Brains are curious things...


And mine have been feeling somewhat underused of late - at least where fun is concerned. But that's another story.

As I pressed myself against a shop window in a futile attempt to avoid the pelting rain that was all that remained from the veritable downpour Lisbon was blanketed in during the day, a portion of my mind was constantly jumping between gauging the number of rivulets that were forming on my neck and timidly seeping into my back, and trying to snatch some meaning from the phone conversation I could not help but overhear.

The visible end of it was a teen of Chinese extraction, jabbering away under a pale blue umbrella as she paced to and fro, her sneakers and jeans bearing oblivious evidence of close encounters with a few puddles. I, being of a religious persuasion that denies any and all contact with umbrellas, had resolved to bear the brunt of the weather in the mistaken belief that it would be but a few minutes' walk to the cab stop, and now found myself late, thoroughly wet, and having spent over twenty minutes keeping a safe distance from the puddle that lay between myself and the girl.

Given my meagre understanding of Mandarin - which is yet to become good enough to exchange basic pleasantries, let alone follow half a conversation, especially considering that the half I was witnessing seemed to proceed with enough verbosity and alacrity to deny the other side any chance of interposing a single syllable - I was unable to figure out any of it but a few disjointed crumbs, and must therefore believe she wasn't likely to be speaking Mandarin at all but Cantonese (besides the obvious conclusion that I currently know next to nothing of either).

As she departed and left me to await my own cab, I could not help but wonder what sort of meaning my current work has for such a person. Besides other things, I currently help design, integrate and deploy mobile data services, which are more and more often placed in the hands of the average person atop heavily customized handsets that are increasingly tied to the local marketplace.

What sort of expectation could I (or any of the people I work with) have of our work ever being meaningful enough to reach someone like that girl, who was clearly not in the least bit interested in data services?

As I avoided the sluices of water raised by my approaching cab and focused on the aural emptiness left by her departure, I realized that my fascination wasn't about her being a Han, or being in a foreign country, or her using an umbrella. It's about her clearly not needing any of the stuff I'm involved in to communicate with whomever was on the other side of that formidable barrage of vowels.

When faced with something like this (and provided you are in the right frame of mind to understand its portent), it becomes perfectly obvious that users aren't, or were ever, to blame for the success (or lack of success) of mobile services of any description. Considering the disconnect between the people who design services and the end user, it is nothing sort of miraculous that we've been at all successful with them during the past few years.

I mulled these thoughts as I settled into my seat and let Lisbon glide past by streetlight, the water on my back spreading into a progressively warmer film that made my shirt stick to my skin as we followed the tramway lines, their twin glow snaking off into the distance like lines of pale orange fire.

The trip was short enough to prevent me from drying, and yet I felt compelled to tip the cabbie handsomely both due to the masterful way he navigated the glistening streets and to his amazing ringtone, a concoction of folk music squeezed into the atonal sparseness of a MIDI accordion.

As I let myself home, Lisbon seemed to sigh, a cascade of dark silhouettes outlined in liquid spatters of orange light.

Sometimes I think I would never be able to live anywhere else.