Wednesday, October 30, 2013

from Samuel Butler's "Erewhon," chapter XXV "The Book of the Machines"

“For how many emergencies is an oyster adapted?  For as many as are likely to happen to it, and no more.  So are the machines; and so is man himself.  The list of casualties that daily occur to man through his want of adaptability is probably as great as that occurring to the machines; and every day gives them some greater provision for the unforeseen.  Let any one examine the wonderful self-regulating and self-adjusting contrivances which are now incorporated with the vapour-engine, let him watch the way in which it supplies itself with oil; in which it indicates its wants to those who tend it; in which, by the governor, it regulates its application of its own strength; let him look at that store-house of inertia and momentum the fly-wheel, or at the buffers on a railway carriage; let him see how those improvements are being selected for perpetuity which contain provision against the emergencies that may arise to harass the machines, and then let him think of a hundred thousand years, and the accumulated progress which they will bring unless man can be awakened to a sense of his situation, and of the doom which he is preparing for himself.

Monday, October 14, 2013

From Samuel Butler's "Erewhon," chapter XXIII "The Book of the Machines"

"Surely if a machine is able to reproduce another machine systematically, we may say that it has a reproductive system.  What is a reproductive system, if it be not a system for reproduction?  And how few of the machines are there which have not been produced systematically by other machines?  But it is man that makes them do so.  Yes; but is it not insects that make many of the plants reproductive, and would not whole families of plants die out if their fertilisation was not effected by a class of agents utterly foreign to themselves?  Does any one say that the red clover has no reproductive system because the humble bee (and the humble bee only) must aid and abet it before it can reproduce?  No one.  The humble bee is a part of the reproductive system of the clover.  Each one of ourselves has sprung from minute animalcules whose entity was entirely distinct from our own, and which acted after their kind with no thought or heed of what we might think about it.  These little creatures are part of our own reproductive system; then why not we part of that of the machines?"

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Who stole the cookie from the amphora?

From NY Times advice column "Social Qs," published October 3, 2013
Turning the Table

My husband’s friend made a beautiful coffee table for us as a wedding gift. We have kept it for over a decade, even though it is much too large for our living room. Now we have a toddler, and I am afraid that he will hurt himself by stumbling into the table (even though we baby-proofed the edges). Should we discuss the table with our friend and offer to give it back to him, replace it and say nothing, or just keep it? My husband votes for the last, but he is sentimental. If it matters, we rarely see the friend.
Anonymous, Brooklyn

Dear Anonymous,

You should certainly keep the table, and then make sure to ask favor of your carpenter friend to undo the damage you caused the coffee table when you “baby-proofed the edges.”

Indeed, if you permit this digression, I am opposed to the excessive degrees to which parents go to accommodate their household upon the arrival of a child, hoping to shield little Jonathan from potential collisions and skirmishes with the furniture.  Alas, modern society has erected too many artificial fences, as it were, between a child and the state of nature. If the child’s growth is to be successful, it must be about learning---both through self-experimentation and parental guidance---to examine the natural world around him and to separate the objects of nature into two categories: those that are dangerous and those not.  

Moreover, when nowadays the child proceeds to examine the world through his sense of touch, he soon makes the unfortunate discovery that, instead of natural materials, all household products tend to be constructed of synthetic materials, or natural ones of grossly inferior element.  Instead of mahogany, walnut, or teak, modern furniture is built mainly of that vulgar admixture known as “particle board.”

This appalling trend relates also to society’s increasing preference for electronic over paper books. Yet consider the differences in textures, if you will, between an object made of Morocco leather and one made of high-impact polystyrene (as the scientists call it), of which most electronic gew-gaw casing is made, as well as PVC sewer pipes. Consider also the difference between the smell of buckram or vellum and the smell of a polycarbonate-enclosed smart phone. Alas, the child growing up today is deprived of such pleasures as smelling Morocco leather, or of feeling fustian and linsey-woolsey fabrics; and ‘tis no doubt owing to people like you, who would repudiate as “sentimental” these kind of differences.

Finally, allow me to offer the following simple solution to your problem. I urge that you henceforth devote less time upon various internet-related activities, such as tweetering, facebooking, and emailing, and more upon attending to your child’s living-room perambulations.