Mark's Little Ramblings

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This is Mark's page of personal ramblings and rumbles and random thoughts.

Here's what you'll find so far:

Enjoy!


The Future

September 6th, 1999

This particular ramblings episode was supposed to be a vast and broad-reaching dissertation on the future of mankind. Just some light reading before tea-time. I had (still have) this vision of how unrecognisable the human race will become over the next thousand years or so. Technological, sociological and spiritual advances were to be melded together to eventually outline the ultimate human destiny, aiming for the time when we truly mature as a species. I planned to write some sort of future history of mankind.

But I never finished it. It was too huge, too vast, too much work. Maybe I'll write it one day and turn it into a book, or something. It's still a topic that fascinates me.

I still wanted to put something up on the net, so I decided to post just one small excerpt - the immediate future of computers. Certainly not the most exciting area to focus on, nor have I looked very far ahead - maybe fifty years or so, but the predictions I've made herein are fairly specific, they're the most likely of all the predictions in my opus to actually come true, and if they do, they'll impact everyone alive today rather than distant generations. And they're still mildly confronting. So have a read, and, once again, let me know what you think.

Many people have already predicted that it won't be long before we see the Internet merge with the telephone, television and radio networks. In fact, this has already started - it's called "convergence". However, convergence is just the tip of the information iceberg. As bandwidth increases over the next few years, expect to see virtually all publishable media disappear and be replaced with online versions thereof. Books, newspapers, magazines, journals, videos, recorded music, maps, catalogues and (naturally) computer software titles will all slowly get engulfed by the growing spread of the Internet (or its successors). In Western societies, these everyday items (books, etc) will become historical relics (curiosities or collectibles), and their use relegated to specialty areas.

Less obvious, but just as inevitable, is the trend that all personal data will also migrate onto the Internet. Throw away all your photos, home movies, letters, schoolbooks, diaries, note pads, cassette tapes, floppy disks - even your computer hard disk. Instead, visualise all this "information" residing on vast information storage machines - servers - on the Net. Most people are uncomfortable with this notion, usually for the following reasons:

  1. They have a fear of the technology (including the fear of "losing control" of their property if it resides in some distant, intangible, incomprehensible form), and
  2. They imagine the inconvenience that they might experience in accessing this information.

In answer to the first point, it's interesting to note that few people these days have any fear of using, say, a telephone (a surprisingly large number of people were afraid of or confused by telephones when they first appeared), and similarly few people these days have any difficulty with "losing control" of their money when it resides in intangible, incomprehensible form in some distant bank. As for the second point, well, read on.

Many would also say that the storage of these items in digital format is impersonal and unromantic. That's a perfectly reasonable viewpoint, and I even agree (today). Nevertheless, in thirty years from now this notion will be considered quaint and amusing. "I don't understand, Grampa, why exactly do you own books?"

Corporate and government records too, will inevitably end up somewhere on our vast network. Industries that make their money today from all the newly-obsolete media (publishing houses, video stores, libraries, manufacturers of printers, photocopiers and fax machines, etc) will simply disappear. One might wonder what use we will have for paper in this future of ours. What use indeed? Well, let's see. Apart from bodily hygiene, there aren't a whole hell of a lot (the forests of the world hereby breathe a collective sigh of relief). Paper will always have some use, even if it's only for the ancient art of drawing.

So the long-promised paperless office will eventually become a reality.

With all this data available online, how might we access it? Surely a computer (even a laptop) is far too bulky and awkward for such continuous, ubiquitous usage. Indeed. Picture instead a truly "personal" computer, say about the size of the current Palm Pilot, with a permanent, wireless connection to the Internet. But don't stop there. Give it a means for playing and recording sound (say, a small speaker and microphone, or perhaps a jack for headphones), a means for recording images (a small lens, such as those found in today's mini digital cameras), and infra-red capabilities (similar to a contemporary TV remote control), allowing data to be exchanged with nearby compatible gadgetry. And let's throw in a global positioning system (GPS) while we're at it. What we end up with might be called a global, portable, personal multimedia terminal, to use today's parlance.

Okay, fine. So what use could such a device possibly have? Well, for starters, with a device like that, you would no longer have any need for:

Apart from the obvious telephone calls, with a terminal like that you would be able to:

Undoubtedly, such devices will also be able to read you things aloud when you're not able or not inclined to read them yourself, and, inevitably, to understand and act on your own verbal instructions. "Okay computer, send the Simpson Proposal to Bob for review, and book me two tickets for tonight's basketball game. Oh, and I'll be home early, so switch on air-conditioning at around three. Send that photo I just took of myself to Louise, and order a dozen roses to arrive at the same time, and remind me to buy a present for Mum's birthday tomorrow. I'm feeling mellow - find me something to listen to by Paul Simon. Now, take a message ...."

In fact, with everyone owning a device like that, what need is there for regular desktop computers at all? Surprisingly little, when you use your imagination. No wonder Bill Gates and Microsoft are investing heavily in miniature versions of Windows (Windows CE) that run on, amongst other things, mobile phones, VCRs, digital cameras and cars.

Fanciful speculation you say? All these technologies exist today, and it's only a matter of time before they are all squeezed together into a device that you can fit in your pocket.

And of course, as soon as you've gotten your head around all that, they'll integrate those devices into the human body, thus giving us all de facto telepathy. Thirty to forty years, tops.

A computer-based development that will conceivably be of even more importance than anything mentioned so far is Virtual Reality (VR). Virtual Reality is currently only in its infancy, but it is already having a significant impact in the arenas of education (including simulations and prototypes) and entertainment. Again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the iceberg's hardly even in sight - so far the water's just starting to get a little chilly. When VR technology matures and is tied to the Internet, I fully expect it to have as much of an effect on society in the 21st Century as television did in this century.

VR may be thought of as the direct descendant of today's flight simulators, Internet chat rooms and video games. For the uninitiated, Virtual Reality is a technology that attempts to subvert as many of your senses as possible in an attempt to get you to believe that you are somewhere you are not. Artificial universes are created, and you are led to believe that you are inside them. Today, this usually involves the user donning special goggles that project images directly into your eyes, and headphones to do the same for your ears. These are connected to a computer that is programmed to detect the attitude of your head (or indeed your entire body), and which modifies the images you see to conform with that attitude. In other words, when you swivel your head to "look around," the picture you see changes accordingly, as you would "expect." More sophisticated rigs require the user to wear a special suit that not only detects the position and movement of every part of your body (allowing you to "see" yourself and "move around" in the artificial universe), but also gives the illusion of pressure against your body when necessary, in order that you may more realistically manipulate objects in your virtual world. Pick up a virtual apple, for example, and from the feeling in your gloves you could swear that you're holding a real object.

The real fun begins when you hook two or more participants up to the same VR computer (or connect two or more "inhabited" VR computers together over a network, such as the Internet). Clearly, there is no limit to the variety of virtual worlds that can be created and experienced in this manner.

Today's hardware is slow, the simulations (software) are crude and simple, and the suits are heavy and cumbersome to wear, but all that will inevitably change. I predict that VR will become a consumer commodity within the next five to ten years. Consider the potential uses:

Education or Simulation

Entertainment or Escape

Bored or overwhelmed by the world? Try another one! Uncomfortable with your current self? Be someone else! Fulfil all your fantasies, interacting with others who share them. Be a woman. Be a child again. Be thin. Be a cat. Be a king ... Enter an imaginary universe, and play with:

Considering the number of people who tune out of the world today for hours at a time using the anaesthetic of television, is it really so difficult to imagine how people will take to the idea of being able to replace their tedious, unpleasant or overwhelmingly complex lives with an infinite array of fantasy escapes? Hey, you like M*A*S*H? Go and live there.

It's easy to see that eventually the real world will be considered by some to be boring, limiting and grubby. People will become addicted to VR for exactly the same reasons that people today are addicted to drugs, television programs, work, gambling or virtually anything else - to escape from their life.

[Aside: I read in a computer magazine last week about a virtual "world" that currently exists on the Internet called Ultima Online - it's a game cum adventure world which has been up and running for several months now. They charge a nominal monthly fee to users. It's "landscape" is limited in size, and, amongst other things, allows users to build permanent "houses" in advantageous positions. The thing that interested me the most about all of this was that the "prime" real estate has apparently all gone, and the "owners" of this real estate (translation: the people that have the appropriate username/password combination) have started to sell this real estate to other users. And I mean really sell. Someone recently bought a "castle plus 2,500,000 gold pieces" for A$2,500! Those are "real" dollars. People are paying money - big money - for virtual real estate - "land" that doesn't really exist. Not to mention those gold pieces - are we eventually going to see a US Dollar to Ultima Gold Piece exchange rate? Food for thought for those that think that VR is just hype. End of aside.]

So where does it end? Well, it's not too much of a stretch of the imagination to picture a technology that allows the VR simulation to be fed directly into the brain, by "jacking in" to the nerve signals of the human body. Similarly, neural commands to our limbs could be intercepted by the computer and used to manipulate the objects in the virtual world. We could then do away with the pesky suits, gloves and goggles altogether. In fact, when the simulation became sophisticated enough, it would become almost impossible to distinguish between the "real" world and the variety of "virtual" ones. Which then begs the question, why would you want to? Why not spend your entire life in the virtual realms? The technological hurdles are not that great. You'd simply get hooked up to a life-support system (sort of an iron lung for the whole body), plugged in to a VR computer, and - well - left alone. You would have everything that you need to live a complete, fulfilling life. You would have a far larger array of opportunities to choose from than in your present life, and, contrary to what you may imagine from your 1999 perspective, you would be perfectly capable of not only doing useful and meaningful work, but also forming and maintaining significant relationships with other "people." If you think about it, it would even be technologically possible for a union of two of these virtual people to produce a live, biological child (who would then naturally be immediately plugged into his own little VR rig/life-support machine). This, of course, conjures disturbing images of entire chapters of the human population living their whole lives (and dying) stacked on shelves somewhere, encased in machines that keep their bodies (well, brains, really) alive, while their minds cavort in worlds that we can only guess at. Not only is that possible, overpopulation or unemployment pressures may force portions of the populace to volunteer for such a life (more about those social conditions later).

This does not seem outrageous to me. It is actually a very real possibility - nay, a probability. If I was to go out on a limb, I'd say fifty to eighty years. Yet I'm well aware that many of you are going to be repulsed by such a notion. But think about it - if you were to "meet" such a person, could you really tell them that their lives are meaningless or soulless, and that the worlds that they live in are imaginary? How do you think they would feel about that? And how would you justify it? What can you do in your universe that they can't do in theirs? Because I assure you, they can do a whole lot more in their universe than you can in yours. Is today's racist going to be tomorrow's "realist?"

One day, philosophers may speculate on the validity of considering the real, "actual" universe as any different from these virtual universes. It's not, of course. It's been self-evident for many years that our Universe is really a huge Virtual Reality simulation (or was that just a movie?).

 


On Love and Fidelity

May 21st, 1999

I think about love a lot. I don't suppose I'm unusual in that regard - it's probably one of the most thought-about topics in the history of - well - history. One thing I've noticed about myself and my musings on love is that no matter what age I am, I always seem to think that I've finally got some sort of true understanding of this love thing. You know, what love is, how to recognise it, what it means to be in love, etc, etc. The problem is, every couple of years my ideas change again, and I wonder how my previous conclusions could have been so simplistic and na´ve.

I first thought I had it sussed way back when I was sixteen. Yep, knew all about it. I was in love (with a girl called Gai) and that made me an expert. I think that my idea went something like this: Being in love means you can't live without them. Woohoo - groundbreaking stuff. It was probably a little more sophisticated than that, but you get the general gist.

Fast-forward a few years, to maybe 1989. My heart's just been broken for I think the second time, and, again for the second time, I'm using another relationship to help me get over it. So me and this new lady (Helen, from New Zealand), we're having this discussion about love. She's several years older than me, she's giving me her take on the matter, and I'm arguing with her. "Love is when you can't live without them," I'm saying (or something to that effect). "Love is when you get a deep, pit-of-the-stomach feeling that you want to spend the rest of your life with them." And she's saying that what I'm talking about is essentially Need. Or at least a very needy form of love. She put forward her notion of love, being that you can love someone quite independently of how they feel about you. In essence, you love them for their qualities, not for what they can do for you. You love them simply because they're wonderful. I didn't want a bar of it (needless to say, she and I weren't in love). "No no," I said, "you're talking about the kind of love you can have for a painting, or your dog, or a friend. I'm talking about being in love! That chemistry, that irresistible attraction that makes every cell of your body ache to be with them." I couldn't see any passion in her kind of love, and I told her so. We agreed to disagree.

Back when I was sixteen, and in love with Gai, I remember reading for the first time the famous saying that I'm sure you've all heard: If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it's yours. If it doesn't, it never was. When I read that, I thought about it in the context of my relationship with Gai. "Yeah right!" I thought (I don't think they had that expression in 1981, but you know what I mean). I tried to imagine letting go of Gai. Inconceivable. My version of the saying looked more like this: If you love something, hold on to it with all your might. If it tries to escape, hold on even tighter. Helen was completely correct, of course: it was Need. Well, it was incredibly needy love, at any rate.

It seems to me now that that kind of needy, jealous, clingy, possessive love is a love steeped in fear (fear of loss). I realise now that I loved that way because I was incredibly insecure. Gai was virtually the only wonderful thing in my life, and I was terrified of losing her, so I held on for all I was worth. I learnt, of course, that that kind of love can be pretty destructive (*wistful sigh*).

So here I am in 1999. I'm 34 years old, and my notion of love has changed quite a bit over the years. I'm no longer the mess of insecurities that I was back then, and Helen's ideas are seeming more and more resonant every day. I'd like to meet up with her now and talk about them some more. I wonder if she still thinks the same....

These days, when I think of love, it inspires two feelings in me:

  1. It means that everything about the other person is fantastic. You don't want them to change anything. You love them just the way they are. Because, if you want them to change, if you want them to be somehow different, then what exactly does it mean when you say that you love them? If your love for them is somehow contingent upon them adhering to some image you have of how they should be, then you're not loving them, you're loving yourself, through them.
  2. You want them to be happy, even more than you want to be happy yourself. This implies that you put their needs above your own, and furthermore, that you'll love them regardless of whether they love you back, or, even more difficult, if they love someone else. It also inspires the common sentiment: I'd do anything for you.

And yes, of course, you also want to bonk their brains out, not to mention be with them for the rest of your life, if not longer.

All of which makes me a little worried. Because I look around at the rest of the world, and, in most relationships that I see, it isn't like that. It seems that, in most cases, love is about getting your needs met. You know - "I love such-and-such because they love me. I love them because they'd do anything for me. Because they make me happy. Because I couldn't live without them" (I know all about that one). A different bunch of sentiments altogether. So have I got it wrong, or has most of the rest of the world?

Furthermore, a truly mature and secure love, it would seem, wouldn't place any conditions or limitations upon the other, meaning that you continue to love them regardless of what they might do. Whatever they might do. Otherwise, as in point (1), you don't really love them, you love some idealised notion of who they would be if they behaved the way you want them to.

This is a little contentious. Take the standard and obvious example of learning that your partner has just had sex with someone else without your knowledge or consent. An affair, in other words. There's no question - this has got to hurt. But the question is, how does that affect your love for them? Can you continue to love them as always? If not, why not? They're still the same person that you loved before their indiscretion, after all. Surely whatever you loved about them before is still there?

Yes, of course, I know it's not as simple as that. Let's see if we can get to the bottom of this without using words like "unfaithful" or "infidelity." Most probably the very least you can say is that they've broken a promise to you. If you're married, then it was probably a promise they made publicly. And so now you learn that they are the sort of person that either breaks promises or doesn't have the self-control to resist their biological yearnings, or maybe doesn't care enough whether you get hurt. Perhaps all three. This may well cause you to reassess what kind of person you think they are, and you may find that you cannot love the kind of person that you now realise them to be. If so, then it's simple - you leave. But is it ever that simple? Is it ever that black and white? Unlikely. Because, of course, part of you does still love them, a great big part of you still wants to be with them, you just wish they hadn't behaved that way, hadn't done that dreadful thing to you. So it usually ends up coming down to: "Well, I forgive you, but if you ever do that again, you can kiss my love goodbye." Perfectly reasonable, on the face of it, but it means, of course that your continuing love for them is contingent upon their good behaviour. And so you both live in guilt and fear ever after.

But let's try to imagine another kind of relationship. In the true spirit of If you love something, set it free ...., you make no promises of fidelity to each other. No promises of any kind. You give each other the gift of total freedom. Actually, believe it or not, they already had total freedom all along, so it's not really yours to give. Maybe you simply acknowledge that they have it, and that you would never try to interfere with it. And you tell them simply that you love them regardless, and that you want to be with them. Then you sit back and see if they indeed stay with you, see if they come back, as the saying goes. Pretty scary stuff. No promises, no commitments, nothing to keep them with you besides your dazzling personality. But what if they leave me? Well, then I would say it's fairly clear: you're not right for them. A damn shame, to be sure, but ask yourself: Would you rather live with someone who would leave if they had the choice? And let's look at your love for them. If you love them, surely you want them to be happy. Is that a fair assumption? If yes, then would you want to force them to stay with someone that they didn't want to stay with because they promised that they would?

So let's assume they don't want to leave, but instead, an even harder scenario: They stay with you, maintain that they love you, then go off and sleep with someone else. Now in this version, they've broken no promises, so the only feeling you're left with is: They want something that you can't give them. And of course, that hurts. A lot. So far I think we're all agreed. But here's the contentious part: If you say that you love them, you'd be being inconsistent if you weren't happy for them (assuming they enjoyed it, of course). Happy for them? Cheating bastards! How could I be happy for them? Because you love them and they were just being themselves - doing something they wanted to do, something that made them happy. And your love for them means that you want them to be happy, remember? Yeah, but not at the expense of my own happiness! Aha! There lies the crux of it! Whom do you want to be happy the most? Quite an important question in any relationship between people who claim to love each other, I reckon. If you're in a loving relationship right now, spare a moment and have a think about that one.

If you agree that to love someone means that you love them whatever they do, and then they go and do something that you don't like, then you've got to ask yourself, well, do I really love them? And if the answer is, yes, but only if they behave the way that I want them to, only if they don't hurt me, then that's fine, as long as you now recognise your love for what it is - conditional.

Now I'll throw this into the pot: Even if they don't sleep around, if they have a normal libido, they're almost certainly going to want to. It's part of being a healthy sexual individual. And the only reason that they don't, if they don't, is because they don't want to hurt you. Which is wonderful, of course, but if you love them, and they want to, then why shouldn't they? (What if, in fact, it didn't hurt you?)

I can tell I'm skating on thin ice here. Let's try a little make-believe conversation ....

 

"Honey, there's this new girl at work. She's kinda cute, she's giving me the come-on look, and I can't stop thinking about her."

"And...?"

"And, to be honest, I want to bonk her brains out. How do you feel about that?"

"Well, I'd rather it was my brains, of course, but if it makes you happy...."

"Thanks honey, I love you."

"I love you too. And darling....?"

"Hmmmm?"

"Wear a condom."

 

Pure fantasy, right? Well, probably. But that's not the point. The point is, he wants to. So bad he can taste it. Whether or not he actually does, whether or not he tells his wife about it, he still wants to.

OK. Let's assume he keeps his longings to himself. He loves his wife, and he knows that such an admission would crush her. So we have a fellow who can't stop thinking about the floozy at work, probably thinking about her even when he's in bed with his wife, but she doesn't know. So how does he feel? Probably ashamed of his feelings. Guilty, almost certainly, that he's having these unwholesome desires. And sad - sad that the trust in his marriage doesn't extend to his telling his wife about his true feelings. And let's not forget the reason that he wanted to sleep with the babe in the first place - he's horny and feels like something new (if only for an evening). So we have sexual frustration, shame, guilt and sadness, all because he's not allowed to have those feelings. His marriage vows made no mention of floozies.

And the wife is blissfully unaware. We all know how commonplace affairs are, so in many cases, he's going to go ahead and do it anyway, still without her knowledge, which of course breeds even more shame and guilt. How would it feel, being a wife in such a situation? You're in a relationship with someone who either is an adulterer, or would be, if only it wouldn't hurt you. Either way you cut it, you've got concealment and guilt. I don't think I want to be you.

The above conversation is totally alien to us because we've all been brought up in a culture that gives fidelity a very high value. Everywhere we look, we learn that adultery is bad. How could anyone discuss extra-marital sex like they're going to test drive a new car? But let's say that such a relationship is workable. So his wife doesn't interfere with his desires, and he does indeed go off and bonk the floozy, relieving her of her brains. What happens next? Well, either he comes back to his wife, having gotten it out of his system, and loves her even more for the freedom she allows him, or he doesn't come back - he falls in love with the new babe and runs away with her to Acapulco (this sounds terribly unlikely, if you ask me, in view of the special relationship he has with his wife).

If he leaves his wife (as I said, extremely unlikely), then they weren't right for each other, and it's better that she found out sooner than later. Furthermore, her pain is considerably less this way than if they'd made the standard set of marriage vows and promises to each other, and he went and did it anyway, thus breaking his vows and doing something that he promised her he wouldn't do.

It doesn't seem any worse in our make-believe scenario - in fact, it seems infinitely more honest, respectful and loving. Well, that's how I see it, anyway.

(And before you start feeling sorry for the poor woman, don't forget, she is perfectly within her rights, in this hypothetical relationship, to do exactly the same thing with the local handyman, or whoever.)

But what if he makes a habit of it? Then that's the kind of guy he is. Love him the way he is, or don't.

But I wouldn't be able to let him/her just go off like that - I'd be incredibly jealous! So from what insecurity does your jealousy spring?

I guess the hardest part about learning of a partner's liaison with a third party (permitted within the bounds of the relationship or not) is that, somehow, you weren't enough for them. They wanted something that you couldn't, or didn't, give them. Inevitably, you take it personally, wondering what the other one has that you don't. And of course, the answer is - nothing. There's nothing wrong with you. In fact, there's nothing wrong at all! Speaking personally, I'd be extremely surprised if, after ten years in a marriage with me, my hypothetical wife didn't harbour a strong desire to have sex with someone else, no matter how much she loved me. I'm not saying that I'd like it (I'm not quite up to that yet), just that it would be extremely surprising if she didn't want to. Just for something new. Just for fun. Just to reassert her sexuality - to remind herself that she can still arouse someone besides her husband. To feel sexy. To feel good about herself. As far as I'm concerned, that's just being human.

And of course, I'd be lying if I said that I wouldn't probably want to do the same thing after ten years of marriage as well. Probably. I think. I don't know whether I'd actually do it, mind you, just that I'd probably want to. Whether I did or not would ultimately depend upon my wife, and the nature of the relationship we had.

So basically, I don't know. I've never been married, and I've never been in the kind of relationship that I've described above. I've never even experienced the pain of being cheated on, so I have no idea whether I'm even capable of setting free to that extent. It's all hypothetical. Untested. What you're reading here is only how I feel right now (or at least how I think I feel). A couple of years from now I may look back on these words and wonder where I got such absurd notions.

What I really want, of course, is to meet someone who thinks like I do, who agrees with the stuff I've written here. Then, if I fall in love with her, she'd make me put my money where my mouth is - hold me to my words. Make me walk the talk, as they say. That would be a wake up call. Scary. I've committed myself now - I've got my feelings up on a bloody web page! I'd have no recourse if one day I realised that I couldn't bear to live without her and said to her, "um, Honey? You know how I said you could do anything you wanted? Well, I've changed my mind. If you could just look over this list of rules I've drawn up...."

Aw hell, I don't know. Whatever this love thing is all about, there's one thing I'm certain of - it has nothing to do with rules. I can't imagine truly loving someone and then wanting to impose my will upon her, to restrict her behaviour in any way. Similarly, I'm sure I'd get a bit antsy if she was to love me "only on the condition that ...." Another thing I'm sure of is that if the communication is good enough, and all of this stuff is understood up front, then the relationship should be able to survive anything. Anything except one of us falling out of love, of course.

Is it just me, or does the marriage vow, "I promise to love, honour and obey" get up everyone's nose? What's all this vowing and promising stuff? How can you possibly know how you're going to feel in twenty years' time? I'd feel plenty awful if, ten years into a marriage, I woke up one morning and found that I was no longer in love with my wife. That would be bad enough. I'd hate to think that, on top of that, I'd have to carry around the guilt of breaking a promise. Surely a simple declaration of love would be more fitting. Something like, "I love you. Right now I love you more than I've ever loved anyone. Loving you is so wonderful that I hope to be able to love you forever." No promises, no vows, no obeying. If you feel the need to make a vow, try this: "I will always be honest with you, and never hide my feelings."

On a final note, here's an analogy that helps me crystallise my thoughts on love: I envision a partner as a beautiful bird, that flew into my life one day and brightened up my world with its song, with its colour and with its grace. How lucky am I, to be visited by such a creature. The temptation is to put the bird in a cage, to keep it with me for evermore. But, of course, in a cage, birds can't fly, and flying is what birds do. That's why we love them. And birds aren't happy in cages. So I offer the bird some food, in the hope that it'll stay a while. And if it flies away one day, well, that's sad. It's infinitely sad, yet it's worth remembering: if the bird thought it was going to be caged, it never would have come in the first place.

 


Phew! I don't know about you, but I'm a bit worn out. I'm impressed if you made it this far. I've had similar discussions with a few people over the past couple of years, and often, after hearing me out, they've turned to me and said, Who are you kidding, Mark? You're just looking for a licence to screw around. I hope that's not how it sounds. To tell the truth, I'm well aware of how close to the heart this issue can be with a lot of people, and, seeing as I've got my opinion out there flapping in the breeze, I'd really like to hear your thoughts on what I had to say. Agree with me, disagree with me, love the words or despise them, this is a subject that I can't hear too many points of view on, and I'd love to hear yours. Is there some big part of this love thing that I'm not seeing? Send it along to Mark, or use the feedback form.

New note: I had many responses to this piece. I gathered them all together and posted them here.

And now for something completely different....


A Polite Amount of Time

May 21st, 1999

I was pondering, the other day, a question of decorum. Any reader who finds the word fart offensive should stop reading about seven words ago, for my question indeed deals with the breath of the nether regions. And the question is this: What length of time should a reasonably decent fellow wait before openly farting in the presence of a new girlfriend? In other words, at what point in the relationship could he consider himself, statistically speaking, safe from retribution, and break out a good old bottie-burp? Fair question, right?

So let's see if we can reach some consensus. I would say straight away, without fear of contradiction, that the first date is right out. Let one rip on the first date, and you're either a throwback to Neanderthal courting techniques, or your libido has a death-wish. Actually, if the truth be known, I do indeed go the whiffy on first dates. Not many people know this, not even the ladies concerned. I'll explain. You know how, when getting into a car, you first open the door for the lady, then, when she's safely ensconced in your car, you scoot around to the driver's side? Well, there's several seconds available during the scooting ....

With similar confidence, I would assert that a couple married for twenty years are as comfortable with each others gaseous emissions as they are with their own (if they're not, I suggest an immediate course of Intestinal Aromatherapy).

So it would seem that the answer lies somewhere in between. What is, in fact, A Polite Amount of Time?

Personally, I reckon it's after you've first slept with them. No, I don't mean five minutes after you've slept with them, but, you know, sex ought to flag the beginning of It's-OK-Now time. I mean, after all, you've been about as intimate as two people can be, what's one more bodily function to add to the list?

But enough of my opinions. I put it to you, The Readers. Here's the question, and we'll do it democratically, multiple-choice style:

When is it tolerable/acceptable/safe to allow your partner a whiff of your rectal eructations?

  1. During the first date
  2. After the first date
  3. After the second date
  4. After the coital consummation of the relationship
  5. After marriage
  6. Never
  7. Whenever you feel like it - flatulence is as natural as breathing
  8. None of the above (please elaborate with timeframe and reason)
  9. Mark, this is in such incredibly bad taste that I'm not even going to deign to answer

Please send all answers via the feedback form (click here). Results in the next instalment.

 


Fear, Courage and Paul Hogan

April 4th, 1999

I saw an interview with Paul Hogan once, where he was asked about his famous hero episode. Apparently, back before he was famous, when he was a rigger on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he became a bit of a local celebrity by leaning off the Bridge and with one hand rescuing some fellow who'd half-heartedly decided to commit suicide. I was too young to remember it at the time. The interviewer commented (like many before her) that it must have taken an awful amount of courage to dangle by one arm four hundred feet above the harbour. Paul said that it took no courage at all, and that anyone in his position would have done exactly the same thing. His questioner looked more than a little sceptical at this, and said that she doubted if she would have had the courage to do it. Paul's reply stuck in my mind. He said that it doesn't take any courage if you don't have any fear. He worked the bridge for a living, scampering around up there like a monkey ten hours a day. He'd gotten used to it, of course, and had no fear at all about helping the poor bastard down. If she or someone else off the street had done the same thing, then they would have indeed been a hero, but not him. It was for him, quite literally, nothing special.

And he's right, of course. Courage is about conquering fear, not about doing unusual things. You and I, for example, would think nothing of going down to the park for a picnic. But an agoraphobic would need a tremendous amount of courage to do exactly the same thing. One who has no fear, no fear at all, cannot possibly be courageous (furthermore, they're probably an imbecile).

Why am I mentioning this? Well, since last November (actually even before last November) I've been told by many people, both at home and abroad, that they think I'm really courageous for packing up my life and heading off randomly into the world for a year or more. Of course this is lovely to hear, but it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Like Paul Hogan, I don't feel courageous at all - again because I have no fear of doing this. On the contrary, I have a substantial fear of staying put and watching my life slowly erode into monotony. Perhaps that's an exaggeration, but travelling is certainly the easier option for me. I'm not without my fears, of course (fear of failure and fear of not being liked are my two biggies, if you're interested), I just don't have any fear of travelling or uprooting my life.

Oh, while I'm on the topic, I also get quite a lot, "Oh, you're so lucky to be able to do that!" I get this from young, single people, probably more often than I get it from older people with families. Luck? What's luck got to do with it? It's all a question of wanting to. If you feel it's important enough, you'll simply go, despite not having enough money, despite being afraid of upsetting a safe life and a secure job, despite the fear of not knowing what's going to happen to you or how you'll survive when the money runs out. I mean, seriously. What's there to be afraid of? This is the Nineties. It's not like you're going to be eaten by a Tiger, get lost at sea or catch smallpox! Your life will still be there when you return (if you want it, that is). These days there's really nothing to be afraid of. But you can't explain that to these people. I've given up trying. These days I simply reply, "yep, I sure am a lucky guy." They never notice the irony.

 


You know what I hate ...

April 3rd, 1999

If you're going to have a web page for your mental ramblings, you may as well include a section on pet hates. After all, if you can't gripe to the whole world, who can you gripe to?

Here's pet hate number one: People who don't walk down escalators. You know, those people who just stand there and let the thing carry them down to the next floor. I don't like it and I don't even understand it. If you think about it, it doesn't make any sense at all. People who do it, when asked why, would probably say, "Oh, well I'm just having a bit of a rest, and I'm not in that much of a hurry." Fine. Splendid. But why do you decide to have your rest on the escalator? If you're not in a hurry, why not just stop in the middle of the footpath and stand there for 30 seconds staring aimlessly into space? It amounts to the same thing. You still get where you're going, just not as quickly, and you still get your rest. Why do you decide to stop in the one place in the entire shopping mall/department store/etc where it is most difficult to overtake you? Standing still on the up escalators I can partially understand. I mean, we wouldn't want to actually get any exercise when we're out on our Saturday morning shop, now would we? We wouldn't want to speed up our shopping, avoid pissing off the people lined up behind us and get a free workout, all at the same time. Heaven forbid. These are the same people who will spend $400 on an annual gym membership so that they can walk on a Stair-Master for an hour a day. In my book, you're only allowed to stand still on the down escalator if you've got a pram, a donkey or a refrigerator, or are 78 years old with an arthritic hip. The rest of you, and you know who you are, stand single-file to one side or prepare to enjoy the domino effect as I rugby-tackle the lot of you to the ground floor.

OK. Consider yourselves told.

I've got another one for you - pet hate number two. Although I wouldn't really call it a pet hate - more of a huge, wild, ravening, man-eating velociraptor hate: Insurance companies. Most of my friends will have already heard my spiel about why I avoid taking out insurance unless there's some unusual circumstances, but the rest of you might find it a little bizarre to know that I spent exorbitant amounts of money buying and doing up a VW Kombi van, which is my most prized possession, and then adamantly refused to insure it. "But what if you have an accident?" If I had a dollar for all the times I've been asked that question, I could afford to have all the accidents I want. It's actually a very relevant question, especially in the light of the fact that recently I did indeed have an accident, and it cost me all of $10,000. On the face of it, I'm an idiot.

But consider this very important and uncontested truth: Insurance companies make money. In fact they make huge gobs of it. And they make their money by working the averages. It seems fairly clear that if an average person is insured their entire life, and makes an average number of claims, then they'll end up paying out more money in premiums than they receive back in claims. Otherwise how could insurance companies make a profit? And that's an average person. If you're in any way better than average, safer than average, or healthier than average, you'll rarely make a claim and be wasting even more money.

And of course, if you do ever need to make a claim, they fight you every step of the way, quoting fine print exceptions or conditions that you never knew existed, eventually paying out only what they consider to be fair. My mother had a mobile phone stolen a little while back. Naturally it was insured, for something like $1100. The insurance company eventually paid up, but only $700, saying that the phone only cost that amount to replace these days. And they were right, of course, but they didn't bother to tell Mum this for two years as they cheerfully accepted the premium for an $1100 phone. Or there was the outrageous case of the recent floods in Wollongong last year. Several residents in one street had their claims denied by the NRMA because the damage was apparently "storm water damage, not flood damage." Can you believe that? You have to imagine some pigeon-chested little turd of a bean-counter, sitting in his office thinking to himself, "if we say that it was storm water damage, we'll save ourselves $450,000. Hoo-hah!" People are having their houses washed away! I can't believe it's not possible to arrest someone like that and throw away the key. Can't we invent some criminal charge like "being a total prick to the rest of the human race?" Apparently not. Apparently it's all legal. They eventually paid, of course, after it became a PR debacle and they had their arses hauled up onto Today Tonight.

Or that old-age pensioner in Seven Hills who held a life insurance policy for 55 years, and then the insurance company cancelled it on her because she got too old. True story.

Insurance is an industry founded on fear. No-one ever goes into insurance hoping to do a little good for the world - it's always money. Real estate is the same (don't get me started on real estate agents), but unlike real estate, insurance feeds off the general population's Fear of Bad Things. We have this fear largely because we sit glued to the TV every evening fascinated at the proliferation of carnage, crime and destruction that is paraded before us masquerading as news (am I mistaken, or isn't the word news actually a derivative of the word new? When was the last time you saw something new on the news?). We see these awful tragedies every day on our televisions, so we assume that they must be commonplace. They're not, of course, but it's a delusion that the insurance companies are very happy for us to live under. If I was paranoid, I'd be going around saying that the six o'clock news is being secretly funded by insurance companies. I'm not paranoid, of course. I know that everyone secretly thinks that I am, but I'm not.

Let's say that you're one of the lucky ones, and you actually get a claim paid in full by your insurance company. What happens to your no-claim bonus? Well, naturally it's gone. A "no-claim bonus" is really just a happy, warm-and-fuzzy way of saying that those who make claims get penalised. With some insurance companies, if you're unfortunate and have to make more than one claim in a year, your premium and your excess are actually raised! Like, all of a sudden you're a bad risk. Try it on with the claims department one more time, and, once they've paid, they'll often refuse to reinsure you in future. "Sorry, you've become a Bad Risk" (read between the lines: "we only insure good risks").

So let's summarise. If you're an average, or above average, person, you end up paying more to insurance companies than they pay you (over the course of your insured life). If you're considered the sort of person that's in any way likely to make a claim, you'll get penalised with higher premiums and excesses, or perhaps you simply won't be able to get insured at all.

So, yes I paid out $10,000 after my accident, but if I added up the cost of that and the other one or two minor scrapes I've had to pay for, and compare the total to the cost of insurance premiums and excesses for the last 14 years, I think I may well be ahead.

I would imagine that the costs of health, car, life, income, home and contents insurance must set the average family back easily two or three thousand dollars every year. I'm going to suggest that, if you've got the discipline, instead of insuring, you take that $3000 and put it in the bank (or even better - buy some shares in an insurance company), and call it your "Accident and Emergency Fund." I would bet that by the time you're seventy you'd have, including interest, the best part of a million dollars, and probably never have had to make a withdrawal. Food for thought.

These days I only take out an insurance policy if I'm planning a scam. In my book, ripping off insurance companies ought to be a national sport

So. There's my two cents' worth. I'll get down off my soapbox now. If anyone out there has any thoughts on this (or anything else) that they'd like to share, I'd love to know about them. You can email them to mark@virtualcreations.com.au, or use the feedback form. You never know, you might find your own mental ramblings included in the next edition....


Why I'm Travelling

January 27th, 1999.

After leaving Kathmandu and beginning my wanderings around the world, these last couple of weeks have left me feeling vaguely unfulfilled - they haven't made me as happy as I had hoped. I'm not unhappy, just not firing on all cylinders or loving every day as a new opportunity for adventure. Of course, I wonder why I should be so unsatisfied. Every traveller I meet seems to be having a grand time, knowing exactly where they want to go and what they want to see. This naturally makes me wonder what's wrong with me that I'm not. (Actually appearances can be deceiving - I probably look like I'm having as good a time as the next person. Maybe we're all unsatisfied, and we're all just really good at covering it up....) So I ask myself what would make me happy, what experience would make me think, "this is what I wanted!" And this, of course, is the crux of it. Why am I travelling at all? What am I doing here? What am I looking for, what did I really come overseas to see?

After a bit of thought I remembered that, surprisingly, I didn't actually come to see anything! I came not to see the world, but to get away from my life in Sydney. One might conclude, therefore, that I had a lousy life in Sydney and needed escaping. Far from it. I had a great life, living in a comfortable flat in a nice neighbourhood of the finest city in the world (truly - I've looked), with great friends and a beautiful family that love me, and a job with that rare combination of freedom and security (not to mention variety, challenge, new people to meet every day, and ample pay). So what could possibly be wrong with that? Well, nothing, of course. The problem was within. The life was certainly comfortable (almost too comfortable), but it didn't satisfy my soul, to quote an oft-used expression. I felt I wasn't where I wanted to be. Something was missing. I wasn't looking forward to each day as a grand opportunity to live a bit more of my life. I was treading water, not living a true expression of who I am. In short, I was bored, unfulfilled, and directionless.

How can I put it? I didn't feel like the man that I wanted to be when I grew up. If I was suddenly confronted by a ten-year-old me, I didn't know how I could explain to him why I had a life that was so amazingly comfortable, but that didn't actually fulfil me in any meaningful sense. I felt he would be disappointed in me. Similarly, I envisaged a ninety-year-old me reflecting on my thirties, wishing he had those years to live over again so he could do something more rewarding.

So do what, exactly? What would be the changes I would make to my life to make it more authentically me? Certainly a new "career," if that's the right word. Something creative, something that makes my soul happy, something that would make me want to get out of bed every morning. Not necessarily well paid - I'd much rather be happy than wealthy, or even comfortable. Almost certainly nothing to do with computers, although the teaching thing may well be a part of it. Some kind of job that doesn't feel like a job - working without it seeming like work. When someone asks me, "what do you do?" I should be able to give an answer that I'm proud of. Answering, "I am a computer programmer," was never something I could feel any attachment to (surely that's not what I am - isn't it something I do?). "I teach people how to use computers," was a little better, but not quite there yet.

The lifestyle obviously needed a little work too. City life, when you really get into it, can't possibly be good for you. I imagine that I would always want to live in Sydney - I'm a city lad through and through - but I'm sure it's possible to be in Sydney and not live the typical city lifestyle. I need something more low-key, more outdoorsy, healthier, less caught up with toys and fun. Something gentler, simpler, with less emphasis on the values espoused by my television.

For quite a while, I've been of the belief that, as soon as I start to live my life in a way that is truly, authentically me, as soon as I am truly happy with who I am and how I live, then (and only then) I will be ready to meet (or recognise) the woman with whom I will spend the rest of my life. This, of course, is my secret overriding ambition, the only one that I really care about. Paradoxically, this seems to put me in a no-win situation. It appears to be the case that I can't be truly happy until I've met the woman of my dreams, but I can't meet her until I'm truly happy. I think the flaw in that reasoning lies in the line, "I can't be truly happy until I've met the woman of my dreams." That's the part I have to work on during these travels.

But I digress.

So. A significant adjustment needs to be made to my life, but how do I go about it? Is it possible to suddenly change an entire lifestyle and career, while still living that lifestyle and career? To switch horses in midstream, as it were? It didn't seem achievable that I could change all the things that I wanted to change while I was still living my old life. It seemed to me that I needed to step out of my life for a bit, even shut down my old life altogether, then figure out how to rebuild it. The only way I knew how to do that was to leave. Leave my job, leave Sydney, leave everyone I love, and find a quiet place to sit and work out how my new life should look.

So I leave Australia, but don't really have anywhere to go. In this quest of mine, any part of the world is as good as any other part - the only necessary qualification being that it's not Sydney. So it's hardly surprising that playing the backpacker game - the traveller, the tourist, seeing the sights - is not going to help me find what I'm looking for. The answer lies not in where I'm going, but how I'm going there.

Having realised this, the need to actually see all these wonderful places (Turkey, South America, etc) becomes less immediate. I've realised that what I really need to do is just sit somewhere quiet, and think. Find a lovely, warm, easy place, conducive to contemplation, and sit there being still until I work out how the new life is going to look. The Caribbean looks nice....