Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Thoughts on a Walk Back from Being Experimented On

Fret not, this is not a bit of Dr Mengele, these experiments take place at Nuffield College, under controlled conditions (albeit in a room which, now I think about it, would be a fire trap). They are amusing little experiments in game theory, designed to test out how far we'd all risk our own fortunes for the sake of larger ones by being nice to other people. A bit old hat, you'd think, given the last 25 years, but the experiments are fun, and as they are essentially gambling, they don't count as work, and they are rather diverting.

They needed to be. The morning had begun with my determination to go out to the Barton Job Fair. I set out at 10. The Job Fair set out at 11. There was time in the interim to cash the remains of our car in Headington, and come back to an enormous queue. I don't like queues. In fact, I don't like crowd scenes of any kind unless I am wearing something absolutely ridiculous and everyone is saying "thank you Father, that was lovely". I'm not even sure I enjoy those very much. I walked round the block - a block around which I know the way more than most, having very often walked our friend's saucy little Bichon Frise on that route.

But there was nothing to be done. I queued. I signed. I was sent to the Dole Scrounger Table (to prove to someone that I'd arrived). The slightly older chaps behind me said "1,000 vacancies, my arse, that means there are about five". Well, that seemed a bit arbitrary, but walking round the "fair" it didn't seem there were so many rides in town. I got chatting to a policeman about how fit you need to be a PCSO. And then foolishly said I was on one of the committees that recommended their introduction, long ago. He thought asthma and arthritis would probably disqualify me. Then I chatted to someone from "Blackwell". Anyone who knows Oxford will associate the name with the wonderful (well, not so wonderful these days) old bookshop in Broad Street. But no, this chap was into "construction" and he was here to speak up for those who are developing a slice of local Green Belt land. I don't approve so much of slicing up the Green Belt, but I rather liked this chap, and we talked far too much about the failure of the government to invest in infrastructure during a recession, and how difficult it was to free up brownfield land, which already has all the utilities. Well, he seemed a most sensible fellow. "They make them all pass the exams at school - but our industry is crying out for people who are actually useful!". He was Welsh, so say it again, it sounds better still. He said his son has just graduated from Aberystwyth, and he's got no job. I said "I've got two bloody degrees, and I haven't work for years". I could have worked with him.

And then to the game theory test at Nuffers. I love these things, mainly because, even when I don't understand them (although I almost did today), they make me feel clever. And maybe I am adding to the sum total of human wisdom. The room's horrid though, artificial light it doesn't need, and very stuffy. Fortunately it was over within the 90 minutes threatened.

And so, fortified with by £15 of gambling money, I headed back to Waterstones, which had earlier been too busy, to buy another P G Wodehouse book - "The Prince & Betty" (1912). It had been too busy earlier, and I had to loom over another customer who was peering at that lowest shelf before my eyes focussed properly on the title clearly enough to say - "Oh that's the one I want". And he, being foreign, said, most politely, "oh, excuse me".

I was less patient with the massed ranks of foreign students and tourists in the streets on my way home. I was almost curt with one group. And, worse, to another elderly couple who were reading with myopic intensity the stone in the wall of Balliol College which records the site nearby where three great Anglican martyrs were put to death, I very nearly turned their little necks round and showed them to the place itself (having, of course, crossed myself with a prayer of thanks for their sacrifice, and happier times, mostly, since).

Soon I found myself in Mesopotamia. It's a walk, between the centre of town and the shadier end of Marston, that I've only lately discovered. Literally, the word means "between rivers", I believe, and so it is, although maybe "streams" would be more apt. Either way, it's a very pleasant stroll, and once, one glorious morning, I saw a roe deer buck in the meadow there. No, not a muntjac, I've seen them, it was definitely a roe deer. And today, I saw a pheasant, in all his summer glory, and thought there was no more to come.

And then. Well, frankly if a chap has the body of an athlete, takes his shirt off, and chooses to run in the skimpiest of shorts, he has to expect to be looked at. He knew I was looking, and I hope he felt chuffed about it. In fact, I think he expected nothing else. In fact, if I had a body like that - and there really was very little not on show, bearded, discretely hirsute, and rippling abs - I'd have been very chuffed with it too (I have a beard). He had a sort of American or Canadian vivacity about him (hard to tell from a naked torso and skimpy shorts, I acknowledge), but he might have been home bred. But one way or another, he was dazzling enough to slow down to an almost stop until he'd passed. And then to look again after. A lady cyclist following gave me a wry smile. Saucy thing.

On to Marston, where an implausibly young father (no idea if was cute or not, quite frankly, I'd been cuted out by the nearly-naked guy) was guiding his daughter to the corner shop, holding her scooter on his shoulder, in a teensy bit weary way. "Red kite!" she shouted, "34!". He said the number at the same time, and I warmed to him at that moment. Then he asked when she would stop counting the kites: "155,000". "Do you think you saw the same kite more than once?" he asked, as I crossed the road and never found out the answer to this statistically interesting question. In the field I'd just walked through, and they'd just walked near, a pair is to be seen every day, so he had a point. It reminded my of the wicked old rector of S. Giles-in-the-Fields (who am I kidding, ONE of the wicked old rectors!) who used to add up all the attendances at services, lectures, Holy Communion and the rest, and say that this or that many hundred or thousand people had been to church over the year. Generally, it was the same person coming to church, once a week, fifty times.

And so up the hill, past the cemetery, and to my favourite church (at the moment), S. Andrews's, Old Headington, to light a candle for a friend who isn't well (but seems to be getting better). S. Andrew's candle was lit today. It isn't always. I must find you a photo of him. I rather like him.

The last strait home was a little odd. I don't like sharing the pavement with anyone. I looked ahead and saw someone coming forwards from a sideroad, but then he crossed, and I thought he'd go the other way. But he didn't. I recognised him from the queue at the Job Fair earlier. He changed his route, followed me, overtook me when I slowed down, and then disappeared.

Where's the Game Theory in all that?

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
July 2015

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