Creaking

Overland Literary Journal

I don’t make the doors. I just fix them.

People always think there’s a special trick to it, some training I’ve done. When they ask, I smile but don’t give too much away. Part of the job is being mysterious. Clients expect it. You’ve got a door doing weird shit, you don’t call a repairman expecting him to be normal.

But truth is, there’s nothing special about me or my tools. I just wait until the clients are out of the room, pretending like I need the time alone to do something spooky. Then I get out my tiny old-fashioned oiling can with the long metal nozzle. (It has to have a long metal nozzle.) I hop up on my stepladder, lube the hinges, stop the creaking. That’s it really. Door works normal after that.

People got their theories. Wormholes, rips in the fabric of space-time. They talk about doorways as portals. I don’t go for that fancy thinking. I reckon it’s just a case of poor maintenance. You don’t maintain your doors, they’re not gonna take you where they should, are they? No wonder these blokes are stepping through to the wrong place. What did they think was going to happen? But it’s the kind of common sense that ain’t so common anymore so I keep my mouth shut.

Ask Bernard

Aurealis #144

My short story ‘Ask Bernard’ was published in issue #144 of Aurealis, Australia’s longest-running speculative fiction magazine. Get a copy here >>

EXCERPT: Alternative: I should have used my special power to become a Great Man, a world leader, rather than just the undisputed quiz champion of the Anglosphere. Emotion associated with wishing one had made different choices? Six letters, begins with R.

My fellow patients will never understand this, of course. Frank there does little more than drool: long pendulums of it swing from his lips to the carpet. And he’s the second youngest, after me. The rest are simply too bewildered with old age to listen.

Only on the page can I maintain my credibility. The nurses say my speech is now punctuated with long lapses. But in my memoirs the pauses are edited out and I am once again myself. Correction: once again the man I was.

At first they gave me the Pitying Scowl, mouth only slightly turned down. The 43- year-old, so young, stuck among the fogies. But as I have refused their version of events, the nurses and doctors have rearranged their faces into the Irritated Scowl. Alternative: the Exasperated Scowl. Yes, that’s it: pursed lips and a sigh through the nose.

I’ve explained, again and again, how as a boy I discovered the ability to freeze time—an unconvincing term, but there is none better—and rummage through my mind for answers. Actually, in the beginning it was insults, as we boys competed to offend each other with the sharpest (and most juvenile) one-liners…

Can’t sew? Here’s a simple guide to stuffing up your own face mask

The Age

Jealous of your friends’ trendy DIY face masks? It’s not too late to make your own! Here are 26 simple steps from someone who has recently been through the experience.

1. Take out blunt, rusty scissors last used to cut plastic wrapping off raw chicken, because all the proper fabric scissors in the country have now been bought up by better-prepared people.

Cloud Brawls

Big Issue Fiction Edition 2019

This short story was first published in The Big Issue Annual Fiction Edition 2019, one of nine stories picked from 424 submissions.

 

KEN SPITS OVER the barbed wire to the other side – one more drop for the thieving bastards next door. He feels the strong south-easterly as a push in the back. It pushes him towards the fence and it pushes the rainclouds further north, drumming life into someone else’s soil.

They’d known. He spits again. They’d known exactly when this was coming.

Driving out, he’d seen their planes buzzing overhead. The gall of it. His airspace, but the clouds seeded downwind and the rain missed his own parched paddocks by a few hundred metres.

He turns and crunches across the cracked clay to his ute. He slams the door and drives fast, curses souring in his cheeks. It was no use complaining. He and Linda had passed up their chance for a permit when the price was low, gambling on nature to fill their dams. Through the window he can see the bluff, jutting into the sky like the end of a ramp. The cool change whooshes up the other side and lobs right over the top of his land. The summer storm season was nearly finished, and all they’d gotten were buckets of humidity.

Back at home he stomps his boots on the doormat but there’s no mud to dislodge, only little eddies of dust.

“Well?” says Linda, as the screen door clatters behind him. “Anything?”

“Nup. Fell on the MacArthur’s place again.” He sighs. “Might be time to give in, buy some clouds ourselves.”

He hears the rattle of a cake tin. Her head appears round the kitchen doorway, flour on one cheek.

“You sure?”

“No harm asking the price.”

“No harm,” she agrees.

Living in the lag

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

Five years ago I woke in the middle of the night and wrote a letter to myself about climate change. I’ve never shared it with anyone. I didn’t think other people would relate to how I was feeling. But now that articles about the end of civilisation are going viral, I can see I’m not the only one who’s been up late at night, shuddering with this awful premonition.

The letter I wrote to myself is called ‘living in the lag’, and it starts like this. ‘The world around you right now no longer exists. The conditions that created it have already changed and the society you know remains the same only due to inertia. Recognise this lag. Plan according not to what you see around you today — a reality established by causes decades or centuries before — but according to the emerging conditions that will dictate the future.’

All abstract stuff, so let me draw out the lessons.

Climate indifference is an Aussie tradition

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

My Canadian friend first learned of Australia Day when he saw the snow bogans. It was 26 January in the Rocky Mountains, and three blokes were snowboarding bare-chested down the slope wearing Australian flags as capes.

He told me this story as we drove up a winding road to the Victorian alps on 26 January this year. Rather than white with snow, the grass was drought-yellow in the paddocks on the valley floor far below. At the car park to our hiking trail we applied sunscreen and tightened the chinstraps on our floppy hats. The sun was low in the sky but already searing.

As we took our first steps on the trail, I thought how my friend’s story provided a refreshing perspective on Australia Day. Rather than the conflict over colonial invasion, he had identified something else in the national holiday — a kind of yobbo pride at defying the elements.

Australian law and data protection

The Saturday Paper

DON’T THINK DATA PRIVACY IS A BIG DEAL? Here’s a lesson from history. Before World War II, the Netherlands established a record of religion in Amsterdam, which the Nazis later used to round up people of Jewish faith, street address by street address.

“It led to the death of many of those people,” says former High Court justice Michael Kirby, who heard this story while in Europe in the 1970s as the chair of an OECD expert group drafting new privacy guidelines. “This had taught them how information was not neutral, information was sometimes sensitive, and sometimes literally a matter of life and death.”

Spurred on by its dark past, Europe has often led the world on privacy reform. The first national data protection laws, for example, were enacted in Scandinavia.

Now they’re doing it again. This week the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force, which Kirby says is likely to inspire more stringent privacy regulations in other countries.

It’s the wake-up call Australia needs. Legal experts interviewed by The Saturday Paper say our own privacy regulation is weak, inconsistent, riddled with exemptions, and failing to keep up with technological advances. They claim our two major parties have left us exposed because they’re too cowardly to stand up to vested media interests, especially News Corp.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as Witless protection.

Facebook and data harvesting

The Saturday Paper

THE CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA DATA SCANDAL has all the elements of a viral Facebook post: Trump, “honey trap” sex workers, fake news, secret recordings and dirty tricks to steal elections. The only difference is that Facebook doesn’t want you to share this story.

As revelations continued this week into how a survey app harvested data from 50 million Facebook users to boost Donald Trump’s election campaign, Facebook is fast losing friends. Governments are floating regulations that could curb advertising revenue, investors have wiped off more than $US75 billion of the company’s value, and indignant users are threatening to #DeleteFacebook. Angry emojis abound.

But for social media marketers and insiders familiar with using Facebook advertising for political campaigns, a more common response is the verbal shrug “meh”. Almost every aspect of the scandal was previously reported or was a predictable outcome of Facebook’s business model. So why did outrage boil over this time?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 31 March 2018 as Facebook, unmasked.

Bitcoin has a massive energy problem

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

The digital currency Bitcoin consumes more electricity per year than New Zealand. Yes, the entire country. That’s the current estimate from the site Digiconomist, which puts the Bitcoin network’s annual power-guzzling at a staggering 42 terrawatt hours (TWh).

Here’s another way of looking at it. Each Bitcoin transaction consumes 346 kilowatt hours of electricity, which, in my suburb of north-east Melbourne, is enough to power 25 typical four-person households for a whole day.

The best thing on two wheels (a quirky history of cycling in Australia)

The Big Issue

PAUSE THE RACE – it’s time for a detour. There’s so much more to cycling than men with plucked drumstick calves pedalling up French hillsides, their backsides bobbing for the cameras. The bicycle is a technological marvel that completely transformed human societies in the past, and is now an essential tool for a cleaner and healthier future. Let’s take a look.

Download the PDF >>

Heatwaves, infrastructure and resilient cities

The Saturday Paper

IT’S 5PM ON A FRIDAY after a week of 40-degree days in Melbourne, and commuters are lined up at platforms on Flinders Street Station, desperate to get home.

But something’s wrong – all the departure screens are blank. Commuters check their smartphones, craning sunburnt necks. Train tracks have buckled, carriage airconditioners have conked out, and now a bushfire threatens transmission lines to the east, the city’s umbilical link with Latrobe Valley power stations. As blackouts cascade across the suburbs, Twitter bristles with the hashtag #Meltbourne. More than half a million people are stranded.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 9 December 2017 as Hot in the cities.

In the ‘climate wars’ Tony Abbott is Hiroo Onoda

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

WITH THE COALITION’S flagged rejection of the Clean Energy Target and former PM Tony Abbott’s recent speech spreading climate denial myths, the media is once again talking about Australia’s ‘climate wars’.

But war is no longer an appropriate metaphor because former ‘enemies’ of action on climate change — the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group, and the big three energy retailers — have crossed the trenches. All year they’ve been calling for effective climate policy, such as an emissions intensity scheme or clean energy target, to bring investment certainty and reduce emissions. Only the Minerals Council and the Institute of Public Affairs are left slogging it out in defence of coal.

Rather than a war, what we have is a classic ‘holdout’ situation. The conflict has finished, but a stubborn and deluded band of stragglers don’t want to believe it, so they’ve barricaded themselves in the hills to keep the fantasy alive. I’m referring, of course, to the small rump of conservative MPs in the Coalition led by their belligerent General, Tony Abbott.

The psychology of anti-vaccination

The Saturday Paper

WARNING: This article refers to dangerous misinformation.

It’s 6 o’clock on a wintry Melbourne evening and I’ve just received the venue address for a “secret screening” of the anti-vaccination film Vaxxed. I walk into a long, narrow room in Hawthorn Arts Centre with a table of books at the back. One children’s book, Melanie’s Marvelous Measles, tells of a girl who isn’t vaccinated but avoids the disease because she eats lots of raw food and boosts her immune system with positive thoughts.

I don’t have kids, and I’m here purely out of curiosity. In the morning’s press, a doctor described it as one of the most dangerous films he’d ever come across. In the month that followed, health ministers would slam it in the media, one of the film’s producers would be banned from the country, and a complementary medicine GP who attended this screening would be under investigation for helping anti-jab parents avoid vaccinations. How could a 90-minute movie be such a threat to public health?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 2 September 2017 as League of vaccinations.

Data analysts Cambridge Analytica

The Saturday Paper

AT A PLUSH LOUNGE IN MELBOURNE’S SOFITEL HOTEL, the data guru behind Donald Trump’s election campaign is pitching his company to Australian political operatives.

Dressed in jeans, a thin check shirt and a brown suit jacket, Matthew Oczkowski, head of product at Cambridge Analytica, looks tired as he speaks with a couple of men huddled around a small black table. Two days ago he was in Sydney. Today he’s in Melbourne, presenting at a $600-a-ticket big data conference. Tomorrow he’ll be in Canberra, giving a spiel to senior Liberal Party figures.

Expectations are high. After the utter failure of traditional polling to predict the outcome of the United States election, Republican pollster Frank Luntz declared, “There are no longer any experts except Cambridge Analytica. They were Trump’s digital team who figured out how to win.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 22 April 2017 as Data based.

Geoengineering against climate change

The Saturday Paper

WHEN THE THREAT OF CLIMATE CHANGE from greenhouse gas pollution was brought to the attention of United States president Lyndon Johnson in 1965, his scientific advisers didn’t recommend solving the problem by cutting emissions. They recommended littering the sea with floating glitter. Lots and lots of glitter.

The temperature rise could be offset, wrote the environmental pollution panel of the president’s science advisory committee, “by raising the albedo, or reflectivity, of the Earth”. This could be brought about, they informed the president, “by spreading very small reflecting particles over large oceanic areas”. And it would be cheap, relatively speaking – about $500 million a year.

Sounds crazy? The scientists were serious … and rather prescient. More than 50 years later, similar ideas to cool the planet are being considered to alleviate the symptoms of runaway climate change.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 18 March 2017 as Particles of faith.

New power generation

The Big Issue
The Big Issue

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW about the energy sources of the future, ask the man who’s been there: Arnie. Last December, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the time-travelling Terminator turned “Governator” of California for two terms, posted a Facebook rant explaining why he was on a crusade for clean energy. “I don’t want to be like the last horse and buggy salesman who was holding out as cars took over the roads,” he wrote, beneath a photo of gleaming solar panels. “I don’t want to be the last investor in Blockbuster as Netflix emerged. That’s exactly what is going to happen to fossil fuels.”

California, where Arnie ran the show from 2003-2011, now sources more than a quarter of its energy from wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric dams. The state is also home to Silicon Valley, a hotspot for disruptive innovations. For anyone seeped in start-up culture, where stagnation is death and you’re only an app away from overturning a legacy industry, renewable energy looks like the next big thing – Electricity 2.0.

SA power play backfires

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

WHAT A LOVELY DAY FOR SCRAREMONGERING. On 7 July this year, South Australia experienced a cold snap. As residents turned on their heaters, the still and cloudy conditions meant wind and solar power couldn’t contribute much to meeting electricity demand. The last coal plant at Port August had closed a few months before, pushed out of the market by renewable energy.