Future Investment

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One of my favourite short stories is Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Toynbee Convector’. Without giving too much away, it’s set in a near future where humanity has finally worked out how to live with each other. During the course of the story the central character reveals to a journalist the colossal fraud he perpetrated in order to drag the world back from the brink of destruction. In so doing he single-handedly establishes the utopia of the story’s setting. It’s an optimistic short story and it fills me with hope. It’s an aspect of science-fiction I like. Science-fiction is about the exploration of ideas. It is a genre with influence. The evolution of technology is evidence of this. These days science-fiction is too frequently used, particularly in film, to satisfy the popular obsession with blood, guts, pointless heroics and doom. In doing so the genre sells itself short.

Why do we display such an automatic fascination with the negative when we have a boundless creative capacity and, one would hope, an innate desire for the positive? At what point does humanity collectively decide to stop being a group of adolescents and begin behaving like adults? Like it or not we are all reservoirs of information and ideas. Collectively we build the future.

Some shape the future by their actions (The Transition Network). Some teach (Solar Mommas), others may write, make films, or express it through their art. Then there those like Lachie Coman. For many, the exchange happens over lunch, a drink or coffee. At these junctures do we choose to add to the milieu of gloom or do we discuss solutions? In the 21st century the world is connected for the first time in history. The information flows 24/7 and we all have influence.

Whether we realize it or not, technology continually monitors how we live our lives. The loyalty card you use at the supermarket provides information on your buying habits. Cookies from websites, tweets and Facebook ‘likes’ all provide information on who you are and what you do. No doubt some find this ‘Orwellian’. But perhaps the paradox is that we are now more empowered. By making positive conscious choices about what we buy, and what we do and say online, we will influence decisions by those who mine this data. For example, organic products are now sold in mainstream supermarkets. The information flows 24/7 and it flows both ways.

The science-fiction of my childhood is becoming my reality. So let’s continue to ask ‘what if?’. As Captain Jean-Luc Picard once said, ‘Money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.’  And while it may seem like a pie-in-the-sky philosophy I’d rather hear that speech in a science-fiction movie than witness an apocalyptic scenario any day.

Being Brave In a New World

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A man lies in a hospital bed. He is dying. His son’s hands rest on his shoulders as they stare into each other’s eyes. The man realises he has just taken his final breath. His eyes widen as his consciousness fades. The son keeps his hands where they are. His eyes remain locked onto his father’s. The moment is both transcendental and hyper-real. He is the last thing his father will ever see. His father dies just as the son comprehends this rare privilege, his father’s final gift; a profound truth of love and connection. It is the 22nd of October, 2006 and the time is 5:43am.

It’s seven years later and the connection mantra is unrelenting. We are constantly told why we need to connect, where to connect and with whom to connect.  Social media rules and the one with the most friends and/or followers wins the prize. Your connection might be lightning-fast but have you checked the depth? Here are two questions: how many of your friends on Facebook do you actually know? By this I mean people with whom you have had real-world social interactions. Next question: do you consider the first question of any consequence?

Is there something ironic about ‘Friends’ posting such things on Facebook or am I being just plain cynical again?

Please do not think for a minute that I’m some kind of perverse Luddite. Right now I’m sitting in a council library and making use of their wi-fi in order to write this post. I’m merely pausing to consider how the technology a society creates shapes the future of the society that creates it. While we may think that we’re more connected than previous generations, psychologist and author Sherry Turkle believes this is not the case.

– Okay, so how many of you texted during this presentation?

I can’t help but think that part of what Professor Turkle describes echoes some of the social elements outlined in Aldous Huxley‘s ‘Brave New World‘. In particular, how Huxley’s characters are discouraged from forming deep emotional relationships or spending time alone in quiet contemplation. While these social elements are actively enforced in Huxley’s novel, I wonder if we are passively allowing for their gradual inculcation due to our unchecked appetite for new technology.

– Is this the perfect gift for your grandmother when you can no longer find the time to visit?

– Your doppelganger will be ready to pick up in the morning.

Most of us would use computers at work. Tablets and mobile phones are commonplace. The question is, how far are you willing to allow technology to intrude upon your personal time? Have you given yourself over to it completely? Could you go for a half-hour walk without your phone? How has it affected your creative self?

At our house we have sacred Sundays. Computers and mobile phones do not get used before midday. Then there are days when we leave everything at home and enjoy an old-fashioned picnic: fresh food, good wine, a blanket and a book which one of us will read to the other. For my genius girlfriend and I, it’s a chance to slow down, recharge and contemplate the direction we are taking in this life; a profound truth of love and connection.

So… your kitchen is on fire.

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It’s the pappadums. There’s smoke. Suddenly flames erupt from the grill threatening to engulf the rest of the kitchen. But we have an extinguisher and before the fire can spread I’ve leapt across the room, torn the extinguisher from  its wall mounting, removed the pin and have begun shooting a jet of dry white powder into the grill and oven. The fire is out in seconds.

We are lucky. The stove and parts of the kitchen are covered in a fine yellow-white powder. However, there’s no burn marks on the wall or ceiling. We are lucky because my genius girlfriend had the foresight to buy an appropriate fire extinguisher. We are lucky because the extinguisher was deliberately and permanently located in the kitchen in plain sight. We are lucky because for three years my job was training people in fire safety, including the proper use of fire extinguishers. What’s really going to suck is cleaning that dry powder out of everything.

A fire only needs three things to get started: a source of heat/ignition, oxygen and fuel. Once a fire starts, and assuming it has sufficient oxygen and fuel, it will double in size every 30 seconds. The most common area for a fire to start is in the kitchen (stove), followed by the lounge room (electrical goods, household dust getting into powerboards) and then the laundry (failing to clean the lint filter in the clothes dryer). It’s important to have a household fire-safety plan.

SEVEN RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. Have a working fire extinguisher. There are different types of extinguishers (1) for different classes of fire. A good general-purpose extinguisher for the home is a dry-powder (ABE) extinguisher. This type of extinguisher will put out three common classes of fire. Be warned though that the discharged powder may damage electrical equipment. Whatever type of extinguisher you decide upon, make sure that it is mounted in a position that allows quick and easy access to the extinguisher.
  2. Have a fire blanket. Fire blankets are great for putting out stove-top fires. Make sure that it is properly mounted on the wall where it can be seen and easily accessed. A friend of mine has experienced two kitchen fires. After the first one she bought a fire blanket and put it in a kitchen draw. When the second fire happened, no one could find the fire blanket and so no one could put out the fire. Not good.
  3. Cooking-fat/oil fires should be put out with the appropriate fire extinguisher or a fire blanket. Throwing water on a cooking-fat/oil fire is a guaranteed way to spread the fire in an explosive fashion. The other point is that a cooking-fat/oil fire should not be removed from the stove in an attempt to place it outside. A friend of mine tried this and required skin grafts to both arms for his troubles.
  4. Know how to use the extinguisher and blanket. If you have the gear then it’s just as important to know how to use it. Read the instructions when you first buy it. My reaction was quick and automatic however, my job for three years was teaching people how to use an extinguisher. If you’re still unsure about how to use either a blanket or extinguisher then contact your local fire service to see if they provide training.
  5. Install a working smoke alarm. I’ve got friends who deliberately disable their smoke alarms so that the alarms don’t go off while they’re cooking. A lot of the time they fail to hook them back up when they’re done. 80% of people who die in fires are killed by the smoke. A properly installed smoke alarm can alert you to danger and buy you enough time to safely evacuate the building. If in doubt, talk to your local fire service about the most suitable type and proper installation. Most battery-powered alarms need to have the batteries changed every 12 months.
  6. If in doubt get out. No one says you have to fight a fire. Preservation of life is the priority. It’s important there are always two quick, safe exits out of the building. Make sure that these exits are kept clear. If it comes to it, go out the window. I knew a fellow who spent 20 years in the air force as a fireman. He kept a small sledge hammer under his bed. In the event of a fire the sledge hammer went through the window, his doona went over the widow frame and broken glass and within seconds he would be safely out of his house. If you have a family, practice your evacuation plan regularly so that everyone knows what to do and panic is minimised.
  7. Routinely check your place for fire hazards. It’s a good idea to minimise the chance of a fire starting in the home by removing fire hazards. The common ones are frayed or worn electrical cables, a build-up of household dust in power-boards (tip: inserting childproof plugs into empty powerboard outlets stops the dust from getting in), an accumulation of leaves in the gutters, improper storage of flammable liquids (either too close to electrical sources or heat sources) and an accumulation of lint in the clothes dryer.

Having a fire safety plan is a bit like doing a first aid course in that you never really want to find yourself in a situation where you need to use it. However, just like a first aid course, knowledge and preparation can save lives.

(1) This post originated in Australia and discusses fire extinguishers and fire classes  in accordance with Australian standards. Please note that the standard classification of fire classes and appropriate extinguishers are different in other countries. The author urges all readers to check with their local fire authority before the purchase or installation of any fire-fighting equipment or detection system.

Is Art What It Is To Be Human?

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What would you do if you met someone who had avoided a state execution? Would you start a conversation with them and, if you did, what would you discuss? This friend of mine met a fellow who had been on death row. She was an artist and so was he. The thing is that while she had spent her whole life making art, he had only taken it up while he awaiting his execution. The reason for his incarceration was never broached. The topic of conversation was art, in particular his art. His skill with pencil and paper was astounding.

So here’s this chap believing that some point in his near future he will die and what does he do about it? He learns to draw. Why this fascinated me is because around the same time I was reading a book called ‘The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature’ by Daniel J. Levitn. Daniel Levitin is a musician, has been a record producer and studies cognitive neuroscience in an attempt to understand the connection between music and the mind. He is also the author of ‘This Is Your Brain on Music’ and if you are a musician, composer or artist I’d say both books are must reads.

In the beginning of ‘The World in Six Songs’, Levitin tries to pin down the one thing that makes humans a unique animal. In the process he rules out language, tool usage, the construction of societies, that we are bipedal with opposable thumbs and that we practice deception. We are, according to Levitin, the only animal that makes art. Levitin cites Victor Frankl’s observations that prisoners held in concentration camps during the Second World War would spontaneously write poetry, compose songs or paint. Is the need for humans to be creative, and express it, of the same biological importance as eating and sleeping? Levitin hints that this may be the case, reminding the reader that in the throes of creativity the artist often ignores both food and rest.

What makes the human brain unique and inherently creative claims Levitin is a combination of three of its abilities. The first is what is known as theory of mind. This is the brain’s ability to think about its own thoughts and realize that other human brains might have different thoughts (what Levitin calls perspective-taking). The second is abstraction. This is the brain’s ability to think about things that are not right in front of us. The third one is the ability to rearrange that is the ability to combine, recombine and impose hierarchical order on elements in the world. The combination of these three abilities is what allows humans to share their inner world with others via art.

Sigríður Níelsdóttir is no longer alive. Grandma Lo-Fi is a documentary about this extraordinary Icelandic citizen. Ignoring social convention, Sigríður Níelsdóttir was 70 years of age when she decided to become a musician. Over a seven-year period she recorded enough material for 59 CDs and is considered one of Iceland’s underground cultural icons. Her formal musical training was three years of piano when she was a child. Although in the documentary she admits that any formal musical knowledge from then had been forgotten. Her recording studio was the kitchen and lounge room. Her recording equipment was a standard modern stereo, with a dual tape deck, that you could buy from any retail store. Her main instrument was a cheap generic keyboard. Once again something available from a standard retail store. Sigríður Níelsdóttir sung her own original lyrics and her recordings incorporated manipulated sounds that she generated from kitchen implements and sounds that she recorded from found sources.

Apart from operating a tape deck, Sigríður Níelsdóttir had no technical skill regarding the use of recording equipment. Everything went straight to tape: no computers, no effects racks, and no mixing desk. She would take the tapes to a small business which would transfer the material to CD. Later in the film we see her leaving the same business with her little shopping cart filled with her CDs and making her way back down the street to her basement flat. Sigríður Níelsdóttir also made her own CD covers: collages done with scissors and glue. These proved to be so popular that when she stopped being a musician to become a visual artist, all the works displayed in her first public show sold within the first ten minutes.

So why create? Is it because evolution has wired our brains in a unique way? Is it an innate desire to share our inner world with others? Or maybe it’s, as Sigríður Níelsdóttir put it, ‘correcting mistakes’. What if creativity is a defining point of humanity, despite attempts by governments, education systems and society in general to constrain and convince us otherwise? If Dr Levitin, Sigríður Níelsdóttir, Victor Frankl and others like them are right then creativity is everyone’s birth right and to remain silent is to never know the unique beauty of your own voice.

APT7

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It’s that time on the calendar when Brisbane hosts the Asia-Pacific Triennial. If you live in Brisbane or are visiting over the next few months I’d urge you to check it out. It’s big, it’s colourful, the work is clever and diverse and it’s free. On the opening night, I spent at least eight hours wandering the halls of GOMA and parts of QAG with my genius girlfriend and we’ll being going back to look at the works we didn’t get to see. If you consider yourself hermeneutically challenged when it comes to art, as I do, I’ve found that quickly reading the ‘Information for Children’ plaque fixed next to the work is sufficient to keep the conversation going and at least you’ll get to fool some of the people some of the time. There are plenty of fantastic works, and again I urge you to go see them for yourself. By the way, did I mention it’s free?

The Eclipse

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This month the sun disappeared. On the 14th of November a precise alignment of the sun, the Earth and the moon meant folks of Far-North Queensland, Australia would experience something other than another cyclone; the totality of a solar eclipse.  Some people travel enormous distances for these occasions. I’ve a friend who rode the train from Brisbane to Cairns for the event. He was living in Innisfail the year Cyclone Larry struck. I’ve heard there’s always a group of hardworking, enterprising freaks who get the obligatory festival up and running. A  total solar eclipse complete with its own festival against the tropical backdrop of F.N. Queensland. I imagine it must have been quite the event. And imagine I only can; as at the time I was around 2000 km away in a cemetery with my best friend, a thermos of hot coffee and two pairs of eclipse glasses. Brisbane is too far south for totality. However, the moon would still cover 80% of the sun. The cemetery is located on top of a hill and has an almost panoramic view. Also many of my relatives are buried here and, as we all know, important events should be spent with family.

This was my first solar eclipse. But the gift of insomnia has privileged me to three lunar eclipses. The last one was in a night sky filled with ragged, racing clouds. At the crucial point, a patch of sky cleared as our group of three watched the moon undergo its final transformation from pearl to red. Sadly, all nocturnal magic was revoked with the arrival of the neighbour. Completely oblivious that something magnificent was happening, he compounded his ignorance by informing us that the moon was, in any case, not real. This is the kind of guy that thinks people like David Icke should be taken seriously. Soon afterwards the neighbour went to South America to take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony. The last we heard of him was that upon his return he’d sold his house, bought an expensive, custom-fitted van and was heading north to work at the solar eclipse festival.

Conspiracy theorists insist that Neil Armstrong never set foot on the moon; that the whole event was a hoax.  Many of these self-appointed experts, like my old neighbour, were still in nappies when Humanity left its first footprint on another world.  I was seven at the time and remember watching the live broadcast on a black and white television with another hundred school kids. The moon landings happened! Deal with it!  It’s that same moon which now appears as a black disc biting into the orange circle of the sun. I watch this majestic spectacle with my eclipse glasses on. My friend notices a young woman sitting a hundred metres or so away writing in her diary and goes to talk to her. The young woman is part of a Christian fellowship group which missed out on the e-mail from the almighty saying to go forth and prepare ye for the eclipse. My friend lends her a pair of eclipse glasses.  The young woman puts them on, gazes towards the heavens and is gobsmacked by what she sees.

The sun continues to darken until there’s just a fingernail of orange left. Look away from the sun; take the glasses off and the sky still looks cloudless and bright. But this summer morning feels pale, less intense. That is until the moon slides away from the sun and a familiar warmth floods the Brisbane air. A week later I caught up with my friend who’d spent 24 hours on a train to get to Cairns.  Was it worth it? He replies that the sky cleared for about thirty seconds but, they were the right thirty seconds. And witnessing thirty seconds of totality has got to be better than sitting through a cyclone any day.

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