We Built This City

While I wrote my last post, about the rapid changes that occurred in the last century or so, and the amount of things my grandmother, born in 1899, would not recognise if she were still around now, (she died in 1989) – there was a story hovering just at the back of my memory. It was a short story that I read years ago, and it’s a pity I didn’t go and do some research between writing that post and this one, because I can’t tell you the name of the story, nor who wrote it. I can locate the anthology online, but can’t locate the name or author of the story. It’s been a public holiday here today so I couldn’t even go in person to a library to find the book it was in. To top it all off, the dog ate my homework.

What I can tell you is that it was included in a collection of short stories called Expressway, edited by Helen Daniel and published in 1989.

The anthology was named after the painting Cahill Expressway, by Australian Artist Jeffrey Smart, which in turn was named after the road that cuts through part of Sydney, newly built at the time that Smart depicted it in this painting in 1962.  Daniel invited 29 Australian writers to write a piece of fiction, using the painting as their inspiration.

The painting, which I probably shouldn’t depict here for copyright reasons, but which can be viewed at the National Gallery of Victoria website right here, is of a depressingly empty, urban landscape. Cahill Expressway sweeps through the painting, dividing the short, fat man standing alone at an underpass on one side of the road, from the multi-storey buildings up on the hill above him. Not a single car, or other person, populates the landscape, making it feel (to anyone who has actually been in densely-populated inner Sydney), as though it must be a depiction of the day after the apocalypse, which is about the only time you would find a parking space in the city.

Like many of Smart’s paintings of urban landscapes, Cahill Expressway portrays the loneliness and alienation of human existence within a city. Daniel chose this painting as the challenge for her authors, because the contrast between the landscape and the lonely figure invites the viewer to create a narrative.

From memory, the short story collection included all sorts of interpretations of what the possible narrative behind the picture might be, most involving a backstory to the “fat man” and why he came to be walking through that particular urban landscape, but one story was very different to the others. This story, the one I can’t tell you the name of, was set back in prehistoric days. The characters were a primitive tribe of hunters, who still enacted ritual sacrifices, and the main protagonist was about to be led up to an altar to be sacrificed, when a vision came to him. That vision was the scene depicted in Cahill Expressway. But as this character had never encountered a road, a multistorey building, a man wearing a suit, a light pole, a statue, or basically anything depicted in the painting (other than sky, and a human being), he could only interpret the scene from the perspective of someone living in caveman times.

I wish I could remember now what his interpretation was, as it would make this a far more interesting read for you, dear reader, but the point of this is that the writer of that short story made a creative leap from the modern urban scene depicted by Smart, to imagining what someone a few thousand years earlier would make of it.

Of course the painting itself depicted the changes that were occurring in Sydney at that time. Cahill Expressway was apparently the first freeway constructed in Australia, opening to traffic in 1958. Post-war Sydney was embracing modernity, and getting rid of the slums that had housed poor immigrants throughout the previous century. The freeway in Smart’s painting stands as a cold, bleak symbol for the modern city devoid of humanity. According to Wikipedia, the freeway was unpopular right from the start, with protesters describing it as “doggedly symmetrical, profoundly deadpan, severing the city from the water on a permanent basis”.

(A deadpan freeway? That makes me feel kind of affectionate towards the Cahill Expressway, as if it might have a personality, something like the Blackboard on Mr Squiggle. HURRY UP.) But I digress.

So, that story, the one I can’t tell you the name of, is the story I keep in the back of my mind when I think of the rapidity of change, and wonder what someone who lived in a different time period would think of what I’ve just said, done, or used. Would it all sound, or look, alien? Would even a single word sound familiar? Would the onlooker/listener grasp at the few words/objects they recognised, and, like the character in that story, make their own meaning out of it?

Of course they would, because that’s what we humans are hard-wired to do – try and construct meaning from seemingly random occurrences and events.

I’ve just downloaded a new operating system and upgraded the security software because I think I’ve got a virus, so you should probably unplug your iPod and your hardrive just to be safe.

Pop a cup of water in the microwave and a pod in the Nespresso machine can you? I’m on FB but I’ll BRB in a mo.

Hi honey – no don’t worry, I”m using Bluetooth – just taking the SUV out for a spin, but just wondering where the GPS is? 

Forget GPS systems and iPods, what would cavemen even make of our cars, our houses, our toilets, and our domesticated animals, never having seen such things?

It’s only the more recent time traveller, someone who was around in the past 50 years, like my grandmother, who would be able to at least figure out that the contraption I am sitting in is a car, although a car unlike any she ever saw in her lifetime, and focus instead on wondering WTF the tiny device is that I’m playing music on, and what on earth a GPS is.

Hi Nana, yeah, not much, just sitting here on my laptop writing a post on my blog, which I’m about to publish online. You?

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about a day back in circa 1988, when I was stranded in a small beach town, with a 10 digit phone number written on a piece of paper, that wasn’t getting through to anyone because the phone it was ringing was “out of range.”

Back then, after the stress of that day was in the past, I got a lot of mileage from retelling that story. With a story-teller’s licence, I felt free to exaggerate certain elements, and downplay others, and I seem to recall that the audience was in stitches when I retold it a few years later at my friend’s 21st.

Now that its 2014, the humour is somewhat lost – it just sounds quaint. Nowadays, the main point that story serves to reveal is my age, but also, the enormous advances in mobile phone technology that have occurred in the relatively small span of history that has passed since I was in my late teens.

True, it is possible that, with some really bad planning, one could still manage to arrive in a country area with poor telephone network coverage and not be able to get in contact with your host due to poor network coverage, but, assuming that about 90% of people carry a “smart” phone everywhere they go, a lot of other aspects of that story would be different in 2014.

*

Sometimes I think that my generation (Gen X) are privileged to have a unique perspective on the ever-accelerating rate of advancements in technology, and not just because technology has advanced so much in our own lifetimes. Generationally, we are still have very close ties to a past where electronic devices of any sort were unheard of. My parents, perhaps a little older than average for my peers, were born before the Second World War, when a mechanical washing machine was still relatively new technology, and a telephone was not even yet a common household item for the average working class family.

bell telephone

Bell Telephone ad (American) from 1938. Just lift the receiver and tell the operator the 3-digit number you need to call!

Pic: Ohio University Vintage Print Advertising Archive

I don’t remember my parents talking about any outings in cars as children so I’m not sure if my mother’s parents ever drove, or even owned a car. My father grew up on a farm, where a truck was certainly used for farming activities when he was older, but I know that as a small child, he walked with his older siblings the few miles from the farm into “town,” to get to school each morning, rain, hail, snow or sun, a journey that would probably take about 12 minutes by car. Those were the days when each child was given a “slate” and a pencil to write on it with, and children who were left-handed, like my father was, had their dominant hand tied behind their back until they learned to write with their right hand.

My parents, in turn, shared with us from time to time, snippets of their own parents’ lives. These were my grandparents, only 2 generations removed from me but born in the late 19th Century, and teenagers at the outbreak of World War 1 (my mother’s father was an ambulance-bearer in the war). In those stories it was the absence of modern technology that had the greatest impact, particularly the absence of the huge advances in health care that would occur in the 20th century, increasing life expectancy, and would almost certainly have resulted in my grandfather’s brothers surviving childhood, my mother’s father, and my own father not losing parents at a very young age, and my  great-aunt not having a life-long limp due to childhood polio. (a common side-effect of polio was paralysis and subsequent distortion of a developing limb, such as having one leg shorter than the other.)

Washing Machine advert, circa. 1910

Washing Machine advert, circa. 1910. Saves Nerves.

Pic: Wikipedia

My grandparents’ lives began around the time that electric lighting first hit the streets of Melbourne, and that first flicker of yellow light seems symbolic, since the technology that electricity enabled would continue to advance – quietly for the first half of their lives, and, more noisily for the second half, when it would announce itself regularly with more and more new products that were increasingly able to be modified and priced for a domestic market. Consider the huge changes that occurred within my grandmother’s life: (1899 to 1989): her grandfather emigrated to Australia from Ireland, coming by boat, a journey of many months. When she was in her 30s, commercial flights began to operate in Australia – soon the same journey her grandfather had taken could be done in a day. When she was in her sixties, humans landed on the moon. When she was a young adult, people went to the “Pictures” to see a newsreel and a black-and-white, silent movie. When she was in her 50’s, television began mainstream broadcasting in Australia (1956), heralding the beginning of the Modern Era in Australia, ie, an era where the consumer market was dominated by electronic devices designed to make life easier, which had seemed like a futuristic vision only a few years earlier. Now you could watch the news in your own home, every night.

As a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I have vague memories of  large black-and-white TVs, and the excitement with which we kids greeted the very first colour TV that entered our home, but by the time we finally got a “computer” (a monitor screen for an Atari computer game), I was studying for Year 12 and spent my free time at friend’s houses, so I was barely aware that this existed, and a video player never entered the house while I lived at home.

Another thing about being a Generation X-er, or perhaps more specifically, through a combination of bad timing, and parents who were “old-fashioned” for the time, it seems that a Generation X-er like myself, who left home at the age of 18, was able to sneak through my teenage years and early twenties, barely encountering the technology that was finally, and gradually, becoming more widely used.

As a student, I wrote all my essays through high school and my first university course with a pen and paper, which was still the accepted mode as recently as the early 1990s. Back up copy? No such thing. My only significant encounter with a computer in that time was when I took an optional, half-year subject in Year 10, imaginatively called “Computers”. This comprised of learning to turn a computer on and run through a basic typing course, in a pre-Windows environment of course, where we typed commands at the top of the black screen where a cursor flashed on and off. No wonder I wasn’t excited by the possibilities that computers had to offer.

I seem to recall that some people my age had video players in their family homes by the time I was about 18, but we weren’t one of those families, and I left home before my parents finally relented on that front. Living for the next 9 years or so as a poor student in various rented share-houses, myself and my house-mates generally considered ourselves lucky to have a TV, (always donated by someone’s family), and I was probably about 27 before I ever had a video player in my home – just around the time that video was becoming old technology!

Another way that my personal past is linked to the technology-laden present and future, is because popular culture in the 1970s was very obsessed with science fiction and a utopian future. There was a plethora of television shows screened in family-viewing time in the 1970s that were full of, or even based on, futuristic devices. From the videophone used by The Jetsons, to the talking computers and teleportation devices featured on Star Trek, to the robots that featured in everything from Star Wars to Get Smart, to the thrill of watching Rick Deckard (in a dystopian, early 80’s vision of the future) zoom in on a detail in a photograph in Blade Runner, as viewers we were excited by futuristic devices that seemed, to our eyes, to be creations straight out of the minds of screen writers with fantastic imaginations. In hindsight now, it seems that many of these writers were, if not actually aware of what would be possible in the future, at least riding on the Zeitgiest, creatively in tune with the potential that technology offered.

An early prototype for Skype.

An early prototype for Skype.

Pic: The Smithsonian

Nowadays, just like Jane Jetson, (perhaps less glamorously) I can call my sister in Ireland and see her face on a screen while we chat. Like Rick Deckard, I can look at a photograph and zoom in to scrutinise a detail. I don’t have a robot, but I believe Godfrey’s have a sale on them this weekend for $89. And, as Andy Warhol probably could have predicted, I can write a piece of “creative non-fiction” and in a matter of seconds I can publish it online where the entire online world could read it if they wanted to.

Nana, you’d be amazed.

My mum's mother, holding me, c 1970. (Color film not yet common!)

My mum’s mother, holding me, c 1970. (Color film not yet common!)

Forgotten, again. Poor cockroaches.

Any cockroach will tell you that it was inevitable. Being an arrogant human being, of course I would completely overlook cockroaches when I wrote my last post.

Of course, cockroaches can’t type, and if even they could, they don’t have little cockroach sized computers. Maybe we are lucky that they don’t, because otherwise they would no doubt write their own history of the universe and conveniently leave out humans, who, after all, have only popped up to annoy them in the last 100 thousand years – they’ve been around for more than 300 million years!

Cockroach costume

I knew she would forget about cockroaches! Aaaagh! I’m really f**ing annoyed!

For those who haven’t tried it out yet, my last post was an extensively researched history of the entire universe so far. It differed somewhat from Stephen Hawking’s attempt to do the same thing, by including literary references to help the literary minded reader put things into a familiar perspective, and by coming in at less than 700 words.

Unfortunately, however, my research assistant neglected to give me any information on the cockroach. It was only when watching Hungry Beast the other night that I was reminded that the cockroach has been on earth for over 300 million years, and immediately realised that this was a serious omission in my post on the history of the universe!

(To anyone who wishes to lodge a complaint at my omission, I can assure you that my research assistant has been severely reprimanded. As she is imaginary -and in keeping with the theme – I have threatened her with extinction if she doesn’t pick up her act.)

So anyway, apparently the cockroach should have been included a long way back on my time line, as apparently those pesky little buggers were scuttling around on Earth even before the dinosaur emerged. Dinosaurs of course were large, fearsome creatures, still admired by little boys all over the world, and their lives have been mythologised in thousands of stories and films, (none come to mind right now) –  yet they couldn’t even manage to make it through the ice-age/ asteroid impact/ volcanoes (the jury is still out on what caused them to disappear off the face of the earth)! Cockroaches, meanwhile, are tiny, ugly, infamous, unloved, held in contempt and considered as vermin, yet they scuttled their way right through the ice age with barely a shiver, thought the asteroid impact made a nice fireworks display, and found the volcanoes to be a cosy spot for holidaying. Hundreds of millions of years later, they are still zipping jauntily across our kitchen floors in much the same form they took 300 million years ago!

Obviously, like jellyfish and  some of those other weird deep sea creatures I mentioned in an earlier post (for this very reason) cockroaches also got it right way back at the start of their evolution. Unlike humans, they had no need to continue to evolve just so that they could develop thumbs, lose excess body hair, express themselves in crude wall drawings, learn to cook, ponder the meaning of life, develop the internet, and finally culminate their evolutionary sophistication by being able to simultaneously write a blog while making a playlist on itunes. They were already right where they needed to be.

When I think of cockroaches like this – a creature that connects us with some primordial past that goes back hundreds of millions of years before humans existed, they suddenly gain some extra kudos, although even so, I am still not keen to accidentally put my hand on one when I’m looking for the vegemite.

Fake cockroach

Just to make it up to cockroaches, I thought I would attempt to transcribe the words from a song by Melbourne musician Kim Salmon, who obviously had a similar revelation about cockroaches. It’s hard to find the lyrics to his songs anywhere so this is my interpretation. Salmon envisions cockroaches surviving on Earth long after humans are gone. As do scientists, according to that report on Hungry Beast. Apparently scientists are thinking about turning cockroaches into human time capsules via genetic coding. That would be a weird twist in the evolutionary graph, for sure! Humans recognise that cockroaches are superior, in an evolutionary sense, so we  inprint our genetic coding onto them, so that when we are extinct, some other creature might be able to turn to cockroaches to find out all about our history.

But what if the only creatures left are cockroaches, who is going to be interested in the information?

*

Cockroach (Kim Salmon and the Surrealists)

Nature has provided

Nature has provided some people

they did my cooking

they built me a home

I might not like their cooking at first but I can learn how to eat it

Cos when they get round to poisoning each other I’ll have this whole place to myself

and I’ll have learned how to live in it, when no one else can

I’ll have this whole place to myself

because I am the cockroach

I am the cockroach

you can look up to heaven

you can look for a sign

you can look where you like 

but I’m the ultimate design

I’m what he had on his mind

I’m the best that you’ll find

I am the ultimate design

I am the cockroach

I am the cockroach

I’m the natural conclusion of God’s evolution and it follows that I’m what he planned

You fools! you don’t realise

this planet wasn’t meant to be manned

I’m what he had on his mind, I’m the best that you’ll find

I am the ultimate design because 

I am the cockroach

I am the cockroach

*

cockroach repellent

A Really Brief History of Time

7.5 billion years ago: Things are pretty quiet as far as we can see. Earth does not yet exist, which accounts for the lack of extra noise. Out in the universe, stars burn away for millions of years, and that’s about it for action, really. Occasionally they explode, which livens things up for a while. As it happens, right at the moment that we are looking back at, one such star, GRB 080319B (although, at this point in time, it went by the name of unnamed) explodes, and the light from this explosion begins to travel through space.

Star exploding

 7.5 billion years ago

6.5 billion years ago: ….oh, sorry, I’d fallen asleep. It felt like a billion years just went by. Anyway, not much has been happening, things are pretty much the same as they have been for the last billion years. Even a maths lesson on a hot stuffy afternoon would seem action packed in comparison to this. Light from the explosion of GRB 080319B  still hurtles rapidly through space, allegedly travelling at the speed of…well….light. (Eye witnesses are hard to locate.)

4.5 billion years ago: Major thrills!  Over in a galaxy  – which will later be named “The Milky Way,” after a delicious chocolate bar that does not spoil the appetite – a new planet forms. This will be designated as “Earth” by the inhabitants, but that naming ceremony is still billions of years away.

3.5 billion years ago: More excitement! Who said nothing happens around here? The first life forms appear on Earth. Later named “bacteria,” these primitive life-forms prove to be the most resilient anywhere in the universe.* Meanwhile, light from the explosion of GRB 080319B continues to zoom through space.

650 million years ago: animals with nerves and muscles, but no brains, begin to appear on Earth. They are called Jellyfish. (Some of these creatures evolve to become Rugby League players.)

250 million years ago:  dinosaurs roam Earth. Light from the explosion of GRB 080319B is still ploughing steadily on through space at a consistent speed. (if ploughs could be said to go at the speed of light.)

100 thousand years ago: Homo Sapiens first appear on Earth. Apparently one of the main things that distinguish Homo Sapiens from Neanderthals is their production of artistic objects. Thus the beginnings of the human race is marked by its need to make art, which is handy for a thematic link to my previous post.

1 thousand years ago: the real Macbeth reigns in Scotland, but not in entirely the same way as the famous fictional character did – eg, there are less witches boiling up trouble, and not so many ghosts popping up through the fruit platter at banquets. A mysterious voice proclaiming “Macbeth has murdered sleep” in the middle of the night might really have been heard, depending on just how loudly he partied at night.

500 years ago: Shakespeare writes Macbeth, basing it on the king who lived 500 years earlier. (To Shakespeare and his cronies, Macbeth’s time seems like ancient history, but they didn’t have the benefit of being able to read this handy post to put things into perspective.)

Meanwhile, throughout all of this planetary, and now human activity, light from GRB 080319B continues to whizz steadily through the universe. Remember people, it was going at the speed of light, not at the speed of a segway. Reports from this time are still sketchy, but it appeared to be heading in the direction of The Milky Way.

60 years ago: Beckett writes Waiting for Godot and makes obvious reference to Macbeth.**

13 years ago: Stephen Hawking publishes A Brief History of Time, which explains a lot of stuff about the workings of the universe but overlooked the connection between  Macbeth, Waiting for Godot, black holes, stars exploding and the endlessness of the universe. Hawking’s so-called “brief” history also takes a lot longer to read than this post, even though I’ve managed to add in the parts about Macbeth and Waiting for Godot that Hawking left out of his.

3 years ago:  the light from GRB 080319B, that has been travelling for all that time, reaches Earth’s atmosphere. The light from the explosion that happened 7.5 billion years earlier and has travelled across the universe for all that time is seen briefly by Homo sapiens, on Earth.

3 days ago: I write a post that manages to tie the explosion of a star 7.5 billion years ago to Macbeth and Waiting for Godot, and which, no doubt, astronomers, physicists, literary academics and my local postman will be quoting in the years to come.

Just now: In what is already rapidly becoming the short-term past, I hit the “publish” button on this post, written to give an overview of the history of the universe so that it was clear where Macbeth and Waiting for Godot fitted in to the grand scheme of things.

Meanwhile, out in deep space, things are going along pretty much the same as they were, billions of years ago.

*

In other relevant news, apparently Milky Way now comes in a spread.

 

Milky Way spread

Milky Way spread. Neanderthals didnt think of that one.

*With the possible exception of Daleks

* *Beckett’s reference to Macbeth seems obvious to me, but is just my opinion, and I am not an academic. Any literary scholars who would like to disagree this may send in a 500 word essay on the topic, which will be published here in serial format.

Black holes and other things I dont know enough about

There’s a lot to wonder about out there….

The supermassive black hole at the center of our Galaxy.

What do I wish I knew more about??? Oh, there is so much that could come into that category! After all, I named my blog “It keeps me wondering” for a reason!!!

I like wondering about all sorts of stuff…admittedly sometimes in a fanciful way, but I’m actually stimulated by learning new stuff, particularly if it’s through a dialogue with someone else who is knowledgable and passionate about it. I enjoy trying to picture and understand how things work, so I can become genuinely interested in almost any topic – for example, why steam burns you twice (as a friend was explaining last night). A good example is that when listening to local community radio station 3RRR, I can find myself becoming absorbed in the discussion of topics ranging from the work of the Mirabel Foundation to a current exhibition on in Melbourne. Sadly, I don’t seem to have a good ability to retain a lot of facts about how things work, however. So I don’t seem to store those facts in a database in my head, but the upside is that, like a goldfish, my active curiosity in learning about things can be triggered by hearing the same information I’ve heard before, if it’s presented in an interesting way!

It’s hard to know where to start, but here are just a few of the things I wish I knew more about, and can always hear about with interest:

Astronomy – the stars, the galaxy, black holes! The fact that the light we see in the sky left a star anywhere from 4 years ago to 1000s of years ago (or millions of years ago if you have a telescope) – that is one of those mind blowing facts that (even though I do retain it) still causes a shiver to run down my spine when I think about it. I guess it is because that light connects us with the prehistoric past of the universe, before the earth was inhabited, so many eons of time ago that we can’t even begin to picture how much time ago we are talking about. It reminds me  that human existence on earth really is a tiny blip on the radar of the universe.

Sociology and psychology – why we crazy humans behave the way we do! For example, it’s always fascinating to read about those famous experiments that I remember from psychology, like the one where someone on top of a tall building looks like they are going to jump, and down below the crowd gradually lose their sense of individuality and concern, and all chant at him to jump! Or the one where there is an apple on a table and everyone around the table one by one has to say what the object on the table is. The first person (a stooge) says it’s a pear, and no-one queries them, so then one by one, everyone round the table says it’s a pear.* Or the one where some people were made to play prison guards and put in charge of other people, playing the role of prisoners, and during the course of the experiment, the “prison wardens” started treating the “prisoners” in cruel and inhumane ways as the power dynamic went to their head. Human behaviour is so complex, fascinating, and sometimes scary!

History – the things that humans did in the past, and why they did them! There is a story to everything, and just about anything can come under the category of “history”, and tell us a little about the society that created it. The history of Ireland. The history of grafitti art. The history of robots.

bioluminescent jellyfish

Is it a space alien? No, its a bioluminescent jellyfish!

M. Youngbluth

Biology – particularly marine life – they are so mysterious to us. Starfish – how do they eat? How do they reproduce? Those bioluminescent deep sea creatures that live down on the ocean floor, creeping about in the murky depths, generating their own light, and not even bothering to evolve, just remaining as weird and primordial as their ancestors who were creeping around in the same ocean thousands of years ago.

I guess my interest in barely evolved creatures must be part of my fascination with history and pre-history. I just think it is shiver-inducing to know that there are still little bits of ancient history around us – out in the galaxies and way down deep in the oceans.

Of course, there are plenty of other, every day things I’d like to know more about too, for example, what half the functions on my phone are for, or why Fisher and Paykel bother having a 24/7 help line, but those things are not as potentially fascinating so I can survive without knowing the answers or even wondering too much about them. There’s too much other, more interesting stuff, to wonder about!

*

* The object on the table in that experiment might not have been an apple, it could have been an orange, or for that matter, a ham sandwich. I can’t recall and didn’t feel like looking it up. So I am not succumbing to peer group pressure when I say it was an apple, I just chose apples and pears to illustrate the point.

An orange

Umm…..an apple??

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