Ant Beer Crisp Dream

8 Mar

The pleasure of idle times, suitably provided for, is in the opportunity to be inconsequential. Essential luxuries are a space with a deckchair, a sunshade and side table; a beer from the freezer, a bowl of mixed olives and another of potato crisps; a friendly climate, a stable democracy and a favourable exchange rate.

After two or three beers, I began to feel guilty about the extent of my laziness. I was within a couple of footsteps of the local labour force, and my indolent shadow slanted across a file of workers as they trailed across the hot concrete, trying to bring a few crumbs back to the nest. In a way, I was to blame, having carelessly let fall the fragment of deep-fried, thinly-sliced and over-salted potato that was now proving a thorax-breaking undertaking for a whole squadron of ants.

I squinted down. There seemed to be a well-worn path visible to everyone but me, along which further support kept arriving for the tiny insects as they struggled with their unwieldy load. Those already in on the action often took on new positions to accommodate fresh help. Two or three even clambered atop in an attempt to see-saw the crisp from its outsize inertia.

I studied the scene for slow-burning minutes, wondering how they ever allocated responsibility; and then it all went orange. A million tiny speckles of light quivered under my closed lids, swirling in darkening patterns that formed a tunnel pulling me vertiginously inwards and downwards.

The world I had fallen into was full of half-familiar details that are now peculiarly hard to describe, the inherited memory of a movie I haven’t seen.

It was nothing like the world I had just come from, although looking back it’s unlikely that one didn’t give form to the other. But who was to say what these strange, busy little fellows I now found myself surrounded by were?

It didn’t seem out of place that no-one took any interest in me, however rudely I must have been gazing, and fascinating as they were to me.

You might call them builders, for they did little else. But what odd constructions! Their homes were paltry affairs, for all their tireless activity, which seemed never-ending. Their structures sprouted features at random, often to collapse again not long thereafter.

It was hardly a surprise then, when the storm did break, that countless of these wretched hovels should be swept away, crack and split wide open, crumble into ruin, or sink and be swallowed up. I of course remained unaffected, but not many of them were so fortunate.

From the debris, the survivors always carried on. They were unquestionably resilient, and you would have to acknowledge that few others could have built in such ingenious fashion from such unpromising material. But they knew nothing of design or measurement, and laughably little of organisation. There was not one amongst them capable of giving orders, had there been any willing to listen. Each simply worked on whatever was in front of them and, one could only guess, prayed it would all somehow come together.

The more I recognized the futility of their endeavours, the more I felt pity for them, toiling away in ignorance. One by one they would let doubt and frustration take hold of them, until it was almost unbearable to watch. It wasn’t easy.

EASY: Afternoon … afternoon … Buxtons blocks and that … lorry from Leamington Spa … I’ll need a bit of a hand, being as I’m on my own, seeing as my mate got struck down in a thunderstorm on the A412 near Rickmansworth – a bizarre accident … a bolt from the blue, zig-zagged right on to the perforated snout of his Micky Mouse gas mask. He was delivering five of them at the bacteriological research children’s party – entering into the spirit of it – when, shazam! – it was an electrifying moment, left his nose looking more like Donald Duck and his ears like they popped out of a toaster. He sounded like a cuckoo clock striking twelve.

(EASY relates story with considerable gusto, but to his disappointment it falls flat being, of course, not understood.)

Of course, what he should have said was…

EASY: Useless … useless … Buxtons cake hops … artichoke almost Leamington Spa … Blankets up middling if season stuck, after plug-holes kettle-drummed lightly A412 mildly Rickmansworth – clipped awful this water ice, zig-zaggled – splash quarterly trainers as Micky Mouse snuffle – cup – evidently knick-knacks quarantine only if bacteriologic waistcoats crumble pipe – sniffle then postbox but shazam!!!! Even platforms – dandy avuncular Donald Duck never-the-less minty magazines!

Or wouldn’t that have helped, either? Enough of the play (yes, yes, I’ll explain later) and back to the dream!!!


Black clouds rolled tauntingly across the horizon; you could feel the uncertainty creeping in. The work would lose its rhythm, alternating between a frantic prestissimo and a hesitant andante. The workforce, unable to decide anything for themselves, would carry on with rising hopelessness. And so their distracted gaze would inevitably settle on the odd unproductive loafer who had so far been overlooked, in spite of being conspicuously decked out in the most inappropriate costume imaginable. Once spotted, however, these workshy individuals would scuttle off, bells jingling at the knees.

There was always a group of them circulating around a long table, which for no discernible reason was laid out in a great colourful mess with all sorts of narrow strips of cloth, and this is where they too would scurry. Each approached as if still under the sway of the worker who had caught their eye, so that they either charged blindly forward or edged up diffidently, mindlessly grasping some strips of material much like the stuff in front of them on the table. Not wanting, I supposed, to appear more stupid than they already did, they would immediately make a great fuss of sifting the nearest pile before them, like prospective purchasers, moving along until, finding a place they preferred (although, to me, one section looked much like another), they would hastily exchange some of their crumpled ribbons for those on the table. Many of these had been curiously knotted and, however hurriedly, they seemed compelled to always copy the knots, roughly and apparently purely by feel, before abruptly returning to the building site.

What was the use of such worthless preparations when they could only anticipate the most hostile reaction? Perhaps it was because they had no idea of what they were doing that they chose to adopt such self-important poses, excessively formal but slightly ridiculous, before unexpectedly lurching into immensely vigorous routines: prancing and waving and hopping about, brandishing their ribbons, up and down, back and forth, with many a jump and skip and inexplicable flourish. At the time I didn’t note the absence of accompanying music, but in dreams full knowledge is rarely within our control.

The bemused builders seemed neither to appreciate the show nor quite be able to ignore it. They somehow accepted that their turn had come to play their part and so, along with every high-step and side-shuffle from the dancefloor, some activity on the site would also start – more bricks, a new roof – or just as often stop – no more bricks, a roof abandoned unfinished. The work proceeded in this way without any further overall purpose, although it was hard to deny that the effect of the choreographed buffoonery was to maintain a certain mood and rhythm.

Dream states float indeterminately between participant and observer. Sometimes the mind detaches itself enough from its surroundings to supply a parallel commentary. So far as I was allowed to have my thoughts, I couldn’t help observing that although there had been no intentional communication between builders and dancers, each acted in response to the other. The builders seemed to take part in the dance as much as the dancers contributed to the building. Now, I don’t know whether this was simply because I had fallen asleep in the sun, or because I found the situation pleasing, but I do remember a feeling of warmth.

And so it was that, over innumerable repetitions, my attitude changed from contempt to puzzled admiration.

The teams of labourers who contrived to stay together the longest eventually achieved a subliminal bond, while among the dancers each grew accustomed to finding a particular place at the table where their favourite ribbons were, thereafter putting on a display that really did seem to stimulate the best sort of work. It still didn’t make any sense but it produced an unaccountable sense of order.

After the latest hurricane had passed, neighbouring builders and dancers whose shelters had survived would meet up and entirely unselfconsciously exchange piles of ribbons at their tables and start two new buildings. If a few ribbons got muddled up, no-one seemed to mind. They didn’t concern themselves with how things might have changed from what had been going on just a few minutes before, only with the work they now had to do.

Gradually, the better features of the better buildings collected, through this ceaseless shuffling, into superior structures, combined with occasional lapses or strokes of inspiration. Spared from the storm by the strength of their work, many lived long and productive lives. And the obligatory dances developed into perfectly meaningless but undeniably impressive parades of colour and movement.

Before I awoke, I just about had time to snatch up a few examples of the ribbons from different parts of my dream. The older ones evidenced the ragged jumble of colour that had accompanied the construction of the most rudimentary lean-to. The later ones had transformed from their haphazard beginnings into complex pieces that could easily be mistaken for art: the colours overlaid in fascinating patterns, the knots neatly and beautifully tied; but I don’t think anyone in this world knew what any of it meant; it was just an amazingly lucky habit of survival through excessive dedication to pointless but elaborate ritual.

I was still clutching the ribbons in my hand as I opened my eyes, but then they were gone. The potato crisp on the ground had also disappeared. A lone ant staggered aimlessly, with spasmodic changes of direction, in search of its place in existence, while the sun took advantage of my inattention to sneak past my umbrella and signal it was time for me to move.

Months later, I learned the secret of the ants. They laid down scent trails which allowed them to communicate information about their movements without necessarily even being aware that they were doing so.

A language can develop through use, accidentally. I have forgotten this occasionally, but then my memory will eventually lead me back to a play I once saw:


Dogg’s Hamlet derives from a section of Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations. Consider the following scene. A man is building a platform using pieces of wood of different shapes and sizes. These are thrown to him by a second man, one at a time, as they are called for. An observer notes that each time the first man shouts ‘Plank!’ he is thrown a long flat piece. Then he calls ‘Slab!’ and is thrown a piece of a different shape. This happens a few times. There is a call for ‘Block!’ and a third shape is thrown. Finally a call for ‘Cube!’ produces a fourth type of piece. An observer would probably conclude that the different words described different shapes and sizes of the material. But this is not the only possible interpretation. Suppose, for example, the thrower knows in advance which pieces the builder needs, and in what order. In such a case there would be no need for the builder to name the pieces he requires but only to indicate when he is ready for the next one. So the calls might translate thus:

Plank = Ready Block = Next
Slab = Okay Cube = Thank you

In such a case, the observer would have made a false assumption, but the fact that he on the one hand and the builders on the other are using two different languages need not be apparent to either party. Moreover, it would also be possible that the two builders do not share a language either; and if life for them consisted only of building platforms in this manner there would be no reason for them to discover that each was using a language unknown to the other. This happy state of affairs would of course continue only as long as, through sheer co-incidence, each man’s utterance made sense (even if not the same sense) to the other.

The appeal to me consisted in the possibility of writing a play which had to teach the audience the language the play was written in. The present text is a modest attempt to do this: I think one might have gone much further.

(Extracts from play and Preface to Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth by Tom Stoppard, 1980)

But as it happens I was not thinking of this when I started to write, or at least when I started to think about writing this. As usual, it came to mind later. What I had been reading was Alan Winfield’s piece on artificial evolution – “Robot Bodies and how to Evolve them” – and I wanted to understand his reference to the ‘scalable complexity principle’.

In “How the Body Shapes the Way We Think: A New View of Intelligence” (2007) Rolf Pfeifer and Josh Bongard explain that to grow increasingly complex structures, it will be necessary to emulate nature’s versatility and encode the genome not with models of likely structures, but with the development process itself, managed by genetic regulatory networks, so that any desired level of complexity can in theory be evolved.

Perhaps I was trying to picture this to myself, maybe I just couldn’t sleep, but this led me to dream up the scenario of building without blueprints, beginning with a clean slate. Let’s say our builders are good at producing a certain, basic, sort of work. I don’t say what it is in the story; it could be mixing the sand and cement, digging holes, assembling the scaffolding, it could be bricklaying, but making the bricks would be even better. They do what they do and that’s all they know; anything beyond that is left to the whim of the regulators, who lead them a merry dance. But the dancers don’t even know that their role is to act as building regulators; all they’re doing is trying to make the builders feel better. Their frequent diversions vary the work without anyone needing to know what variation is being decided upon. However, aspects of the dances come to be represented by arbitrary configurations of random material stored in a “hash table”, acquiring meaning over the course of time by convention. The mess on the table gradually sorts itself into more or less useful areas, the work generating the plan. If the quality of the buildings gradually improves, it is because it is periodically tested to destruction. Success breeds success.

As it’s only a dream, I don’t have to get into the details of the regulatory networks, how genes code for protein (whatever that means) nor what DNA transcription is all about, and that’s just as well because I’m no scientist. In practice, it’s not unlikely that a specific “dance” might become part of the building work or that the exact form taken by the code could limit the possible outcomes. In reality, there will be many more steps in between the ones seen in the dream, and you will never get to see that blank sheet right at the start; you always start with something that already works.

This essay was formed as much by the constraints on writing it as the initial idea, most vividly by images in my head of Morris dancers having to compete with the effort needed to steer round a corner on my bike amongst traffic; more generally, by being written amongst every other demand on my thinking time and the accessibility of tools to take advantage of the gaps. It was also limited by the attention span, the degree of knowledge and amount of interest I could reasonably expect from any readers (if I got that wrong, then you’ll never reach this back-handed apology). It was enveloped by the world of information through which I floated in the intervening weeks, offering involuntary associations to me. It was shaped by my self-regulatory role as editor, who having read what I’d written so far, chose to employ some of my memories of writing in this paragraph, which of course were undetermined at the outset.

Even decisions consciously taken along the way, how accurately to attempt to reflect the science or to favour the fictional abstraction, may have hung on my mood when I thought about it, the balance being tipped by the amount of cheese I’d eaten half an hour earlier.

It all matters, the circumstances matter, otherwise I could simply have written down the supposed contents of my head when the starting pistol fired, like some hyperactive amanuensis on roller skates.  Of course, you have to find a way of feeling you’re in control of the constraints, but there’s no escaping the process. It’s largely down to the weather.

You may find, if you ever get the chance to see Dogg’s Hamlet or come across an edition of the play, that Easy’s words are not quite the same as the ones I have quoted above. Stoppard’s published scripts often change following the production. Maybe an unresponsive audience at the previews or a happy accident by an actor will cause him to rewrite part of a speech.

Given initially random information as a genetic code, the environment will keep rewriting it until it means something, just as much as, if not more than, you can ever try to claim that genes are forever self-promoting, out to ensure their survival in the environment they find themselves in.

In real life, everything is always evolving together; information flows both ways.

Here’s a film of Charlie Chaplin bricklaying. Pay Day!

It was actually filmed in reverse…


One Response to “Ant Beer Crisp Dream”

  1. drew stephenson March 8, 2015 at 7:39 pm #

    The Palace

    WHEN I was a King and a Mason – a Master proven and skilled
    I cleared me ground for a Palace such as a King should build.
    I decreed and dug down to my levels. Presently under the silt
    I came on the wreck of a Palace such as a King had built.

    There was no worth in the fashion – there was no wit in the plan –
    Hither and thither, aimless, the ruined footings ran –
    Masonry, brute, mishandled, but carven on every stone:
    “After me cometh a Builder. Tell him I too have known.

    Swift to my use in the trenches, where my well-planned ground-works grew,
    I tumbled his quoins and his ashlars, and cut and reset them anew.
    Lime I milled of his marbles; burned it slacked it, and spread;
    Taking and leaving at pleasure the gifts of the humble dead.

    Yet I despised not nor gloried; yet, as we wrenched them apart,
    I read in the razed foundations the heart of that builder’s heart.
    As he had written and pleaded, so did I understand
    The form of the dream he had followed in the face of the thing he had planned.
    . . . . . . . . . .

    When I was a King and a Mason, in the open noon of my pride,
    They sent me a Word from the Darkness. They whispered and called me aside.
    They said – “The end is forbidden.” They said – “Thy use is fulfilled.
    “Thy Palace shall stand as that other’s – the spoil of a King who shall build.”

    I called my men from my trenches, my quarries my wharves and my sheers.
    All I had wrought I abandoned to the faith of the faithless years.
    Only I cut on the timber – only I carved on the stone:
    “After me cometh a Builder. Tell him, I too have known.”

    Rudyard Kipling

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