Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Collective unconscious labour

I am sure that in a corporate setting, the following could be made into a parable of teamwork. I do not dabble in such superficialities and so I convey to you, hopefully, merely the wonder of a phenomenon observed.

Collective labour
People who know me even remotely well through any of my online spoutings know about my continuing fascination with and admiration for ants.
Each one is such a perfect little mechanism, so tiny and yet so autonomously capable. If someone came out with a micro machine for the christmas toy market that was 5mm long and navigated itself around a tabletop, it would sell like hot cakes, or by a more contemporary standard, Greggs hot cheese pasties.
And yet, here they are in abundance! Of course, it is the abundance that makes them mundane and obscures their true incredible marvellousness. Many times I have taken an ant, (or occasionally a woodlouse, but they are more stupid) and put in on a surface with many obstacles to see what it does. What is the programming in an ant? If I put a pencil sharpener here, what will it do when it encounters it? It goes left. Why left? Ok, now my rubber, it goes left again. Is it always left? No, at the pencil it went right. It seems arbitrary, or perhaps it’s a field of vision or scent thing. I can’t say.
But how amazing! How many bytes of programming is there in an ant? How many lines of code? And can it learn? See what wonder there is to be had from simple, ubiquitous things?
So, on Cyprus, there were really tiny ants. I gave them crumbs of feta and it was very interesting to see what happened. One ant found it, waved its antennae and went off to find a colleague. They both then returned to the cheese and took a lump each in their mandibles. Then suddenly, a whole host of ants appear from a crack in the masonry and stream in a line to the feta. How did they KNOW???
Suddenly, there are a hundred ants under a 7mm long lump of feta cheese and they are together carrying towards the crack in the masonry. Now that is cooperation! Like that Tom & Jerry episode where the picnic is carried off to military music by a column of ants, drum drum drumming along, the food is borne away by a hundred tiny bodies. How cool is that! So many questions arise in my mind at this behaviour: How did word get around? How do they work in unison? What coordinates it all?
Around the pool flew several large and colourful, if slightly confused dragonflies. They were looking for a reed, I surmised, from which to deposit their eggs into the water, not realising the chlorine would kill them immediately. Dragonflies, as adults are ephemeral. They live at most a few days after an aquatic childhood as a voracious “nymph” – a strange term for such a fearsome predator. It seems a strange way to go about an existence but I am sure they have their reasons and are dimly happy with the arrangement.
So it was no surprise to see one dead one morning, (presumably of “old age”) as we were going out to look at some archaeology. It was about 7cm long and bright scarlet. And obviously dead.
The ants had already found it and laid their claim as salvage. But their lair was up the wall about 20cm. What would they do? Well, with enough ants, maybe a thousand? They had carried it to the wall and were trying to get it vertically up to the crack which served as their entrance. The crack was tiny so what they would have done when they got there, I don’t know.
Around that corner they went and started upward, all toiling together.
But gravity was not playing. So more ants came. And then gravity conceded. And up the wall the ants heaved the mighty dragonfly carcass. I was astounded and marveled at the sum of the tiny attractive forces of thousands of tiny ant feet as they shuffled up the wall with their burden.
It would fall, and then more ants would come and the vertical march would resume.
We had to go out then, though I could have watched for longer. The dragonfly was not there at tea-time. I wonder what happened. Maybe they gave up and hollowed it out, and then dismantled it. They couldn’t have know that the climb was futile due to the crack being far smaller than the dragonfly. Ant intelligence only extends to cooperation and not to foresight, it seems.
But I do think ants are amazing and am puzzled by the organisation that appears to happen simultaneously with a huge number of individuals. How does it happen? Is is pheromonal? Who knows? All I know Is: I never get tired of watching it.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Just a typical tale of everyday travel

I am awakened from my improbable sleep by the clacking of false teeth from behind me. Before take-off, I had done my usual going-on-standby trick and before the wheels had retracted into the fuselage of the plane, I was fast asleep.
And now the trolley had passed me by and the cabin attendent was way down the aisle, handing out little bags containing a mini bounty bar and a sandwich seemingly made from cork table mats and yellow rubber sheeting by someone visually impaired.
The mastication of these morsels was what had awoken me, despite my being inured to the considerably intrusive engine noise.
I smiled what I perceive to be my winning smile at the attendent as she passed by on the way back to her little secret cubby-hole down the front. Probably this smile is nothing of the kind and most likely resembles the gurn of baby about to disgorge its most recent feed.
However, regardless of its appearance, my smile elicited a perfunctory frosty smile in return and a small paper bag of nosh which was gartefully received.
I have not travelled in a while - some months in fact - and I have not missed it one bit. Apart from my voluntary four hour incarceration on a Thompson holiday flight to and from Cyprus with my family (now amazed at my endurance to "do that every week???"), I have not been on a plane for nine weeks.
And what joy it was being grounded!
Now here I am once more eating cardboard food and listening the the ghastly hawking of phlegm from the trachea of the old chap behind me while his wife continues her ersatz-dental assault on the renegade strands of dessicated coconut still trapped in her plate.
I think my tolerance is waning. I have had fifteen years of jumping on and off planes, pretending to be interested in whatever new product I am supposed to be presenting in glowing terms or nodding sagely and sympathetically while tales of technical woe are descried to me for diagnosis and cure. And frankly, I am struggling to continue to impart significance to it. Its hardly furthering the progress of humanity towards compassion or equality is it?
And so as the conurbations of Dusseldorf heave into sight through the windows of the plane, I resolve slowly but firmly to investigate alternatives. What do I want to do and what skills do I have to offer, besides my verbosity and questionable grasp of French and German?
I don’t know but if anyone has any ideas, do please let me know.

I caught the train no problem. The station at Dusseldorf Flughafen was unmanned but the automated ticket machine was very helpful in English, and step by step, enabled me to purchase my outbound and return tickets to Paderborn Hauptbahnhof. Alas, a person would have been of help in order for me to ascertain if it was straight through or if I had to change. A man on the train said it was “direkt!”
But it wasn’t and now I am in Hamm (westf) on a deserted platform at 9:45 awaiting the connection after twigging that when the train didn’t move for ten minutes, it had reached the end of its journey.
And so here I sit. I hadnt eaten since lunchtime and was beginning to fade, when I remembered some vestiges of leftover holiday change! Aha! All shrapnel, indeed, but the vending machine takes it! One euro and about 87cents. A coin falls and rolls under the machine to be lost forever. It looked like 20c. I wonder if that will be significant later. I have a peanut brittle thingy, a kind of waffle and a small 200ml sachet of capri sun, absolute nectar.
But no! My mini-feast savoured slowly, I espy the sign WC and head over to relieve myself since my full bladder is becoming inisistent. But oh no! Its 60c for a pee! I wish I had that 20c!

So I am stranded in the middle of Germany, in a dark deserted railway station, awaiting some indeterminate train connection, with not even enough money for a piss! Travel is exciting, isnt it….
And now the train is here! I know it’s the right one because it says so. Aha! I have a 1st class ticket and though small there is a separate comparment up one end with a 1 on it. Good: Power for my laptop at last!
No luggage. What ? No luggage? Bugger that! The comparment is empty save a late middle-aged couple. I sit down, putting my case under the table and realise there is that silent outrage in their demeanor that I am so familiar with. Yes! I DO have a first class ticket, even if I might appear a bit scruffy by local standards!
So often here, people, especially of that generation, seem to suddenly take on an air of intense disapproval, indeed like there is a kind of suppressed almost-apoplexy at some rule or custom that I have unwittingly contravened. And I never know what it is.
They stare. I stare back. What? WHAT????? They break eye contact. I am still none the wiser as to what they are upset about. They bristle a bit but eventually settle down. And now trhe train is moving. Halleluja!! I wonder if there is a toilet on here.
I try to make some phone calls, just to remind myself by that tenuous connection that the world is still out there beyond that dark countryside. But no, the connection is just too tenuous and each call drops out after 10 seconds, leaving me not realising and rabbiting on my plight to the empty ether.
I slump back in my seat and gaze apathetically out of the window thinking of nothing in particular.

Later, I arrive by taxi at my hotel. Ahh, such comfort! There are consolations. It is a very nice hotel and very welcome now. I drop my bags in my rather plush room and head to the bar where two older fat ladies are smoking cigars and watching indulgently as people come in and out.
I order a beer and three quarters of it go down very easily, but I labour over the last quarter and decide there has been enough Wednesday for today. I head to my room.

Flicking through the channels, I am unimpressed. There appears to be a host of pseudo-ducumentaries following police as they hassle tramps or chat shows of overly enthusiastic perfectly scrubbed members of the German populace discussing currrent events. And of course there is the porn.
In latter years there appears to have been a move towards showing home-grown ladies of the “girl next door” variety, going about their chores smoochily whilst removing clothing for the camera. The expressions and demeanour range from poorly attempted coquettish pout to self-conscious eyes-darting discomfort. A cute lady of about about 35 stretches across a worktop in just a black thong and stockings and I find myself stifling a yawn. She feebly and unconvincingly waves a duster at some mugs and the banality of the scene is complete.
Odd, isnt it: A few years ago, I would have been agog! The sight of a stocking top could once leave me immobile for some minutes of silent introspection, (and in some contexts still holds disproportionate allure, I confess) but now, I seem somehow immune to any appeal this tableau might ever have possessed. I wonder why this is. Am I merely getting old, or is this display of the trappings of sexuality so devoid of any personal reference that it no longer holds any fascination for me?
I am still wondering this as I nod off to sleep, remote in hand. My last thought is guilt as I hit standby with the last vestiges of the days motivation, knowing I should really get up and hit the proper off button.
I leave my unconscious to assimilate the days happenings and bid Wednesday the 5th of August 2009 adieu.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

I aint carrying no handbag!

It started with the realisation that I could not read the map. In the dim light of the car interior, the tiny font was competely indecipherable, leaving us stranded looking for some unnamed street in the suburbs of Pafos.
My shorts have two pockets on the legs. In one I keep my wallet, in the other my phone. On holiday, I have the dilemma of where to put a camera but mercifully, the camera has a case which has a belt loop atttached and so, with quick draw photography a definite bonus in a location where lizards and butterflies are apt to appear and disappear with little announcement, I keep it there, uncool though it might appear.
But suddenly there was the possibilitiy, nay the necessity, of reading glasses. Where would they live and how would I ensure I did not lose them?
The realisation of their necessity had already been made apparent six months earlier as I attempted to read the map I had printed to guide my way in Munich. On a layby on the A3 one foggy January day, I found myself unable to discern the number of the autobahn from the google maps offering of the area. Was that 83? 93? 98? Oh! This wouldn’t do! I have to sort this out. And had I? No. Pride stopped me: and the belief that immortality, freedom from bodily degredation was mine, not like everyone else who had previously and erroneously believed it. I actually was suffering none of the age-related decline that afflicted lesser mortals.
Except now I couldn’t read the bloody map whereas, a year ago I could have!
The trip to the opticians had confirmed it: +0.75 in each eye where before it was perfect. Reading glasses they said would become necessary but I didn’t have to do it now (though the eager demeanor of the lad in Specsavers idicated he would be most disappointed if I didn’t).
And so, his get-out accepted, the denial continued. My eyesight was still ok as long as the light levels remained reasonable. After all., who can read in poor light?
But here I was frustrated and slightly ashamed in the municipal car park in Pafos, having to call the owner of the vila for directions because I had been hitherto too proud to get myself the reading glasses I knew deep down were necessary, despite the implications for my own sudenly apparent ordinary mortality.
But, and returning to my original point, where does one keep glasses? In the course of a day’s activity, a wallet can be accommodated. A passport even. A phone, obviously. But where to keep glasses?
In Hong Kong a few years ago, a more enlightened colleague had persuaded me to purchase a “manbag”. Exquisitely stiched from quality leather and ultimately incorporated economically into the transaction of purchasing a wheely suitcase that became ultimately required on that trip, the bag was seemingly an astute purchase in Hong Kong.
But, home in South Goucestershire, it suddenly seemed a bit pretentious and even a bit camp and despite its obvious usefulness with regards to loose change and the other apparatus of 21st century living, it was relegated to, initally a receptacle for IT related cables for travelling and ultimately to the bottom of my wardrobe in shameful neglect.
This is a shame. Ladies always carry handbags. It would seem from the turnover of such objects that the search for the ideal is never at an end. But at any one time, there is a place in which all the useful and useless paraphernalia of life can be accommodated.
The mystery of the handbag can never be fathomed. From looking into my mother’s handbag for the doorkey on evenings whan I wanted to return home early from some event, I knew there was something deep and unfathomable about this bastion of feminine practicality. Amongst the compacts, receipts, breath mints, dental floss and unidentifiable feminine hygeine products to be found, was an unapproachability that led me to find that key and get out.
But how useful that containment!
So why suddenly when I had the chance to have my own handy repository of useful things, am I suddenly so self-conscious? Just think of al lthe things I could have in there in addition to the requisite objects of the 21st Century lifestyle! String, superglue, a swiss-army knife, adjustable spanner, cable ties!!! oh there is no end to the usefulness I could carry around with me!
But no. I cannot. Even I who snorts at convention, who thumbs his nose at dispproval without just cause, even I cannot bring myself to carry around my shiny brown leather practical solution to modern clutter.
And so, where do I keep my specs? The question remains. And so, I shall continue to squint in denial.