Saturday, 31 May 2014

Why Robots Will Not Be taking Over

Whenever I acquire a new machine - a TV, computer, vehicle or whatever - I experience a frisson of excitement at the factory-fresh smell, the pristine condition and, best of all, the promise of technological advance. The old machine may have been state-of-the-art in its day but there comes a time when its functions seem barely adequate, its flashing lights laughably dated and its once attractive bodywork embarrassingly unfashionable. No matter that it may have served long and reliably, inevitable demise lies in its inability to compete with the attractions of newer models. Nevertheless, it takes a breakdown to persuade me to buy a replacement. In this instance it was the washing machine: it had taken to spraying oil over the laundry during the drying phase and its time was up.

And so my frisson moment arrived with the delivery and installation of the new model which, according to the manual, would adjust its cycles according to ongoing calculations involving weight, water content and temperature - all measured by on-board electronic circuits - and thereby help to save the planet. But excitement turned abruptly to disenchantment when it failed in its first, basic function - to fill up with water. I called the helpline which, to my surprise, promised to send an engineer the next day.

The presence of so many tradesmen (never a tradeswoman) in the place lately has brought a few things to my notice. For example, the younger ones have modern names - such as Jake, Lee, Daniel or Zack - whereas the older men, who are in charge, tend to be called Dave or Mike. I have also seen evidence of training in customer relations, such as a willingness to be polite, offer helpful information and explain options when the job is not straightforward. Conversation outside of the usual topics - how the job is progressing or comparisons with other, similar jobs - is rare but, occasionally, one of them will let down his guard and reveal interests outside of work. But, considering they must spend a lot of time in other people's homes, I am generally disappointed that they don't have lots of outrageous or salacious stories to recount.

Lee, the washing machine engineer, phoned me several times before he actually arrived. He wanted advice on how to find the street, how to identify the building and detailed information on the parking situation. Having got the impression that he had just passed his driving test and was about to embark on his first job, I went out into the street to guide him to the door. I don't like to hang around looking over the shoulder of someone who is working - it feels a bit rude, perhaps even off-putting - but I wasn't confident in Lee's abilities so I leaned in. I tried putting him at ease with the offer of tea and some conversation but he seemed distracted and showed no interest in my theory as to why a clothes-washer is called a 'washing machine' whereas a dish-washer is not. Obviously no salacious stories would be forthcoming.

Evidently he was anxious about something but I soon discovered that, far from the challenge of technology, it was the parking situation that fazed him: he had only enough money for half an hour and the job was clearly going to take longer than that. I eased the pressure by stumping up the cash and Lee swung into action, demonstrating his expertise by systematically tracing the fault to a wrongly connected switch. Having rectified it he stood back, chuffed - and confident as any Dave or Mike - and expressed his disappointment with the manufacturer's lax testing procedures. Clearly, we cannot rely on new technology to save the planet: we need more Lees.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Plumbers Promise

This morning I picked up an email from my pal about arranging to meet up for tomorrow evening's gig - which is just as well because I had forgotten all about it, not having put it in the diary. My excuse is that I have been avoiding commitments so as to allow for the uncertainty and disruption contingent on moving into and improving our new apartment. In particular this applies to the plumber, who has yet to give me a date for completing the work he started two weeks ago.

On Monday the electricians, by contrast, turned up as promised and set to what was asked of them. They were two impeccably well-mannered young men, although their method of working seemed to me chaotic: it involved pulling wires out of walls and ceilings in each room by turn until the whole place became uninhabitable. And I watched in dismay as they cut holes in the ceiling sending fine, white plaster dust cascading down to clog the fabric of the soft furnishings, settle into the ventilator grilles of electronic kit and lie like volcanic ash on all the hard surfaces.
"Haven't you got any dust-sheets?" I asked.
"Oh yeah, we've got one in the van. But don't worry, we'll clean up after," said the foreman as his boots crushed the larger fragments of plaster and ground the resulting powder into the grain of the wooden floor.
"It would be better to take preventative measures," I said - but he looked uncomprehending.
"We'll get the vacuum cleaner, no worries," he said.
"No, I'll do it. I would rather you concentrate on the electrickery." Stick to what you're good at, I thought.

The next day - although the plumber failed to turn up - the electricians returned, as promised, and this time they brought their dust-sheet.
"Just expand that hole so you can get your hand in," said the foreman to his mate.
"OK. But I'll have to put the dust sheet down first," replied the mate, rather too loudly. I left the room to compose a subtly worded text to the plumber, asking when it might be convenient for him to come and restore our waterworks to full functionality.

After two days of project-managing the electricians - and cleaning up after them - I stepped across the road to the magnificently refurbished Central Library in the hope that a change of scene might refresh my outlook on life. In my imagination a library is a hushed room packed with rows of bookshelves but the reality here is quite different. The emphasis on making information accessible by means of the latest technology gives the place a busy and slightly excited ambience. There are plenty of studious-looking people but there are also many, like me, who have come to marvel at the transformation and try out the latest touch-screen gizmos. I am told by a friend that Birmingham's spectacular new central library has gone so far in this same direction as to have become more a tourist destination than a place of study.

The work at the library is not completely finished and I watched admiringly as some men in fluorescent jackets removed elaborate protective coverings which had been fixed carefully to parts of the structure prior to commencement of the work.  My eye also lingered enviously on the precision and quality of the fit-out. I know that contractors are liable to pay penalties for lateness and poor practice - something I should consider imposing next time I put work out to tender.
Later, at home, I called the plumber again: it went straight to voicemail.
"Shall we book that foreign trip now?" said my partner.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Trouble With Big Brother

I was in the library looking something up in books – a task which, tiresome at best, was made more difficult by the fact that the required volumes were on the bottom shelf, necessitating much uncomfortable physical contortion. It was then, with one hand steadying me and the other holding my spectacles in position, I thought “Those internet search engines are jolly useful: speedy, convenient, efficient". And I am impressed by the way that they remember my needs - as recently when I had to buy a new washing machine: each time I returned to my online search, adverts were displayed offering helpful suggestions as to which brand I should buy. (The only part they need to sort out is adding an “I bought one already” button so it knows when to stop. Okay, the internet is work-in-progress.)

Some people, however, would say that search engines are too useful, like the man who has just persuaded the European Court of Justice to rule that Google does not have the right to link to legitimately published material relating to him. Lest we confuse this case with the argument concerning privacy, it should be noted that his motive was actually the deliberate burial of facts he would rather not be known in case they tarnish his reputation. This is a very slippery slope: by seeking to control public access to information - not gossip - the plaintiff has sided with all of history’s tyrannical dictators. Even on a less dramatic scale there is cause for concern: the floodgates have thus been opened (in Europe) for a deluge of demands that Google should remove links to legitimately published information so that individuals might polish up their personal histories and present incomplete accounts, deliberately giving false impressions.

But aren't all impressions false, to some extent? It's notoriously difficult to get an objective account of history in the best of circumstances: not only is there the ancient precedent whereby the story gets written by the victor, but there is also the fact that two people who were present at the same event are unlikely to give exactly the same account of it - our memories tend to be affected by circumstances particular to ourselves. The best we can do is marshal as many facts as possible that may contribute to a balanced historical view.

And while we might all want the spotlight of publicity trained away from our misdeeds, this is neither feasible nor desirable. On the first count there is a strong likelihood that "the truth will out" and that we will be made to look foolish in having attempted concealment and be obliged to pay penalties for our transgressions.  On the second count, shouldn't we always strive to behave ourselves in any case? (Even Google knows that we shouldn't be evil). One of the ways in which we manage to stick to the straight-and-narrow is by taking notice of peer pressure. We tend to behave ourselves if the rest of the clan is watching and, with the internet creating the biggest clan ever, there may be a chance that it will eventually have a civilising effect on those who tend to be un-civil. The ECJ judgement against Google potentially reduces the chance of this happening: by confusing the right to privacy with the need for freedom of information, the judges have made it just a little more difficult to discover facts which might be useful to us - and to themselves.

Optimistically, search engines could be a tool for facilitating justice, dishing the dirt on those who seek to escape their just deserts. On the other hand they may intrude a little too far, with damaging consequences: my image, for example, could be tarnished if it became known that my search results for a washing machine were sorted “cheapest first”.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Picture the Past

My sister phoned this morning to ask if we had settled into our new place.
"It's coming together nicely" I said, aware that recently she has had disruption of her own to cope with: namely the installation of a new kitchen.
"I'll text you a photo of it" she said, sounding pleased.
I refrained from commenting pedantically on the paradox implied by texting images and explained, instead, that we still have things to do, not least of which is disposing of stuff that, having been through the selection process prior to the move, was transported from A to B only to be found superfluous. Now it must be taken to the charity shop already overflowing with our unwanted things.

Chucking out stuff because it won't fit into a space is one thing: chucking it out because you realise it is no longer relevant to your life is quite another. The former is a practical measure which, although it may be tinged with regret, has no significant consequences: the latter is more of a revelation. At times the process of downsizing our flat has been cathartic to the point where it looked like tipping over into fanaticism of the kind which persuades apostles to denounce all worldly goods and pledge to lead a spiritual life devoid of personal belongings. We stopped short of that particular excess, but I am left convinced that less is more. Material possessions are seductive and, once in thrall to them, one is subservient to the need to maintain them, house them, up-grade them, insure them - in short, to work for them. Dedicating time and resources to the upkeep of possessions diverts energy away from exploration of the mind and engagement with the world as a contributor rather than consumer. It also impairs one's ability simply to go out and have fun ad lib.

Nevertheless there is one thing that has been impossible to cast aside - the photograph collection. Whether stuffed randomly into a shoebox or meticulously compiled into an album, who can resist the urge to open up and investigate old photos? I certainly cannot and, unfortunately, I have quite a lot of them. As a youth I was keen on photography as a means of recording people and places, the result of which is an extensive archive, partially catalogued but mostly not. I can't help feeling that they have some value as an historical record - however minor - and that there just might be a reason to keep them. I have a plan.

First, they must be thinned out. I have already tackled some of the boxes and applied one de-selection criterion: any crummy landscape shots - or worse, pretentiously arty landscape shots - are now in the bin. (Since most of them were taken during a period of sentimental self-indulgence they will not be missed by anyone, especially me). The next step will be to attempt a chronological stuffing of the shoeboxes for ease of historical reference. This will be quite difficult on account of there being no dates on the backs of many of the prints. (I will have to rely on fashion clues - hairstyles and clothing - to place some of these, although not all my subjects were necessarily a la mode). Worse than the absence of dates, however, is the absence of names. Perhaps at the time I felt no need to label my subjects because I knew them well and assumed I always would. Consequently I am reduced to waxing nostalgic over old 'what's-her/his-name'.

Eventually I shall take the remaining photos to a place where a machine will scan them digitally onto discs. I will then be able simultaneously to reclaim floor-space and make the archive available to those whom it might concern. I am going to need a lot of rainy days before then though.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Location, Location Location...

Marks & Spencer's in-store cafe may not be the coolest place to take morning coffee but, when not in company, I sometimes go there. The coffee is good, the service is amusingly old-fashioned and the first-floor room overlooking the city streets is light, spacious and well-furnished. Outside of peak shopping times it is a sort of retreat, sparsely populated and calmer than the likes of Costa or Nero. The definition of 'un-cool' is subjective but, in this case, a probable contributory factor is the approach route - a circuitous path through the ladies' underwear department. While being spotted in the cafe might diminish one's cool factor, being seen to linger in lingerie could damage it irreparably. I walk briskly through, keeping my head down.

As I sipped my coffee there this morning I felt momentarily directionless; as if still afloat but bobbing about in the wake of a near-collision with a much larger vessel. I gathered my wits and pulled out my phone. Scrolling through the history I was reminded of the brief but intense relationships recently formed with Libby, Patrick, Anita and Stephen. I would have preferred them to be briefer and less intense but I didn't really have much choice. We were all engaged together in the tortuous process of buying and selling apartments.

Now it's done but it's not over: the new place needs inhabiting, titivating, savouring. As I sit for the first time in my new den, unsorted stuff in piles around me, I have a moment to contemplate the fact that, after 15 years in one place, I now live somewhere else. Despite the disruption, I can feel a therapeutic benefit resulting from the move - a change is as good as a rest – and, were it not for the complications and frustrations of buying and selling properties, it might even be something I would do more frequently (perhaps renting is the way forward). The campervan remains on standby but I'm not sure I could commit to the full-on gypsy lifestyle. Internet connectivity could be problematic.

Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the fact that, even though our new place is only two blocks away from the old one, there is quite a different ambience to the surroundings - evidence that in densely populated areas the character of a location can vary abruptly from one street to the next. The theory that location is all-important may have its origin in commercial valuations but there is an argument to be made for its being the primary factor when it comes to choosing a home - assuming one has the luxury of choice. Certainly one's location and lifestyle are interdependent and it is commonplace for people to relocate in order to further a career, pursue an interest - or flee from danger. I am fortunate in never having needed to flee but would consider it danger of a kind to remain in one location without giving due consideration to the effect that would have on my assumptions concerning how best to live life.

So, while in the process of settling in, I am already contemplating another move so as to stimulate my imagination. Given that our lifespan is limited it would seem unadventurous to spend too much of it in one place, making oneself comfortable and inviting complacency to take hold. If we could know in advance how much time we have, we would not be inclined to squander it: as the man said, "I don't need time. I need a deadline." In any case, I must take care not to get too comfortable in Marks & Spencer's.