Monthly Archives: February 2016

Lunchtime

They talk during lunch. Sometimes the conversation flows freely, and sometimes long periods of silence occur. The silence is broken, sometimes after a time period that feels like minutes, rather than seconds. Oliver imagines how they all think, intensely, about a new topic to bring up, and when one of them is brave enough to break the silence, a new discussion can start.

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They mostly talk about facts. They do not talk about feelings. No one says “did you read that book, it was truly fantastic, it gave me a complete new picture of the Chinese culture.” Perhaps someone says “did you know that there is a golf player who can reach 300 meters using only his putter.” This may be followed by comments like “did he do it in a contest?” and “can he control his muscles or does he hit that hard all the time?” Someone may even joke, like “I was kidding, it was 300 yards, not 300 meters.”

Sometimes they talk about airplanes, or cars. They are not so interested in the design of cars, or if the cars are beautiful, or ugly. They are more interested in the internal, technical properties, of a car. Oliver remembers a discussion that ended with the phrase “it is called toe-in.” He remembers that it had to do with how the wheels are oriented, and toe-in meant that the wheels are oriented inwards. He imagined the wheels like the feet of a shy child, standing in front of an angry parent, and he did not hear when he was asked for his views on the matter.

He looks out of the window, and his mind wanders away. His colleagues continue their talking. Their discussion has shifted, and the current topic concerns methods for cleaning a roof from moss. They give lengthy descriptions of their favourite methods, involving manual work, performed while standing on tall and unsteady ladders, but also machine-assisted work, performed with the aid of high-pressure water hoses, aimed with precision at the unwanted weeds, and used with success thanks to their automatically generated, fluid-carried, force.

Oliver sees the grey clouds, and he remembers the start of the semester, in the midst of August, when the sun was shining and he travelled to work on his newly acquired bicycle. He continued using his bicycle until the beginning of November, and his goal was to use it also when he returned from Munich.

He remembers one August morning, a few days before the start of the fall semester. He was approaching the University building where his office is located, and his pace was slow and relaxing. He was travelling along the bike road, with its winding path through the campus lawns and the small groups of planted trees. He saw the students, marching, and he recognised what he had seen before, at the start of each fall semester.

It was the annual ceremonies and rituals for the new students of Engineering. He looked at the spectacle, and he tried to convince himself that it was interesting and meaningful, and that it gave the students a chance to meet new friends, and relax, before their demanding studies took off.

He did not participate in such ceremonies when he started his own studies. He found them ridiculous, and he wanted to concentrate on his school work, already from the first day. Some of his friends have reminded him, later in life, of his decision to put studies first, and to be very restrictive with social activities, and they have let him know that he perhaps made a bad choice.

“You see,” they said, “those years were the starting point for some really good networking.”

A grey, almost black, cloud enters his field of view. It moves slowly, eastwards, along the sky. Oliver wonders, silently, if some of his former student colleagues have utilised their networking experiences for the purpose of coordinated actions and confidential meetings, with the specific goal of unlawful extraction of data from National databases. He is confident that their academic competence, as well as their connections in different parts of the society, would be useful ingredients to ensure the success of such a task.

The tapping of a government-owned pen towards the wooden table alerts him. He turns, from the window, and looks towards his colleagues. They sit, around their lunch table, and some of them look directly at him. He sees the Department Administrator rise, and after a while he hears her voice.

“Oliver,” the Department Administrator says. “Dear Oliver, I should say.”

She stands, next to her seat, in one of the corners of the table. There is a light, from behind her, and Oliver realises that it is the winter sun. It has appeared, magically and without warning, and it blinds him a bit, so that the contours of her body, and her head, become a bit blurry.

He shifts his body, so that he can look at her more from the side. He straightens his back, and his view is more clear now. He lets his gaze move from the Department Administrator, towards some of his colleagues. He sees their faces, and some of them smile, slightly. They do not look in his direction. There are no eyes that meets his own, and he decides to focus his gaze on the Department Administrator.

At the Museum

“Did you know,” Elizabeth says to Oliver, “that some researchers explain the war crimes as a result of a rational and systematic reasoning. It was not aimed at certain ethnic groups when it started. It was, initially at least, an attempt to create a more efficient society, by simply promoting the ones who were best suited to contribute. Have you thought about it like that? Oliver, hello, I am talking to you …”

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Oliver was reading. And taking pictures. He liked to take pictures at museums. He took pictures of the artefacts – old machines, airplane mockups, and electricity stations. He also took pictures of the texts. He liked this, to have a recording of the texts describing the artefacts. Often these texts said something, about the time when this machine was new and considered state-of-the-art, and in that way also something about the people living then, operating the machine, doing their work, living their lives, one day at a time.

“No, I did not think about it in that way,” Oliver said.

Oliver had listened to Elizabeth, and he had done it at the same time as he was reading. He sometimes took this opportunity, to point out his female traits, and he found it especially convenient when he was asked to do practical work. Practical work meant working with their house, doing necessary repairs and perhaps also some paint work, and from time to time there was also a need to do something to their car. By keeping a safe distance from these activities, he prevented himself from doing the wrong things, or breaking things, and he had no intent to fall down from a ladder, or get crushed under his car while changing tires.

“But for sure, it could happen again, also in our country,” he said.

He felt like a lesser skilled reporter, echoing words from intellectual persons, now and then letting their voices out in popular documentaries on one of the state-owned television channels.

“But it was another time then,” he said. “I think we are more protected from certain things now, due to everyone communicating with everyone all the time.”

He turned towards Elizabeth, who was standing some metres away.

“I mean,” Oliver said, “look at the recent uprisings, Spring Uprisings I think they are called. In several countries, almost at the same time, people have taken action. And they have made some real progress. Not only with words in underground magazines, or through the use of protest songs. They have made real things happen, and real persons, although some of them being dictators but still persons, have paid with their lives.”

“All right, my dear Professor,” Elizabeth said. “I get your point.”

She communicated her response in her standard, matter-of-fact, hmm-sounds-interesting, voice. She had been there before, in similar situations, listening to her beloved husband as he made one of his little speeches. They were delivered in an illuminating and enthusiastic tone, but more often than not she could not help but listening to the undertone – perhaps it was involuntary but nevertheless it was not so skilfully hidden – of a man talking to someone slightly below his own rank.

She wanted to continue her previously initiated discussion, and she knew that Oliver would be sincerely interested had he been able to concentrate on what she had to say. He had always been debating the rationality of his own world, with his equations and his models, and they often discussed what could happen if humankind decided to go all the way, towards a scientifically proven and rationally structured society, with productivity and growth as the only measures of progress.

“Of course there would be no art, of any kind, in such a world,” Oliver once said. “But I’m sure there are many who would not be missing it – at least not the more modern kinds.”

She looked for her husband, and after having surveyed half of her field-of-view, looking towards the direction where they were supposed to continue, she spotted him. He was on his way towards the next Exhibit hall. It was a newly restored and freshened up exhibition, located in the building assigned to the Theory and Applications of Genetic Engineering. This was a new topic at the museum, and it had been initiated with financial and intellectual support from a recognised combination of established researchers and industrial top executives. They represented a mix of organisations, of which some were governmental and others private.

Medical and pharmaceutical research institutes and corporations were represented, as one would expect. Lately, however, an increasing share of the sponsoring had been contributed by industries in software and computer engineering. Oliver found this interesting, and he was fascinated by the fact that his home field of computers and software systems – which in his own view was more related to technology and materialistic things than being scientific and systematic as genetics and biology – was represented here, among the museum donors.

He was aware of recent research and experiments where a parallel computer had been created, with a complexity similar to the brain of a reasonably advanced animal (he remembered something about a cat, but he was not sure). Oliver was confident that this was very far from creating a real brain, and he sometimes found himself irritated when he listened to his technologist colleagues, talking and gesturing, all progress and glory in their eyes, about computers with brains and intelligence. If they had studied the results we see here, at this fantastic museum, nicely displayed right in front of us, they would have known that putting a lot of computer power in one place is one thing, but making it evolve like life itself is a completely different matter.

They were inside the new hall, with Elizabeth wondering where to find a decent cup of coffee, and Oliver wondering how to find the most efficient way of spending the time they had, to maximise his learning experience.

“Look,” Oliver said enthusiastically, “here we can see the history of the discovery of the DNA. Look at all the pieces, the beautiful double helix, the codes, using only four letters isn’t that amazing.”

He turned towards Elizabeth, and his arms were wide apart, and Mother Nature was filling his eyes with glitter and light. He felt the wonders of science, discovered by great minds belonging to interesting persons, and in some – perhaps small but still – way he was part of it.

“And here we see the enzymes,” he continued. “The great protein creators, acting like workers in a factory, doing their systematic job, almost like a computer carrying out its instructions, one by one, step by step.”

He was in his best mood, and it was somewhat contagious.

“I love you too,” his wife said, as she kissed him on his left cheek.

His interpretation was the usual one. Take your time, she had said, and let’s have some coffee later.

“Isn’t it interesting?” he asked himself, and perhaps also subconsciously addressing Elizabeth, “that all these tiny pieces, when they come together, make up such an intelligent machinery?”

He became aware that she had left the room, but his conversation continued.

“Thinking about it a little bit more,” he said, addressing an elderly woman standing beside him, “you are almost convinced that there must be some kind of design behind it.”

“Aha, I see what you are getting at,” said the woman. “We have some talk about it back home. They call it Intelligent Design, and soon it may be part of the school curriculum.”

“Ssh,” Oliver said, holding his upright index finger in front of him, and smiling towards his newfound acquaintance.

She looked back, somewhat puzzled, and before she had a chance to comment, Oliver continued.

“We have this new party,” he said. “They are interesting but in a sense also somewhat fanatic.”

“Ok,” the woman replied. “Tell me more.”

“They totally advocate a renaissance of science,” he said. “And had they been here, undercover and spying on us, the people they are set out to protect, they would not have liked us talking about Intelligent Design.”

“Who knows,” he added, “some day they might arrest people for unscientific public behaviour.”

He wanted to say more, but he felt the presence of his better half nearby, and as a precaution, preventing him from being told to stop his academically styled wit, thrown upon an innocent bystander, he nodded towards the woman, and said, towards Elizabeth.

“Yes, darling, I’m coming. Coffee would be perfect. I’m all done here.”

The Hotel

The hotel was small but nice. It was located a few blocks off the main Railway station, a place which they approached using the well-functioning and precisely scheduled train system known as the S-Bahn.

They arrived after a short walk, entering the lobby through a narrow door with a sign telling them that Zimmers were still Frei. The check-in was carried out as in older times, requiring the dear guests to fill in a hand-written document with their names and home addresses, combined with an equally out-of-time documentation of their passport numbers.

Oliver found this part of the procedure interesting. Considering that almost all citizens of today have internationally valid ID cards, or internationally valid driving licenses – all stored in internationally synchronised databases – the whole procedure could have been done electronically.

They did as told, filling in their signatures in the designated boxes, and when the yellowish papers were safely stored behind the counter their keys were handed out. It was slightly before five o’clock when Oliver and Elizabeth walked the two flights of stairs, leading them to their floor. They turned right, as instructed, and after some minutes of searching they found their room, at the end of a somewhat dark, and not very clean, corridor.

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Oliver did his customary routine. Always check the television. This is the first thing to do when you enter a new hotel room. What channels are there? Are there any English-speaking channels? No, in this case. Are there any movie channels? Yes. Are all movies dubbed? Also Yes. Oliver found this fascinating, this culture of dubbing films. He wondered why country after country still chose to use it, and he found it even more fascinating that it was used for almost all foreign movies. They simply replaced the original voices by the voices of some, perhaps famous in their own way, native speakers, and subtitles were completely out of the question.

He managed to find a channel with news, spoken in a clear and not too fast German. Having covered the main national events of the day, the news channel did some reporting also from other countries. It was a bit surprising, but the reporting he now witnessed came from his own country. The news reporter mentioned the new party, and the results it had achieved in the polls up till now. Thinking of new parties, with new agendas promising bright new futures, and being where he was at this very moment, gave Oliver a certain sense of awareness. He had heard it from Elizabeth’s father, but also from his parents and teachers, and he had been told that “It happened there, and it can happen also here.”

They had decided to spend the next day, the first full day in their scheduled week, by visiting some museums. This plan was now to be reconsidered. Their daughter was not well, and it was not clear if she would join them or not.

“We should go and see her,” Oliver said. “Let’s buy some German pastry, and perhaps some wine. I saw a Konditorei just outside.”

His proposal was met, not with enthusiasm, but it was nevertheless accepted. They bought a large piece of Sacher cake, and together with a bottle of mineral water and a small bottle of red wine, they entered a taxi.

“Lehrerstrasse Ein-und-Dreissig,” Oliver said, and smiled towards the taxi driver.

“All right,” the taxi driver said, and pulled out from the curb. He took them to their destination, and after having explained to Oliver, in well-rehearsed English, that he did not accept credit cards, he received his amount, and a tip, all in recently acquired and unfolded Euro bills.