Hello. Sorry this place has been a bit quiet. But there’s a book coming.

Dear the Internet,

I’ve been horribly neglectful of this site of late. To be fair, I’ve been horribly neglectful of most things in my life for the last few months because I’ve been writing a book. And now it’s actually finished and is going to the magical book-making machine which I like to imagine is sort of like a whimsical Dr Suess illustration rather than what I assume is a large series of printing presses in an industrial warehouse in China or something.

The book has a name and a cover and a release date. The name is The Inexplicably Long and Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott. The cover is by my friend and former Time Out Sydney colleague Robert Polmear and looks like this:

The release date is December 2015, making it both the perfect Xmas gift for any progressive type that you love, or the conservative that you are obliged to buy for but really want to annoy.

If you’ve read my regular View from the Street column around the Fairfax sites – and to be honest, I can’t imagine why you’d be here if you didn’t – then you’re probably correctly imagining what’s in the book: snarky rants about how relentlessly silly the last two years of Australian politics has been.

It’s an incomplete overview of many of the most frustratingly ridiculous things said (“I’m a fixer!”, “Poor people don’t drive cars!”, “People have a right to be a bigot!”, “I’m going to shirtfront Mr Putin!”), done (the onions! The helicopters! The submarines! Sir Prince Philip!) and legislated, from offshore detention to Direct Action and all the stupid points in between.

And while it’s relentlessly snarky about Abbott and his merry band of largely terrible frontbenchers, there’s a larger philosophical point in there: we’re better off if we work together and look after one another, and that we can do so, so much better.

I mention this because all this economic turmoil and political division isn’t a tough but unavoidable necessity: it’s a choice that we’re making, and we we can make different ones.

A society is not the same thing as an economy, and pretending that the former is magically sorted out by fixing the latter is straight-up incorrect (not helped by the fact that this government is also failing at that, mind). But I won’t go on about that now: hell, I spent 320 pages going on about it in this thing you can read for yourself in a couple of months.

And I do very much hope you like it. I’ve read it several times during the proofing process and still laughed at jokes I’d forgotten, which means that either there are some really good lines in there and/or I have early onset dementia. Time will doubtlessly tell.

And now that I’m slightly less frantic, I might actually do more stuff on here. Let’s see how that pans out, eh?

Cheers,

Andrew

Pluto’s not a planet, and that’s honestly OK

It’s no reflection on the awesomeness of Pluto to say it’s a different thing, honest. 

Look at it! JUST FREAKIN' LOOK AT IT!

Look at it! JUST FREAKIN’ LOOK AT IT!

As New Horizons proves once again that humans are freakin’ amazing and brilliant when we work together and use our mighty brains to solve interesting problems (and as we all pore over the photos that have been released and get excited about the ones yet to come – what are those impact crater-looking things? Is that a volcanic mare, or a mighty series of dunes? Why is it a different colour to its main moon Charon? EVERYTHING IS THE MOST INTERESTING THING!), the debate over whether Pluto should or shouldn’t be a “planet” has threatened to flare up again.

You might recall that in 2006 it was determined that Pluto was no longer considered to be a planet on par with the now-limited-to-eight main bodies in the solar system.

The reason for this was that bodies had been discovered further out in the Kuiper Belt (the region of icy rubble beyond the orbit of Neptune) and it was thought likely by the International Astronomical Union that as our technology improved we’d be discovering more and more of these things – which turned out to be correct.

So we had a choice: either redefine planet to mean the eight things that we currently define them as – thereby eliminating Pluto – or adding dozens of new planets to the list every year. Thanks to technological advances like the Hubble telescope and better computer algorithms for automatically recognising odd orbits in data, there are almost 400 candidate planet-like objects out in the Kuiper Belt. That’s a lot of things for eight year olds to memorise.

Thus in 2006 the IAU settled on a definition for planet that had three main tenets: if you’re big enough to be round, you’re going around the sun and there’s no other significantly-sized body in your orbit, then guess what? You’re a planet.

Pluto ticks most of the boxes, but the definitions are a little bit arbitrary.

The first two seem OK. A planet has to be orbiting the Sun so moons and satellites, which orbit planets that orbit the Sun, therefore don’t count.

That might seem obvious, but it’s worth remembering that almost all of the moons around the planets are a) basically spheres and b) in two cases, larger than one of the planets (the Jupiter moon Ganymede and the Saturnian moon Titan are both larger than Mercury – although they’re not as dense and therefore don’t have as much mass. See? It’s complicated).

Second, the thing has to be big enough to undergo “hydrostatic equilibrium” under it’s own mass. Thus lumpy little asteroids don’t count (and technically the planets aren’t actually spherical – they’re slightly flattened at the poles and wider at the equator because of their rotation, making them “oblate spheroids”, but that’s nit-picking).

Thirdly – and this where Pluto fell down – they have to have “cleared their orbit” of other bodies. This is the most arbitrary distinction of all, but the argument goes like this: you need to be big enough that your gravity has either thrown everything else out of your orbit or it’s been attracted to you and collected it.

Pluto doesn’t count for two reasons. One, that there are other things in its wide orbit (“plutininos”) that its gravity is not powerful enough to disturb. It also, technically, crosses the orbit of Neptune although the two are in what’s called an orbital resonance, so they’re never in the same place at the same time – otherwise the utterly enormous Neptune would easily slingshot Pluto out of the Solar System entirely.

It’s been pointed out that most of the planets absolutely have significant things in their orbits – aside from Neptune, which hasn’t cleared Pluto from its orbit, the Earth, Mars and Jupiter all have bodies of asteroids scattered in our orbits and no-one appears to be arguing we’re not planets as a result. But this was a definition invented mainly to find a way to exclude Pluto and get things to a manageable system.

But to be honest, “planets” is a problematic term in any case.

It’s derived from the the Greek term for “wanderer” and were so-called because the the five close enough to be visible to humans before the invention of the telescope (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) were points of light that moved through the skies when viewed from Earth, unlike the apparently fixed stars.

The fact we invented the word to describe little points of light in the sky is why we have the same name for “little solid lumps of rock”, like Venus, as we do for “massively giant seething balls of gas”, like Jupiter.

You could make a very solid argument to call those types of things by different, less Earth-centric names, the way we do for other non-planet things in our solar system like asteroids and comets, but we’re kinda stuck with it.

So I rather like that we have a different name for the amazing objects out beyond the orbit of the last of the gas (well ice) giants.

Out past Neptune is Pluto and the other “trans-Neptunian” objects, including a load of amazing dwarf planets: in orbits wider than Pluto’s, there are Eris, Makemake, Haumea, Sedna, Orcus, Salacia and others that haven’t officially been given names yet.

They’re all smaller than our Moon and they’re – probably, we think – made of ice, mainly water and methane. In fact, they appear to be more like giant comets than they are like the four inner planets.

And that’s why, dumb as the term might be, I like that there’s a different word for them. “Dwarf planet” is a stupid name (and it’s not what astronomers use, incidentally: they call them “planetoids’) but it at least acknowledges that they’re different things*, an exciting group of different bodies about which we barely know anything and which we’re the first generation to be able to discover.

And if the fact that you’ve heard of Pluto means that you might be interested to learn more about Eris or Makemake, that’s a great thing in itself (their orbits are nuts, by the way). And hell, it makes more sense to celebrate Pluto as Amazing Gateway to the Glories of the Kuiper Belt rather than The Shitty Last Planet After The Proper Ones.

And in any case, New Horizons has made the distinction kinda moot. Look at that photo at the top of the page again: Pluto is now a place.

It’s a real, tangible world ten years and billions of kilometres away, with its own characteristics and mysteries and beauty. However we define it, we’re the first humans in history to see its face – and that’s the thing that fills me with hope and joy for our species.

Dammit, we’re an amazing species when we want to be.

Cheers,

APS

* Of course, then you have the question of why tumbling balls of frozen methane are labelled the same as a solid sphere of rock in a diffuse belt of other rocks, since the major asteroid Ceres has also been deemed a dwarf planet, but that’s a different rant. Dammit, what’s wrong with just declaring Ceres The Mighty King Of The Asteroid Belt rather than confusing the issue by making people think it’s like Pluto, only closer?

Reactivating the (other) zombie blog

It’s hard to believe, but I have a blog that I update even less often than this one: Songs You Should Rediscover Today Because They Are Awesome. And for the first time in months – a bit over seven of them, in fact – I actually wrote something there about ABC’s ‘(How To Be A) Millionaire’, for reasons that may not immediately be obvious.

Those reasons are as follows:

Mmmm, 80s graphic design…

Mmmm, 80s graphic design…

First up, a deeply annoying bout of insomnia. It’s 6.30am right now, I started writing the piece an hour ago and I’m sure I’m going to crash at my desk before midday. I’m confident that coffee will, as ever, fix things.

Another was that when I write my nationally-tolerated View from the Street column (here’s yesterday’s one about Eddie McGuire, incidentally) I generally pull out an LP to play while I’m plonking the text into the Fairfax system and yesterday’s choice was the song’s frustratingly patchy parent album, which subsequently became my aforementioned insomnia’s maddening soundtrack at about 4.30am.

And thirdly, because I’m neck-deep in writing m’first book at the moment (what? Stressed? Moi? Oh heavens no!) and my brain is desperately looking for things to distract it from, for example, the grim recent history of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Spoiler: turns out it’s not great.

So let’s assume there’ll probably be some others going up there in the next few weeks, while deadlines loom and I start obsessively going back over my record collection in a desperate attempt at preserving my own sanity.

Hope you’re doing good. You’re looking well. That hairstyle really suits you.

Yours ever,

APS

The Magical Xmas Gift of André Rieu

Is there a term for a balding mullet? A bullet? A ballet? I bet there's a German word for it.

Is there a term for a balding mullet? A bullet? A ballet? I bet the Germans have a word for it.

Because it’s Xmas there is one artist that people are going to hear more than anyone else as they go about their day-to-day lives: André Rieu, the multi-platinum-selling superstar Dutch violinist and morning suit enthusiast whose compact discs are available in many of Australia’s most exclusive post offices.

And it’s easy to make fun of his sterile take on classical and popular music, but it’s important to recognise that he’s provided a valuable service to the global community.

See, I came to music very early. I was raised on the British Invasion artists that my parents adored – the Beatles, the Kinks, the Who, the Stones – with a little bit of Motown and Hendrix thrown in. I joined my school orchestra in year three, playing viola, and was thus exposed to the power and the majesty of the great classical composers.

By the time I hit double digits I was spending my pocket money almost exclusively on records, beginning an obsession with bands like the Smiths, the Cure, Models, New Order and Pet Shop Boys that has endured, with some fluctuations, to this day.

All of the most important moments of my life have been coloured by the music I was listening to at the time. Music has been my constant companion, my inspiration, my crutch and my salvation.

So André Rieu’s great lesson to us is this: music can also be cheesy and awful.

It’s so easy to forget that music can be vapid bullshit when you’re surrounded by almost a century of recorded works which are now more accessible than ever before; where you can dive into the works of Os Mutantes one moment and Gram Parsons the next, explore Bollywood superstar Asha Bhosle and then rummage through Chuck Berry’s greatest hits, devour this year’s glorious New Pornographers album and follow it with some of Yma Sumac’s inexplicable vocalisations.

With every culture on Earth creating its own astonishing music, and then cross-pollinating one another to create everything from amazing Thai beat combos to stuttering German hip-hop, one could easily spend a life exploring these endlessly fertile rivers without ever realising that music can also be stale, passionless and insipid, poisoning the soul and crushing the human spirit.

Rieu takes some of the most beautiful pieces ever created by humankind, from the liquid melodies of Handel to the sophisticated harmonic pop of ABBA, and renders them lifeless and dry, as if to say “all art is a pointless distraction from the ultimate embrace of the grave, mortals. Ever been lifted by the jubilant power of the Hallelujah Chorus, or moved by the desperation at the heart of ‘The Winner Takes It All’? Well, allow me to fix that for you.”

Like Michael Bay with cinema, EL James with literature or everyone at Rockstar Games that worked on Grand Theft Auto V, Rieu is a reminder of the power of an artist to drain all the wit, joy, skill and beauty from an art form, challenging others to ignore the limitless possibilities of the human imagination and focus instead on making as leaden and inept a work as possible.

And that, friends, is an Xmas gift that keeps on giving.

A little Xmas song for the Australian front bench

…because something’s got to distract from our terrifying new immigration laws.

"You know what's great? Satire!"

“You know what’s great? Satire!”

The speculation about whether Hockey would be knifed in favour of Turnbull set my muse alight on wings of poetical gossamer, to the tune of ‘Let It Snow’. You know, because nothing – NOTHING – is a bigger agent of change than a parodic song with political intent!

Well, the media sharks are circling,
And the PR blitz ain’t workling,
And someone’s going to have to go –
Let it Joe! Let it Joe! Let it Joe!

The front bench is kerfuffled,
And it’s time that it got reshuffled
And we can’t dump the leader, so…
Let it Joe! Let it Joe! Let it Joe!

The economy’s in the can
And the budget is yet to pass
So maybe we should get a man
Who’s perhaps slightly less of an arse;

For the economy is a-tankin’,
And these mines need investment bankin’,
And the press prefer Turnbull, so:
Let it Joe! Let it Joe! Let it Joe!

And while we’re here, you may enjoy catching up with the last few weeks of my View from the Street columns at the Sydney Morning Herald. There’s one way to find out!

"And furthermore, Madam Speaker, if the Senate will not capitulate to my demands on immigration reform, I shall not hesitate to activate the Omega Device." View from the Street: Refugee children magically become bargaining chips

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.

My Obligatory Comment on Gamergate…

GIRLS DON'T LET ME SEE THEIR… um, I mean ETHICS! ETHICS IN GAMES JOURNALISM!

Gamergate, yesterday

…is that it’s all about hating and fearing women, obviously. Everyone realises that, right?

I mean, even if the complaints against feminist games blogger Anita Sarkeesian and independent game developer Zoe Quinn weren’t the demented rantings of crazy people (see this comprehensive debunking of the “case” against Quinn, for example) then the retaliation against them is still entirely unwarranted.

Similarly, if the problem is “ethics in games journalism”, then making threats to rape and kill women who are entirely unconnected with the mainstream gaming media seems to be, to be generous, a very roundabout way of achieving positive change.

And lots of smart people have made these points elsewhere, like my colleague Jenny Noyes at Daily Life, but I’d just like to weigh in on one of the great unchallenged assumptions in all this.

It’s about the idea that companies use their ad spend to force positive reviews from media: an accusation which gets thrown around as being unquestionably true.

As someone who’s worked for a bunch of mags and sites and done quite a lot of games writing and editing in my time, and let me make clear: in my experience, it’s bullshit.

Yes, big companies that advertise get their stuff reviewed more often than those that do not, absolutely, because editors are not utter fools.

If you’ve got 20 reviews running and (for example) Ubisoft are spending with you, you’re going to put whatever Ubi thing you have available in those 20, obviously. And if something’s being advertised heavily and you’ve got a scathing review you might quietly bury that piece – but that’s less about angering the ad gods than not looking like an idiot.

However, the thing that people don’t perhaps appreciate is that games companies generally don’t buy ads or coordinate reviews. Outside companies do it.

Reviews are generally coordinated by PR companies who want to show their client – the games company that’s contracted them – that they got x amount of coverage and are therefore doing a great job that deserves ongoing employment.

Ads, meanwhile, are bought by media agencies who literally don’t give two shits about whether a publication has raved or canned a title: they care about the price they can gouge from the publication, the readership of said publication, and the demographics of said readership.

In the case of PRs, they generally don’t especially care if the reviews are negative, as long as they run and they can therefore invoice the company and cite their successful placement.

In the case of the ad agencies, they don’t care about reviews at all: if the publication doesn’t have enough readers, they’re not getting any ads. That’s why editors hate agencies: there’s no way to sweet talk them with “…but we love this title, our five-star review is even quoted on the case!” They honestly couldn’t give less of a fuck.

The company cares about reviews, but they don’t have direct contact with the publications themselves and thus aren’t in a position to pull ad spend over a specific review (and the spend is controlled by the media agency in any case). And only a moron would open themselves up to a “games publisher threatens editor over review” headline. That’d be golden clickbait for any games site.

There are a few companies that do everything in house – Rockstar traditionally have, for example – but ironically it tends to be the smaller, less influential devs that handle this annoying fiddly stuff themselves. If you’re EA or Sony or Nintendo, you’re going to outsource your PR and your ad buying because, aside from anything else, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper and easier.

In short, the big companies don’t bother with pay-for-play because it’s just not worth the effort, and the small ones don’t bother because they have virtually nothing to bargain with.

To recap: Gamergate has zero to do with games, ethics, or journalism. It’s entirely about terrified men slapping down women who dare to speak in public. And, thankfully, it seems to have had the  effect of making women call bullshit on it, in vast numbers.

That’s what gives me hope about this sort of highly-visible misogyny: it seems like the last frantic thrashing of a dying thing. It’s like lancing a boil: it’s messy and disgusting at first, but that’s also what gets the poison out.