Busy doing nothing…

Having overcome my earlier ennui, brought on by the lack of live culture and increased social distance, I feel I should be wildly productive by this stage.  This is especially true given all the nominally free time of which I now find myself possessed.  I regret to report that this is not case: if anything, without the pressure of the deadlines set by gig start times I have become less productive.  It would seem that my sense of urgency has socially-isolated itself from the rest of me…

Nevertheless, I have made some progress to moving my life onto a pandemic-footing.  You will be pleased to hear that I am now up-to-date with my filing and have finally managed to throw out some junk that I’ve been holding onto for at least 6.5 years.

I have also developed a compact hand-balancing routine (or indeed, small suite thereof) which I can perform in my tiny garret without excessive danger of injury either to myself or my furnishings: I just have to shuffle the dining “room” into the kitchen.  OK, I did have some help in the development process.  OK, yes, Freeflow Therapy did all the development, I just (mostly) managed not to forget the instructions (can’t a chap get away with some minor stretching of the truth?  I studied topology and the truth and any stretched versions are basically the same thing).  Having put the routine into practice, I seem to have discovered that working out at home is much more exhausting that at the gym: I have yet to decide if this is purely psychosomatic.  To be honest, as I am now training at altitude (the first floor) I was expecting to see my personal bests come tumbling but there is little evidence to support this theory as yet…  Still, the reduced space is, allegedly, allowing me to work on my finesse – so you may see me emerge from the current unpleasantness as a more graceful creature, but I wouldn’t raise your hopes too far.

Using the magic of video conferencing, late yesterday afternoon I did manage to constitute a virtual pub with a friend.  We each acquired a beer take-out from a local hostelry and then did exactly what we would normally do in a pub – drink beer and attempt to come up with stupid ideas – despite being separated by half-a-dozen miles.  There is a degree of latency, which in a less virtual pub session doesn’t usually kick in until quite a few pints have voyaged to their inevitable doom, but it seems an entirely practical reaction to the need to both be social distant and remain fully connected.   Ideas and foolishness always flow more readily when two or more are gathered together (in anyone’s name) and this continues to work in the virtual realm.  I find myself wondering if I can get a cloth backdrop printed (or embroidery or tapestry-work would be fine) which recreates the look of the Doghouse at the Guide Dog to minimise the disruptive feel of increased time at home?

My feeling is that the latency that exists on video conferencing means that musical sessions are not really feasible: although one of last night’s activities did give me some hope.  Prior to this last week, I was only attempting to attend as many gigs in Southampton and its immediate areas as I could.  Musicians (and others) seem to have responded to the enforced downtime and, in many cases, catastrophic loss of income, by staging gigs online.  As a result, I am slowly working out how to “attend” live broadcasts on Facebook and Instagram (and I suspect other platforms yet to be explored: I’ve been hearing more about Zoom lately than at any time since 1982 when Fat Larry’s Band were riding high in the charts.  However, without the need to be physically present there are even more gigs to “attend” than ever.  Luckily, you can attend them for a period of time after broadcast: still, not sure precisely how long so am trying to “catch-up” within 24 hours just-in-case.  Last night’s “gig” was the film made by Manu Delago of his album Parasol Peak where he and six other musicians ascended a mountain in the Alps, playing (and recording) tracks at various altitudes carrying their instruments on their backs in between.  Some of the tracks involved clinging onto perilous rock ledges while using a cello or piano accordion (to name but two of the instruments I would be unwilling to climb a mountain while carrying).  At times, they clearly couldn’t hear each other so he composed pieces for which this wouldn’t an issue: there was also some system of hand signals to maintain broad synchronisation.  I have also definitely seen experimental music where each player chooses when to move onto the next section.  I’m wondering if these approaches could allow a style of beat-free music to be played together via video conference?

However, the primary skills I have been acquiring this week will serve me best in the fields of larceny and espionage.  I am becoming adept at carrying out a growing range of tasks without leaving a single fingerprint: avoiding DNA residue is still a work-in-progress.  When away from the house, without recourse to gloves (a cheat’s way out and likely to rouse suspicion), I hardly need my hands to make contact with any foreign body: even if they ask nicely.  I am also becoming good at reaching a supermarket being observed by the fewest people and at all times to maximise the distance between myself and those people.  It’s only to be expected that these skills would come naturally to me, as any readers of Baroness Orczy will know, as the Scarlet Pimpernel was aided by a Ffoulkes (one Sir Andrew): so these skills clearly run in the family!

A less obviously transferable skill I’m gaining is greater knowledge of where my hands are and, in particular, if they are en route to my face.  Prior to this week, they appeared to operate on the principle that any minute left without checking my face was still there could lead to disaster: without constant monitoring, my face would probably wander off on its own (or perhaps just fall off).  I think we have now established that my face is fairly solidly bolted on and such checks can be reduced to a minimum.

So while I may not have achieved that much of use in the last few days, I do seem to have avoided going stark staring bonkers: so I’m viewing my adaptation to the change of circumstances as a triumph!




Excessively Abelian?

Those who know either me or this blog will foresee that this post will be about commuting.  In an Abelian group – named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel – all the elements commute.  Whilst I have known the name of Abel for 30 years, it was only this week reading Finding Moonshine by Marcus du Sautoy that I realised what a short and tragic life he led.  Compared to Abel, one W A Mozart Esq had a good innings – though, when it comes to the foundation of group theory, Galois wins in the dying young stakes at only 20 (in a duel).  In its early days, group theory was a pretty dangerous subject – though I believe is a rather safer choice today.

Those of a less mathematical bent (what were you thinking?) will be pleased to know that the educational portion of this post is now over and I shall revert to the more humdrum definition of commuting.  If I adhered to the principles of the late Lord Reith, I would now go on to inform and entertain – but we all know that isn’t going to happen.

I am lucky enough to work from home most of the time, and so rarely have to commute.  However, I have served my time as a commuter (and may yet be sentenced again) and so know the general form.  A large chunk of your life is consumed, in addition to that spent working, travelling to and from your place of employ.  This is normally spent on a packed train or stuck in traffic (or, if really lucky, some of both) – adding to the time-taken and general stress and unpleasantness of the whole exercise.  On a recent work-related excursion to the capital during the rush hour I found myself wondering how so many people have wound up in this situation.  I can’t imagine anyone wants to spend so much of their life commuting (though I used to find it a good opportunity to read and catch up on podcasts), yet as a society we doom so many to this fate.

The costs to the nation must be astronomical.  To start with we have the cost in time and money to the commuters, likely to be accompanied by a reduction in their productivity at work and utility to society as a whole.  All those journeys add to injuries and deaths in rail and road traffic accidents and the air pollution produced leads to many premature deaths and additional calls on the resources of the NHS each year.  As a country, the UK needs to maintain more and wider roads, plus parking capacity at the ends of the journey.  The railways need additional capacity in rolling stock, track and signalling just to service the rush hours.  The increased wear-and-tear also increases the costs of maintaining all this infrastructure.  And this is a far from exhaustive list of the costs (a slightly tired list at best).

How did we let this happen?  In slightly iffy weather – ¼” of snow perhaps – we are advised to avoid travelling unless absolutely necessary and the economy doesn’t seem to collapse (though retailers will use it as an excuse for any poor results for the next year or two).  Commuting must be taking a huge bite out of our GDP and can’t be doing much for people’s broader happiness.  I must assume that jobs tend to be concentrated where people either can’t afford to live or don’t want to live.  Sadly, one of the metrics which seems to be used to measure the success of a government seems to be how much more unaffordable they can make housing during their tenure. Despite an economic record that can most kindly be described as “patchy” (great if you’re a billionaire, less good if you’re disabled), the current chancellor has been very successful in creating a housing bubble.  I do fear that in the not very distant future, only Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs and Hollywood stars will be able to afford to live in London (though will mostly leave their homes empty) adding still further commuting – or leading to the complete collapse of that city’s economy.  Perhaps a good metric would be the number of new jobs created, or better the sum product of jobs and salaries, outside of a major conurbation – or as a start, just outside Greater London.  Actually, the sum product of jobs and salaries either created (via their policies, or more commonly in their imagination) or destroyed by a government (directly in the case of the public sector, via their policies or in their opponent’s imagination otherwise) would be rather an interesting number.

I’m not entirely sure, in these days of electronic communication, why so many jobs have to be concentrated in a few conurbations.  In my experience of office life, people rarely speak to the person sitting next to them (preferring the passive-aggressiveness of email) let alone visit a colleague on another floor or worse trudge to a distant part of the city.  For a fraction of the cost of all the additional road and rail infrastructure we seem to need each year, I suspect every home, garden shed and cardboard box in the land could have state-of-the-art 3D video conferencing installed – though getting people to use it and actually talk to each other may be more of a challenge.  I’ll admit screens aren’t ideal, so people could actually go see their colleagues from time-to-time: once a fortnight, say (but not all of the same day, obviously).  Basically we could save travelling for when it is really needed or for the pursuit of fun and it might once again be a pleasure to journey by road or rail.

This would need some structural changes, I’ll admit – for a start, the whole basis of season tickets would need to be changed – but surely it has to be worth a go!   We will, however, have to overcome our societal obsession with house prices, but I can suggest tons (or tonnes for the metric among you) of more interesting topics for the middle-classes to discuss over dinner – why not start with a little group theory?