It was raining heavily yesterday, and we all got a bit wet. But I cycled in, nonetheless, because I am a human tool user and can adapt to the situation by wearing the right clothes.
It is not unusual for my students to get up a conversation about umbrellas on a day like this, and indulge in a little light stereotyping. And it always pleases me to be able to tell them that the only time in my life I bought an umbrella was in Milan.
However, the umbrella, like the bicycle, remains one of those fundamentally unimprovable technologies. You can spring-load them, build them into a hat, put ears on them and give them to a child, put slogans on them and give them to a client; but none of this alters the fundamental principle, the discovery of which dates back to the Han dynasty in China, and to the seventeenth century in Europe (Europeans discovered it, of course, in China; in the middle ages, in Europe, people relied on a cloak, much as I rely on my waterproof trousers).
Steve Jobs had a favourite parable, which I have mentioned her a couple of times (making it a favourite parable of my own, I suppose) – that years ago a team of researchers analysed the motor efficiency of a wide range of animals and birds, and found that the condor was the most efficient; human beings stood somewhere in the mid-range of efficiency, until they plugged the figures for human-on-a-bicycle into the algorithm, at which point human-on-a-bicycle streaked clear of the pack by an order of magnitude. To Jobs, the computer fulfilled just such a function for the human brain.
I do not suppose that human-with-an-umbrella would top any table of extraordinary powers, but it would, probably, get near to the top of a table of animals with water-resistant properties; human-wrapped-in-goretex would do even better, and the catch-all human-wearing-appropriate-clothing would no doubt scream to the top. To the human-wearing-appropriate-clothing, there is, as Billy Connolly surmised, no such thing as bad weather.