When I was a teenager in the 1970s, there was not yet anything you could call “geek culture”. Sure, there were bright kids fascinated by computers or math or science, kids who were often “poorly socialized” in the jargon of the day and hung together as a defensive measure; I was one of them. But we didn’t see ourselves as having a social identity or affiliation the way the jocks or surfers or hippies did. We weren’t a subculture, nor even a community; we didn’t even have a label for ourselves.
Slowly, slowly that began to change. One key event was the eruption of science fiction into pop culture that began with the first Star Wars movie in 1977. This was our stuff and we knew it, even though most of us never joined the subculture of SF fandom proper. Personal computers made another big difference after 1980; suddenly, technology was cool and sexy in a way it hadn’t been for decades, and people who were into it started to get respect rather than (or in addition to) faint or not-so-faint scorn.
You could see the trend in movies. War Games in 1983; Revenge of the Nerds in 1984; Real Genius in 1985. To kids today Revenge of the Nerds doesn’t seem remarkable, because geek culture is more secure and confident today than a lot of older tribes like bikers or hippies. But at the time, the idea that you could have an entire fraternity of geeks — an autonomous social group with reason to be proud of itself and a recognized place in the social ecology — was funny; all by itself it was a comedy premise.
The heroes of Revenge of the Nerds were people who created a fraternity of their own, who bootstrapped a niche for themselves in Grant McCracken’s culture of plenitude. The movie was an extended joke, but it described and perhaps helped create a real phenomenon.
The term ‘geek’ didn’t emerge as a common label, displacing the older and much more sporadically-used ‘nerd’, until around the time of the Internet explosion of 1993-1994. I noticed this development because I didn’t like it; I still prefer to tell people I hang out with hackers (all hackers are geeks, but not all geeks are hackers). Another index of the success of the emerging geek culture is that around that time it stopped being an almost exclusively male phenomenon.
Yes, you catch my implication. When I was growing up we didn’t have geekgirls. Even if the label ‘geek’ had been in use at the time, the idea that women could be so into computers or games or math that they would identify with and hang out with geek guys would have struck us as sheerest fantasy. Even the small minority of geek guys who were good with women (and thus had much less reason to consider them an alien species) would have found the implications of the term ‘geekgirl’ unbelievable before 1995 or so.
(There are people who cannot read an account like the above without assuming that the author is simply projecting his own social and sexual isolation onto others. For the benefit of those people, I will report here that I had good relations with women long before this was anything but rare in my peer group. This only made the isolation of my peers easier to notice.)
What changed? Several things. One is that geek guys are, on the whole, better adjusted and healthier and more presentable today than they were when I was a teenager. Kids today have trouble believing the amount of negative social pressure on intelligent people to pass as normal and boring that was typical before 1980, the situation Revenge of the Nerds satirized and inverted. It meant that the nascent geek culture of the time attracted only the most extreme geniuses and misfits — freaks, borderline autists, obsessives, and other people in reaction against the mainstream. Women generally looked at this and went “ugh!”
But over time, geeky interests became more respectable, even high-status (thanks at least in part to the public spectacle of übergeeks making millions). The whole notion of opposition to the mainstream started to seem dated as ‘mainstream’ culture gradually effloresced into dozens of tribes freakier than geeks (two words: “body piercings”). Thus we started to attract people who were more normal, in psychology if not in talent. Women noticed this. I believe it was in 1992, at a transhumanist party in California, that I first heard a woman matter-of-factly describe the Internet hacker culture as “a source of good boyfriends”. A few years after that we started to get a noticeable intake of women who wanted to become geeks themselves, as opposed to just sleeping with or living with geeks.
The loner/obsessive/perfectionist tendencies of your archetypal geek are rare in women, who are culturally encouraged (and perhaps instinct-wired) to value social support and conformity more. Thus, women entering the geek subculture was a strong sign that it had joined the set of social identities that people think of as ‘normal’. This is still a very recent development; I can’t recall the term ‘geekgirl’ being used at all before about 1998, and I don’t think it became commonly self-applied until 2000 or so.
Eric S. Raymond, “The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well”, Armed and Dangerous, 2004-12-20.
February 17, 2017
February 13, 2017
Yesterday I was hanging around in the kitchen with my older son, waiting for the coffee to brew, and he made some joking comment about my being oppressed when I was growing up.
I told him I was oppressed enough, or at least women were, in that time and in that place – as they still are in many times and in many places.
Yes, I like to point out and do – often – that it wasn’t a gigantic conspiracy of men against women that kept women down for six thousand years because frankly most men can’t conspire their way out of a paperbag. (I suspect women are naturally better at it. No, don’t hurt me. Just women seem to be naturally more socially adept. But even women couldn’t manage a conspiracy of that magnitude.) And I like to point out – and do – it wasn’t shoulder to shoulder but the pill and changes in technology that liberated women or at least that made attempts at liberation reasonable instead of insane. (Of course, shoulder to shoulder makes for better movies and books, which is why everyone believes it.)
However, as I told the boy, given the conditions biology set up, women were “oppressed” enough in most cultures and in most places. Yes, men were oppressed too at the same time, because this type of shackles is double-sided, but the oppression of women lingered a bit longer than that of men – say a good couple of generations by habit and custom and because humans simply don’t change that fast. Which is why the oppression of women is remembered as such and the men are remembered as being on top.
So I told him in Portugal, until the seventies, women weren’t allowed to vote and, oh, by the way, a married woman couldn’t get a job outside the house unless her husband signed papers saying that they needed it, due to economic hardship. (Which of course, meant the dumb bastard had to sign a paper saying he wasn’t man enough to support his family. Made it really easy on him, it did.) I’m sure there were other legal and economic hobbles that went with that. And I told him of course in many many countries in the world that inequality persists, only much worse.
Which is when I realized he was squirming and looking like he’d done something wrong.
Guilt. My poor kid was feeling guilty of being born male.
Guilt is a useful enough emotion, in small doses and well administered. For instance when I was three I stole some very small coin from money my mom had left on the kitchen table. I don’t remember what – the equivalent of five cents. I stole it to buy a couple of peanuts at the store across the street (they sold them by weight. In the shell.) My mom made it clear to me I’d made it impossible for her to buy her normal bread order when the bakery delivery (no, don’t ask. Delivered. Door to door. Every morning. I missed it terribly my first years in the US, but now they don’t do it in Portugal either, anymore) came by the next morning because she didn’t have the exact change. It wasn’t strictly true. The money amount was so small she just said “I’ll make the rest up tomorrow.” But she told me it was, and how she had to be short a roll. My understanding there were larger consequences for my stupid theft made me feel guilty, and that ensured I never did it again. The same, with varying degrees of justice, managed to instill the semblance of a work ethic in me in relation to school work.
However, the guilt my son was feeling was stupid, counterproductive, all too widespread AND poisonous.
Stupid because he could hardly be held accountable for something that happened thirty years before his birth, even if he has the same outward form as the people who benefitted from an inequity. (And benefitted should be taken with a grain of salt here. Countries in which women are kept down might offer an ego bo for the guys, but they are far less materially prosperous on average. Everyone suffers.) Counterproductive because guilt by definition can never be collective. Well, not beyond a small group like, say the Manson family. You get beyond that and you can’t assign blame with any degree of accuracy. So, going and yelling at my father, say, for “keeping women down” when I was little would be as insane as yelling at my son. Why? Well, because a) he didn’t and wouldn’t (he was raised by a strong woman, practically on her own, while my grandfather was in Brazil, working and grandma ruled the extended family with an iron fist.) b) to the extent he enforced societal rules, it was usually to keep us from getting in trouble with society in general (which, btw, included women. In fact women were the greatest enforcers of “you shall not be seen anywhere with a young man you’re not dating” rule that got me in the most trouble.) c) his standing up and talking given who he was and the amount of social power he had (or in fact didn’t have) would have changed nothing except get him treated like a lunatic.
Sarah Hoyt, “The Sharp Edge of Guilt, a blast from the past March 2010”, According to Hoyt, 2015-06-05.
January 28, 2017
Food is important. Mark and inwardly digest. Chew your food. Taste it. Swallow what you have put into your mouth before reloading. Your mouth is busy, give it a chance. Indeed, pause from time to time, to think it through. Converse with your neighbours.
My mother taught me as much. Would that she had taught some others. Americans eat very fast. Our franchise establishments actually advertise their serving speed. (This is barbaric.) They also put signs, when their “outlets” are in downmarket locations, specifying the time you have to eat before your presence is interpreted as “loitering.” Woe to the diner not wearing a watch, for they have not the courtesy to place a clock by the sign, to let him adjust his swallowing to the time available.
My own advice would be, don’t dine where you’re not welcome.
David Warren, “Elevated Discourse”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-06-11.
January 20, 2017
In A.D. 2101
War was beginning.
Captain: What happen?
Mechanic: Somebody set up us the bomb.
Operator: We get signal.
Captain: What !
Operator: Main screen turn on.
Captain: It’s you !!
CATS: How are you gentlemen !!
CATS: All your base are belong to us.
CATS: You are on the way to destruction.
Captain: What you say !!
CATS: You have no chance to survive make your time.
CATS: Ha ha ha ha ….
Operator: Captain !!
Captain: Take off every ‘ZIG’!!
Captain: You know what you doing.
Captain: Move ‘ZIG’.
Captain: For great justice.
January 7, 2017
December 17, 2016
Amy Grief links to a fake Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) merchandise website:
How often do you get frustrated with the TTC? If you take it regularly, you probably have a love-hate relationship with the Toronto transit system. And two Torontonians captured that feeling perfectly with their new website NotInService.ca.
The site riffs on the TTC’s new online shop, but instead of celebrating the Red Rocket, the fake merch depicts all of our biggest transit woes. For instance, there’s a mug that says, “ongoing fire investigation at eastbound at Pape Station,” and a t-shirt that reads, “due to an earlier delay, you may experience longer than normal travel times.”
According to the site’s creators, who posted about it on Reddit, they were inspired by subway ads for real TTC merch and wondered who would actually buy it.
Update, 19 December: BlogTO is reporting that the fake merchandise store has miraculously turned into an actual merchandise store.
When the TTC parody shop launched on Friday, many regular transit users went nuts because the merch accurately captured their (not-so-pleasant) experience riding the Red Rocket.
That’s why the site’s now live and you can actually buy the alternative TTC merchandise. The site says it’s “open just in time to be late for the holidays,” which really reflects the whole spirit of this enterprise.
December 15, 2016
In the New York Times, John Tierney says most of us are trying too hard and should just relax about our gift-giving efforts:
Social scientists bear glad tidings for the holiday season. After extensively observing how people respond to gifts, they have advice for shoppers: You don’t have to try so hard.
You’re not obliged to spend hours finding just the right gift for each person on your list. Most would be just as happy with something quick and easy. This may sound too good to be true, but rest assured this is not a ploy by some lazy Scrooges in academia.
These researchers are meticulous analysts of gift-giving rituals. Whether they’re drawing lessons from Kwakwaka’wakw Indian potlatches or Amazon.com wish lists, I’ve always found them the wisest mentors for the holidays, and this year they have more data than ever to back up their advice:
Don’t aim for the “big reveal.” Many shoppers strive to find a sensational toy or extravagant piece of jewelry that will create drama when it’s opened. But drama is not what recipients want, according to a new study by Jeff Galak of Carnegie Mellon University.
He and his colleagues have found that gifts go wrong because the givers are focused on the moment of exchange, whereas the recipients are thinking long-term: Will I actually get any use out of this?
Don’t “over-individuate” your gifts. People too often give bad presents because they insist on buying something different for everyone.
In experiments using greeting cards and gifts, psychologists found that people typically feel obliged to choose unique items for each person on their list even when the recipients wouldn’t know if they got duplicates — and even when one particularly good gift would work better for everyone.
The more gifts you select, the more likely you’ll pick some duds. If you can find one sure thing, don’t be afraid to give it more than once.
December 10, 2016
I continue to be amazed by this idea, about the passage of time. Photos, for instance, revive vivid memories from, say, forty and fifty years ago. And what was so commonplace then, so often boring, is now gone forever. It has become mysterious, fascinating to the philosophical mind: how can these things have been? How could I not have known, at the time, that the everyday was so exotic?
But we are charmed, and then return to another everyday. We have been briefly entertained, as by a TV documentary.
These pictures present faces one once knew well, but far away in another country. (And “the past is a foreign country,” anyway.) One adds forty or fifty years to the face of each remembered person, or death to those a little older. Yet in the pictures they are all young and blythe, and I can remember being among them, “as if it were yesterday.” Those times are now forever lost to our living sight: though not from God’s omniscience.
Each, let me add, went in his own way, yet there is a commonality. I can imagine going back to an old neighbourhood — now as a traveller from the future — and finding it physically not much changed. One’s heart beats: one wants to run up and knock at a door, at all the doors — “I, Tiresias.” But then one’s heart breaks. For behind each door, a shock of non-recognition. Those people don’t live here any more. The neighbourhood that appeared unchanged is verily changed beyond recognition. It is another place now. No one knows who you are.
The idea is quite a simple one: all is lost, so that in a few more years, even these pictures will mean nothing to anybody. Unless they happen to be “quaint,” in some collectable way. But the idea in itself — of our inevitable extinction — is more immediately lost, unless it can be articulated. It is not fact-checkable, in any given moment. It requires poetry, to keep it alive in our souls.
We feel nostalgia, for people and places and things, but we have lost the ability to be “Japanese” about it: to begin to grasp the incredible poignancy of our condition, and bring it into our lives as a constant, so that it applies to our present, too. To live, as it were, on the cusp of eternity.
David Warren, “On the transience of things”, Essays in Idleness, 2016-11-29.
December 5, 2016
It’s from a brewer in Houston I’ve never heard of, so the chances that it’ll appear in the government monopoly liquor stores here in Ontario are pretty small:
A Christmas Story is such a staple of the American holiday season that in 1997, Turner Broadcasting’s TNT or TBS networks began running “24 Hours of A Christmas Story.” All day long on Christmas Eve and all day long on Christmas Day, you can turn on the TV and catch A Christmas Story. When the screaming kids have finally gone to sleep, and you’re done with all your wrapping, you can sit down and catch a true American classic that will let you unwind, make you laugh, and remind you of the Christmas frustration of kids everywhere.
When you sit down to watch the movie, grab a beer. It will undoubtedly help you relax. Christmas is stressful, especially as a parent. You can see this in the character of “the Old Man” in Ralphie’s story. His father is always trying to balance a battle against his angry furnace, the neighbor’s wild and hungry dogs, and the stress of balancing life with his kids and his job.
In the mid-twentieth-century, middle-America setting of A Christmas Story, “the Old Man” probably drank some pretty boring beer to relax at the end of a long day. You, my friends, have many more options. There are plenty of Christmas beers, and we’ll get into them in the coming weeks, but there is one you just can’t pass up if you’re a fan of A Christmas Story (and let’s admit, you all are).
Karbach Brewing Company out of Houston makes a beer called Yule Shoot Your Eye Out. With a wonderful reference to the classic line from A Christmas Story, the gang at Karbach take it one step further with a representation of the famous leg lamp on the can.
October 29, 2016
My last IQ-ish test was my SATs in high school. I got a perfect score in Verbal, and a good-but-not-great score in Math.
And in high school English, I got A++s in all my classes, Principal’s Gold Medals, 100%s on tests, first prize in various state-wide essay contests, etc. In Math, I just barely by the skin of my teeth scraped together a pass in Calculus with a C-.
Every time I won some kind of prize in English my parents would praise me and say I was good and should feel good. My teachers would hold me up as an example and say other kids should try to be more like me. Meanwhile, when I would bring home a report card with a C- in math, my parents would have concerned faces and tell me they were disappointed and I wasn’t living up to my potential and I needed to work harder et cetera.
And I don’t know which part bothered me more.
Every time I was held up as an example in English class, I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. I didn’t do it! I didn’t study at all, half the time I did the homework in the car on the way to school, those essays for the statewide competition were thrown together on a lark without a trace of real effort. To praise me for any of it seemed and still seems utterly unjust.
On the other hand, to this day I believe I deserve a fricking statue for getting a C- in Calculus I. It should be in the center of the schoolyard, and have a plaque saying something like “Scott Alexander, who by making a herculean effort managed to pass Calculus I, even though they kept throwing random things after the little curly S sign and pretending it made sense.”
And without some notion of innate ability, I don’t know what to do with this experience. I don’t want to have to accept the blame for being a lazy person who just didn’t try hard enough in Math. But I really don’t want to have to accept the credit for being a virtuous and studious English student who worked harder than his peers. I know there were people who worked harder than I did in English, who poured their heart and soul into that course – and who still got Cs and Ds. To deny innate ability is to devalue their efforts and sacrifice, while simultaneously giving me credit I don’t deserve.
Meanwhile, there were some students who did better than I did in Math with seemingly zero effort. I didn’t begrudge those students. But if they’d started trying to say they had exactly the same level of innate ability as I did, and the only difference was they were trying while I was slacking off, then I sure as hell would have begrudged them. Especially if I knew they were lazing around on the beach while I was poring over a textbook.
I tend to think of social norms as contracts bargained between different groups. In the case of attitudes towards intelligence, those two groups are smart people and dumb people. Since I was both at once, I got to make the bargain with myself, which simplified the bargaining process immensely. The deal I came up with was that I wasn’t going to beat myself up over the areas I was bad at, but I also didn’t get to become too cocky about the areas I was good at. It was all genetic luck of the draw either way. In the meantime, I would try to press as hard as I could to exploit my strengths and cover up my deficiencies. So far I’ve found this to be a really healthy way of treating myself, and it’s the way I try to treat others as well.
Scott Alexander, “The Parable of the Talents”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-01-31.
August 9, 2016
I’m told by a friend that there’s a new book out, The Truth about Grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg, that apparently demonstrates how Elisabeth Kubler-Ross made up all that stuff about the “five stages of grief.” I have no plans to read it. But I’m fully prepared to believe that any hard-and-fast five-point definition of grief is bogus. Admittedly, my data sample set is pretty small but hugely significant; in the last six years I’ve lost my father and my brother out of a family of four people. And, already, it’s clear to me that the geography of grief cannot be so easily mapped.
Obviously there are going to be similarities to the terrain. But just as there are different kinds of happiness — say, winning the lottery versus having a kid, or beating cancer versus seeing Keith Olbermann booted off of MSNBC – there are different kinds of sadness, too. And how they play out depends on the context.
In terms of my own internal response, the most glaring continuity between my dad’s death and my brother’s is loneliness. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got lots of company. I have lots of people who care for me more than I realized. I’m richer in friends and family than I could ever possibly expect or deserve.
But there’s a kind of loneliness that comes with death that cannot be compensated for. Tolstoy’s famous line in Anna Karenina was half right. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, but so are all happy ones. At least insofar as all families are ultimately unique.
Unique is a misunderstood word. Pedants like to say there’s no such thing as “very unique.” I don’t think that’s true. For instance, we say that each snowflake is unique. That’s true. No two snowflakes are alike. But that doesn’t mean that pretty much all snowflakes aren’t very similar. But, imagine if you found a snowflake that was ten feet in diameter and hot to the touch, I think it’d be fair to say it was very unique. Meanwhile, each normal snowflake has its own contours, its own one-in-a-billion-trillion characteristics, that will never be found again.
Families are similarly unique. Each has its own cultural contours and configurations. The uniqueness might be hard to discern from the outside and it certainly might seem trivial to the casual observer. Just as one platoon of Marines might look like another to a civilian or one business might seem indistinguishable from the one next door. But, we all know the reality is different. Every meaningful institution has a culture all its own. Every family has its inside jokes, its peculiar way of doing things, its habits and mores developed around a specific shared experience.
One of the things that keeps slugging me in the face is the fact that the cultural memory of our little family has been dealt a terrible blow. Sure, my mom’s around, but sons have a different memory of family life than parents. And Josh’s recall for such things was always not only better than mine, but different than mine as well. I remembered things he’d forgotten and vice versa. In what seems like the blink of an eye, whole volumes of institutional memory have simply vanished. And that is a terribly lonely thought, that no amount of company and condolence can ease or erase.
Jonah Goldberg, “From the frontlines”, National Review, 2011-02-24.
August 4, 2016
In the Wall Street Journal, Nicole Hong explains why people like me need to be shunned and shamed for our favourite summer shorts:
Relationships around the country are being tested by cargo shorts, loosely cut shorts with large pockets sewn onto the sides. Men who love them say they’re comfortable and practical for summer. Detractors say they’ve been out of style for years, deriding them as bulky, uncool and just flat-out ugly.
Mr. Hansen’s wife, Ashleigh Hansen, said she sneaks her husband’s cargo shorts off to Goodwill when he’s not around. Mrs. Hansen, 30, no longer throws them out at home because her husband has found them in the trash and fished them out.
“I despise them,” she said. “There were so many good things about the ’90s. Cargo shorts were not one of them.”
Fashion historians believe cargo pants were introduced around the 1940s for military use. In the U.S. Air Force, narrow cockpits meant pilots needed pockets in the front of their uniforms to access supplies during flight. British soldiers climbing or hiding in high places found pockets on cargo pants more effective than utility belts for storing ammunition.
“It’s a reflection on me, like ‘How did she let him out the door like that?’ ” she said.
Tom Lommel, a 46-year-old actor in Los Angeles, said he loves wearing cargo shorts because they’re like “socially acceptable sweatpants,” referring to their lightweight nature. He says they’re more breathable than tight Bermuda shorts.
His wife, however, isn’t a fan. Mr. Lommel, who often works from home, seizes opportunities when his wife is away at work to wear his cargo shorts.
“Every time I put them on, I am conscious of the fact that I am now being disobedient in my marriage,” he said.
Mr. Lommel’s wife, Lyndsay Peters, disputes the idea that he tries to wear cargo shorts only when she’s not around. “I wish that were the truth,” she said. “If he was only wearing them when I could not look at him, that would be perfect.”
July 27, 2016
Having lived all my life in a country swarming with messiahs, I have been mistaken, perhaps quite naturally, for one myself, especially by the others. It would be hard to imagine anything more preposterous. I am, in fact, the complete anti-Messiah, and detest converts almost as much as I detest missionaries. My writings, such as they are, have had only one purpose: to attain for H. L. Mencken that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk. Further than that, I have had no interest in the matter whatsoever. It has never given me any satisfaction to encounter one who said my notions had pleased him. My preference has always been for people with notions of their own. I have believed all my life in free thought and free speech — up to and including the utmost limits of the endurable.
H.L. Mencken, “For the Defense Written for the Associated Press, for use in my obituary”, 1940-11-20.
May 23, 2016
It is pleasing to see a man travelling in style. Erkan Gürsoy, age sixty-eight, took the northern route for his latest visit to his native Turkey, which is usual when flying to the Old World from British Columbia. But he gave this a twist by avoiding the airlines. Instead he negotiated the Northwest Passage, then crossed the rough Atlantic (weathering a hurricane), in a 36-foot aluminum yacht of his own construction. The Altan Girl, and her master, arrived safely at Çanakkale (near Troy in the Dardanelles), somewhat dimpled by the ice. Polar bears were also among Mr Gürsoy’s perils, as I gather from reports.
Most solo sailors come from inland locations, I have noticed, and this one from the Turkish interior. My theory is that people raised along the coast would know better. My own frankly escapist sailing fantasies owe much to a childhood spent mostly well inland, so that I was fully four years before I’d even seen an ocean. I remember that first encounter vividly. It turned out to be larger than I had expected.
Mr Gürsoy makes his living in Nanaimo manufacturing aluminum boats, mostly as tenders for larger vessels. He calls his stock-in-trade the “non-deflatable” — the hulls ringed around with fat aluminum irrigation tubing. He has a patent on that, and while admitting that his craft are rather ugly, notes that they are hard to sink. (From photographs I see that he is not much into concealing welds, either.) They are also rather noisy, for those riding inside, and they do bounce about on the waves. But on few other ships can one drum so impressively, to discourage those pesky bears, when trapped in ice that is crushing you like a pop can.
Clearly, from the accounts I have read, and by the full Aristotelian definition, a magnificent man.
David Warren, “Yachting news”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-02-11.
May 17, 2016
As my father the industrial designer used to say, “Stainless steel is so called because it stains less than some other steels.” But give me, by preference, wrought iron from a puddling furnace, for I don’t like shiny. Unfortunately it is not made any more except on a small craft scale: but I have, in the kitchen of the High Doganate, a pair of Chinese scissors that I’ve owned nearly forever, which have never rusted and whose blades stay frightfully sharp (they were only once sharpened). They cost me some fraction of a dollar, back when forever began (some time in the 1970s).
Too, I have an ancient French chef’s knife, nearly ditto, made I think from exactly the steel that went into the Eiffel Tower. It holds an edge like nothing else in my cutlery drawer, and has a weight and balance that triggers the desire to chop vegetables and slice meat.
And there are nails in the wooden hulls of ships from past centuries which have not rusted, after generations of exposure to salt sea and storm. Craft, not technology, went into their composition: there were many stages of piling and rolling, each requiring practised human skill. (The monks in Yorkshire were making fine steels in the Middle Ages; and had also anticipated, by the fourteenth century, all the particulars of a modern blast furnace. But they gave up on that process because it did not yield the quality they demanded.)
What is sold today as “wrought iron” in garden fixtures, fences and gates, is fake: cheap steel with a “weatherproof” finish (a term like “stainless”) painted on. These vicious things are made by people who would never survive in a craft guild. (Though to be fair, they are wage slaves, and therefore each was “only following orders.”)
However, in the Greater Parkdale Area, on my walks, I can still visit with magnificent examples of the old craft, around certain public buildings — for it was lost to us only a couple of generations ago. These lift one’s heart. I can stand before the trolley stop at Osgoode Hall (the real one, not the Marxist-feminist law school named after it). Its fence and the old cow-gates warm the spirit, and raise the mind: if the makers sinned, I have prayed for them.
Almost everywhere else one looks in one’s modern urban environment, one sees fake. This, conversely, leaves the spirit cold, and lowers every moral, aesthetic, and intellectual expectation. To my mind it is sinful to call something what it is not — as is done in every “lifestyle” advertisement — and to my essentially mediaeval mind, the perpetrators ought to be punished in this world, as an act of charity. This could spare them retribution in the next.
David Warren, “For a Godly materialism”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-01-31.