27 February 2007

How Loud is the Sun?

Unsurprisingly, being a closet geek, I love browsing through New Scientist magazine. Months and months ago now I submitted a question to a regular feature they run on the back page called “The Last Word” where readers can ask odd questions and other readers (usually scientists who are experts in the particular field to which the question relates) can answer them.
My question was along the lines of: “If the space between the Earth and the Sun was filled with air – but a hypothetical air whose only physical property was to transmit sound – then could we hear the sound of the Sun, and how loud would this be?” I had a wonderful vision in mind of the Sun peeking over the horizon every morning with a sound like some giant, yet distant, bowl of Rice Bubbles.
Well, for some months there I wasn’t keeping abreast of the latest issue of New Scientist. Then, about two months ago, I was wallowing in the air-conditioning at the Richmond Public Library, flicking through some of the issues I’d missed, when I discovered they’d published my question! Not only that, the issue I had in my hand wasn’t the one with the question, it was the later one where people have written in with answers! I was one excited little motherfucker.
But my glee was short-lived! Reading further, I discovered that to save space the editors had cut my question a little, knocking out the caveats about the hypothetical sound-carrying substance having no other physical properties. As a result a tidal wave of outraged geeks had written in attacking my question on its supposed inaccuracy, whining on and on about how the Earth couldn’t orbit the Sun with the drag created by so much air, and how that much air would collapse the solar system, and blah b’blah blah blah. One cunt had the gall to send in something saying, “The question seems to imply some sort of odd, pre-Copernican view of the solar system…” Piss off mate, I know the Sun’s at the centre. Christ.
Fine, I thought, I’ll figure it out myself then. So that’s what I spent a good deal of the weekend doing.
I started off with the idea of finding out how loud a 1-megaton nuclear bomb is, then how many megatons the energy produced by the Sun is equivalent to, then multiplying one by the other to get a decibel level for the Sun. Annoyingly though, I discovered our system for measuring sound is a bit of a bastard. The decibel scale is a logarithmic scale, which makes it very nasty to graph, so scaling the dBs from a 1-megaton nuke up to the dBs produced by the 91,467,495,219 megatons the Sun is equal to was a bit much for the addled remnants of my high school Advanced Vegie maths.
Besides that, explosions are apparently notoriously difficult to determine dBs for. The sound peaks very quickly, then trails off, and at higher dBs the sound becomes a shockwave, which behaves differently altogether.
Luckily, I found that dBs can be converted to watts and vice versa. The sun produces about 3.8e+26 watts every second, or 383 yottawatts (whatta lotta yotawatts… sorry), which, as you would expect, is an absolute pants-load of energy. This translates into 290dB, which is very loud indeed.
But, the Earth is 149,600,000 km away from the Sun. Applying the inverse square law, that tells us how sound intensity decreases with distance, I found the Sun would actually deliver about 125 dB here on the surface of the Earth – hardly a distant bowl of Rice Bubbles. 100dB is a jackhammer at 2 metres, 120 is your ear about a metre away from a train horn, and 130 is physical pain.
And what sound would you constantly hear at this excruciating level? Something like this, but immeasurably deeper: http://soi.stanford.edu/results/thr_modes_1_0_1_2_30s.au

16 February 2007

Late night maths

Here’s a sample of the rubbish that occupies my brain at 2:30am, unable to sleep. First some background, in March 2006 I was walking with two friends when a madman jumped out of his car and tried to stab us all. He got one friend in the kidney, the other in his huge, overflowing heart, killing him, and me in the arm, severing three nerves and an artery.
Some amazing surgery managed to reattach all that, but then the nerves have had to grow back, leaving my right arm at first without movement or feeling, and now, coming up to a year later, with pretty coarse movement and feeling (though a lot better than nothing), and a sensation of pins and needles with every touch on my hand. At night though my hand often aches, and that was why I was awake. Normally I take two Panamax before bed, but that night I had decided I didn’t need to, managed to get to sleep, and then woken up because my hand was aching.
“Shit,” I thought. “I’m going to have to take these for the rest of my life.”
Now, the Victorian Government had very kindly already paid me some compensation (a bit under ten grand since I know you’re curious), but I can reapply to have that compensation changed in future, should I say, need expensive treatment that wasn’t at first evident when I made my initial claim. Lying in bed I calculated the following:
-100 Panamax at $6.00
- 6 cents per tablet, 2 tablets per night, 12 cents per day.
- $43.83 per year.
- I live for 50 more years
- $2191.15 to keep me in Panamax from now till death.

But, inflation is 3.3%! So, when I die in 2057, not only will my box of 100 Panamax now be costing me $31, I will have spent a total of $5584.22. Shit.

But, the interest rate for investments is higher than the rate of inflation! So, by awarding me a modest sum now, by investing it at, say a cautious 5%, (all this assumes we’ll still be getting 5% on our investments and inflation is 3.3% in 2057 – highly unlikely if we’re out of oil and we’re still talking about ratifying Kyoto – if that’s the case I suppose I’ll be scrounging my Panamax in some sort of urban wasteland), my future Panamax needs can be catered for by a pretty small outlay.
Just how modest a sum? $487. Shit.

Then again, I would have to invest that and then never touch it for that to work. In reality I would be withdrawing the cost of the Panamax each year. That being the case an initial investment of $1486 would do it.

Pretty bored, or pretty anal? Or perhaps Scottish?

15 February 2007


This was originally called Euthanasia, but I'm feeling mellower right now, so it's just Cressy. Cressy is a very small town in Northern Tasmania where I grew up. It's the sort of place people think their kids should grow up in, and in fact it was lovely. Lots of BMXs, forts in hedges, that sort of shit. A town with a top shop, a middle shop and a bottom shop (though these days the top shop has closed).

What parents who imagine their children growing up in these places don't take into account though is what happens when forts in hedges start to lose their appeal. For my friends what happened was a shoot out with police for one guy (maybe just a bigger, better fort in a hedge), and Friday night fights with rolls of 20c pieces in his fists for another. Though don't misunderstand me, most of them have gone on to become perfectly average blokes.

Anyway. In Grade 6 I left Cressy District High School and started school in Launceston, a place with about 40,000 more people than Cressy, and so lost touch with a lot of my old friends.

So, the following is somewhere between reportage and caricature. Certainly it's a conversation I had to listen to ad infinitum as I was growing up, circling endlessly around the dinner table, or over tea and scones while I kicked at the table legs and twisted on my chair. Enjoy


“What’s the name of that tea-room, Bev? That one your Sandra took us to?”
“Which one?”
“You know. The one just before you get to the Liffey turn-off.”
“Near the pine forest there?”
“The pine forest near the weigh-bridge? Or the one farther along, on the right?”
“The one old Royce Pritchard’s dad used to own. What was his name now? Used to know him like the back of me hand!”
“You don’t mean old Tom Pritchard?”
“No, no, no! That was his brother. He lived out the back of Breadalbane there.”
“I thought they logged that forest.”
“Him and me used to pick blackberries down by the Mill Dam.”
“I know the one you mean! The one that runs up the hill there – Squizzy Pritchard’s.”
“Squizzy Pritchard! That’s it! God, how could I forget Squizzy Pritchard? How long’s he been dead now?”
“Must be five or ten years now. Buried him up the ‘yard at Carrick.”
“Did they now? Did they now?”
“You remember that time at the Carrick Show, Bev? That time we tried to sneak in down by the river and you got your slip stuck in all that gorse and I said I’d have to leave you there, and you started hollering!”
“I remember! And you run and got Nora from the bakehouse, and the both of you got me out of there. Hardly a mark on me slip, neither!”
“Whatever happened to Nora? I ain’t seen her for a power o’years.”
“Didn’t she marry that bloke from up Bracknell way? The one who used to run that pub in Town?”
“No, that was old Jim Smith’s.”
“You don’t mean the Federal?”
“No, not him either.”
“I don’t know then. Where was it exactly?”
“Just up behind the old hospital.”
“That was O’Connor’s.”
“O’Connor’s was up there by the park next to the Methodist church.”
“So it was. You’re not talking about the Centennial?”
“That’s the place. Trevor Richardson used to run it and he married Nora. She was Nora Musselwhite and then she was Nora Richardson. They had two daughters, Sarah and Katie, and Sarah’s a doctor in Sydney. I don’t know what Katie’s doing.”
“She had a son by that Brett Easthouse fella. Brian or Barry or someone.”
“Barry, it was Barry.”
“Barry, that’s him. Turned out alright. Him and his wife run that little place your Sandra took us to last Easter. Oh, what’s the name of that now?”
“The Easthouse Country Tea-Room!”
“That’s the one. We should go there again.”
“Lovely scones.”
“They were, weren’t they?”

Bad Route

This is a piece I wrote around a piece of artwork that appears in The Royal Tenenbaums, a fantastic movie, and indeed a fantastic picture.

Rachel had been scared every time she saw the riders for as long as she could remember.
She knew when they were there, racing around and around, by the screaming, nauseating whine of their engines.
The riders only came out in summer, when the grass was brown. The tracks they made would fill and overflow with the paddock’s brown dust. They rode, framed by the far away pine trees, tired and fragrant in the heat. Only in summer: only at dusk.
Sometimes Rachel would need to drive into town and, even before she stepped out onto the porch, there would come the distant buzz of engines, like wasps at the bottom of the garden.
It was bad when that happened - as if they were waiting for her.
It was bad today.

Rachel steps out quickly, letting the screen door wheeze and bang behind her. It is hot on the verandah, hot and claustrophobic. She comes down the steps and into the dry dust of the yard. Out in the air the heat lifts a little. The day is cooling as dusk comes on.
The noise of their engines is a swarm in the air. Muted, then higher and louder, bouncing off the house and reverberating around the yard. She fumbles for her keys and decides simply to wait until tomorrow, but if she misses the post, her letters won’t make it. She decides to wait until tomorrow anyway, but is inside the car and backing out of the driveway before she can really think, the steering wheel burning into her hands.
There is a little crest between her driveway and the road, and she dives the car over it too fast. The car stalls, and in the sudden silence she hears the engines again, around and around. Angrily, she turns the car over, shoves it into gear and accelerates towards town.
She cannot hear the riders now, not over the car’s engine, but she turns on the radio anyway. There is something country playing: always something country out here in the dry, brown dust and the dry, brown heat.
As she tops the rise she looks to her right, knowing she should not, but powerless to stop herself, and there they are.
There are five riders. Five young men, she always thinks, even though one has thick, black hair on his chest. Three of them ride undersized motorbikes, the other two ride four-wheelers. They are all dressed in blue jeans. None wear shirts. They are all tanned brown like the dust.
All the riders wear masks as they ride around and around. African masks almost - that shape anyway. Three have blue faces, grotesque and leering, two with black hair, and one with a shock of white. The other two masks are even more tribal. Their pointed oval shapes are filled with strange, bold, geometric designs.
Rachel is breathing in short, ragged gasps. Her hands are tight on the wheel and she is doing better than double the speed limit.
And, like they always do, the riders stop their endless race, around and around. They pull up in formation along the fence-line, as if to salute her as she passes. She races by, throwing a great cloud of dust behind her, small stones battering the underside of the car, and all the riders raise their arms, slowly, as if mocking her and her fright. They raise their arms like little children trying to look scary, as if they are saying ‘Boo,’ but Rachel knows they are silent.
The sudden blast of a horn jolts her clear. She looks up to see Hamish Chalmers in his old, red, International truck. Looks up to see she is about to kill herself against that solid iron 1950s grill.
She yanks at the wheel, miraculously dodges the truck, but the car flips with the hard turn and goes rolling along the road, kicking brown dust and dried-off grass up in a fan behind it. Rachel is thrown around inside, her head starring the windscreen, then the side window, and then suddenly she is out, clear, in the hot, dry air.
Didn’t I have my seat belt on? Is her only thought as she tumbles into the hard ground.

The shocking pain in her head pries Rachel awake. She goes to sit up but she can’t. She goes to take a deep breath and there is more pain. How can there be more pain?
She looks up into the worn out sky and sees they are all there, looking down. They still have their masks on, and their eyes gaze at her impassively. The one with the blue face and the white hair prods her with the toe of his sneaker. She screams.
The one with the thatch of black chest hair licks his lips, around and around.
That’s not right, she thinks, how could the mouth move like that?
And then they all smile, and she sees there are no masks here at all.

John Howard, Semi-Conscious

This is a short story I wrote a few years ago for The Age Short Story Competition. It got an honourable mention, which pleased me greatly.

John Howard, Semi-Conscious

If I met John Howard I’d ask him if he remembers when he was in China in 1988 and my mother called out to him “Hello John Howard! My name’s Helen Howard from Tasmania.”
If I met John Howard we could go for an icecream if it was warm. I wonder what flavour he likes? Mango, pineapple, lemon sorbet, old English toffee, hokey-pokey? I think he’d have a plain cone, not a waffle one.
If I met John Howard the stars would hold their breath.
If I met John Howard I’d ask him what the fuck he thinks he’s doing.
If I met John Howard I’d take him home and play him ‘Some Girls are Bigger than Others’ by the Smiths. See if he likes my toy monkey that screams when you smack it on the floor.
If I met John Howard I’d grab his arse. He’d try and kiss me - see if he can slip the tongue in.
If I met John Howard, and it was a Saturday, we could do the quiz in the weekend magazine. He’d go well on the sport, politics and maybe the history questions, but I’d win.
If I met John Howard I’d rob him with a knife.
If I met John Howard I’d steal his glasses.
If I met John Howard you’d hear about it.
If I met John Howard I’d get his autograph, then type:
“Please afford the bearer any assistance he requires. He acts with my authority and blessing. The Right Honourable John Howard, Prime Minister.”
above his signature. If I did it on really nice paper, maybe vellum, and put some sort of facsimile of the coat of arms underneath I could probably get away with all sorts of shit.
If I met John Howard our relationship would be at the crossroads.
If I met John Howard science would take great leaps forward.
If I met John Howard there’d be a sale in every shop in town.
If I met John Howard I’d get him hammered on cheap vodka and, when he passed out, tattoo “Viva la Revalución” on his forehead.
If I met John Howard I’d show him my photos from Cuba. He can never go there if he wants to stay friends with George, unless he were to travel in secret, and so he’d probably be quite interested. We could look at pictures of all the crumbling buildings on Industria and at the May Day festivities. I could show him the various places me and my girlfriend stayed, tell him about the rickety stairs, the dodgy showers, the amazing fan in our room in Trinidad that had a ‘wind’ button, and about the games of dominoes we played on the balcony in Viñales.
We could pore over the old cars, the people walking along the Malecón, the restored buildings in Havana Vieja, and at the hilarious diorama of Che and Cienfuegos emerging from the faux jungle in the Museo de la Revalución. Maybe he’d be so inspired he could actually pay a visit to Fidel - imagine, he could become as respected as Jimmy Carter.
If I met John Howard we could have a number one single. With a bullet.
If I met John Howard we’d be the talk of the town.
If I met John Howard I’d ask a passing tourist to take a photo.
If I met John Howard I’d break his nose.
If I met John Howard I’d tell him about the day last week, walking to work, when I saw this particular bum that I often see around the City asleep against a sunny wall. He looked peaceful, but also pitiful, huddled against the wall as he was. I had a desire to stop and talk to him, to give him money, to fuck off work for the morning and take him back to my place for a shower and breakfast. Instead I just kept walking.
That same day, on my way home, I saw a kid asking people for money as he walked down the street. I spotted him a fair way off, as you learn to do, and made to avoid him, but he got me anyway. I did my usual “Sorry man” and he said “fuck” - pretty frustrated. The exchange struck me as routine, rehearsed, pre-ordered, almost inevitable.
Yesterday some guy approached me and I automatically descended into the fend-off-the-junkie routine, before I even registered that he was only asking for directions. A bad habit to get into, I thought.
I wonder what John would say about all that. I don't suppose he has to develop any ‘fend-off-the-junkie’ routines, living and working in Canberra as he does, but I imagine he has a similar hardening of the moral sensibilities. Then again, maybe I’m wrong about him and he would have helped all of those people without a second thought - he does profess to a sort of middle-class Christianity, whatever that is.
If I met John Howard I’d ask him if he ever goes down on Janette.
If I met John Howard I’d ask him if he plays an instrument, and what his favourite books and movies are.
If I met John Howard I’d force him into a sort of Dice Man style drug roulette: 1, 2, 3 and 4 being LSD (because that’s what he needs), 5 marijuana and 6 heroin.
If I met John Howard I’d tell him his fly was undone.
If I met John Howard I’d have a mental breakdown as I shook his hand.
If I met John Howard I’d run screaming.
If I met John Howard I’d cook him dinner - something traditional with a twist, maybe roast pork with pears and caramelised fennel. Homemade icecream for dessert - saffron or ouzo.
If I met John Howard I’d show him this piece, and when he got to the one about robbing him with a knife he’d become offended and flustered.
He’d say something like “I don’t think that’s very mature young man.”
I’d say “Fuck that John,” then I’d kick his legs out from under him, boot him around the body for a few minutes till he started to really lose it, till he began a sort of panicky, desperate pleading. Once his pleading became formless, incoherent, I’d jump on his chest and smash his head against the pavement till he was unconscious. After that I’d saw at his neck with a table knife, douse him in petrol, and set the bigoted, petty minded, unapologetic, fascist, unAustralian little shit on fire. Hopefully he’d wake up and scream as he burnt.
If I met John Howard I’d keep it to myself and only reveal it on my death-bed.
If I met John Howard I’d never wash again.
If I met John Howard I’d shake his hand and remind him that he’s a hell of a lot better than Ruddock.
If I met John Howard I’d ask him if he ever considered calling either, or even better, both, of his sons Howard, instead of Tim or Richard. I’ve always thought Howard Howard a very pleasing mix of the dignified and the odd. Also slightly reminiscent of the protagonist in Nabokov’s Lolita.
If I met John Howard I’d abduct him and try and explain a few home truths to him:
- Colonial Australia tried to commit genocide against the Aborigines. This is in the same league as the Nazis versus the Jews and the Turks versus the Kurds. It is very bad. The government, as the elected representatives of the people of Australia, need to make a complete apology on our behalf. Now.
- Australian foreign policy should not automatically coincide with America’s. American foreign policy is notoriously bad. Their leader is a fool.
- The two most important things a government can do for its people is provide for their health and their education. Address this. Invest the three-hundred million dollars a year that our six billion dollar surplus provides into these two fields.
If I met John Howard I’d get off my high horse and run after him, yapping like a dog, till he had me arrested.
If I met John Howard I’d buy the t-shirt.
If I met John Howard we’d form the greatest double act the world has ever seen. We’d make a beautiful couple.
If I met John Howard I’d furiously ignore him.
If I met John Howard we’d cross the road together, huddled against the cold. We’d pass an orthodox church, rain speckling our glasses, talk in low tones about the elm tree that has fallen in the wind. He would exclaim gently at a dead bird on the wet footpath. We would continue up the street together, the lights of the houses beginning to come on.

General Preamble

So, like the summary thing says, this is a more permanent, and hopefully more frequent continuation of the group emails I used to send out to friends - "Strange Stories & Disturbing Monologues."
It also gives me a place to put some of my writing (short stories, excerpts from my novel etc.), and provides a place for me to bang out something that will perhaps amuse or entertain, while simultaneously getting me back into the habit of writing, a habit I have been slack in maintaining of late, in preparation for a second novel that I can feel percolating very faintly in the back of my brain.