Friday, April 21, 2017


So I ordered one of those learn-to-code packages a few days ago, the kind that offers a few hundred hours of lessons in Java and Python and so on in one set of downloads. Figured it never hurts to have another marketable skill to put on a resume, especially given my debatable future in the increasingly Byzantine world of higher education; if I can pick up a few quick projects that might mitigate some of my perennial whining about money, so much the better; and (coincidentally) the price for the whole show was in enchilada-plate-and-two-draft-beers territory. Good stuff all around.

Also, it's probably going to be a slow summer and I'll need something interesting to do alongside the further care and nurturing of a nascent freelance-writing sideline (magazine/website friends: expect weird questions and awkward pitches) and attention directed to a few other deferred things, as I think to myself every time I walk past my neglected acoustic guitar or look at my half-shelf of books written in German.

(I was seriously considering a Honda XL250 project that I found on Craigslist, but it turned out to be a pretty worrisome pile. I know that taking a pile and offering it a second life is the point of a project but my bank account likely would not possess that same degree of altruism for the requisite length of time. I also had no reasonable way to get it home other than renting something which would have added an effective 40% to the purchase price, and Wonderful One informs me that having a half-stripped frame propped up on the side of the basement garage violates the terms of our lease.)

And just in general it'll be interesting to learn something new and slightly arcane, to have some greater sense of insight into these ubiquitous-but-slightly-forbidding devices that are so much part of the everyday but whose actual internal operations are dangerously close to an illustration of Arthur C. Clarke's third law. There's a kind of enlightened gratification - a satisfaction, a comfort - that comes with learning that magic, with being able to fluently manage something so cryptic and having a greater understanding of its innate reality - especially something that works in a very logical and (mostly) predictable manner.

In this, being able to code is nothing more than a contemporary and slightly ephemeral variation on mechanical skill, on being able to thoughtfully and effectively wield a tool, on being able to understand a system and the limits of that system and the possibilities inherent in knowing how that system relates to its plane of reality.

Extend that directly into the act of working on the mechanical parts of a vehicle, and associate that with the act of driving - or riding, or sailing, or piloting. All of this is tool usage to an unusually high evolutionary degree. All of these various exercises in motion require some sensing of active forces and the ability to exercise control over and within them - and requiring ever more of that ability as those forces start to face, and face off against, limits imposed by nature and reality. And it circles back to an understanding of the tools themselves, the machines, the motors and suspensions and linkages and how they all interact with each other and the world.

It's one thing to say that this sensing and ability and understanding Means Something. It does, of course; that's one of the lovely and vital elements of human nature. But I'm starting to believe that for a good few of us, this need to deeply know and exercise enlightened control just might see its roots in some dark places.

For most modern people, sure, driving and car ownership is about the same as using an app in its exercise of pure function and very immediate capability. (For some people, their existence with cars has been subsumed into an app.) The app publishes a statement or a picture or whatever, the car carries people and stuff from place to place, and the mechanisms either requires to be able to do so are all but irrelevant. Use doesn't require deep understanding, and people behind the scenes are constantly working to make this ever more the case. They're aiming for that great ideal of seamlessness, where things just work without thought or effort. (The fact that a restaurant-delivery service whose ads disparage the idea of cooking at home is named Seamless is one of the great societal jokes of the age.)

This in't that, of course.

This is about cases where someone has a primal and innate need to be able to drive fast and well, to repair something correctly, to understand someone's engineering or business or competition decision and have some insight as to where it leads and what consequences it might bring - a need to be engaged with something that somehow makes sense, that is a manifestation of rationality and connectedness brought into this reality.

This is about trying to find something that works with whatever consciousness and identity we each have when so many important and meaningful elements of this existence cannot do so, when life rudely defies our efforts to achieve or affiliate on some level or apathetically leaves us in some chaotic space without orientation.

This is about a need to be fulfilled.

Read enough articles and flip through enough social media posts and you start to get the sense that a lot of us who are intellectually and emotionally invested in cars and bikes and whatever are, to be quite blunt about it, walking psychological calamities.

I'm not going to be so impolite as to name names or cite specific examples, and that's unnecessary anyway. Everyone in this ill-defined but understood sect of gearheads eventually reads the same stuff or gets clued in on various declarations and conversations or can read understandings into certain situations, and we've all seen plenty of dark matter on display lately. I will immodestly include myself within this situation, both because of an unavoidable sense of affinity and because incidences of "yeah, me too" in various forms of expression happen way the hell too often, both as reflections of someone else's reality seen in my own head and a variety of affirming responses received to expressions of mine.

There's a pervasive, common sense of storm cloud out there for a lot of us, and I get the very real sense that it relates - leads - directly to a love of wheels and movement, and the order and control that goes with them.

Take any number of roots: childhood traumas, strained or complicated family relationships, chronic depression, a lack of purpose or direction in life from the very beginning. From that ground then grows the frustrations of everyday life, especially the disempowering or irrational: job situations, romantic entanglements, a jumble of often-awkward interpersonal relationships or a sense of emptiness where there aren't enough of them. (My details are irrelevant; suffice to say there's enough of them, both concrete and suspected, to fill a very dreary supplementary essay.)

Enter the Car, which even in the abstract is a set of lovely and sincere promises: rational systems, aesthetic allure, cultural significance, the eternal human dream of simple mobility. Then you drive, and with motion is engagement and empowerment and a truly extraordinary set of sensations that occur as a direct result of a constant set of agreements between a driver's will and a machine's design and universal law.

Like I said, this means something. It fills part of a massive essential craving for meaning and order - a sense of satisfaction, a degree of comfort - in a world that too often actively tries to negate both of those. And in that it becomes something of a need.

Is this everyone who cares about cars? No. Of course not. (Thank God.) There are certainly well-adjusted, well-balanced people who just find cars or or motorcycles or bicycles or boats or airplanes to be an interesting and rewarding avocation. Good on them, nothing wrong with that at all.

But for a lot of us, this has become something vital. It provides a sense of stability, of sanity. Even beyond the ability of personal interests to help cope with the absurdity and evil of modern life, this devoted study of motion provides a center, a sanctuary of rationality and knowability.

I think this sense of meaning that comes with understanding how to time a camshaft or feeling the forces acting on a car and its controls through a fast corner has always existed, although it has evolved - especially lately and especially with the further insidious spread of what Marxists would call alienation, that distance between work and product.

Used to be that mechanical know-how was more common, either by necessity or association, and the satisfaction of understanding and skillfully using these mechanical systems was part of everyday life. Now it's not as everyday - as the folks with their apps ironically understand - and in that shift the meaning of the association has changed. In its emotional charge it has acquired a sectarian attitude. Being a mechanically-inclined person sets you apart now - maybe in certain ways that have historical roots, but with a new intensity borne of a changed definition of need.

And there are plenty of historical roots, fault lines that act as a map or cryptographic code for some of us. Who has long stood as popular representatives of vehicle culture? Loners. Outsiders. Vaguely mystical eccentrics. The curmudgeonly sage in the grimy garage, the insular band of societal rejects. James Dean blasting toward the abyss in his Porsche 550, Brando rebelling against whatever ya got. Kerouac and his windblown world. Captain America and Billy on their Harleys. Kowalski. Dom Toretto and his family. As mechanical aptitude fades from popular understanding, these stand ever more in relief.

Those of us who struggle to exist in this world can see that and find examples. And from there we can find truths, impossibly valuable axioms that provide a handhold. Yeah, it puts us at odds with the popular front in certain ways, but that was understood in the first place.

There are parallels in other parts of life. You can see the same attitudes in play in the arts - the skill and devotion required to master a musical instrument, the focus and sense of intuitive technical understanding necessary in writing - although, let's face it, the track record for mental health among creative types alludes to many of the same bleak concerns.

Expand past that. I'd like to think that finding some stability in this center allows us to make better sense of everyday life, but I lack evidence towards that conclusion. Maybe it helps us cope. Maybe that contrast between the systematic and the chaotic has its own lessons that help us develop into more complete and balanced human beings.

Maybe not. Maybe we just get stuck in - or hide in - this understanding sometime and let antisocial tendencies take over. There's a certain truth to the scene in "Grand Prix" where Brian Bedford's Scott Stoddard snaps at his wife about how it is so much easier to deal with a car than a person, so much better to be able to take something apart and find out what's wrong and fix it and put it back together. Same goes with red-mist charges on back roads or argumentative parsing of FCA's latest hot take.

Regardless, it's still there and it still means something intensely important. And in that it is simply something that is very, very good for a lot of us. We need to be able to make sense of something in this world and be able to have some sense of control.

The idea of control is interesting. It's not so much some kind of totalitarian authority - my otherwise inadequate self will assert ABSOLUTE DOMINANCE over this electrical problem/qualifying lap/bench-racing argument! - as it is a sense of operating within a comprehensible system, of being a fair part of something. We act within certain limits; we occasionally work to find the very extent of those limits, or seek the means to change them, but we know they are there and they demand respect because they make sense in knowable ways. Again, there's a sense of security and even dignity in that.

And, ultimately, that's a lot of what bothers me about autonomous shared mobility and so on. The chimera of the self-driving car, that generations-spanning dream of effortless motion monitored and managed by the panopticon - and now freed from burdens of ownership and responsibility - is the ultimate in seamlessness, in alienation: get me to this place and the means exist solely (and preferably invisibly) to enable the end. God knows we can be assholes enough about manual transmissions because of what they legitimately mean to us; what happens when the whole car is an app, and far too many people think this is a good thing? How do we connect with something that by its nature eliminates involvement?

I see kids in my classes who are utterly adrift in anxiety and ennui, who haven't found that handhold in systems that make sense. I fear for them.

And, increasingly, I fear for us as the world turns ever further against us.

Coding isn't the same.

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