Friday, 21 October 2011

The (Time) Efficiency Drive

The trip back from Liverpool rendered me inoperable. This very piece of prose that you read right now was fully intended to be written tonight, to in some way make good of a forced evening away from my girlfriend. But no; tonight I lay ruined on my bed, laptop fizzing away in futility just inches from my hand, but brain unable to make the leap into productivity. A wasted evening.

Fast forward to tomorrow night; now tonight. I sit in a temporary office that takes the guise of a Mercedes S-Class while I wait for my VIP cargo to get bored at some charity ball. Come 23:10 my office will become a car again, and I will whisk them home and then whisk myself to my home. And go to bed almost immediately. But I will have at least made some use of my time. And it's all thanks to the wonders of modern technology.

And it's not been very long at all that we've been able to do things like this. I'm currently enjoying double luxury; not only is the S-class a magically comfortable place in which to sit when you're not going anywhere, but it's also supremely well sound-insulated. On top of that, I'm wearing my noise-cancelling headphones. The roar of passing traffic is totally muted, the only sound that breaks through the stillness is the sharp patter of my unevenly paced typing. It would be better still if Bury St Edmunds had better DAB radio coverage, but screw it, i'll probably concentrate better without BBC6 distracting me with its outstanding new and innovative music. 

My trip to Liverpool was to deliver a new SLK to a delighted customer. The traffic gods were smiling down on me, and I was able to dispatch the 230 mile journey in short order. As normal, these days, I did absolutely no forward planning for this journey. I just filled the tank, tuned in the radio and started driving. SatNav, you see. Having a device that translates the ones and zeros that come from space, into a matrix of interpretable Geographical data has become taken for granted these days. Map-reading is no longer a vital skill for the man on the move.

The overhead gantries which hang heavy with signs and directions throughout our motorway network, have become immovable back-ups to our software-led new way of doing things. Aim the car at Liverpool, the Sat-Nav does the rest. It tells you the right lane to be in at the more advanced intersections, it re-calculates automatically should you either make a careless error or deliberately defy its verbal instruction. You can also set it to avoid toll-roads; I did this and it got extremely stroppy with me for not following its suggestions to avoid the M6 Toll, which is a road I don't usually take out of principal, but on this occasion time was of the essence.

It sets you an ETA, which you can then derive tremendous pleasure from trying to beat, and which gives you tremendous reassurance when you stop for a pee and only haemorrhage some of the minutes you've won on the journey so far. It turns the trip into a game, of sorts.

In cities, and this blows me away, it provides little graphical representations of the buildings you're driving past. I London Norman Fosters “Gherkin” office block is included, as are the Houses of Parliament. One day you'll get to the point where the view on the Sat-Nav screen will correspond precisely with the view out of your windscreen. Actually, the navigational dream for me would be to have a heads-up display where your directions are superimposed on the very road ahead of you; not just a graphical representation of a road but the actual road itself.

As you drive along the navigation screen is constantly informing you of local amenities. Fuel stations, picnic areas and services; but not just that they exist. The system now tells you, at a glance, what brand of fuel a service area offers and which famous fast-food agency is there to clog your arteries. The Burger-King, McDonalds and KFC logos jar horribly with the otherwise classy Mercedes drivers environment; but this information is invaluable for making those vital mid-journey decisions. Like, for example, when we refuel, shall we use the services after the next one because we can buy a Big Mac there? Vital stuff.

But it is! It saves time! The die-hard Burger King afficionado need not risk the disappointment of reaching a service area, only to realise that it only has a Wimpy, which could well result in a lengthy detour to track down the elusive purveyors of regal fatty patties. 

I digress. When I arrived in Liverpool it was an hour earlier than I expected it to be. The new owner of the SLK couldn't be with me until half-past three. This caused me a dilemma; do I set my laptop up and get some writing done, or do I relax after my long drive with a good book? I chose the latter, since I had come prepared with the first novel by Stuart Maconie, titled Cider With Roadies; a searing account of his formative years as a music fan and the beginning of his life as a journalist. Highly reccomended.

And anyway, I could do my typing on the train, couldn't I? I'd be pleased to have something to do on such a long journey. Well, I was actually in fear of not making it to any sensibly timed train at all, when suddenly he showed up and gave me a ride to Liverpool Lime Street station, where I had three minutes with which to buy my tickets and board my train.

I was specific on the train I wanted to catch. Virgin trains have wi-fi throughout and are extremely laptop friendly; and have a high-speed service that reaches London in a little over two hours from Liverpool, but it means going through bloody London again. This means the tedium, smell and commotion of tackling the hideously crowded Tube system. Sod that; no matter how nice the trip to Liverpool might have been, I'd then be stuck on an overpopulated commuter train from London to Colchester. This wouldn't do.

No, the train I would take would take over an hour longer but take a route that doesn't have London stuck in the middle of it.

“Is this it?” I exclaimed silently, quizzically beholding the tiny diesel unit before me on platform six. Made up of just two coaches, this miniscule train would carry passengers from Liverpool via the vast population centres of Manchester, Stockport and Sheffield, going all the way via Nottingham before reaching Norwich on the other side of the country.

I rapidly realised I had chosen poorly. The seat pitch would have made Ryanair blush, my idiotically mis-shapen legs simply would not fit in the gap between rows, I was forced to make diagonal knee-to-knee contact with the extremely attractive female commuteress beside me. And then the hammer-blow; nowhere to plug my laptop in. I had totally forgotten that I wan't going on a Virgin train. I was about to fall again into the world of downtime; only the excellent book I had would prevent the next five hours from being utterly wasted.

Wasted time lasts forever. A succession of stations I had zero interest in rattled past the window. The line tried to tempt me with exotic new destination choices, but they weren't what I had ordered, and so I had them taken back to the kitchen. I suddenly realised that, without the SatNav, I had absolutely no idea where I was. Didn't need to know, either, really, but you feel totally hopeless when you want to be somewhere else, but don't even know where you are right now.

So, not a very good day for productivity, then? No working on the run and no ability to stay awake after finally reaching home at eleven o'clock that evening. Another day without a RoadWork upload; another day where the subscribers shrug their shoulders and click cancel.

Tomorrow night would be my salvation. Tomorrow night; now tonight I can spend the entire evening sitting in a supremely comfortable Mercedes-Benz, in an amply-lit public car park in mid-Suffolk, making up for lost time. I should be able to get both this feature written, and be able to finish off the piece I started the other night; all while sitting in silence and security. Perfect.

So, mobile office it is. Before beginning my shift, should the mood take me, I might use the SatNav to guide me to the nearest branch of KFC for some lip-smacking cholestoroly goodness. Cloggage of veins accomplished, I can then set my office recliner just so and type until my hearts content.

And I do. My hands have been a positive blur on the keyboard this evening.

Right up until, tonight as the night before; I hit a wall. Figuratively speaking, of course; I'm still safe and sound in the car-park of the Apex, Bury St Edmunds. But I'm in no fit state to type, nor to drive. My eyelids are heavy and my efforts to type becoming more and more imprecise. It's now that the mobile office solution reaches its third incarnation. Bedroom. All systems off, lap-top away. Leather couch reclined to 50 degrees, alarm set for an hour, eyes shut. This car can go from office to bedroom in 30 seconds. As can a great many others, too,

If we organise ourselves properly there's no need for there to be any such thing as “wasted time” any more, unless you want to, of course. In some ways having too much time on your hands is the ultimate luxury.