Walking is political

Readers of this blog and of our print editions (and anyone who has been unfortunate enough to bump into me on the street) will probably know of my loathing of cars and my love of walking.

Another fan of independent perambulation is Will Self. He sees it as a cure for the sense of disconnectedness one might experience in the post-industrial urban environment.

He has a piece in today’s Guardian (in fact a partial transcript of his inaugural lecture at Brunel) about walking as a political act. It’s not wholly readable to be honest but it does contain this:

The contemporary flâneur is by nature and inclination a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control.

The article also tells us that walking is in decline, that by mid-century it may be a completely obsolete way of getting around. My recent experience of life in the States would seem to concur, that the future is not bright for walkers. It’s difficult to get from your house to the corner store without a car: not just because of distance but because of a lack of pedestrian infrastructure. Try crossing a three-lane road with no sidewalks to speak of on either side, all to buy a newspaper and an aspirin.

The “mid-century” prediction presumes that the way of the future will be the American way though. I prefer to remain optimistic, choosing to believe in a future predominated by Asian modes of culture rather than American. Economically, this does seem more likely. In which case, we’re looking at the car-free pedestrian-friendly future of karuma banare.

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Boldog Szuletesnapot, Ehrich!

March 24th is Houdini’s 138th birthday.

Regular reader, François, sends us this news story:

To celebrate Houdini’s birthday […] a French escape artist will get through a 5.5 meter concrete dome in Northern France. Alexis Hazard, son and grandson of conjurers, will pay tribute to both Harry Houdini and La Coupole, a major site on the western front during WWII. Thousands of viewers are expected to attend this memorable feat […] Alexis Hazard, 30, will be flown to the dome in a helicopter. He will then pass through the concrete dome which resisted the shelling of 3,000 tons of bombs during the war. The event, which is to last 45 minutes, will be filmed and shown on a huge panoramic screen. A major illusion to be remembered, although not an escape, but an inscape. Nobody’s perfect.

Why not pay tribute to the Patron Saint of Escapology yourself? No need to theatrically pass through a concrete dome. Instead, resolve to shrug off another of the “mind-forged manacles”. Not that doing so would be any less of an awe-inspiring feat.

Image swiped from these good people.

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F × S = k

Escapological wise words from sci-fi author Larry Niven:

F × S = k. The product of Freedom and Security is a constant. To gain more freedom of thought and/or action, you must give up some security, and vice versa. These remarks apply to individuals, nations, and civilizations. Notice that the constant k is different for every civilization and different for every individual.

More here.


Two major obstacles we faced when planning how to circumnavigate the world using only human power were the [Atlantic and Pacific] oceans. In order to stand even a remote chance of success we needed a very special craft that could carry enough provisions for two people to survive for up to six months at sea without resupply, but which was streamlined enough to travel quickly through the water.

I’ve been reading slightly obsessively about Expedition 360, a thirteen-year-long journey around the planet using only human power. This meant walking and cycling over the continents, and peddling across the seas in the specially-constructed boat described above.

The idea holds great appeal to me because of the walking element, the epic travel element, and fact of it being an entirely self-initiated folly. The thing that has most captured my imagination though, is their peddle boat Moksha.

Maybe this is because of my own transatlantic woes: constantly flying back and forth between Glasgow and Montreal, and navigating the infuriating immigration process. The idea of building a peddle boat capable of crossing the Atlantic without airlines or bureaucracy is extremely exciting. For me, it’s just a liberating fantasy, but these adventurers actually did it.

Perhaps most appealing to the Escapologist is the metaphor of the Moksha (which actually means ‘freedom’ in Sanskrit). You can have freedom and you can build it yourself. It won’t be easy, but that’s part of the point.

And you may have to eat a lot of porridge and chocolate bars along the way.

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Commuting is surely the most annoying middle-level frustration of conventional working life (a minor frustration being a badly-designed waste-paper basket; a major frustration being the act of having to be present in a particular place against your will for eight hours a day).

Does anybody actually like to commute? Whether you do it in a bus or a car or a train or a plane, chances are you probably find it completely infuriating or depressing. It’s a time sink, it’s a stress, it’s a lot to tolerate for practically no gain. Especially given the fact that the Internet exists and your office – ostensibly a desk, a computer, a telephone and a filing cabinet – is pretty much a replica of your own spare room.

I’m reading Help! – a paperback collection of Oliver Burkeman‘s Guardian columns about the crazy world of self-help – and enjoying it tremendously. There are far too many gems to share here, but I couldn’t resist posting this little thing about commuting:

People commute reluctantly … because they can’t afford to live closer to work – yet if they get rich, they’re liable to do it to an even greater degree, presumably because they think living in the countryside [or suburbs] will make them happier [but] it often doesn’t … People chronically underestimate the downsides of a long commute, while overestimating the upsides of (say) a bigger house.

The original article is online by the way.

It’s weird, isn’t it? That people continue to commute in this day and age. And so far at that. Escape it! Work from home, move within walking distance of the office, or just give up working altogether. And however you work, for goodness sake, resist the siren song of the suburbs with all of your might. There’s nothing there! It’s all pampas grass, conifer trees, middle-aged swingers, and white dog shit. Fact.

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Pie in the Sky

I always thought the expression “pie in the sky” meant “unrealistic thinking”. Belief that aliens will come and save humanity from environmental collapse would be an example of “pie in the sky thinking”.

But it doesn’t mean that at all!

I learned the other day that “pie in the sky thinking” is when we defer our rewards or pleasures until a later date, possibly never to collect them at all.

It comes from the Calvinist/Protestant idea that if we work hard today and embrace toil and discomfort, we’ll be rewarded with our delicious pastry-based treat when (and only when!) we’re safely in the afterlife. Our time on Earth, the sky-pie advocate would say, is for work, toil, effort, seriousness, abstention. Something delicious like a pie can wait until we’re in the cloud kingdoms (and presumably won’t actually have bodies anymore and won’t be interested in sensory, gastronomic pleasures such as eating a pie). What a scam!

A more secular example of “pie in the sky” is retirement. Work today, relax tomorrow. What we mean by ‘tomorrow’ in this scenario is a variable feast: an ill-defined distant lazy time kicking in around the age of 65 (if you’re lucky), or 80 (if you’re less lucky), or in your 50s (if you’re fairly clever or accept a redundancy package), or 33 (if you’re Jacob Lund Fisker) or never (if you die first).

So “pie in the sky thinking” is something we need to escape. As Atheists or Agnostics or otherwise skeptical individuals, we can assume there is no “sky” and therefore no “pie” and no reason to delay our gratifications for so long. Escapologists can (and do!) have our pie today.

Bring on the pie, I say, before we’re too rheumatic or wrinkly or cremated to appreciate it.

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