Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bus Repellent

I, like most people, think of myself as a rational, sensible person. I don't believe in fairies, gods, or ghosts and I consider it extremely unlikely (like ‘struck by lighting on the toilet’ unlikely) that we'll ever be visited by aliens. Nonetheless, like all people who think of themselves as sensible and rational, I find odd little superstitions and irrational beliefs creeping into my thinking from time to time. I don't resent these things, or consider them to be failings (they're a normal part of being human, after all), but it is a little alarming the way that they insidiously work their way into your thinking.

A good example of this is my relationship with buses. I don't own a car, and I can't drive, so I tend to spend a lot of time on public transport. The ineffable chaos theory that governs urban traffic makes a mockery of any attempt to impose a train-style timetable on bus services. The frequency and timing of buses is, for all intents and purposes, random. I remember reading a few years ago about an experiment where animals were placed in cages with a machine that dispensed food pellets at random intervals. In almost every case, within a few days the animals had become convinced that some action of theirs was making food pellets come out; they'd do strange dances and movements that they thought made the pellets appear, and didn't seem to notice that they appeared even when they were still.

Like the animals in the cages, when presented with something that was essentially random (in my case, buses), I started to develop an odd and superstitious way of thinking. At first, these superstitions were just a sort of in-joke between me and Kristen, something to talk about while waiting for a bus to appear. But as time went on I increasingly found myself seriously considering these ideas. When waiting for buses, for example, we'd sometimes dramatically turn and walk away from the bus stop, muttering about how we were going to walk home, in the hope of ‘summoning’ a bus. This was just a bit of harmless silliness until the day I found myself doing this when I was on my own. On an empty street. At about 1am.

I felt a bit stupid after that.

The most insidious of these weird superstitions, however, was the belief that Kristen was afflicted with some sort of curse that drove buses away. Again – this started as a joke – me talking about how she shouldn't have desecrated the high altar of the secretive Bus Cult, or something like that, while we were waiting for a bus in the rain. Like the others though, this soon crossed the line from the shelves in my mind marked ‘silly fictions’ to the shelves marked ‘real things’, with me subconsciously looking for proof of its existence.

The world was happy to oblige my weird superstitions at this point: Kristen seemed to be singularly unlucky with buses, and when I was with her, so was I. It wasn't just buses either. I remember there was one particular week when she had a gig up in London and got the train in with me a few times, each time there was some kind of catastrophic railway implosion; delays, cancellations, and long periods of sitting in stationary trains. The rest of the time I got into work just fine.

There was one day when I realized that I was seriously taking Kristen's ‘Bus Repellent’ – as I'd come to think of it – into account while planning our route to the pub. Allowing a more than generous amount of time to get there and trying to come up with a route that minimized the possibility of interference from the bus gods. This entirely imagined problem actually made me resent Kristen for a while – I started getting a later train into work (although admittedly this was mostly motivated by laziness) to ensure that I was not troubled by her influence.

I'm not sure what caused this odd superstition to eventually ebb away. I'd like to think that it was me being sensible and rational, but I don't think it was. I think it was just basic probabilities – Kristen's luck got better, mine got worse; things felt like they were leveling out. Our lives got a lot less stressful as well, which certainly helped me care less about minor inconveniences.

I think this superstition was dealt a final death-blow a few months ago when TFL unveiled their live bus updates system. It's taken the random and mysterious element out of public transport, like scientists figuring out lightning did for the thunder gods...


As a little postscript for this strange ramble (which I started intending for it to be about something else entirely, something that I'll have to write about another day) I'd like to briefly outline my attitude to the universe as pertains to things other than buses. Like I mentioned further up, I'm not a believer in gods, nor do I wistfully believe that ‘there has to be something out there’. I do, however, believe firmly in the fundamental malevolence of all things. I have found that if there's two ways something can happen, and both are as likely as the other, then the shittier option will be the one that takes place.

A case in point – and the incident that led me to formulate this philosophy in the first place –  a few years ago, when I was working on a guitar, I found myself faced with a dilemma. The pickup I was trying to install was an old and strange one (a late-1980s DiMarzio Jazz, as I recall) with no obvious logic to the color coding of its output wires. It was a humbucker, so, four wires coming out. I was able to identify two of them, but the other two were a mystery.

I realized that I had a 50/50 choice. If I wired them one way, the pickup would work fine. If I wired them up the other way, the pickup would be out of phase. I would have no way of knowing whether I'd gotten it right or not until after I'd completed the wiring, reattached the bridge, and restrung the instrument. I had a nasty suspicion that whichever way I chose to do it, it would turn out to be the wrong way and I was right. The damn thing was out of phase and I had to spent about an hour taking off the strings and rewiring it.

A few months later I found myself faced with the exact same problem in a different guitar. Once again, I made my choice and once again I was wrong. I've come up against many variations on this basic conundrum over the years (usually as a result of me dropping some extremely complicated switch I'd just finished pre-wiring and forgetting which end was which) and only once have I ever gotten it right.