24 February 2011

Bombing Melbourne

I’ve always had a dark turn of mind. This, coupled with a love of interesting technical facts, combines to form an abiding interest in nuclear bombs.

The whole “duck-and-cover” fear of nuclear annihilation was absent from my childhood. I was 13 when the USSR disintegrated in 1991, and the idea of imminent death had been on the wane since the Cuban Missile Crisis anyway. Growing up in Tasmania meant that I was far removed from the machinery and immediacy of nuclear Armageddon that must still have been present, like fog burning off in the sun, for my childhood contemporaries growing up near a missile silo in Kansas or in one of the USSR’s ‘secret cities.’

The literature was still there for me to discover though, and a lot of my favourite stories were set in a post-apocalyptic world. Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust, John Christopher’s ‘Tripods’ series, and Caroline MacDonald’s The Lake at the End of the World were all read repeatedly. Later, John Hersey’s Hiroshima gave me the horrific detail that the children’s books had only alluded to.

Anyway, the following map is a better effort at some figures I scribbled down some years ago. A good map can illuminate many things, and hopefully this one shows just how big the explosion of a big nuclear bomb is. A good shorthand for measuring the explosive power of large explosions such as a nuclear bomb is in tonnes of TNT. The ‘Little Boy’ bomb dropped on Hiroshima exploded with a force of 15 kilotonnes, or 15,000 tonnes of TNT. The largest ever nuclear bomb, the USSR’s 1961 effort ‘Tsar Bomba,’ was originally going to detonate with a force of 100 megatonnes, but was scaled back at the last moment to 50 megatonnes (50 million tonnes of TNT) – pussies.

A ‘big’ bomb nowadays is around 20 megatonnes. The US and the Russian Federation each still have around 2000 weapons of various sizes ready to go, and another 6000 (US) and 9000 (Russian Federation) in mothballs. Here’s what would happen if a 20Mt bomb was detonated 5.4km over the Melbourne CBD:    

23 February 2011

Review: Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Radiohead have been pursuing one of the most interesting careers in modern rock since their debut single, 1992’s ‘Creep.’ Their music began with a guitar-driven and ultimately conventional phase that culminated in 1997’s OK Computer, made a sharp left turn into the electronic genius of Kid A and Amnesiac and then, incredibly, managed to combine the two earlier phases into the sublime Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows. Through all this, Radiohead were always a band primarily concerned with songs.
Their new album, The King of Limbs, at times feels like a conscious abandonment of their own evolution; at times like another left turn. It is definitely not an album that shows the same genius for songwriting that fills their previous work. More than anything though, The King of Limbs feels like singer Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo album The Eraser rather than a new Radiohead album. Here we find the same staccato, sometimes schizophrenic, percussion tracks hung with Yorke’s ghostly falsetto. There is little other instrumentation, sometimes a few chords on a piano, and one gets the feeling guitarist Johnny Greenwood may have spent most of the recording sessions down at the pub.
There are still moments of brilliance, the album’s first single, ‘Lotus Flower,’ is a particularly fine example, but these never break free from the basic vocals-over-percussion model. There are no hooks, no middle eights, no riffs in this album – none of the tricks that Radiohead know how to use so well. Why this should be the case is a mystery. If the band is consciously striving in a new, sparsely minimal direction the change is less successful than their earlier changes of direction. More likely the band is doing as they always do – following their own star.


9 February 2011

Home-Grown is a Crock

Perhaps I’m just being contrary here, but I’m starting to think the whole slow food, home-grown, organic thing is a bit of a beat up.

Perhaps reading through a Christmas gift, Matthew Evans’s The Real Food Companion, then seeing repeats of his show ‘The Gourmet Farmer’ on TV recently raised my expectations too high, but my experience of home-grown over the past few days has been distinctly underwhelming.

I’ve heard this year has not been a good year for tomatoes; certainly this was my first year growing them. The effort, water, spray (not organic I know, but it was the white fly or the plants) paid off with barely a dozen actual tomatoes. Tasty tomatoes, yes. Tastier than tomatoes from the supermarket? Again, yes. Difference in taste worth the effort put in to get that taste? Not even remotely.

Could it be my sub-par gardening skills? A friend gave me some lovely looking little yellow cherry tomatoes. They were sweet inside, but the flesh was mostly bland and mealy. Another friend owns a house in the country. Her corn, fresh from the garden, was tough and bland. McCains beat it hands down. Her beets, again freshly plucked from the soil and boiled for a salad, were watery. I prefer tinned.

I’m not suggesting that home-grown, or organic, or slow food is pointless. Obviously on a continuum where one end is sitting on the couch eating KFC and the other end is spending your time outdoors growing your own food the Peter Cundall option is the better one. But this elitist, lapsarian and increasingly pervasive view that fruit and veg from the supermarket is basically evil and tastes like plastic, whereas the stuff you grow yourself, or buy from the local farmer’s market, is some sort of rustic orgasm in your mouth is simply untrue.

I freely admit the truth, and the necessity, of the other arguments for slow, organic and home-grown. We should buy local, we should minimise pesticide use, genetic diversity in our crops should be preserved. But does that pumpkin you grew really taste better than the one I bought from Coles? How about now when they’re both roasted to perfection with some garlic, thyme and rosemary? I say they’re pretty close to identical.

I grew up on a farm. My grandfather was an outstanding gardener. Looking back through the mists of nostalgia, was the food of my childhood better? Some was, some wasn’t. The potatoes were better, but that was the variety. I can get that taste if I want it by finding bintjes or pink-eyes. The carrots and tomatoes were the same. Beans were the same. Peas were better but that’s because I was eating them off the vine. If they were picked, podded, stored a few days and then cooked they weren’t as good as frozen. Fruit was mostly better, but again I was eating it off the tree or vine. I can get as good a punnet of blackberries from the supermarket now, but I have to pay $6 or $7 for the experience, rather than eat them from the patch by the river until I feel sick for free.

To go off on a tangent (a little) I watched a show recently called ‘Willie’s Chocolate Revolution.’ Same idea I’m banging on about here. Massive foody, loves chocolate, hates Cadbury’s, sets up cacao plantation in Venezuela, grows own beans, hand-makes own chocolate on antique machinery – result? “People have no idea what real chocolate tastes like! I’m going to convert them.” Cue dopey British people suspiciously tasting Willie’s 80% cocoa solids chocolate, then sneaking back to the Cadbury Family Block. Willie’s shocked. Fucking idiot public can’t wean themselves off their too-sweet junk-food chocolate. Tellingly though, Willie intersperses all this with a few recipes. No straight out my-Christ-that’s-bitter 80% cocoa solids chocolate here. Instead the 80% is melted and mixed with a load of sugar and cream. No-one picks Willie up on the sell-out, and I’ll shut up about it now too because I found a block of his product in a shop and it was bloody tasty.

So what’s the point of all this? I guess to applaud the idea and the ideals behind slow, organic and home-grown. To agree that in a world of increasingly commoditised food a movement away from that slippery slope is a vital voice that needs to be heard. But don’t tell me that by failing to grow my own I’m missing out on undreamt of flavours: that until you’ve had a home-grown tomato you don’t know what you’re missing out on. That’s a crock.