Saturday, May 17, 2008

A sentimental journey

My late grandfather kept moving further north - "for the air", he used to say. He ended up living in a small, dreary town in the middle of the wheat plains of the north. Hardly anyone has heard of Booborowie, a tiny little grid of streets out there in the vast agricultural no man's land. But why should they? I only discovered it because my old Pop chose to live out the last of his years there.

The other day, I made a sentimental pilgrimage back there.

Actually, it is relatively hard to find Booborowie at all. No roadsigns brag its presence out there amid the vast wheatfields. Even the GPS said it could not find it.
But we did, off the road between Burra and Spalding in the South Australian mid-north.
"We" were my husband, Bruce and I with our cherished friend Peter. The trip was prompted by Peter having to open an Antiques Festival in Burra - a job he did with immense wit from the stage of the Burra Institute Hall (which is probably the only theatre in the world which has a real, functioning fireplace on the stage). While Peter schmoozed with his adoring public, I took Bruce to see the old copper mines and some of the town's history before we all grabbed a sausage sizzle snag for lunch and went off in search of Booborowie.

The drive was a chance for me to recount stories of my grandfather and the strange, sour woman he married after my darling Nanna died. I loved Pop - but it was hard ever to really know him. He had been a bully as a husband and father, a braggard, a bigot, a loudmouth and a very generous man. He'd been the spoiled baby of a family of 7 and his big sisters always said he was still the spoiled baby, even when he was a ripe old man. He had some sweet characteristics - he could sing zany little ditties of bastardised Yiddish words to which he would dance a lively jig. And he was a terrific cook of sauces and pickles and jam. His Kryne was the best in the world. Actually, so was his tomato ketchup. He loved to do things first, biggest and best. He usually did - and we never heard the end of it.

When he retired as MD of a large meat and dairy produce company, he headed north, bought a beautiful small farm, and bred Border Leicester sheep with which he won all the blue ribbons there were to be won at the assorted agricultural shows. To the amusement of the other farmers, he had a miniature poodle which was very good at working the sheep, albeit superfluously, since Pop's flock came when he called them.

Tiring of sheep breeding, he moved further north to buy a gorgeous colonial mansion in a proud country town in a burgeoning wine area. Here, for many years he used other skills to restore antiques and historic items for the National Trust. He enjoyed being a sort of curator in one of the local Trust properties and loved to show people the objects he had so skilfully restored.

And then, to everyone's amazement, he announced that he and his surly wife were moving to Booborowie - which has to be one of the world's dead end towns. He had emphysema by then and said the dry air out there was the best in the world. And so he settled in and lived out his last decade in a dreary cream brick house in a little grid-plan settlement where even the streets could not dredge up interesting names. First, Second, Third...

Booborowie has a pub, a general store, a farm store, a sports oval, a primary school and about five churches. Its town sign says it has a population of 130.

But we saw none of them when we visited. I heard a cock crow. I saw a dog. But no living human being. Nor car.

It was truly like entering a ghost town - empty streets, store closed, pub deserted. There were some caravans with all signs of people camping on an empty lot near the pub. But neither man nor child was to be seen.

We drove around the town - once, twice, thrice. I could not remember the house that Pop used to live in - and wondered vaguely if his widow was still alive. She was 25 years younger than Pop. She could be. But she was not in the phone book. At least, not as Harris. Had she remarried? Probably.
She had hated Pop's family from the outset. She made our visits with him into very tense affairs. Since we always had a long drive to get there, he'd insist that she serve us at least a light lunch. She did so grudgingly and, oh my, she made sure they were light. One shave of chicken, a sliver of ham, a slice of tomato...

Poor woman. I think she was deeply disappointed in life. I am not quite sure why she hated us so much - but we were part of the package of her punishment.

Once we had paid for Pop's funeral and headstone, we politely retreated from her life - sad that she could never bring herself to share any of my grandmother's rings with us. Oh well.

So around and around Booborowie we getting cheeky in the realisation that there was not another car on the road. I could drive backwards and on the wrong side of the road - and I did.
We kept driving because we figured that, surely, there would be some sign of life. Surely?

Then, with absolutely nothing left of not much to see, we headed for the Booborowie Cemetery to pay homage to Pop. I knew the cemetery was out of town, but I had not recalled how far. It was 7 kilometres. That is a long way away to keep your dead. How odd.
But what a lovely graveyard out there in the place of the landscape - gums and parrots and grasshoppers.
It was our day's reward. And Pop's of course.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Blog, Twitter, chat, snap...who can keep up?

When first I heard of Twitter, it simply sounded like a silly name and yet another thing to have to juggle online.
Let's face it, online life can start to overwhelm that other life. How many more elements of communication can we or need we take on?

Let's see, I started out with bulletin boards in the early 90s but swifty discovered IRC wherein many, many hours were richly consumed. OK, I admit it, I was one of those people with a drawer full of Jolt to swill down so that sleep did not interrupt the thrilling flow of conversation with my mysterious new best friends around the world.
What interesting people they were - and are.

Albiet that those days were full of techno glitschs such as "splits" and hackers and pervs. And, of course, there was the business of getting online at all - through the hiccups of dialup. Oh, what music to the ears was that little chirruping buzz of connection. I still feel a little surge when I hear it. But back then, if someone picked up the phone? Oh no. One's contact with the world was cut. I could not cope with the competition from students and geeks to get phonelines into my young backyard provider of the day, so I paid him to put in a dedicated phone line at his end for me. Thankyou Adrian Corston, for being the best provider of those early days.

Adrian moved on when the big guns began to fire and took me with him - to Internode where I have remained these many long years. They have been good to me and, in my role as a newspaper Internet writer, I was happy to spruik for them and send hundreds of customers their way. Still do. They remain the class act and I am proud of them.

For years, IRC remained a large part of my after-hours life since it is simply a rich world in which I met many good people. Friends for life. But the WWW was growing, email had changed out of sight. When I began it was Pine and it was clunky and nasty - like everything else. Heavens, all those DOS commands one had to key in to make anything happen at all.
Today's net users would never believe how tough and slow it all was. When The Louvre first came online, the first major visual arts entity on the WWW, I could cook a whole dinner in the time it took to download just one image. And I did. Regularly. Feeling richly rewarded at the sheer miracle of seeing that work of art on my computer screen.

As for the coke machine at Berkley - didn't we love waiting for someone to come along and order a coke so we could share in the amazing thrill of being flies on the wall?

A few years later, we all had cams and were talking to strangers and seeing their faces. We even set up live cam websites. I wonder whatever happened to my Sazicam site? Died of neglect?
I will never forget the vet with whom I used to chat in France - who used to turn his cam to the window and show me the magnificent mountains of his world. Magic. More forgettable were the silly wankers who would invite you for a chat only to show their engorged penises.

And here one began to worry about the nature of the Internet. Why did it bring all this ugly sexual frustration into the open? There were stupid pervs messaging one on IRC with obscene proposals. There were exhibitionists flashing on cams. Porn sites were springing up. Porn channels on IRC...
I found this all very demoralising. I am very positive about sex as a natural part of the scheme of things but I find people who have never managed to get their heads to higher planes not just sad and inadequate but intolerably dull.

The preoccupative tedium of the sex players on the Internet really brought the world down. It created issues for use by children. It dominated bandwidth. It made money when nothing else made money. Oh, woe, to lowest common denominators.

The phenomenon has not gone away.

The Internet has liberated not just sex, but a vast world of angry, spiteful morons whose pleasure in life is spamming the Internet with aggressive and ignorance comments, attacking thinking people, honest people, funny people - interesting people with something to say.
The lowest common denominator has found a high niche.

But we old Netizens plough on through the varying morasses, exploring the new applications devised by the brilliance of geekdom.

So, the first communities evolved - IRC groups, The Well, Howard Rheingold's Brainstorms, AOL and then Yahoo groups, web collectives with hobbies, occupations, illnesses in common. And it has not stopped.

Now we have Flickr communities and other photo-based entities, growing blissfully with the evolution of digital cameras and photoshopping. For every development, there is an online expansion. And the blogs, of course, the blogs.

I began this one when writing a feature about them. I figured I needed to have done it to write about it. And them, once I had done it, I had to keep doing it. From time to time.

Now I have three blogs...two here on Blogger and one for the newspaper. Then I have my spots in Brainstorms, which could be a full-time job if one had the time. Rheingold, the master student of the potential for and meaning of online communities, quietly runs the big daddy of them all, having brought together a diversity of people whose lives, interests and opinions are shared to an intense and now long-established degree. Perhaps, despite geography and eclectica, they now are more a family than a community.

And along came Stumbleupon. I love Stumbleupon. It takes longer to get to know one's friends in that medium, but the richness is the sharing of links and webpages, the setting up of blogs which can be just for beauty or just to make a strong point. Or both. Or humour. Or whatever. There's about a million Stumblers out there - 200 of them are on my "friend" list and another few hundred are sort of linked, with more to be discovered. The links we send each other, with or without running commentary, keep us busy reading and responding, and they keep us very well informed. We are powerful as a knowledge gathering and sharing entity. And the foundation of friendships thus forged, has a strong cerebral element.

I tend to be sporadic in all my Internet niches - since my other job in that real world involves a lot of writing in its own right. One can get writ out, so to speak.

And there is all the reading. I have to read a lot of communities...Alternet and Huffington, Salon and Wonkette, friends' blogs

MySpace arrived. I never cared for it. Loud and messy. But the young thrived for a while and the music industry found a powerful meeting place.
Facebook has worked better as community. Well, it is more of a network than a community.
But it has been bringing the communities under its wing - so now we Brainstormers and Stumblers and Flickr community people are networked in Facebook, perchance engaged in killer games of Scrabulous.

And from many levels we converge on one.

Wherein, Twitter rears its chirpy face again.
I had played with it early - and could not really see the point. How much information do we want to put out there? Who are we putting it out there for? Who cares?

Oh yes, I know the conspiracy theorists bristle and run for cover. They are not going to be suckered into all this exposure to the marketing giants. They may have a point.

Then again, we are now enlightened enough to be able to look at ourselves. The Internet was evolved with the idea of the free sharing of knowledge. This is the most wholesome concept there is.
The more knowledge, the healthier the world.

I am not sure how much the minutiae of my movements adds to all of this. Do I tell Twitter that I am happy because I am by the sea? Do I tell it that petrol pump calibrations are criminally rigged? Either or both seems to be the way to go.

I am receiving news bulletins from the media and personal snippets from friends and associates. I think it is all good.
But I am not sure how much is enough.
Or how one keeps up with it all.

Oh, dear, there are 64 Stumbles waiting for me....and did I check my email yet?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Big Brothers and little brains.

Big Brother has started again in Australia and, despite our better judgement, we are all looking in on it and checking out the new housemates.
Once again, it is a celebration of the lowest common denominator - a selection of the most vapid and unpleasant people.

Why do we want to waste time in observing them showing off in front of the cameras, playing drama queen, brandishing ignorance as if it is an achievement, proving how the English language is now completely rooted because they have no goddamn idea of pronouns or tense...?

I suspect it is because we love to have people to hate.

Two days into BB and I want to get half the housemates out of the house. I squirm with loathing and contempt. I want them to suffer. I want them brought down to size.

Perhaps I really want the makers of BB to suffer, too - since they have gradually manipulated a good concept and turned it into trash TV, pandering to a lewd, sub-brain demographic which has never read a newspaper let alone a book.

The producers have made an art form of finding people of that very ilk and promise them celebrity based on exposure of those very qualities. They seek the low, they exploit the low - and the rewards are high.

On so many levels, it is deeply demoralising. A hateful reflection on the values and aspirations of our society.

It certainly brings out the very worst in me.

And still I turn it on.