Cassini and I: a love story #GrandFinale

Dear the Internet,

Let me tell you about a somewhat one sided love story between an Australian writer and an interplanetary Flagship-class unmanned spacecraft.

I’ve written before about the way that the Cosmos series was pivotal for me and loomed large in the relationship between my father and I, how it became tangled up in my grief when he passed away in 1987, and how it ended up with Voyager-themed ink being permanently applied to my left arm.

See, by the time Cosmos was being made the Voyager spacecraft were only half way through their grand tour of the four giant planets of our solar system: they’d taken the first close up shots of Jupiter and then of Saturn, with Uranus and Neptune to come.

And those pictures of Saturn were mesmerising. Aside from being scientifically fascinating and the mission a triumph of human ingenuity, Saturn’s also just stunningly beautiful.

For me, like so many other people, Voyager 1 and 2 became symbolic of the finest human impulses. The thought of these two robotic emissaries rushing toward interstellar space, bearing a fragile message of hope (and music) seemed like the actions of an optimistic, inquisitive species to me. And, as I have previously written, there was also that resonance with my father – “a recognition that Voyager and Dad exist a long way away from where I am – one in space, the other in time – and that neither are ever coming back.”

But one spinoff was that it whet my interest in space probes more generally, and due partially because of the Saturn connection and mostly because it was a few months after the tenth anniversary of my father having lost his battle with leukemia, I poured a lot of grief-energy into learning about the Cassini-Huygens mission that was taking humanity back to Saturn.

It would take four years for Cassini to get from Earth to the ringed planet. Once there it would drop the Huygens lander on Titan (which was in itself astonishing: the one and only lander humans have successfully deployed beyond Mars) and then dedicate itself to sweeping through the Saturnian system to, among other things, take a whole bunch of photos. And god, how I wished that my father would be there to see them, which was to be something of a theme for the next few decades.

A very well-loved Voyager shot of Saturn, complete with blutack stains.

I logged every infrequent update in those early-internet times, wept at the gorgeous Van Gogh swirls of the Jupiter in the photographs it shot in 2000 during its slingshot path out of to Saturn, and rejoiced with completely indefensible joy when Cassini successfully carried out the Huygens landing and began taking the first close up pictures of Saturn’s moons and rings.

And it just didn’t stop: Cassini would finish one phase of its mission, still be completely operational, and then have its mission extended: when it got to the end of the Prime Mission in 2008, it was extended for another two years. And then another seven.

And during that period it was discovering more and more things about the marvellously dynamic Saturnian system (including seven new moons!), and thereby giving insights into how the solar system – and by extension we – might have formed out of the gas and dust surrounding the Sun five billion years ago.

And I very much appreciated the fact that when it took the heart-burstingly beautiful photograph of Earth through the rings – known as “the day the Earth smiled” – it just so happened to be my 41st birthday. You know, just in case I wasn’t already emotionally invested enough in this damn mission.

Yep. Annotated. ANNOTATED.

And this September Cassini ends almost 20 year odyssey by plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn to be vaporized, lest it collide with one of Saturn’s moons that might potentially harbour some form of life and really not need any Earthly contamination. And because of the way that the Earth is aligned, the mighty dish at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex will be picking up the final radio signals it ever sends*.

In other words, this mission I’ve been following since the beginning officially ends within driving distance of where I’m living.

So: it would mean a ridiculous amount to me to be there at the end to say goodbye to a friend that’s brought me so much joy and fascination for so very, very long.

And if you want to see me get overly emotional on Twitter live from the CDSCC, then here’s hoping I convince the good people there that I should be one of the invitees to cover the #GrandFinale live. And this is my case for inclusion.

Yours in Cassini-related hope,

APS

*Well, technically that final radio signal will arrive about one hour and ten minutes after Cassini’s been silenced, since Saturn will be about 8.5 AU away from Earth at the time. But you know what I mean.

What’s the most significant Australian song?

Dear the Internet,

So it’s been a long, long while since I updated this site. And that reason for the silence is fairly straightforward. He looks like this:

My phone more or less exists entirely as a daily archive of JPS photos these days.

James Peter Street turned up on New Years Eve and has been busy being the best thing in the entire universe. And being awfully distracting from the many, many things his father has to do.

So, if you haven’t been following me on Twitter or Facebook – and you totally can do those things – you might assume that I’ve not been spending the fleeting hours when James is briefly asleep madly writing columns (such as the View from the Street column at the Sydney Morning Herald) and/or doing podcasts. But rest assured: that’s what’s been going on.

(Speaking of which: the next live recording of the Double Disillusionists podcast with m’self and the charming and erudite Dom Knight is at Redfern’s Giant Dwarf on Tuesday 2 May, with special guests Mark Humphries of SBS’s The Feed and the former premier of NSW, Kristina Kenneally! Tickets are on sale now, and if we do say so ourselves it’s going to be a great one.)

But on the subject of writing: I’m working on a book at the moment about Australian music – yes, the one that got mentioned about a year ago, before I got completely sidetracked by The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull – and I was wondering… what would you say was the most culturally significant Australian song ever?

Not necessarily your favourite, you understand – but the one that you think either changed things or signified a significant moment in our culture. ‘Treaty’? ‘Khe Sahn’? ‘Friday On My Mind’? ‘Cattle & Cane’? ‘Man Overboard’? ‘Down Under’? ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’? ‘Shaddap You Face’?

The book, y’see, will be the 50(ish) songs that shaped Australia, and I’ve got a long, long list which I’m still winnowing down. And you, beloved reader, could be part of that process, either by making me feel better about my choices and/or reminding me of something I completely, bafflingly overlooked.

The comments are yours: what are the songs that shaped our nation?

Cheers,

APS

My email to the Salvation Army, regarding their statement on Safe Schools

This email was sent to the Salvation army (nsc@aus.salvationarmy.org) on 5th December 2016. Since their statement regarding their non-support for the Safe Schools programme was made in public, I’ve decided to make mine public as well.

Dear Salvation Army email reader,

In these straitened times it’s hard to work out where an engaged citizen should send their charitable donations, and so I want to thank you for making that decision easier.

I have previously donated to the Salvation Army in recognition of your homeless outreach work, but that decision will be changed having read your public statement regarding Safe Schools.

safe-schools-logoIn this statement you make clear that the organisation does not support the programme on the grounds that it discriminates in favour of LGBTIQ children*: a baffling argument given that you simultaneously acknowledge that these children experience higher rates of bullying, self-harm and suicide in the previous paragraph.

To argue that an anti-bullying programme is inadequate because it helps the people disproportionately affected by bullying is a bizarre and inconsistent argument, and looks awfully like discrimination against people based on their sexuality and sexual identity.

It’s one thing to hold that opinion privately, but it’s quite another to make a public statement on the matter.

Clearly, the organisation wishes the public to take their position seriously and to make decisions on that basis, or you wouldn’t have issued a statement to this effect. And so I will respectfully take you at your word.

Therefore, I will no longer be supporting the Salvation Army.

There is nothing remotely Christlike about putting children at risk – an especially bad look, given the revelations in September of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse with regards your organisation’s historic failure to protect children.

I urge you to reconsider your position, but in the meantime I will be putting my resources toward organisations that do not put conditions on which children are worthy of love, respect, and protection.

Yours in disappointment,

Andrew P Street

*The statement declares “We believe the availability of support services for every vulnerable student including those identifying as LGBTIQ is vital. We also believe the provision of a government approved anti-bullying program needs to consider all high risk student groups.” Thus the criticism of Safe Schools appears to be that it doesn’t deal with other high risk groups – which the statement neglects to identify – in favour of the one high risk group which it explicitly acknowledges.

Come to our live Double Disillusionists thing! Also, other stuff!

Dear the Internet,

If you’re wondering whether the US election result is a bad thing or an absolutely catastrophic thing for Australia, then you’re definitely going to want to come join The Double Disillusionists – myself and Mr Dom Knight – at Giant Dwarf next Thursday (23rd Nov)!

The excitement of live entertainment!

Thrill to the excitement of the Double Disillusionists LIVE!

That’s where we’ll be unpicking the election in forensic-yet-hilarious style with two experts on the political game: Fairfax’s Jacqueline Maley and BuzzFeed’s Mark di Stefano! There’ll also be copies of Mark’s new book What A Time To Be Alive and my books as well, which will make Xmas shopping INCREDIBLY EASY.

(Speaking of my book, here’s a review of it!)

It’s one of the last things I’ll be doing before hunkering down for the arrival of li’l Chewbacca Smashmouth, so do come and say hi.

There’s also the Double Disillusionists podcast on Omny and iTunes, which ought to get you in the mood for the show, and also ROMANCE!

In other news: I’ve had a very writerly sort of a time of it lately. I’ve started serious work on book #3 (the music-related one that got pushed aside when Curious Malcolm began), so that’s going to take me merrily up to… um, whenever it’s done. I’ll probably have loads more for it than I can shove in the book, so I’ll start dumping leftover gems on this very site. Honest.

There’s been a bunch of non-column things lately too, like…

And here are the last few Fairfax columns as well, in case you’ve missed ’em:

Supermoons aren’t that special – but the Moon absolutely is

Dear The Internet,

Want to know a secret about supermoons? They’re not that rare, not that special, and not obviously different to normal moons unless you’re really familiar with what they look like normally.

But here’s a secret about the Moon: it’s FREAKIN’ AWESOME and any excuse to make people go outside and look at it is a good one.

"There's a moon in the sky / It's called the Moon". You nailed it, B-52s.

“There’s a moon in the sky / It’s called the Moon”. You nailed it, the B-52s.

The Moon is unique because it’s made out of a bit of Earth that was blasted off and congealed in orbit. No other moon in our solar system appears to have been created that way.

Generally moons are made of bits of detritus from the formation of the solar system that clumped into vaguely spherical bodies around bigger planets (which is how most of them were probably formed), or captured asteroids (Mars’ tiny moons Phobos and Deimos, which will eventually crash to the surface) or cometary bodies that got trapped by gravity (everything orbiting around Pluto, and Neptune’s moon Triton orbits in the opposite direction to  the planet’s many other moons because it was an interloper that passed too close, which is incredibly weird and great).

Our Moon was created in a catastrophic collision between the newly-formed Earth and (we now think) a small protoplanet that was moving very, very fast about four and half billion years ago while the solar system was still forming.

What’s even more awesome is that it’s basically the reason you exist.

Earth has nice predictable seasons because the Moon’s gravity stops Earth wobbling wildly on its axis the way that, say, Mars does, meaning that life had a chance to get going without the entire place becoming encased in ice as a hemisphere turned away from the sun or burned to a crisp from millennia of direct sunlight.

That might be the reason there doesn’t seem to be life teeming all over the universe: maybe those first replicating chemical processes develop easily enough, but most planets don’t have stable temperatures that would let complex molecules develop long enough to establish that early foothold for life. After all, life started on Earth about 3.8 billion years ago but didn’t get more complex than bacteria for around three billion years. So life would appear to have needed things to be stable for a good long while in order to get its act together down here. And the Moon provided that.

Also, those dark bits that make it look like a face: that’s ancient lava flow. The Moon used to be geologically active. That’s goddamn amazing.

Oh, and by pure coincidence you’re fortunate enough to live in the only period in history where the Sun and the Moon are the same size as seen from Earth: the Moon used to be much closer and is slowly moving away from us (an echo of that collision that created it), but right now it’s the perfect size to completely block out the Sun during a solar eclipse. Seeing a total solar eclipse might be one of the rarest experiences in the universe, and Earth gets to do it every year or so.

The Moon: it’s incredibly fascinating and crucial to the existence of every species, including us. Our ancient civilisations weren’t crazy to worship it.

So it’s definitely worth a glance now and again.

Yours ever,

APS

The Top 10 Names I Have Falsely Claimed To Be Calling My Forthcoming Child

Dear The Internet,

You know it makes sense.

You know it makes sense.

One of the simple joys about impending fatherhood, aside from hoping that my child will be born independently wealthy, has been responding to questions from friends, family and impertinent strangers as to whether or not we’ve settled on a name.

These have been the standard answers thus far, generally made while maintaining unblinking eye contact.

  1. Smashmouth
  2. Chewbacca
  3. Optimus Steve
  4. !!!
  5. Doctor Professor
  6. Voyager 3
  7. Cthulhu
  8. [The Full Name of the Person I’m Speaking To]
  9. Gough
  10. Andrew P Street II: The Streetening

At least three of them aren’t necessarily jokes. Can you guess which ones?

Yours ever,

APS

Some events and updates and things

Dear The Internet,

Look, it’s been a busy few weeks.

First up, The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull: the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat is out through Allen & Unwin, on shelves and being bought by people. It was launched last week at Better Read Than Dead in Newtown and it went very well, thank you.

Every home should have this wall.

My columns are still columning away at the Sydney Morning Herald, trying to make sense os what the hell is going on in politics and the nation.

The Guardian very kindly included The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull in their round up of the best books of the month, along with excellent pals and colleagues including Holly Throsby (whose novel Goodwood is magnificently quirky and fascinating), Clementine Ford (whose Fight Like A Girl is deservedly already a bestseller) and Lee Zachariah – who, as it happens, appears on the new episode of the Double Disillusionists podcast, which is up at Soundcloud and iTunes!

Dom and I talk to Zachariah about his simultaneous coverage of the election campaign and the collapse of his marriage, as illustrated in his very entertaining book Double Dissolution. Which you should read. Also, he’s very funny (so you should listen to it right now, frankly).

On a completely different note, I also fulfilled a lifetime dream of writing a cover story for Rolling Stone – an extensive interview with Jimmy Barnes. It’s in the current issue, andI can’t tell you what a thrill that was. He was a fascinating gent.

Anyway, there are some events coming up this week!

First up, on Friday 14 October I’m speaking at Stanton Library at 1pm: you can book a spot here, and it’s actually filling up remarkably swiftly.

Then on Saturday 15 October I’m speaking at Littérateur: A Festival for Word Nerds at the Old Fitz, talking about the art of politics writing with the Guardian’s Gareth Hutchens. It’s the very first session of the day at 10am, so I’ll understand if you’re hungover.

And there are more events to come. Updates will follow.

Hope to see you at them, if you’re about.

Yours ever,

APS

I HAVE THE BOOK IN MY HANDS IT’S A REAL THING!

Dear The Internet,

In late February 2016 I finally convinced my editors at Allen & Unwin that I should absolutely write a follow up to The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott, on the grounds that a) things were clearly getting very interesting and weird in federal Australian politics, and b) this seemed like a lot more fun than the book I was actually working on.

There ain't no feeling like here's-that-book-you-wrote feeling.

There ain’t no feeling like here’s-that-book-you-wrote feeling.

“More fun” is, of course, a relative term because – at the risk of ruining the tantalising romance of writing – trying to research and write a book on politics, as it’s happening, while also holding down a five day a week column is whatever the opposite of “fun” is.

Still, five months of frantic, occasionally painful effort later, I’m now gazing at my new 90-something-thousand word baby and thinking “OK, when do we start on the next one?”

Yes, it was a close run thing since The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull: the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat goes onto shelves on Monday, but now I have my own copy and feel genuinely relieved that I don’t have to photocopy a bunch of them for the launch.

Which, incidentally, is WEDNESDAY 28 SEPTEMBER at Newtown’s Better Read Than Dead – it’s free, but you’ll need to register here and I’ll be signing whatever anyone wants me to sign: my books, other people’s books, small animals, slow moving vehicles, whatever. Please note that there will also be wine.

Said launch will be hosted by my friend and fellow Double Disillusionist Dom Knight – and, speaking of the podcast, we did a new one just the other day with the amazing, entertaining and wonderfully gossipy Alice Workman, BuzzFeed’s Canberra-based politics wrangler.

I really hope you enjoy the book. I’m genuinely proud of it.

Hopefully see you at some book-related thing soon, friends.

Yours ever,

APS

PS: Why not read a little excerpt from the book all about the plebiscite?

The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull is ALMOST HERE!

Dear the Internet,

If you have been looking at the current nightmare of bad policy, internal discord in the Coalition, Liberal backbenchers openly contradicting their leader amid upper- and lower-house embarrassments and thinking “how the actual hell did Malcolm Turnbull manage to go from record high popularity to… well, this… all in twelve short months?” then I have some good news!

9781760294885-1The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull: the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat is mere days away from release, once again through the good people of Allen & Unwin!

It lands on shelves on Monday 26 September, which is… good god, that’s soon. Very soon.

And you can order it from Booktopia RIGHT NOW if you fancy it: here’s a link! Also, how beautiful is that cover? Robert Polmear, you’re a staggeringly talented human being. I think we should run off some posters and/or beach towels.

And if you’re thinking “heavens, APS, how did you write 85k words in the space of a few months while also holding down your regular column and that other writing you seem to do?” then know it’s because I love democracy, this nation and, most of all, you. And also because I’m a bloodyminded bastard with easy access to caffeine and a playful disregard for living a balanced life.

ALSO! There will be an In Conversation event happening in October at Gleebooks on Tuesday 11 October, where I shall be chatting away with the charming and erudite Rebecca Huntley, she of Radio National and the ABC and book-writin’ and generally being an exceptional brainbox. I shall put details up as we get ’em.

I’m really proud of this book (and the last one, I should add). I hope you enjoy it too – or whatever the equivalent of “enjoy” is when you’re getting more and more frustrated about parliamentary inaction and find yourself yelling “seriously? What say you just do your damn job, you muppets!” at a book.

There’ll be more events, hopefully in non-Sydney locations, that I’ll rattle off as we lock ’em down.

Please pop along and say hi. I’ll write something illegible in your book, if you like. It needn’t even be one of mine, I’m not fussy.

Yours ever,

APS

Books and columns and updates-a-go-go!

Dear The Internet,

I had every intention of getting this up on Friday, but I got sidetracked doing a lot of the writing and frantically attempting to get life in some sort of order that humans so often do these days – including some last minute legals to prevent certain members of the government from flexing their litigation muscles. But I am happy – not to say incredibly relieved – to report that The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull: the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat is at least 70 per cent funnier than I remembered it. It was, after all, written in something of a panicked fugue state.

Suffice to say that said book is still on track to be in your hands – and in your hearts – in October via the good, good people of Allen & Unwin, and that there should be launches and things to announce. Honest.

And there’s some other bits and pieces coming out shortly, refreshingly not of a political nature, but in the meantime the new episode of the Double Disillusionists is up now (with Chaser co-founder Charles Firth), and here’s last week’s Views from the Street columns at the Sydney Morning Herald, listed below.

And there’ll be a new column up today… shortly… I should probably start writing it, actually…

Cheers,

APS

 

He also got very sad about this photo, so definitely don't circulate it around.