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Cruise Control

October 4, 2013 Leave a comment
One-handed operation.

Buttons to control your life. (via Mark Doliner)

I was at a wedding earlier this week, and since it was down in the wilds of Wexford, I opted to hire a car to get me there and back. As a result, I had the chance to play with one of those driving options that I’ve never really tinkered with before: cruise control.

It was an odd experience. On the way there, I switched it on, then off again after a few minutes, as the motorway to Wexford is only a motorway in parts. On the way back though, late at night and neither overtaking nor being overtaken between Gorey and Dublin, my speed changes all came courtesy of a switch on the steering wheel.

When I drive, I drive manual, because it’s what I’m used to. The few times I’ve driven automatic, I’ve had to adjust to the idea of having a hand and a foot rendered more or less unemployed. Cruise control removes the need for the other foot. It’s terribly convenient, seductively easy to get to grips with and absolutely nothing like driving a car.

Of course you realise, this means metaphor time.

Convenience is the way of the world. We’re buried in gadgetry that’s designed to smooth every possible step between our desires and their fulfilment. From the toaster and kettle in your kitchen, to the latest iPhone or Google Glass, where you only have to whisper your momentary whims to have them answered.*

It’s not a wholly bad thing. Dial this desire to make our lives easier back to where it began and you’ll find yourself kicking the sharpened rock out of the hominid’s hand as it tries to turn an animal skin into something wearable. And yet, and yet, I resist it.

I’ve written before about how Apple’s iPads have all but disappeared: they’re magic slates, on which appear a dazzling array of entertainments and utilities, designed to enhance our lives. Clarke’s Third Law comes into play here: we can still identify the iPad and its ilk as technology because we have to plug it in to the wall to charge, but its identifying marks are gradually disappearing.

It’s civilisational cruise control of a sort. We create the items to ease our way through the world, thereby in theory freeing ourselves up to achieve all sorts of other things. Yet along the way, the vast majority of us forget or never learn how things work. From technology to politics to business, we’ve become accustomed to thinking that so long as someone understands it—someone whose job it is to understand it—then it’s their responsibility to deal with it. All we have to worry about are the results. We flick the switch to get from A to B and think no more about it.

I’m far from perfect on this score, and it’s impossible these days to understand how everything works. Yet it’s worth making the effort to grasp the principles of the forces that move us, and have some ability to roll up one’s sleeves and shift them when the need arises. So I’ll keep on driving manual, and when I’m in a car with cruise control, I’ll think twice about flicking that switch.

*Incorrectly, usually, but at least they’re trying.

Iceland’s Golden Circle

July 22, 2013 Leave a comment

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A panorama of Gullfoss. Doesn’t even come close to capturing the feel of it.

Driving in Iceland is an exercise in concentration. Icelanders have long disdained hard shoulders as a crutch for the careless and the weak, and their absence acts as a form of vehicular natural selection. Allow your attention to waver and you’ll end up in a ditch so deep you’ll have to wait for the next ice age to be dug out. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to survive, you’ll be fined for damaging the delicate local vegetation.

Dr. P and I were up respectably early, all set for the final full day in Iceland and a briefly sketched adventure into the wilderness beyond Reykjavik. Being the only one in possession of a driving licence, it was my job to nurse the car (rented from RE:D in the BSI bus terminal) along the roads the led to the various sites along the Golden Circle. Dr. P, meanwhile, was responsible for navigating our way there. A job which primarily consisted of arguing with the Garmin navigation system we were given.

Luckily, the road to our first destination was one of the good ones, and once the Garmin had been cowed into obedience, we were on our way. Þingvellir is a place of coming together and splitting apart. Coming together in that it’s the traditional site of the Icelandic parliament, inaugurated in 930 C.E. Splitting apart in that it’s a dramatic rift valley marking the spot where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are diverging. We enjoyed the scenery in the company of several busloads of tourists and a horde of midges, taking in the high, narrow valley, the law rock where the law speaker would recite the laws of the land, and our first two waterfalls of the day.

We made a quick pit stop nearby for food and drink but tried to get moving quickly so as to catch a march on the tour buses. Next on our itinerary was the geothermal hotspot known as Geysir. Its eponymous waterspout doesn’t get out of bed for anything less than an earthquake these days, but its younger sibling Strokkur is the exhibitionist of the family, sending jets of superheated water skywards every 4-8 minutes. The entire area is worth a look though, consisting as it does of many bubbling pools, a Mars-scape of red volcanic mud and that eggy smell that accompanies hot Icelandic water everywhere. Even the expensive souvenir shop is the best on the Golden Circle, perhaps unsurprisingly given that this is the lunchtime break for most on the route.

However, we eschewed lunch, heading instead to our next destination and getting a lesson in the perils of trusting too much in technology. The Garmin directed us down a narrow road, where we spent about 16km in the company of a fine selection of Icelandic potholes. Oh, and one single-lane trestle bridge. I was driving a small Hyundai, but right then I wished I was in one of the huge 4x4s that are increasingly prevalent the further from Reykjavik you go.

The early morning signs of sunshine had faded by the time we reached Gullfoss, which would turn out to be the highlight of the day. Gullfoss is a massive waterfall that fills an entire valley, crashing into a narrow rift in two cataracts. The last drop sends a massive wall of spray into the air, creating a microclimate of mist and rain. Key to the experience is the fact that you can get right up close to the water, within arms-length of the torrent and at eye level with the upper stream. A little sunshine might have revealed just why this is called the “Golden Falls”, but we had to content ourselves with a distantly glimpsed herd of Icelandic ponies galloping at the edge of our mist-shrouded vision, like a memory of some ancient stampede.

From Gullfoss, we continued on our erratic route around the Golden Circle, dipping briefly into the back roads once more before getting back on smooth tarmac. Our next destination was another waterfall, but there was no one else in the car park when we got there, and the only comment Dr. P and I could muster from the viewing area was that it was quite nice. Coming directly after Gullfoss though, no waterfall was going to fare well, and I can’t even remember this one’s name.

Still, there was one last attraction to see on the Golden Circle, the crater lake Kerið. Less famous than the rest, this is still worth a visit, as you can circle the top and bottom of the collapsed cone. So we did, searching for interesting lumps of rock amid the black, red and purple scoria and then tossing some of them into the crystal clear waters of the lake below. We even had the pleasure of watching a family of three falcons cavorting around the crater, until some tourists coming too close scared them off.

On the road back to Reykjavik, the grey clouds that had dominated our visit finally broke up, letting through blue skies and sunshine. The landscape, which had a rugged beauty already, now became a thing of wonder. We passed through deep valleys and over high ridges, across geothermal hotspots where power plants steamed away the days and past herds of ponies that were as windblown as the grass they fed on. Dr. P did his best to capture it on camera, whereas I relied on my memory to hold onto as much of it as I could.

Back in Reykjavik, we returned the car after a few hiccups (apparently giving back the keys when you return the car is traditional) and headed home to cook dinner (he cooked, I cleaned again). After a post-prandial nap (Dr. P’s jetlag enjoying its final fling) we headed down to the harbour side and the Kex Hostel. The high headland north of Reykjavik was picked out in perfect detail by the setting sun, and a brief stroll past the Sun Voyager was very much warranted. Also warranted were a couple of beers at the Kex Hostel, site of the previous night’s concert and now a lightly populated and quirky bar, serving tasty summer beer not unlike Hooegarden.

Alas, a couple of beers were all we allowed ourselves: our flights the next morning were unconscionably early, and we were both too old and sensible to drink our last hours in Iceland away. The final bus ride to the airport would have to be our farewell.