Since October 2001, roughly in reverse chronological order:
One day when I was a young boy . . . I was walking along the bank of a stream when I saw a mother otter with her cubs. A very endearing sight, I’m sure you will agree, and even as I watched, the mother otter dived into the water and came up with a plump salmon, which she subdued and dragged on to a half-submerged log. As she ate it, while of course it was still alive, the body split and I remember to this day the sweet pinkness of its roes as they spilled out, much to the delight of the baby otters who scrambled over themselves to feed on the delicacy. One of nature’s wonders, gentlemen: mother and children dining upon mother and children. And that’s when I first learned about evil. It is built into the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.
Please come and say the death words over my father . . . Please advise me on the sale of my shop . . . Please guide me in my business . . . I am a long way from the bones of my grandfathers, please help me stay a dwarf . . .
This was not the time to be a d’rkza. Strictly speaking, most Ankh-Morpork dwarfs were d’rkza; it means something like ‘not really a dwarf’. They didn’t live deep underground and come out only at night, they didn’t mine metal, they let their daughters show at least a few indications of femininity, they tended to be a little slipshod when it came to some of the ceremonies. But the whiff of Koom Valley was in the air and this was no time to be mostly a dwarf. So you paid attention to the grags. They kept you on the straight seam.
At the opposite end of the machine beauty spectrum, at the farthest point from the austere loveliness of physics and mathematics, you find objects like the great designer Henry Dreyfuss’s 1937 telephone. It is not elegant in the way proofs are, or dams; it reflects the work of a designer who was free to draw whatever he wanted, up to a point. Yet the resulting design does not seem arbitrary in the least. Its seeming inevitable rightness is a large part of its greatness. It expresses an underlying technology just as clearly as the dam’s shape does.
If you make a dam the wrong shape, it will crumble. If you shape a telephone like a Volkswagen or a tomato, it can still work. Some technologies allow greater design leeway than others. But divining the shape that seems inevitable, creating the ‘inevitability illusion’—the impression that you are looking at the pure visual embodiment of science or engineering—is an art pure and simple, whether you are designing dams or vacuum cleaners.
Everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed.
I’ve often had reason to marvel at the heroism and spiritual valour that people put into causes that seem absurd to many observers. After all, would it have mattered if Sir John had thrown in the towel, admitted he was old, and retired to cherish his gout? Who would have been the loser? Who would have regretted The Master of Ballantrae? It’s easy to say, No one at all, but I don’t think that’s true. You never know who is gaining strength as a result of your own bitter struggle; you never know who sees The Master of Ballantrae, and quite improbably draws something from it that changes his life, or gives him a special bias for a lifetime.
As I watched Sir John fighting against age . . . I learned something without knowing it. Put simply it is this; no action is ever lost—nothing we do is without result. It’s obvious, of course, but how many people ever really believe it, or act as if it were so?
On an autumn Atlantic crossing in 1988, in a British cargo ship, we ran into a declining hurricane in mid-ocean. For twenty-four hours, the ship was hove-to, going nowhere, while the sea boiled around us like milk and the wave trains thundered. In the officers’ mess, the floor rolled through 75 degrees of arc, and tropical fish spilled onto the carpet from their tank beside the bar.
“Bit of a windy day we’ve got today,” the captain said from behind his pre-luncheon glass of dry sherry, and the two junior deck officers, stumbling crazily up the sudden hill toward the framed portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip, tried as best they could to nod vigorously and smile, as junior officers must when spoken to by their captain. The radio officer landed, from a considerable height, in my lap. “Oh, pardon! Whoops! Do please excuse me!” he said.
Had the Atlantic Conveyor been registered in excitable Panama, the scene might have been different, but we were flying the Red Ensign, and the more the ocean tossed us around like bugs in a bucket, the harder we all worked to maintain the old-fashioned prim civilities of our little floating England. Every student of the British class system, its minuscule distinctions of rank and precedence, its strangulated politenesses, its style of poker-faced reticence, should get a berth aboard a Liverpool-registered merchant ship in a severe storm . . .
The essence of being afloat is feeling the eggshell containment of an orderly domestic life suspended over the deep. The continuous slight motion of the boat, swinging to its anchor on the changing tide, is a reminder of how fragile is our tenure here—aloft with a novel, coffee cup close at hand, while the sea yawns underfoot and the bear prowls through its dripping wilderness on shore.
Jonathan Raban, “At Sea”
But it turns out to be possible to identify a series of intermediate stages leading up to the type of eyes we have: a patch of light-sensitive cells, then a patch of cells with a non-transparent backing so that the animal can detect what direction the light is coming from, then this patch bent into a cup for even better direction-finding, then the cup closing to form a pinhole camera so that the organism can begin to see images, and then a lens forming out of any material that has a different index of refraction to allow more light into the eye and form a clearer image. A lot of these intermediate stages can be seen in primitive animals like barnacles.
So much architecture is ugly or alienating to me because it seems completely arbitrary. The architecture presented in the book is beautiful because it is the way it is for a reason. The authors of this book believe that the way we build our houses and communities influences the way we feel and live, and that building is therefore important and worth thinking about. It is a relief to hear someone describe what’s bad about the way we (often) build, and how we can do it better. There’s a wonderful compassion in a thousand-page book that painstakingly details how the height of a ceiling, the shape of a roof, the placement of a bench in a garden, the presence of trees in a public space can all be chosen to improve the quality of life of the people who will live in these spaces.
I looked at him nonplussed. I realized that I have spent so many years being on a diet that the idea that you might actually need calories to survive has been completely wiped out of my consciousness. Have reached point where believe nutritional ideal is to eat nothing at all, and that the only reason people eat is because they are so greedy that they cannot stop themselves from breaking out and ruining their diets.