Summer Repeats

Step by Step

[20 Jun 02] This post from June 2000 still touches a nerve.

Something strange happened last night. There was a message from a friend on our answering machine, and I called him back, and because he's moved recently I called his mobile. After one or two rings, a voice answered—not his, but a woman's (not his partner's, either)—and said 'Rohan's mobile phone, what is your message, please?'

And I was completely thrown. It was an actual person, not a recorded voice. An actual person, taking his messages, presumably for some message-bank service.

'Uhh—I've got a message for Rohan?' (just to make sure it was an actual person I was talking to).

'Yes, what is your message for Rohan, please?'

'Um, it's his friend Rory, returning his call.'

'Rory, returning his call. Thank you.' End of conversation.

The whole experience was deeply unsettling. Not because there was a human on the line, but because I was expecting a machine. I was expecting thirty seconds of Enya and that bloke from Idiot Box who does the hold-messages for Ansett, or that woman from ACTEW who says 'I will lead you—step-by-step' (oo, goody!).

If I can't have Rohan or a recording of Rohan, I want production values and a script, dammit! None of this improvisation. I want buttons! 1 to leave him a message, 2 for easy monthly payments, 3 to delete this recording!

What's the point of all this dehumanising technology if it isn't populated by dehumans?


Give Them an Inch

[17 Jun 02] After last week's blurtfest, it's time to switch back to summer repeats. So, am I allowed to 'repeat' something that didn't initially appear on this site? Who cares. Here's something from a MetaFilter thread on the British Weights and Measures Association's campaign against the metric system:

In other news, proponents of Imperial Computation are objecting that the kilobyte and megabyte are superseding the old-fashioned British grossbyte (=144 bytes). "All of a sudden we're getting only one kilobyte where before we'd get seven grossbytes," says Lionel Fridge of the British Bytes and Measures Association. "It just isn't right... everything is being resized to encourage metric computation. Twenty megabyte hard disks hold 145,635 and a half grossbytes: if that isn't an attack on good old-fashioned British values, I don't know what is."

Fridge went on to complain that tuppence ha'penny and a shiny new shilling just don't buy what they used to, before being cruelly struck down by a crash-landing Mars orbiter.


Hip Hippo Hooray

[10 Jun 02] This entry from two years ago was an early throwaway favourite, and now comes with a sequel:

There's nothing sadder than finding an alluring one-line description on a links page only to get a 404: "Hippopotamus page (Netherlands) A cricket club with a hippo mascot." Call me crazy, but Dutch cricketing hippos is something I've gotta see.

Found via Hippo World, the Place for All Things Hippo. It's hippopotamosupercalifrajalistic! (Workplace warning: streaming hippo-related music in background.)

The sequel? Turns out that the Dutch cricketing hippos are still out there.


The Mouse

[ 5 Jun 02] In an attempt to ward off the shaking sensation that comes from not posting to the site in days, we bring you another in this thrilling series of retrospectives: this one from January 2001.

The mouse is dead.

I have nothing against mice personally—in fact I find their beady black eyes quite endearing—but we're currently sleeping on mattresses on the floor, and I don't fancy waking up to the pitter patter of tiny feet across my forehead. And Jane, who in most respects is a no-nonsense sort, has a thing about rodents—something to do with being a biologist and having to bump off dozens of them in the name of science. So the mouse had to die.

But he was a tenacious little bugger.

Last week I heard the trap go off under the sink while I was doing the dishes, and looked down at his prone form twitching beneath it... and watched the whole thing leap and bounce as he wriggled free, then darted round the fridge and away.

On Sunday, Jane saw him near the heater built into the fireplace in the living room. 'It's the mouse!' she cried. I crouched down to look, but saw only a mouse-shaped blob of fluff.

On Monday, I looked down from this chair and saw him sitting in the middle of the carpet, staring up at me with his endearing beady eyes before he zipped back behind the couch. That night I loaded the trap with peanut butter, a mouse favourite. When we came back from a movie it was licked clean, and empty.

I tried again with a piece of feta cheese and an enormous glob of peanut butter, setting the trap off on my fingers twice while placing it next to the heater. Yesterday I watched the mouse dart out again and again from beneath the heater and eat that whole enormous glob of peanut butter right down to the cheese. The trap didn't go off. The mouse was too light. My only hope was to keep feeding him peanut butter until he got heavy enough to trigger it.

Last night I smeared the trap again and set it even more carefully, on as delicate a trigger as I could. If this didn't work, I was going to buy a whole bunch of traps, dammit, and set them in a row along the wall: a Maginot line of mouse-traps, all poised to go off at the slightest hint of a breeze as he ran past, thwap! thwap! thwap! thwap! thwap!, turning the living room into an ungodly mess of mouse parts and peanut butter!

This morning, the tiny mouse was dead. His tiny nose thrust into a glob of peanut butter, his tiny head separated from his tiny body by a line of spring wire across his tiny neck.

I miss him. (Sniff.)

Brigghhhhht eyyyyyesssss, eatin' peanut butterrrr...


Swimming in Nukes

[ 1 Jun 02] I'd planned to kick off my season of summer repeats with something a little more upbeat, but given the grim battle of wills being played out in New Delhi and Islamabad it's hard to go past this piece of nuclear reminiscing from September 2000, lightly edited here.

Seems like half of Generation X is reminiscing about nukes. I was going to say 'the boomers had Levitt homes and cars with fins, and we had nuclear weapons', but of course the boomers had nukes, too (there was a reason why 1950s cars had fins). So I wonder why these dark memories of the mushroom cloud are such a particularly Gen X thing. Maybe they're not, and I'm just indulging in the typical conceit of believing that my generation invented everything—but there did seem to be a distinctive character to Gen X nuclear terror.

What we had in our formative years that the boomers didn't was nuclear winter. It was only in the early 1980s that computer modelling became powerful enough to paint an unequivocal picture of who would survive a nuclear war: nobody. The post-apocalyptic scenarios of the 1950s and 1960s, outlined in science fiction tales like A Canticle for Leibowitz, were certainly grim enough, but at least they depicted a world with people, even if most of them were mutants or mad. But nuclear winter, it seemed, had no room for people. No room for anything, much. By the time the black clouds cleared, the only life left on earth would be bacteria on the ocean floor.

When the first crop of boomers were growing up, nuclear weapons were still variants on Fat Man and Little Boy. God knows, they were horrific enough, but there were limits to their destructive power and to how far they could reach. But Gen X grew up under the cloud of the hydrogen bomb, the neutron bomb, and the inter-continental ballistic missile, and more of them than you could count.

The defining nuclear movie for me wasn't On the Beach, or even The Day After; it was WarGames. I remember watching the final scene where the hacked military computer lights up a map of the world with red criss-crossing lines as it tries out every possible permutation of missile paths, and thinking: this is exactly how it would be. No escape.

Of all the messages you could send to someone in their teenage years about the world and the future, mutually-assured destruction is pretty much the exact wrong one. It dovetails perfectly with the depression and uncertainty that comes with being an adolescent. By 1984, when I was 16, Reagan was cranking up the rhetorical pressure on the 'Evil Empire' to the point where half of my peers expected the bombs to start flying any day. Today, I can understand the game he was playing, even if it was way too close to Russian roulette for my liking; but most teenagers don't know much about politics, and I was no exception. Reagan meant to strike fear into the Russians—not that he would actually bomb them, but that he would outspend them, on laser-armed satellites and supercomputers—but he also spooked a whole generation of Westerners.

Peter Garrett, the lead singer of Midnight Oil, ran for the Australian Senate in 1984 as a member of the fledgling Nuclear Disarmament Party. He narrowly missed winning one of six seats for the state of New South Wales. If 16-year olds could have voted, he would have walked it in, and not because we liked the music on Red Sails in the Sunset.

Nineteen eighty-four was a high-water mark for nuclear angst matched only by 1961 and the Bay of Pigs. The tide began to subside the following year when Gorbachev became the Soviet premier, and retreated more quickly once the West realised the mark of the man. In 1989 it seemed to go out forever.

But the sea of nukes is still out there, and my generation grew up swimming in it. Maybe that's why we can't help wondering when the tide will come back in.


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