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.

Another temporary 10 Things while sites migrate…

Yes, TheVine is tidying up the internets again so, in the interests of putting things in places they can be seen, here’s a sneaky 10 Things. Or you can read all my old 10 Things bits here.

—-

10 Things: Revvin’ up the class war with Diamond Joe Hockey

Joe Hockey and his sweet ride

Your slightly-delayed plunge into the heart of current affairs darkness

Diamonds are the poor’s best friend!

Diamond Joe Hockey, your federal treasurer, is very, very good at thinking things that are not true reflections of reality.

For example, he thinks that the budget will somehow pass – which, three months and counting since it was presented, seems ambitious.

He thinks that Australia is in a debt crisis which – as we never tire of pointing out – absolutely nobody else does, including the sorts of economists that he’s been perfectly happy to champion when it suits him.

(And to parenthetically repeat the same tired thing we keep saying: there are things that could be done to address our level of interest repayment that would be good to do, since that stuff does get more expensive, but a) it’s prudent, not urgent and b) that’s not at all what the government is doing right now in any case.)

But the biggest delusion that Diamond Joe has is the notion that poor people are much better off than the rest of Australia, based – as best I can work out – on the following reasoning:

1. The poorer someone is, the less tax they pay

2. I, as Federal Treasurer making $397,869 per year before adding my additional $150k-odd salary as an MP for North Sydney, pay a large tax bill every year

3. Poor people don’t get hit with these sorts of bills

4. Therefore the poor have it better than I do

…or he might just straight up not give a shit, of course. That’s also a possibility.

In any case, he wanted to increase the fuel excise earlier this year, a move that was blocked in the Senate (somewhat controversially, by the Greens) and was bitching and moaning about how this was a tax that was going to affect the rich more than the poor and was therefore equitable. Keep in mind that this tax didn’t pass, by the way.

Here’s what Diamond Joe Hockey, your federal treasurer and grown adult, said on radio yesterday: 

“What we’re asking is for everyone to contribute, including higher-income people. Now, I’ll give you one example: the change to fuel excise. The people that actually pay the most are higher-income people, with an increase in fuel excise, and yet the Labor party and the Greens are opposing it. They say you’ve got to have wealthier people or middle-income people pay more. Well, change to the fuel excise does exactly that; the poorest people either don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far in many cases. But they [Labor and the Greens] are opposing what is meant to be, according to the Treasury, a progressive tax.”

Oh Diamond Joe, you adorable melonhead.

Where to start?

How being poor in Australia works

First up, let’s very quickly abandon the use of “progressive” when talking about a flat tax.

Flat taxes (as in taxes that are not staggered by income) like a fuel excise always hit those at the bottom more heavily because the effect of spending an extra $10 on petrol makes a much smaller difference if you make $1500 a week compared with $120. All flat taxes punish the poor for being poor by making them poorer. This principle also applies to the proposed Medicare co-pay, of course.

In fact, the Australian parliamentary library research paper entitled Petrol and Diesel Excises, published in 2000, said as much: “petrol and diesel excises are regressive in that people on low incomes pay a higher proportion of their incomes in the form of excise than people on high incomes, given the same level of fuel use”. So the literal opposite of “progressive”, then.

It’s also worth adding that the figures that he used to make his claim showed the opposite of his claim: even accepting that individual high income earners are spending more on petrol, “households in the highest quintile spent 1.37% of their income on petrol and those in the lowest quintile spent 4.54%“.

Then let’s move on to the fact that most of Australia’s jobs are in and around the biggest population centres, and most of the affordable housing is not.

Australia’s population clusters around the five biggest cities, and poor people tend to live out of the city and away from the desirable coasts – in Brisbane and Sydney that’s the outer west, in Adelaide the outer north and south, in Melbourne the outer north and west, and in Perth there’s a cluster around the airport in the industrial eastern suburbs.

Where the cheap houses are not, however, is in the inner suburbs near all the jobs and easy transport.

The further away from the CBD you get, the lousier the public transport becomes. In Sydney and Melbourne the outer suburban public transport is, to use a technical term, shit. In Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, it’s basically useless: if you need to be somewhere by a specific time, such as for a job you need a car. This is especially true if you also have a family and want to see them at all.

Poor people tend not to have great jobs where they can lob in whenever they fancy it. Many have shift jobs with inflexlible start times and stern supervisors who don’t take kindly to “sorry, there’s trackwork on this week”-style excuses.

So for the working poor of Australia, if you have a low-paying job and you live a distance away from it, a car is a necessary investment if you want to avoid being fired.

And what sort of car do poor people buy? Do they buy excellent brand new hybrids with great fuel economy? No, they do not: they buy old second and third-hand shitboxes that guzzle fuel, because they are cheap.

So, to recap:

A significant majority of Australia’s poor people drive a lot by necessity as they live and work in distant, badly-serviced areas, and they drive old inefficient cars.

So, Joe, let’s try that again: explain why the rich will be affected more by fuel excise than the poor. Go on. Give it a shot.

Beep beep, beep beep, yeah!

Of course, there’s also the fact that Diamond Joe is already perfectly aware that lower income people are driving cars. How do we know this? Not just because the demographics are blindingly obvious, but because the federal and state governments are using said demographics to sell big showy infrastructure projects.

And note that these big showy infrastructure projects are not, say, new rail corridors or dedicated bus lanes or bikeways or any of those other utopian bullshit: projects like the Perth Light Rail, Brisbane Cross River Rail and the Melbourne Metro have all been axed, as have planned (and much, much needed) expansions and developments on the Sydney rail network.

No, instead we’re getting big disruptive expensive road developments. The East-West in Melbourne, the second lane to the Southern Expressway in Adelaide, West Connex in Sydney: there’s no shortage of the things.

Governments love that stuff because they get to look all masculine with shovels turning earth, they get to go “this is a huge boon for employment!” and not mention that the bigger the project the more likely the investment is coming from (and profits will be going to) companies outside of Australia, and that they don’t work especially well if they work at all.

Either they charge so much for tolls that people actively avoid them (there’s no drive in Australia more peaceful and solitary than 20-odd minute drive along the toll roads from Brisbane airport to the city – and it costs only slightly more than would a similar-length massage) or they merely facilitate the congestion they seek to alleviate – after years of forcing traffic onto alternative routes while the things are being built, of course.

And if those new roads happen to raze low income areas, bringing with them with noise, traffic and compulsory acquisition at below market rates – well, it’s not like those people are voting for the Coalition in the first place, are they?

Then again, Diamond Joe couldn’t care less about what you think

Of course, Diamond Joe doesn’t need you and your stinking legislation to make random, painful cuts. He can just stop paying people whenever he likes because he’s the treasurer and therefore has access to the money-spigot.

That’s his latest threat to the Senate: start passing some shit without negotiations, or I start cutting and there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing! Mwaaa hahahahahaha! [thunder crash]

“Either we make the decisions now or you end up doing what [Premier] Campbell Newman and [Treasurer] Tim Nicholls have had to do in Queensland, and that is take emergency action in order to address the problem you inherit.”

Cool, Joe. Just start cutting, then, rather than obeying the tenets of democracy. Let’s see how much the Australian public will thank you at the ballot box.

And given the shakiness of the Liberal governments in Victoria and NSW, who both will be facing state elections inside of a year, we’re certain the party are really, really keen for you to basically dare voters to punish the party further.

He’s also doubled down on his claims today, saying he’s sorry if you’re too greedy and stupid to understand facts. You know, ones he made up.

“The fact of the matter is that I can only get the facts out there and explain the facts, how people interpret them is up to them,” he said, factfully.

So, remember: you’ve got the weekend of August 30 and 31 down in your diary for March in August, right? It’s going to be the biggest yet – with heaps of regional centres joining in, because we’re an awesome country and we’re all in this together.

Mark your diaries, like and share on Facebook, and start working on your posters now!

Cooler heads, keep on prevailing

On the slightly more plus side, the Gaza ceasefire has been extended by another five days, even in the face of the occasional rocket fire and air strikes, as both sides claim they are close to reaching some sort of agreement over a more lasting truce before wading back into long-term peace negotiations. Baby steps, team. We’re taking baby steps.

The negotiations are taking place in Cairo and Azzam al-Ahmad, head of Palestine’s negotiation team, explained “We had two options: not to reach an agreement, or to extend the ceasefire. And in the final minutes we decided to extend the ceasefire by five days until Monday.”

It appears that some positive outcomes have been negotiated – including breaking the siege to allow supplies to travel into Gaza and allowing their fisherman access to the Mediterranean – but security issues are the sticking point. It’s not 100% clear what those are, but they’re thought to include Israel requiring the disarmament of Hamas, which… yeah, that’s not going to happen.

Still: every day without missiles is a good day, and this is more positive discussion than has happened in months. Fingers are painfully crossed.

Meanwhile, in African pandemics…

In perhaps less positive news, Nigeria is now definitely seeing cases of Ebola after late diplomat Patrick Sawyer inadvertently brought the disease on a flight from Liberia to the continent’s largest city, Lagos.

There are now eight confirmed cases in the city – including the guy sitting beside Sawyer on the plane and the nurse that treated him when he collapsed in the airport – and the WHO has calculated the the total number of cases including the outbreaks in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea are 1975, with 1069 deaths.

On the plus side, Lagos is richer than most other African countries and actually has facilities to treat infectious disease. On the other hand, it’s also a huge, largely undocumented and transient population in a city with no sanitation service, scattered medical networks, a less-than-corruption-free government and a nasty civil war brewing with the Boko Haram terrorist organisation. So, y’know, swings and roundabouts.

A good, hard trucking

And in our other favourite nightmare zone, Ukraine, the Russian aid convoy we talked about yesterday has been refused entry amid perfectly legitimate fears that it’s the precursor to a military invasion.

Russia insists that the 280-truck convoy contains nothing but humanitarian aid and that they just want to help. Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has countered that unless the aid is directly provided by the Red Cross, it ain’t crossing the border.

There’s also some doubt that the convoy is moving at all: Moscow insists that it’s heading to the border, although was coy about where exactly it was, while there are reports that they’re parked at Voronezh military base in Russia. Which isn’t likely to make anyone feel too relaxed about it, frankly.

Reports that Ukraine officials have also denied entry to a giant wooden horse could not be confirmed at press time.

Oh good, the internet’s full

And while today’s delay was due to technical problems – the site’s being migrated, y’see – it wasn’t due to the larger, more far reaching problem that the internet is now full.

See, as with the Y2K panic, back in the early days of the world wide superhighway digital net matrix, an arbitrary number was set as the maximum amount of “routes” that your commercial router could use to get through the interweb tubes. That number, which was obviously too high to ever be reached, was 512,000.

And guess what’s just happened?

It’s mainly because people are not just using computers to get on the internet: there’s tablets and phones and presumably neural implants if science fiction hasn’t been lying to us. There’s also a limit on the amount of IP addresses available, although making them alphanumeric has put that particular doomsday scenario on hold for a bit.

The newer routers have a much higher arbitrary limit so this only affects companies with older hardware in their voluminous server farms. So just the ones that have been around a while. Like, you know, most of the ones that the internet is based upon.

Get ready for more regular outages, internetanauts!

Mono-X-treme!

And finally, let’s get totally patriotic with a baby echidna. They’re called puggles, you know. Puggles! Oh, echidnas, you are truly the most underrated of monotremes and you are awesome. And happy Thursday! 

The Whirlpool

The WhirlpoolAs my Facebook feed filled with people mourning the death of Robin Williams, seemingly by his own hand, I thought back to a conversation I had with my psychiatrist less than a week ago.

I only see him every few months now, more for a catch up than anything particularly medical, and he remarked on how mundane my issues were: professional stuff, logistics for my upcoming wedding, other domestic trivia, normal life stuff. And he also pointed out how it contrasted with what we’d discussed not 18 months earlier when I’d been explaining, in some detail, how I planned to kill myself.

“You’ve written about how difficult it is to go through therapy,” he said, “but have you thought about writing something about how much it’s helped you?”

And I said no.

How insufferably smug such a piece would be, I pointed out. If anything, it seemed to be tempting fate – like those New Idea happy couple celebrity photo spreads that turn up on the newstands just ahead of the divorce announcement.

And, I added, it’s hardly a big selling point to say to someone “once you get over your overwhelming desire to vanish, you’ll have the energy to deal with sorting out your mortgage”.

And then the Robin Williams news came through, and I was reminded of how much I’d notice every suicide when I was seriously depressed. “The writer and humourist Spalding Gray opted out,” I’d tell myself,  “and he was a hell of a lot smarter, funnier and more accomplished than you. Can’t help noticing you’re still here, though. Why is that?”

And so I wrote this.

In my experience, depression is a condition as mundane and annoying as diabetes: once you have it under control and make some lifestyle changes it’s pretty straightforward to maintain, and if you ignore it, it will absolutely, undoubtably kill you.

Everyone has their own metaphor for it. A friend of mine once referred to depression as “soul cancer”: deeply personal, infuriatingly hard to treat, and coming back just when she thought she’d beaten it. Others talk of the Black Dog or The Pit or The Tunnel.

For me, it’s always been a whirlpool. I can hear it rushing away behind me and the closer I am to the lip the more effort is required to paddle enough to retain my position, and I know that once I finally tip over I’m never going to be able to row my way back up again.

And there is nothing more tiresome than someone’s depression memoir (summary: depression is arse) so I’ll spare you the tales of unceasing lethargy, the inability to care less about anything, the bone-crushing certainty that things would never relent, much less improve, the vast swathes of wasted time. I’ll also leave out the nightmarish effect it had on the people I love most – my parents, my siblings, my partners, my friends – and the emotional debts that I’m never going to come close to repaying.

Instead, I want to tell a story that doesn’t get told all that often. It’s about how I found the right doctor and how then things started to get better.

I’ve seen psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors on and off since I was 15 years old and dealing with my father’s death from cancer, and every single one of them was useless.

Some were well meaning. Some were indifferent. Some attempted to convince me that I was a special precious snowflake that just needed to learn to love my own precious specialness. Some told me that the problem was that I was insufficiently motivated to try, with which I’d have argued had I any energy left after getting out of bed and putting on pants.

None of them – not one – was any help to me whatsoever.

Similarly, the medication I was put on was at best useless and at worst harmful. Most gave me side-effects that I was assured weren’t important enough to worry about, like the inability to concentrate and comprehensive sexual dysfunction. Being told that the ability to experience orgasm was trivial did little to convince me that these people weren’t idiots.

In any case, I had convinced myself through hard experience that meds and therapy were useless and dangerous for me and therefore I had zero intention of ever riding that particular pony again. Until I got seriously, suicidally depressed once again despite things being objectively decent in my day-to-day life and seriously doubted that I had the fortitude to cope.

My GP, bless him, listened to me as I broke down in his consulting rooms. He knew me well enough to know what a difficult, bloodyminded bastard I am. And he made a referral.

I saw my shrink for the first time and poured out how much I hated therapy, was not going to consider meds, and what a waste of time this all was and how I’d be better off walking into the ocean.

And he listened. And he asked some questions. And he took me seriously.

And then he said that he could help.

It would be hard, he made clear. There would be dead ends. He’d need me to trust him, and to be honest about my expectations and my experiences. And meds would probably be involved, but that he understood and agreed with my problems with side effects. “By the time someone walks in here, they’ve probably tried all the obvious solutions and they haven’t worked,” he explained.

And it did take a while. And it was hard. But – and this is important – it was not quite as hard as I expected. And each step made the next one easier.

So what’s the point of this?

It’s to let someone – maybe you – know that if you’ve been through the wringer of meds and shrinks and feel like it’s all bullshit, then you’re absolutely right. Those people you saw, unfortunately, were the wrong people. It’s like online dating: almost everyone you meet will be wrong for you. On the plus side, you’ve now eliminated them from the search.

And once you find that right person and things click, you’re more than halfway there.

Go to your GP and tell them that you’ve seen nothing but jerks so far, and add you’ve only got a finite amount of strength for this fight left so they’d better find you a therapist that’s pretty damn good. Be clear, and be blunt. And if you meet that therapist and think “…you have no idea”, go back to your GP and tell them to try again.

It made all the difference in the world for me.

These days I feel like I’m a mile or so upstream from the whirlpool. I can still hear it, and I probably always will. But the current is lazy and right now I can maintain my position without paddling furiously.

One day, if I’m not vigilant, I might drift further down and then I’ll be dashed to pieces. But not today.

Seriously. One more go. This could be the one, you know?

For help or information regarding depression, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit beyondblue.org.au.

Congratulations on the purchase of your hangover!

Chemical-structure-of-drinking-alchol-also-properly-known-as-EthanolDear customer,

Congratulations on your purchase last night of the HANGOVER MACH 5. We trust that it will give you uninterrupted service for at the next 36 to 52 hours.

Please note the following in order to get the most out of your HANGOVER MACH 5.

FEATURES
The HANGOVER MACH 5 has fixed many of the bugs of previous iterations:

  • Recovery time now tripled
  • Now 80% less susceptible to painkillers and indigestion medication
  • Tongue furriness upgraded from “kitten” to “Wookiee”
  • Feces no longer solid
  • Sleep-resistent

REQUIREMENTS
It is recommended that the HANGOVER MACH 5 be used in conjunction with caffeinated water, the leftover chicken in your fridge, and television (sold seperately).

SYSTEM DOWNGRADE
If you are 30 years or older, the HANGOVER MACH 5 will automatically downgrade your system to comply with our patented E-Z Slo technology, featuring fresh new nausea, painful muscle spasms and increased sensitivity to the Earth’s gravity.

ONLINE COMPATIBILITY
HANGOVER MACH 5 is fully compliant with all modern forms of social media, allowing you to check the increasingly erratic and ill-advised messages and photographs you posted last night to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest, Linkedin, your employer’s website and the comment thread to Insane Clown Posse’s ‘Miracles’ on YouTube.

DIRECTIONS
Keep in a cool, dark place.

REFUNDS AND REPAIRS
If unsatisfied with the service of your HANGOVER MACH 5, please return unused portion to the bar where it was purchased. It’ll give you a chance to pick up your phone.

Word on the P Street: Getting back to the true meaning(s) of Easter

First published in Time Out Sydney on 27 Mar 2013.

Eggs, yesterday.

Eggs, yesterday.

Dear readers, our most sacred traditions are under threat by the grubby forces of commerce. These days it seems like barely have the Xmas decorations been taken down when our supermarkets are filled with garish Easter paraphernalia. Anthropomorphic rabbits (or, among our more progressive and/or pro-marsupial retailers, bilbies) and garishly-coloured eggs are on display – as though Easter is nothing more than a heavily commercialised festival of chocolate.

Well, I say we need to take Easter back and get back to the actual reason for the season: marking the northern hemisphere’s vernal equinox with rituals enacting the symbolic murder of a god.

Today’s young people are so concerned with their Twitters and their video games that they don’t even properly celebrate the descent of Attis, consort of the Phrygian fertility goddess Cybele, into the underworld. Today’s defiant young women are happy to listen to their hip-hops and sext to each other’s smartphones, but precious few are out there performing the rituals celebrating the Anglo-Saxon lunar goddess Ēostre by lighting bonfires, clothing themselves in white and marking the incarnation of the goddess by revealing themselves in clefts of rock. And I for one think this is a crying shame.

It’s indicative of a society in decline when noble traditions are cast aside in favour of crude gimcracks and gaudy trifles. Everyone’s prepared to have a barbecue and scramble about looking for chocolate eggs, but are they giving three tradition-proscribed joyful leaps at the moment of sunrise or performing funerary rites for Ishtar, Astarte and/or Isis? Are they incorporating any or all of the many Indo-European traditions marking the worship of the pan-cultural dawn goddess Hausōs and the change of season marked by her heroic rescue from an enslaving dragon, most notably in the example of the Hindu goddess Uṣas in the Rigveda? Like fuck they are.

But it’s not just the young people that are the problem here: even our so-called community leaders are shamefully neglectful of the rich traditions upon which the festival is based. When was the last time you saw a politician – supposedly a representative of the people – passionately gathering flowers of the season to mark Ostara’s mating with the Sun God to produce the Yule child that will mark the winter solstice? This sort of intolerant ignorance is unacceptable in a so-called civilised society, and I say it stops here.

It’s almost as though our increasingly secular lifestyle means that these sorts of holidays are becoming less about observing arcane rituals based around mystical stories about magical figures, and becoming mere excuses to spend precious time with the people we love most. And I for one think this is a huge insult to the collected wisdom and piety of the nameless ancient clerics and seers who originally made these stories up for principally political reasons – and that’s why I, for one, will be assiduously joy-leaping, flower-gathering, cleft-wedging and dragon-thwarting this weekend.

Oh, and I’ll also be buying a couple of cases of beer ahead of Friday. Seriously, closing bottleshops on a long weekend? That makes the least sense of all.

Stephen Hawking vs the Space Aliens, or “Cosmologists Say The Darndest Things!”

Written 5 July 2010

Stephen Hawking is, let’s be clear, a smart fellow.

In fact, “smart” doesn’t really appear to do him justice as a description: he’s a freakin’ genius. And if there’s one thing that he’s a big ol’ geniusin’-freak-genius about, it’s the cosmos. He knows his cosmos like the back of the hand with which he moves his chair. If there’s a person more au fait with the secrets of the universe, it’s hard to imagine who’d they’d be.

Stephen Hawking, welcoming our new insect overlords (not shown)

Stephen Hawking, welcoming our new insect overlords (not shown)

Gamma ray bursts? He’s totally down with them. Expansion of the visible universe? Got that nailed. Mathematical models explaining how black holes will eventually evaporate due to the fleeting appearance of particles that bubble up in the quantum foam of space-time? This dude quite literally wrote the book on it. The man is a seriously bright sort of a person.

So: why does he occasionally say such silly, silly things?

You see, here in Australia, the Discovery Channel is about to screen the fist episode of Into The Universe with Stephen Hawking, a show about the cosmos (good) which is zippy and informative (good) and this episode should pique people’s interest on the biggest subject of all: the origins of life (also good).

Where things get the tinsiest bit not-good is just after he says some very reasonable things about how the universe appears to be made up of pretty much the same stuff all over – there don’t appear to be completely different elements to the west of the Universe, the same laws of physics appear to apply everywhere we look and so on – and that it’s therefore reasonable to assume that life has probably turned up elsewhere. That’s all fine (if speculative, at least until we find some evidence that there’s life anywhere else – currently, it’s Earth: 1, Entire Rest Of Universe: 0).

Then again, the notoriously liberal media are aware that space aliens have a right-wing agenda. Maybe Hawking is on to something…

So far, so uncontroversial.

Then he gets into a bit of fun, if somewhat pointless, speculation about what life might look like on other planets (spoiler alert: big ol’ suction-snouts), which pads out the running time a bit and gives the animators some showreel footage for any future job interviews at LucasArts, and then raises the question “how might we try to communicate with other interstellar civilisations?” before concluding “we shouldn’t, since it might make them come and steal our resources.”

Here’s the scenario as Hawking proposes it:

Highly advanced civilisation develops incredible technology. Said technology, which includes mighty spaceships, requires enormous energy demands. Civilisation depletes resources on home planet due to said energy demands. Civilisation leaves its ruined planet and becomes spacefaring, roaming the cosmos looking for new planets to plunder. Earth, being covered in awesome things like water and air and other nice stuff, is a tempting target – especially after we draw attention to ourselves by sending radio waves to the rest of the Universe. The spaceships lay waste to Earth, taking what they need before moving on. It’s not explicitly said, but I can only assume that the White House is the first target, followed by other photogenic landmarks around the world.

Now, I should make clear that I’m not and never have been Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, but I’m prepared to proudly hold my BA (+ Philosophy hons) high and say this in response: bollocks, Professor Hawking.

And, if I may expand: bollocks bollocks bollocks and bollocks.

My testicle-heavy riposte isn’t simply in response to the implied notion that civilisations automatically become spacefaring when they get to a certain level of technology – although I am going to paddle in that metaphorical estuary for a moment since I think it’s a briny point worth making.

Obviously a civilisation can’t become spacefaring unless it reaches an enormously sophisticated level of technology but – as we’re learning here on Earth – creatures that have developed on a terrestrial planet are, by definition, not designed to live in space. Evolution, it turns out, is not speculative.

We marvellously adaptive and ingenious humans have scurried all over the planet’s surface but even we haven’t colonised the deep ocean trenches or inside volcanoes or up in the stratosphere, since we die under those pressures/temperatures/lack of breathable atmospheres.

Yet all those environments are much, much less alien to us than space: gravity is much the same, for example, and we’re still protected from cosmic rays and highly charged particles by the Earth’s magnetosphere. In space, human bodies are entirely inappropriate for the conditions.

Everything from the way our circulation works to the degree of radiation our cells can take before the DNA is damaged has evolved as per Earth-surface standards. Any species evolving on any other planet is going to develop to thrive under the conditions of that planet – the local gravity, the amount of energy it gets from its sun, the weight of its atmosphere and so on.

These are not simply curly technical problems likely to be solved via advanced spacecraft engineering. Any sophisticated technological species will have to be very highly evolved which means it’s going to be adapted to its specific environment – not the resource-poor vacuum of space.

It’s just possible that there are life forms of some sort floating in the thin gas between the stars, but they’re not going to be sophisticated enough have civilisations. Something as simple as a virus could possibly survive in deep space, but a virus can’t develop starship technology: they’d never find arc welders tiny enough, for one thing.

Develop enough to have complicated things like brains that can even conceive of space travel and, somewhat ironically, you’re going to be so well suited to your environment that you won’t be able to leave it. Genetic engineering might mitigate some of these problems, in the far off sci-fi future, but my deep love of Star Wars isn’t enough to shake my suspicion that there are exactly zero mighty starships currently ploughing the galaxy’s spacelanes.

But that’s a secondary issue. The main reason why I have a gonad-themed response to Hawking’s position is that a civilisation which is so energy starved that they’re forced to roam about the place plundering other planets will seek to use as little energy as they can in the process. It’s simple economics: there’s no point plundering a planet’s resources if you use up more energy in the act of plundering than you gather post-plunder.

This means that if there are viable plunderin’ alternatives a) said fleet of hypothetical starships are probably not going to explore the planets deep in a star’s gravity well, since they will be harder to survey and energy-expensive to leave, and b) they’re not going to waste energy dealing with a technologically-advanced indigenous society, even one whose powers are feeble in comparison, because dealing with any threat of combat, however small, is always going to use more energy than dealing with no threat at all.

Of course, as noted, that’s assuming that there are viable plunderin’ alternatives: but what if Earth is totally special?

We’re back at the thing Hawking was talking about before, how the Universe is made of much the same stuff and the laws of physics are universal. In other words, there’s nothing unique to Earth compared with the rest of the solar system (aside from life, or so it appears).

There’s plenty of water out there, especially in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud at the edge of the Solar System: a plundering civilisation could happily harvest comets out there without any interference. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, iron, hydrocarbons, methane – they’re all on other planets and moons, often in easier-to-get-at forms. Why bother even running an assessment to see whether these pesky humans pose any threat at all when you could save time and fuel merrily harvesting minerals off the moons of Neptune, say, with no living thing within billions of kilometres of you?

In any case, I find the idea of any civilisation traveling from star to star in search of anything whatsoever to be unlikely in the extreme, simply because of the staggering distances involved.

A civilisation facing ruin from resource depletion would surely be more likely to focus all of their efforts on drawing as much energy as possible from their sun, for example, than they would on pissing energy away building huge spaceships and hoping like hell they found something to burn out there in the cosmos. A theoretical interstellar civilisation might want to pop by our planet for many reasons, but I don’t think grabbing a metaphorical cup of sugar (or carbon) is likely to be one of them.

Or, to put it another way, bollocks.