Thursday, 22 April 2010

Let the crane take the strain

I have mentioned before that the area of driving that I do involves a crane. This is a lorry-mounted crane for unloading the stuff that is on the lorry only. The crane itself is known as a HIAB but HIAB is a word like Hoover or Sellotape where a brand has come to refer to the object as a whole. I am not sure I have ever actually used a HIAB but have definitely used lots of Atlas and Palfinger cranes.

When you know a crane well it is like an extension of your own arm - you don't have to think to operate it and you can achieve amazing dexterity with it. When you don't know a crane, it is like your arm when you have slept on it for several hours - you think you ought to be able to operate it but it doesn't seem to work properly and because you think you ought to be able to operate it, you feel particularly silly when you smack yourself in the face with it.

Obviously smacking yourself in the face with your own arm is unpleasant and quite a rude awakening but smacking yourself in the face with a 2 tonne crane would be lethal and is evidently something I have never done but I have come pretty close. What is actually more likely to happen is smacking someone else in the face because they have got too close to the product you are trying to move and then you have moved the lever in the wrong direction. Luckily this has also never happened otherwise I would probably be writing this from a cell in the nearest prison, but I have had to warn builders that it might happen and to stand well back. "It's alright, love, I trust you" one said to me. "Well I wouldn't stand that close and I'm the one operating the controls" was my reply. He moved.

I am now doing agency work so I am driving a different truck with a different crane every few days. I am having to deconstruct what I do when I operate a crane and learn how to do it all over again. There is always the same combination of actions and corresponding levers - slew left and right, main beam up and down, secondary beam up and down, extension in and out, grab rotate left and right, grab open and shut - but they are sometimes back to front and the levers operate the other way up. It is like learning to operate my arm again. It is sometimes frustrating but it has also reinvigorated my enjoyment of the job, which is lovely.

The sunshine helps.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Book Review: Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, 2008

I bought this book because I work in the industry and I bought a handfull of books about driving a few months ago. Most are dull and are written by men who find The Highway Code exciting, have memorised it, and can and do spout large sections of it at you, if you ever have the misfortune to meet them. This one is different.

This book is not actually about driving as much as it is about traffic. It does touch on the cognitive processes involved in operating a vehicle, but most of it is about the movement of people in vehicles as a totality. It is about the psychology of traffic, about what happens to us when we as individuals climb into the driving seat of our cars and take our place in the seething mass of metal-clad humanity.

It takes this look from a variety of different standpoints. The studies he draws on and the people he interviews come from driving psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics and traffic engineering as well as a bit from entomology (apparently we behave more like locusts than like ants). It is exceptionally well-researched and the notes make up nearly half of the total pages. However, he still manages to draw all of these fields together into a very coherent book.

I'll give you some examples of interesting facts: human eyes were not designed to travel at 60+mph so we cannot take in enough information at that speed. Therefore we have to create shortcuts - we see what we expect to see. These shortcuts lead us to miss the glaringly obvious - motorbikes for example - because there were no motorbikes on that road in the previous 20 times we drove it.

Different countries have developed different driving norms over the years. In the UK our vehicles and road systems have evolved gradually over the last couple of centuries. Our norms are therefore entrenched in our society - this includes the adherence to some rules and the non-compliance with others. We are all generally aware of how we are supposed to drive and the perameters within which we may flout those rules. China on the other hand, has seen a massive increase in motorisation in the last 10 years and has therefore not had a chance to develop regulation, either statutary or societal. This is not just about driving, it's about society and how norms of any kind evolve.

I found this book really interesting and would recommend it to anyone who takes even a passing interest in driving and traffic. However, even more than that, I would recommend it to anyone who takes even a passing interest in the process of crafting a book, because on that count it is really quite exceptional.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Whether the weather....

Whether the weather be fine,
Or whether the weather be not,
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot,
We'll whether the weather
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!

This has been the longest coldest winter for 30 years and I have been working outside.
-So what do you want, a medal?
Well actually, yes. A medal would be lovely, or some kind of engraved cup to put on the mantlepiece to remind me what an achievement it has been. Four long months of standing next to my truck in freezing temperatures operating the remote control, and then the slow, agonising process of uncurling my fingers so that they work again. Four months of my back seizing up. Four months of dry, brittle skin.

It was lovely today, I was even in short sleeves. Thank God for that.