Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Emotion and reason

It is said that before the emergence of reason, the kind of logic that we do not instictively use but which says things like "if A=B and B=C, then A must equal C", there was a more primitive way of doing things. The original form of reasoning was emotional.

For millions of years of evolution, we relied of how something made us feel to decide what we did and mostly this was a visceral instinctual response rather than a considered one.
And this made sense. When you were a stone age child and your thrown toy spear went into the bushes, if fear of leopards decreed you left it there and did not pursue it, it stayed there. Unless of course someone bigger, braver or more capable decided to retrieve it.
Emotions, in the form of instinct, kept us safe, or rather kept those ancestors who survived to ultimately produce us safe. It kind of works, up to a point.

But then, about 10,000 years ago came civilisation and with it, a whole set of new ways to live. Forests were cut down and the darkness of their gloom banished along with the creatures who inhabited them. Less often did we have to fear the sharp teeth of bitey things and the pouncing of predators.
But the emotions remained. Look into a wood late at night and see what ancient warnings they still issue. This system is still perfectly functioning within us.

And then came trade and organised labour and all those constructs that made us such a successful species, but which required a way of thinking that evaluated our situations with regard to other parameters beyond those of survival. We learned to reason more systematically regarding the use of resource and its deployment. And as a result, ultimately, we have civilisation as we know it today, which is based almost entirely on the fruits of that pinnacle of reason: The Scientific Method. It gives us our food, our transport, our health, and regardless of individual opinions on it, our survival as an abundant species far beyond the Malthusian bounds which should limit our numbers.

But we are still very poor at reasoning. Flaws such as availability error, fundamental attribution error and the sunk cost fallacy all plague our daily decisions. It seems that the older version of decision making, emotions, still dominate since they have helped us through millions of years of tricky evolution and been honed by the process to be the best we could do under non-optimal conditions.
And we have this upstart Reason which has been around in its current form for probably about ten thousand years, though it appears it may have been in operation long before, perhaps when we were a small band of homo sapiens eking out a living in East Africa some 65000 years ago or so. Somebody must have said "Oh look! It's getting really crowded round here and there just isn't enough antelope and tubers to go round. How about some of us head off that way over the horizon? There's bound to be more food over there!" And they did and now there's us.

It is a very useful approach but still contains many flaws that evolution has not had time to iron out (partly because rationality has itself subverted evolution thereby removing many of the pressures that would have seen it refined by ruthless removal of flawed approaches)
So, since reason is new-ish, it hasn't had the bugs ironed out yet, we still "allow" emotions to dominate proceedings even when we are trying to be rational or when they are inappropriate to the modern day with its laws and strictures upon behaviour.

Mostly, I don't have a problem with this (apart from on Saturday nights when aggression given vent by alcohol is rather too revalent around here). Some of my most enjoyable outcomes have been as the result of emotional reasoning. It makes sense to buy this bike as the spec is higher, but I like this other one more so I will buy that. And I did and it was a bloody lovely bike.
But also some of my most stupid and regrettable actions were emotional and in those cases a bit of rational thought could have prevented a significant amount of grief all round. But we are human and this happens.

What strikes me most about emotions, however, is their sheer unpredictability. We cannot know how they will behave under certain situations. It seems that since the process of prediction is predicated upon logical projection of factors in situations, we cannot apply the process to emotions.

For instance: When my father died, we had a lot of warning. As an alcoholic, his downward spiral was only ever going to end one way. We knew this and it took time enough for us to be able regard the outcome with some degree of contemplation. In that time, I often thought about how I would feel when he finally went. I thought I had some idea and that it would be the usual feelings of loss, sadness and bereavement.
However, when it happened, there were a whole load of hitherto unexpected emotions (which I wont go into now since they are somewhat personal and irelevent to the point I am attempting to make). I was astonished at how I felt. Astonishment also was unexpected. It turned out that my predictions of what I would feel were largely wrong. But my emotions seemed to act rather well in my best interest and the blow was softened somewhat by how I felt.

This is one example of a situation where projection of events failed to give an accurate prediction of subsequent emotions. There are more but I think the point does not require further illustration.

But it was a lesson I learned which has not been entirely helpful except to teach me not to try to anticipate how I will feel under certain circumstances, because my expectations will most likely be wrong.

Emotions will do as they will. They had their way for millions of years and will not yield to our bidding now. And, frankly, in general, I am glad they do not. I rather enjoy their rebellious and absolute refusal to be coralled and controlled. It keeps life interesting, as long as we have the wit to acknowledge them and to be wary of their demands on occasion.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Breakfast in Bavaria

Hotel breakfast-room toasters are always inadequate. I have made a study of this all over the world and it is universally true that bread inserted and exposed to their elements for any amount of time will remain resolutely untoasted. This disappoints me more that the tea which is increasingly available in hotels on mainland Europe. The improvements are, presumably as a result of customer complaints, in provision of tea, hot(-enough) water and milk which doesn't taste artificial. A almost-decent cup of tea is now a possibility which I find deeply satisfying.

I am in the Munich Airport Sheraton, where I have been for a few days whilst I conduct some meetings in Augsburg. As hotels go, it does make you feel that it takes you by the ankles and shakes the very money from your pockets. Its not that nice and its quite expensive. But then there is the 14 euro for parking every night and the 20 euro for breakfast. It feels a bit skinflinty to me.

But I am not here to write a hotel review, though I am probably rather well placed to do so, no. Breakfast made me very pensive and I feel the urge to clarify my thoughts here in writing.

Breakfast rooms in hotels always provide much food for thought, as well as the other kind. There is always a variable array of plates, jars and bowls, accompanied by elaborate devices with containers that keep sausages hot, make bacon sweaty and turn scrambled egg to a kind of durable polymer of which shoe soles could possibly be fashioned. I stand at these things still bewildered after several decades of travel, and I still never really know what to have.
At home, I might have porridge most days, done in the microwave and sufficing until my 10:30 sandwich relieves my cycling-induced hunger. But here, faced with such a cornucopia, confusion is induced. As human beings, we really are rather baffled by too much choice, regardless of how desirable a state various economic theories might believe it to be.

So, leaving aside the tedium of what I generally do choose (and its not scrambled egg because not even a hyena's robust digestion could break that down), I turn to the behaviour.

I am sitting at my table, squeezing a small silk tea bag in some tepid water, whilst my toast undergoes its slow transformation to hard, warm bread. A small bald man in business attire, about late thirties, strides in and immediately heads for the cereal. He prepares a bowl of muesli, with milk, 1% Fett and takes it to his table, then he stomps over to the toaster and without pause, pulls my two pieces of pale toast from its slots and casts them carelessly to one side, WITH HIS BARE HANDS! Now, my mother taught me to wash my hands after I go to the toilet, but I know that not everyone had such enlightened parents and I was horrified momentarily that this man has arrogantly exposed me to his germs.
He stands waiting for his "toast" with a air of aggressive possession. I momentarily consider striding over and looming over him to pointedly take my toast. I can loom rather well, I have to admit. There is quite a lot of me. But no, I think, I shall put aside such petty thoughts.

But then he barks a couple of demands at the lovely waitresses and my ire is raised, my goat got.
I decide that either he is a nice man having a bad day, which is always possible, or that he really as unpleasant as my judgmental first impression had decided.
Anyway, I decide to ignore the little shit and get on with my breakfast. I take my toast, butter it, cut it into soldiers as any self-respecting Englishman would and dip one into my quite perfect soft-boiled egg.

The waitress comes over to me to ask for a signiture and beams at me with a lovely genuine smile. She asks inheavily accented Bayrisch-flavoured Deutsch if I have all I need and I reply that I am very satisfied, thank you.

And I wonder suddenly why some people are lovely to those they encounter every day, and some are unpleasant and intolerant. I am aware of the the G B Shaw quote about all progress being made by the unreasonable man, but I am prepared to forego a little progress for politeness sake.
The waitress sweeps away gracefully and I confess I give in to an urge to appraise the cut of her uniform as she walks to the desk. But even in this, her sunny disposition is apparent and contrasting to our little Napoleon with his scowl and bad grace.

It seems to me that being polite, pleasant, "nice", is a much better way to approach the world. Ok, we all have days that bring us circumstances that we would prefer to be otherwise and sometimes this is aggravating. But when we talk respectfully to people, ask them in a civilised manner for those things we want from them and generally go through the world noticing the happy things and responding accordingly, the World seems generally well-disposed to us.
And I wonder that some don't see this connection, this cause-and-effect, and continue to be curmudgeonly and critical with every comment and every interaction. Its better for your immune system (due to the production of nasty cortisol that results from aggravation) and in general just a better way to be.

So, with this in mind, I tidy up my hotel room prior to leaving, such that the cleanig staff have a minimum of work to do to rectify the chaos of my stay.

And I bid you all a sincere and heartfelt Good Day!

Except for our little Napoleon who I hope gets painfully egg-bound as punishment for his grumpiness.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

...And then suddenly, Home Again!

After nearly twelve hours of recuperative sleep, I seem to have some brain function back again. You can't really sleep on an aeroplane as the noise tends to keep those circuits in your brain that remain vigilant to threat, permanently on-guard. Sleep works in cycles of about four hours and any period of sleep shorter than that does not see you complete the full, necessary cycle of stages.
So, when I arrived at my hotel, this was the view:
And when I awoke next morning, this is what was revealed when the curtains were drawn back.I cannot express how glorious this view was. The camera really cannot do it justice. The distant Rocky Mountains shining in the morning sunlight were utterly breathtaking (though so was walking up stairs in that thin air). Their jagged ruggedness was softened to pink by the sunrise. It really was quite spectacular and imprinted itself upon my memory almost as vividly as on the CCD of the camera.
However, I would rather forget. The road journey up to Boulder...

And now I am home. And it is still somehow in my head. A day or so later I reflect upon this odd modern phenomenon of long-haul travel, making a journey of months into a tedious but relatively short "hop" across the World.

It seems in hindsight like the vastness of distance through which I traveled to get home from Denver was crossed in an instant. The mind is a bit like that: It tends to shorten times in which little happened (if you can call flying 5000 miles "little" but in truth, little took place in those ten hours or so.).
But in reality, it was a rather uncomfortable and tedious time spent mostly in a huge aluminium cyclinder.
Another idiosyncrasy is the clarity with which the view in front of my eyes at this time 36 hours ago can be called to mind as clearly as if I could walk to the curtains now, pull them aside and gaze out upon the mountains again. Probably this will fade in time, but for now I am grateful to retain this vista in my head, maintaining the horizon in my head the way a pair of boot-stretchers keep your footwear open sufficiently to still get your feet in after a time of neglect.

Today, I look out upon the soft, gentle scarp of the South Gloucestershire Cotswolds and very beautiful it is too. It is a reminder that beauty comes in different forms and familiarity seems to be the arbiter in general of which one we consider the most beautiful at any particular moment.
A useful thought if ever I bumped into one early on a Saturday morning.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Reprise: A Hot Night In Dusseldorf

I was sure this blog entry was still posted but I was reminded of it last night whilst unable to ignore the sounds of passion in an adjacent room in this hotel. It put me in mind of a similar experience I had whilst in Dusseldorf a few years ago, which I shall now recount, since the original post seems to have disappeared.

I was in Dusseldorf in a small hotel down a quiet and pleasant backstreet. My room was minimalist: chrome-steel, glass, white walls, poster pictures of poppies.
I hadn't done very much that evening. I had mooched down by the river, had a couple of beers in the biergarten and eaten a passable steak.

And now it was bedtime. Amazingly, it was warm and I had to open the window to let in some fresh air. The scents of early summer wafted in and kindled a myriad of interesting and exciting atmospheres inside me in various places. My limbic system was havign a field day on the unconscious recognition of links to childhood summers, adolescent tumblings and the excitement of exploration of adult holidays.

I read my book. It was an interesting book about various complicated relationships but mostly about a troubled young man and his father. I prefer books about relationships, especially when the author is perceptive enough of feelings to set out the nuances of interplay between people or within themselves. It is so much more interesting to read than exciting plots or action sequences. Tension can be built from emotions as well as from events.

And so, after a few chapters, I started feeling sleepy. So, I put my book down and turned off the light. Thats when it started:
"Ohhh.. Gott! Ohhhhh!!!" A female voice from next door.
"Hmm.." I thought "A lucky couple on this summer's night! I quite empathise with the feeling!" Warm summer weather does have the effect of kindling the passions I find.
I felt suddenly very alone, restless and incredibly envious of them in their intimacy.

And so it went on, noisily and passionately from the room next door. And on.. and on...
And I thought "Crikey! That bloke has some stamina! That must be over an hour now!"
Then it subsided. For a while. Until: "Ohhh!! Jaaaaa!!"

Another hour or so....
I wondered what manner of superman was in the next room! I tried to picture him. Was he some kind of Ron Jeremy, all hugely endowed and moustachioed? Was is some cool young stud, muscular, lithe and smiling smugly whilst in complete control of the situation?

This was impossible! No man could go on pleasuring a woman that long! Its physically unfeasable! And she must surely be wearing thin after these hours!
My mind skirted away, vaguely intimidated by what it pictured and eventually I fell asleep to the groans and moans and hyena-like howls.

In the morning, bleary eyed, I dressed and went down to breakfast. The girl was coming out of her room with not a shred of embarrassment, but a lightness of step (I thought she must surely be walking like John Wayne after that!) and a huge smile. No hint of tiredness could be perceived in her expression.
She shot me a confident but perfunctory "Morgen" before turning and walking down the corridor. She looked cute, about 25, jeans, white linen shirt. No sex goddess but certainly very comfortable in her own skin.

At breakfast, she sat on the other side of the room from me and I waited eagerly to see who would accompany her. Obviously, whoever it was deservedly, was having a lie-in.
And then her partner appeared.

I was struck firstly by the statuesque nature of the breasts as she entered the room. She saw her lover and beamed. Over she went to the elfin girl and sat down . They kissed a short but affectionate kiss.
And that is when, for a moment, I decided:
It must be good to be a woman.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Captain America and a Boeing 777

A strange thing happened earlier: The sun went down and very soon came up again. In fact, it barely dipped below the horizon before reappearing. We chased the sunset, caught it and overtook it. How wondrous! Its something I have never really noticed before in this particular situation. I must pay more attention next time.
To clarify: Once more I am twiddling my thumbs on an aeroplane. I am required to go and explain what are really some quite boring and tedious technical details to some customers near Denver. And still, I am mystified as to quite how I got here. But I have described that particular confusion at length during my trip last month so I won't dwell on it.

The little telly in the seat in front of me tells me we are 38000 feet (or about 11500m) above Baffin Island at 570 mph (about 900kph). Outside the temperature is minus 51C. I was attempting to watch "Captain America" but it is such an atrocious example of cimematic ineptitude that I am afraid I could stomach it no longer than the first fifteen minutes. I would like to believe it is meant to be interpreted as having a tongue-in-cheek self-parody message, but alas, I fear irony was far from the minds of those involved in producing this piece of jingoistic dross. Perhaps I have missed some subtlety.

But I digress, as always. Its very nice to have this time to myself. Forced to sit for ten hours or so in a reasonably comfortable seat (though some airlines are less accommodating), I can read or write, sleep or just watch dreadful films on the tiny screen. Its not a place I enjoy being but it beats working 40 hours a week on the production line as I once did.

It sets you thinking, being up here, faraway from the Workings of Man (except of course for the one I am travelling in). The complexity that contains me is unbelievably complicated. It keeps me safe and even comfortable in an environment that is fatally hostile to the human organism. Its outwardly sleek form contains so many different systems but seen from the outside, must necessarily be simple in form in order to present the least amount of resistance to the air which holds it aloft. The simplicity without hides the complexity within.

Ok, so I have covered all this before and I shall not dwell on the contrast between aerodynamics and that which it contains. No one person can know everything about this machine.
But when I think of the industry of collaboration between specialists of so many fields, the cooperation that had to take place in order for this machine to take shape, it is rather humbling. And indeed, in my days working at airbus, I was party to the intellectual rigour and brilliance of the engineers who conceived and designed the parts which comprise an aeroplane. As I sit here and look, we have electronics, textiles, mechanical design, fluid mechanics and the logistics to priovide me with a rather splendid dinner of herefordshire beef and a passable Australian Shiraz. So many disciplines converge and are managed to make this thing and to put it into service efficiently. People can do great stuff when they work together. Even make good films sometimes. Though sadly not in this case.

So, I recline in my seat, really no more than a piece of human cargo to be loaded and transported across the huge sky to the agreed destination. And I marvel at the tchnology and industry that puts us up here, safely and reliably, day after day. It is an activity that would have caused the Ancients to think it the work of gods to transport us in this way: FLYING for goodness sakes! As birds do and humans have mostly only dreamed of!

And, bored, I switch off Captain America and settle back for a nap,anticipating a safe landing in Denver.