution to a problem within a set of constraints.

— Mike Monteiro

Clipped because it’s a slightly more succinct formulation of the statement I’ve been trying to settle on for years. It’s useful to have good definitions chambered; I’ll use Tolstoy’s for art, and Mike Monteiro’s for design.

He’s is one of the few people who write about design and it makes horse sense. This article (uh-oh, listicle), which is the source of the quote, shares a lot of overlap with his book Design is a Job. I see that he has another, and I’ll read it soon.