October 31, 2003

First Impressions & Too Many Degrees Of Freedom

I drove to Heathrow on Wednesday to pick up some friends who stopped to see us on their way from San Francisco to Kampala, Uganda.

Rachel and Jaco are AIDS researchers who have lived on and off in Uganda for the past 13 years. They arrived with their two children, Noah, eighteen months old, and Maya, who is four years old and has been friends with our four year old Nathaniel since they were nine months old.

It took them about an hour and a half to make their way through customs and immigration. They’d arrived at the same time as several other flights, and the immigration queues were long and tedious. But appear they finally did, and as they pushed two large trolleys full of bags, each topped with a child, I was reminded of a story I’ve been meaning to write about first impressions.

My first impression upon arriving in England in September did not concern the language, or the weather, or the immigration queues. No, my first impression was of the luggage trolleys (that’s luggage carts to you Yanks).

As you walk off the plane and into the terminal you pass lines of luggage trolleys, free for the using. You can pull one out and put your bags or your children on them, making the long trek to immigration and customs that much easier.

Not long after you put your bags onto the trolley you come to the first of several short downhill ramps, followed by an immediate left hand turn. But it isn’t until half way down the ramp that the trouble begins. Because as you try to turn the trolley to the left you quickly realize you’re no longer in control of the trolley, it’s in control of you.

Next time you’re at Heathrow, see if what I’m saying isn’t true. Watch as people try to negotiate their trolleys around a corner, any corner. You’ll see them squince their eyes, tense their necks, grip the handle harder, and perform funny crab-like steps as they simultaneously push and pull their trolley around the corner.

What’s funny is that the same thing happens in the supermarket. Try and turn an English supermarket trolley around the end of the aisle without hitting anyone. I can tell you from first hand experience that it’s particularly difficult, especially when you’ve got a four year old hanging onto the end of the basket telling you you’ve just passed something he wants.

But what is it that makes these British trolleys so much trickier to use than their U.S. counterparts? In the States luggage and supermarket trolleys have rear wheels which always point forwards, i.e. only the front wheels can rotate for steering left and right. But the Brits have decided that all four wheels should be able to rotate independently. And having all four wheels able to rotate means that it’s difficult to keep the trolley moving in the direction you’re intending, as opposed to the direction that physics would rather it go. The problem in mathematics is called having too many degrees of freedom. In the real world it’s called a design flaw.

As I was driving from Heathrow back down to Cornwall, Rachel and Jaco asked what we were planning to do next. I talked about all the decisions we were wrestling with. Which country did we want to live in? Did we want to rent or buy? Where did we want the boys to go to school? Did we want to open a retreat center? And did I want to go back to Silicon Valley at some point in the future?

And as I described these choices it dawned on me that our lives are a little bit like a British luggage trolley. All wheels rotating. All decisions up in the air. Too many degrees of freedom.

After talking it over with Rachel we’ve decided to try and settle on a country first, and so we’ve decided to take a trip to south west France to see if that’s somewhere we might want to be.

In the meantime we’ll be walking crab-like, pushing and pulling our lives around the next corner.

Posted by: Frank @ 3:54 pm — Filed under:

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