5 things that might as well be magic

1. OTC Medication

When people think of the truly breathtaking advances in medicine, they think of the antibiotics that cure gas gangrene and injectable insulin that means diabetics don't have to die blind, lame, and decades early. Nobody ever really marvels at the stuff in Walgreens. But think about it: If you read a lot of literature written during, say, the Regency period, you run across all these women swooning and begging off to go lie down with such a dreadful headache. You think, "Jesus, lady, how much of a wilting flower are you? It's just a headache."

Except it wasn't, because the entire concept of 'just a headache' didn't come along until aspirin came along. Head-hurty happened whenever it happened and stayed as long as it fucking well wanted to. The original folk remedy of willow bark tea was dependent on your living where willow bark was available, had no standard measurable dosage, and, allow me to assure you, tasted like a combination of bitter mulch and ass. You could take laudanum or paregoric, both opiate-based remedies, but then your choice was 'ow' or 'zzzzz'. It wasn't until the late 1890s that Bayer began selling little white pills that made pain go away without also making you wobble all over the place. It took until 1956 for acetaminophen to join the party, and 1962 for ibuprofen; Tylenol is in a class by itself today, the other aniline analgesics having fallen out of use, but there a slew of other members of the NSAID family that encompasses aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and others.

We've produced similar miracles for coughing, sneezing, irritation, allergic reactions, lack of sleep, lack of alertness, and more. If you're like me, you end up with some pretty awful sinus headaches around plant-orgy time every year. Imagine how absolutely shit it would be if we hadn't invented antihistamines, decongestants, and analgesics that were easy and cheap to manufacture, in controlled dosages, and safe enough to sell to pretty much any old yahoo who walks into the same store where they sell Kleenex.

2. Recordings

We take the ability to capture snippets of sound, light, and movement for granted. Painting has existed since hands evolved, writing was invented by the Phoenicians, and transcribed sheet music emerged in the Middle Ages, at least in Europe, but these are all impressions and guides to reproductions. Paintings help you reconstruct what the artist saw or imagined, words are for reconstructing the author's thoughts, and sheet music gives instructions for reproducing a song. They're an aid to remembering and a guide to replicating, but do not carry a record of the experience itself.

The ability to capture the actual souvenir photons bouncing off of a sight and preserve the pattern permanently didn't come about until a French inventor in 1826 put together the image projected by a camera obscura and the fact that bitumen hardened upon exposure to light -- two things that have been known about since ancient times -- to produce an image of the countryside beyond his window on a platinum plate. A quarter-century later, another inventor cobbled together a "phonautograph" to capture the vibration of sound in the squiggly line of a stylus dragged across a roll of paper coated in lampblack, and a quarter-century after that, someone else came up with the notion of making those squiggles into an engraving along which a lighter stylus could run, shaking a diaphragm and causing the same vibrations that went into the recorder to be emitted from the reproduction device.

Think about that. Everything in human history that happened up until the 19th century is gone. We can dig around in books and newspapers and diaries and find out how other people experienced it, but we can't ever experience it for ourselves. Whenever you play back a recording, you're taking some infinitesimal slice of the information that exists in the universe at a particular set of time-space coordinates and transporting it to yours. When I tell the MP3 player to start my Beatles playlist, I'm listening to the past.

3. Radio

Invisible intangible mystery waves that refuse to behave like physical objects except when they randomly decide to, take voices and pictures from one place and make them appear in another while being completely undetectable to anyone in their path who doesn't have the proper kind of magic box. Do I really need to go further?

4. Housepets

I keep pet rats. They're easily as domesticated as dogs. They have funny-colored non-camouflage coats and love me as their all-powerful Mommy-god and act like adolescent idiots and everything. Unlike the dogs who stood watch and defended us from predators, or the cats who slew vermin that bothered our livestock and ate our grains, pet rats have literally no other function than to entertain people, and never have. Ratkeeping started when Queen Victoria's royal ratcatcher started snaring and breeding the stupid friendly ones for Her Majesty's amusement instead of executing them on the spot, which is what ratcatchers normally do. We keep other species in the same fashion -- you didn't really think lovebirds and chinchillas had a utilitarian use, did you?

There are a lot of symbiotic relationships in nature; there are not a lot of pets. As far as I know, humans are the only creatures who, in their native habitats, exchange survival resources like food solely for the company of a creature not of its own kind. The magic here lies not in the fact that we've managed to convince other species to go along with this (the rats, for one, are getting an incredibly sweet deal here), but that we've managed to convince ourselves.

5. The Internet.


Seriously, I have no idea how anyone ever lived without this. It would be like being sealed in my own head with no way out.


  1. It's been ages since you wrote this, so I highly doubt you'll ever see this, but whatever. I'm actually younger than you, but I grew up in a part of the world where 'internet' meant a dialup connection that topped out at 26.6kbps. And the rest of the world had high speed and were image happy. Reading a text-only page with more than a thousand words on it meant clicking the link and walking away for ten or fifteen minutes. The nearest library was a half hour away by car.

    I actually read the dictionary. That's what life is like without the internet. You read the dictionary for fun. It's no wonder people read the Bible over and over and studied it ad nauseum a hundred years ago. There was nothing else to do.

    The experience, which encompassed the time from I can remember until I left home at 19, resulted in me having read the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, another encyclopaedia (not as nice as the Britannica) from 1987, all my mother's biology and chemistry textbooks from university and three different dictionaries.

    It was hell and I refuse to ever live in a small town or anywhere without reliable internet ever again.

    1. Actually, Blogger is under orders to email me whenever any comment is submitted. I got tired of having to remember to check the spam filter and fish out the legit things, so I just turned on notifications for everything. :)

      I've mercifully never had the problem of no or no reliable technology about. My father is an engineer. There was both a computer and a video game console in the house when they came home from the hospital with me in 1981. At one point, Dad was on an extended business trip in Europe and they were using an acoustic coupler/modem setup to type at each other.


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