Seeing without observing is something that has been around forever, and will be around for as long as there are people, because lazy. Nowhere is the failure to observe more keenly seen than when it comes to riding a bicycle.
There are so many routes that I have ridden hundreds of times and yet I still don’t know the names of the streets, I don’t know the block numbers, and I can’t even tell you any of the significant landmarks or things that might make one place stand out from another. Why? Because, lazy.
When I lived in Japan it was not that way. We didn’t have GPS, we didn’t have smart phones, and the streets didn’t have names. As far as I know most of them still do not. The way that you found yourself was by knowing where you were. And the way that you got somewhere unfamiliar was with a map. By map I don’t mean a printed thing that you bought at the store and followed, no, not that at all.
A map was something that you scratched down on a little piece of paper, hurriedly written down as someone explained it to you over the phone, or sketched out on a napkin at a bar, or a restaurant, or at a police box. The streets in Japan even in a small city like Utsunomiya were so labyrinthine, and so narrow, and so hard to find, that the only way you could get from one place to another was via landmarks. Addresses were useless, as you would find out when you got into a taxi and gave them an address. They would need landmarks, they would need to be told what main street they were to take and then from there how they were to deviate to your individual location.
What I’m getting at is that for most of human history we have used our brains to find out where we are and to find out where we are going. There is actually a part of the brain that is devoted to wayfinding. It all ties in of course with memory, but this is memory of a particular sort.
Even terribly directionally challenged cyclists have a better ability to find their way around than the population at large. That’s because the population at large, in addition to being large, is even lazier than the average cyclist, something that boggles the imagination. In other words, ordinary people can’t find shit. Shit, they cannot find. If you are a cyclist you must be able at a minimum to get back home, and ideally you will be able to even reach your destination, although that is far from assured.
On the scale of wayfinding and memory, I have always rated myself fairly high, and like all self graded tests, the high score is reflective of my overinflated ego and not much else. The world has needles laying here and there with which over-inflated egos can easily be punctured, but you have to take the time to pick up the needle. In this case it was a sentence in a book. The book is called “Behave” and it’s by a guy named Robert Sapolsky.
The line in the book mentioned an article in the New York Times about the London cabbie test, and described it as the most difficult exam in existence. Of course whenever I hear someone describe something as the most difficult in existence, and especially if it’s related to some kind of test, I want to know more about it. I will tell you right now that after reading the article, it is absolutely silly to call this the most difficult test ever, although it might be the most difficult test currently in existence.
It is a fact that in imperial China the civil service exam was far harder than the London cabbie test, simply because it was common for people to study for years, and decades, before they ever passed. Most never did. The London cabbie test, although it doesn’t take 20 years, can easily take several, and passage is far, far, far from assured. Read the article and get back to me if you think that becoming a licensed London cabbie isn’t beyond the pale.
But what this has to do with cycling is not too unrelated, at least not for this rather random blog of mine. Even though I now commute throughout Southern California, I think it’s fair to say that I see a lot, and I know a lot of routes, but my ability to truly wayfind is quite limited. The most interesting thing about the London cabbie test was what they call “pointing.” Basically this means going out and learning where you are, where things are, how to get there, and how to get there most efficiently. In a complex place like London, where the cabbie exam covers more than 25,000 streets in a 6-mile radius from Charing Cross, as well as all of the landmarks great and small, pointing is what you have to do in order to even think about passing the exam. Pointing is really nothing more than observing, using your brain for the function that it was intended and that it does best.
Nowadays people studying for the cabbie test do their pointing on motor scooters. But back in the day they did it on bicycles! Of course! You would cover hundred and then thousands and then tens of thousands of miles on your bicycle at a pace that was slow enough to allow you to see, and then to observe, and then to memorize, and then to pull over and jot down a quick note or 2 or 200 or 2000. As is often the case we find that some of the most interesting things in history actually were related to bicycles. Who knew?
Now that I spend a huge chunk of my life on a bicycle not going fast, and simply trying to get from point A to point B, it seems like it would also be worthwhile not simply to see, but also to observe. How well do I really know Los Angeles? To hell with that, how well do I even know my own neighborhood? By the standards of a London cabbie, I don’t know them at all. So what I’m really asking is how well is it possible to know them?
I guess I’m gonna find out.
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