My final moments with Cassini, via the Guardian

Dear the Internet,

So, I was one of the 30 people selected to be present at the CSIRO/NASA-run Canberra Deep Space Communications Centre for the final moments of the Cassini probe last Friday (15 September) before it plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn. And it was one of the most emotional nights of my life.

I wrote about it before on this very blog, but I also wrote this piece for the Guardian, entitled Tracing Cassini’s fiery death was like watching a heart monitor flatline, which was written immediately after negotiating my white-knuckled way down the hillside from the CDSCC site in Tidbinbilla after multiple warnings from staff about the propensity of local kangaroos to hurl themselves at passing cars.

One thing that I’d like to highlight was this bit:

“Half an hour before the signal was due to vanish, the skies above the complex cleared and everyone trooped outside to where the DSS43 was pointed at Saturn, which looked like an unusually bright star in the western sky. By this point, the data of the final transmission had passed the orbit of Jupiter and was heading towards that of Mars.”

And here’s a pic I took of that moment:

It was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience, and a much-needed reminder that we’re really pretty amazing when we work together on problems together, we humans.

Yours ever,

APS

 

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One of those wildly overdue update things, with bonus explainer about governments

A special post for newcomers who are itching to tell me I’m a lefty jerk

Our national coat of arms, featuring two emblematic creatures that work brilliantly in a curry.

Our national coat of arms, featuring two emblematic creatures that work brilliantly in a curry.

Hello, internet. You’re looking well.

I’m not going to lie to you, friend: it’s been a busy old time.

That’s mainly been because of my five-day-a-week online column at the Sydney Morning Herald, which is called View from the Street – yes, I’m the titular Street (here’s today’s column, if you’re interested) – and which is most likely the reason you came here. That, or a very creepily specific porn search.

Something that’s coming up increasingly often because of said column is that I have an anti-Coalition agenda. And that’s not really true: I disagree vehemently with most of the things they’re attempting to do, but that’s because I think they’re pursuing lousy policy rather than because I have a deep-seated loathing of conservatism.

See, conservatives can have good ideas. Progressives are occasionally wrong. The way to establish the quality of a political party’s idea, in my opinion, is to ask the question: does this specific policy contribute to human wellbeing and societal stability?

If the answer is yes, then congratulations: that’s a good bit of policy you have there! If not, then it’s bad policy and should be, at the very least, taken back to the shop for some serious remodelling, possibly with a mallet.

And most of the time it’s pretty straightforward to answer those questions, especially if you bother to ask them in the first place.

So, in order to better understand where I’m coming from, here’s an excerpt from my Here’s The Thing column at TheVine entitled “Governments: Why Do We Even?” explaining that governments are around for a reason, and it’s a pretty great one.

Humans are kinda rubbish at survival on our own. We’re naked and weak and we don’t run especially fast and we don’t have tough shells or huge claws or any of those other things that more robust species have.

One major problem is our big stupid heads, which we need because of our enormous brains. We walk upright in part because that’s the best way to distribute that hefty weight, and walking upright necessitates having a narrow pelvis. Combine narrow pelvises and gigantic skulls and you need to give birth to offspring that are basically fetuses that need a hell of a lot of looking after just to survive. In just about every other species a newborn can fend for itself more or less from birth: human babies are notoriously bad at it.

What we do have – the thing that we’re really, really good at – is working together. Our big brains are great at working out what other people are likely to be thinking, and therefore changing our behaviour accordingly so we can work better together. Lots of animals do that, of course, but we’re amazingly good at it.

About ten thousand years ago we started settling down in places rather than moving around, building permanent settlements and inventing stuff like agriculture as a way to feed a growing mass of people.

Societies started to grow, and the societies where people lived better lives became (understandably) more popular with people than those where things were terrible. Stability brought prosperity, and prosperity bought neat stuff like art and science and culture. Turns out that when humans aren’t living hand to mouth, they have time to think about stuff like “y’know, this shovel could be better designed” and “hey, what do you reckon stars are?”

And that’s also where the idea of laws, and for that matter religion, comes from: a series of rules under which society is stable, and in which the constituents live better lives than they otherwise could do on their own. As this became more codified we ended up with things like governments.

And stability doesn’t sound sexy – anarchy gets a cool symbol and everything – but it’s where where big-brained, small-teethed humans turned things to their advantage. We didn’t have to fight, and we had time to think. And that changed everything.

Once you conclude that governments are in place to maintain the stability that leads to prosperity, it becomes a hell of a lot easier to tell whether something is a great idea or a terrible one. Is society made better by a particular policy? Does it hurt people, or does it help people?

If that’s your criteria, you don’t need to speculate on whether a leader is a good and moral person or not, or whether a party is sticking to their guns or betraying their base or any of those other pointless questions. You can ask “is this specific piece of legislation or policy actually helpful to people?”

That’s the important question, and the challenge for governments is to answer that question with “yes, and here’s why”, rather than angrily insist that their opinion is more valid than evidence.

Yours ever,

APS

PS:

Speaking of Here’s the Thing, I wrote one today on why we should be protesting the cuts to the ABC. Yes, I really do write a lot.  That’s why I look so tired all the time.

…and that’s when I realised I was being tailed by security

This was originally written for Confession Booth at the World Bar, April 2012. I presented it again at the Sydney Film Festival’s ‘True Lies’ in 2013.

The site that used to house the old Confession Booth has expired, and I particularly like this piece so I decided to give it a permanent home here.

I was once a very, very talented shoplifter.

I should add that I didn’t shoplift because it gave me a thrill, or to be cool or to fit in or to get back at my parents. Initially, I shoplifted because it was lucrative and it funded my nascent musical obsessions during my high school years, once I realised that I could steal porn mags from Flagstaff Hill Newsagent and sell them to the boarders at my high school, and use those proceeds to fund my record collection.

True Lies, June 2013

True Lies, June 2013

It became doubly lucrative when it eventually dawned on me that I could also just steal the records themselves, and exponentially more so once I realised these same skills could get me other things that I might find useful. For anyone planning to steal three-packs of TDK blank cassettes in 1986, might I suggest putting them in your armpit under a jacket: they fit snugly in there, and your arms retain almost complete range of unsuspicious movement. That’s a tip for the discerning time-travelling kleptomaniac with a passion for audio fidelity.

Anyway: my point is that I was nimble of finger and deft of hand, which was good because it meant that I had plenty of Smiths and Cure records by April 1987, which was when my beloved father died of cancer and when I needed those records more than I needed anything on Earth. It’s no great exaggeration to say that my well-thrashed cassettes of The World Won’t Listen, particularly Asleep, and The Head on the Door, especially A Night Like This, made all the difference between me being here now and perhaps not being here at all.

Incidentally, that’s the somewhat mawkish reason why I’ve used my middle initial for well over half my life: it’s a living tribute to the late Peter William Street, who was only a few months older than I am now when he died and who would have been amazed at the way the next quarter century turned out, if not necessarily been all that impressed with some of the academic and career decisions of his first born.

In mid-1989 my mother married a Cowra-district farmer named Lance Hocking, who had moved to Adelaide with his three children following a year long correspondence. He was a widower: his wife Gaye – an old school friend of my mother’s – had been killed in a terrible car accident not long after my father’s death, and Mum had written to Lance to offer her condolences, support and – this being Roslyn Street – some practical advice about what a suddenly single parent with three children should do in these sorts of terrible circumstances. So in the course of three years I went from being in a family of five to a family of four to a family of eight, and while the transition was unusually smooth – as anyone who has experienced the ear-splitting joy of a Street-Hocking family celebration can attest – it was not without some bumpiness.

I was fine with Lance, for the most part. He seemed like a good man, he didn’t muscle in on my position, at age 17, as the male head of the house, and – importantly – he immediately backed down when his suggestion that we would start attending church as a family was immediately dismissed and roundly mocked by my sisters and I. From the outset he knew to tread carefully with me, and I knew that he was making life easier for my mother, so I returned the courtesy. In any case, it now 1990, I was in first year of uni and not far off turning 18, so I knew my days of having to remain in the family home were numbered regardless.

What transformed Lance from being The Guy That Married My Mum into being the person I refer to as my Dad was the following:

I had not long embarked on my first serious relationship and was therefore heading towards fucking up my first serious relationship, because I was 17, had now had sex and was obviously completely incapable of working out what happened from here. My poor girlfriend, who was beautiful and smart and funny and absolutely didn’t deserve to be dumped via the briefest of phone calls a week after the events of this story, thought that everything was fine and that of course guys got weird and distant after they took your virginity, and was to verbally unload her subsequent confusion and fury regarding her fuckwit of a first love onto my eldest sister when they bumped into each other in a London pub some years later.

But that was to come. At this point I was still trying to work out how to extricate myself from a perfectly good relationship and so it was that I found myself in the ghastly architectural mistake that was Westfield Shoppingtown Marion, feeling the sort of self-righteous anger that only an entitled middle class 17 year old can, and I thought I’d channel my seething self-pity into a spot of shoplifting. First I nicked some tapes from Myers, then ambled over to Brashes and rifled through their discs-in-the-cases-bargain-bin easy pickings for a few more, then to Big W for some more cassettes and a couple of Far Side books, and finally up to John Martins to see if I couldn’t heft some actual vinyl.

And that’s when I realised I was being tailed by security.

A smart kid would have dumped the contraband and run, or would have tried brazening it out, but that’s not what I did. I slowly, deliberately, and in plain view of both of the casually-dressed men furiously ignoring me, lifted a handful of singles, a couple of books – Catch 22 was one, if I recall correctly – and, for reasons that still remain obscure to me, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figure.

Obviously, it was Raphael.

Then I walked out of the shopping centre doors, sat down on a bench, and waited.

Thirty seconds or so later – longer than I’d expected, and probably long enough to have run had I had any sense of self-preservation, the security guys appeared, came over to me, asked me to open my bag, and told me to come with them.

Once I got into the back room and dumped my haul in a state of complete numbness (except the Far Side books, which I insisted I had brought with me), they explained that since this was my first offence they would normally give me a warning, take my name down and tell me never to come back, but because I’d actually left the building they were obliged to take it to next level and call the police. Which, since I was 17, meant that I had to call my parents.

I sat at the desk, picked up their phone, and called home. Lance answered. I burst into tears.

He was there inside of 15 minutes, said all the right things to the cops about how I was still mourning my father, that it had been an unsettled time and that he was going to sort me out when we got home, while I snuffled and sobbed behind him. I got a warning, we were free to go, and we didn’t say a word to each other the entire way home.

He never brought it up again.

My mother, on the other hand, had a great deal to say, particularly about my shortcomings as a worthwhile human being in civilised society. It was a subject about which my first girlfriend was also to have a lot to say, as I discovered during an international phone conversation with my still-giggling sister circa Xmas 1997.

But that was the moment when Lance first became my Dad.