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Month: August 2019

Poetry August 30th 2019

Really it’s more of a ramp

Every day I walk down the same steps as Katherine Mansfield; 
the asphalt zigzag where the fennel grows wild or 
I did until I realised I could shave five minutes off my commute
by going through the carpark, behind the skips.
My mother was born here, when the fennel still grew. 
She read me Mansfield when I was too young, and
could not understand. I know better than to reference better poets; 
you call their name, you welter in their shadow, so instead
It is mild today. A tui watches from the power lines. 
A tradie eats a six dollar pie. Steak and fennel. 
It is a three dollar pie, but moreso. 

Nevermind the world is ending

A tradesman on smoko, an old supermarket
a certain not-today-ness. Let us talk digital strategy etc. 
I am keyboarding; we don’t talk about the nukes. 
The world is afire, struck at dawn, whirling worldwise. 
It is the new unknown-ness. It is the place between Clouds. 
It is entirely companionable, the whole vicious mess of it. 
I have found another error. I am tired on the weekends. 
I mostly drift cloudlike, looming shadow on a warm day. 
I mostly drift.

Wayward and lorn and all that, you know? Does that make sense? I know what it means but I don’t feel like it makes sense.

A receipt fell out of my pocket 
for some food I don’t remember eating. 
I chased it and I do not know why—
maybe somebody could use it to steal my identity
or, you know, something. That’s a lot of work
for very little payoff. Just some receipts
for food I don’t remember eating.


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Sascha Stronach is an author, poet, and editor from Pōneke, New Zealand. If you’re here via WorldCon stuff, you can find more info about The Dawnhounds (which won the SJV Award for Best Novel at WorldCon 78) here.

Umbrella Academy: what if Suicide Squad, but good?

Umbrella Academy is really fucking good. A loose adaptation from My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way’s comic series of the same name, it follows the Hargreeves siblings: a group of seven kids who are adopted by a cold and eccentric scientist after being born simultaneously, all over the world, to women who weren’t pregnant. He tries to train them as a superhero team, but it ends in calamity. The gang breaks up and goes their separate ways. Years pass, then they get a message—their adopted father is dead. One by one, they return home to mourn, rage, or steal his silverware.  

It’s hard to avoid comparisons to infamous bomb Suicide Squad: it’s a comic book movie about a team of antiheroes who must overcome their collective neuroses in order to fight a greater existential threat, with a bombastic classic pop soundtrack and so much stylisation it gives the viewer a contact high. It’s hard to pin down why Umbrella Academy works and Suicide Squad doesn’t. Yeah, there’s Squad’s troubled development history and last-minute recut, but a lot of UA’s best moments are similar to the worst moments from the Squad recut, like an extended sequence of the Hargreeves dancing alone to Tiffany’s 1987 banger I Think We’re Alone Now, a choice so on-the-nose that it rockets through obvious all the way to brilliant. It’s hard to say it’s in-keeping with the aesthetic of the comics (who would be? The Dresden Dolls? Nick Cave? The Mountain Goats? That weird shanty-punk band your mate with a beard insists will change your world?) but it’s in-keeping with the vibe, which is an altogether trickier thing to puzzle out. 

And that might be the secret: though Gerard Way wasn’t involved in the show, his source material is fertile ground for wonderful, wonderful melodrama. My Chemical Romance was never a subtle project—it was romantic in the classical sense: emotional in velocity and emotional in volume: reckless, weird and powerful. Suicide Squad was trying to balance David Ayer’s sombre, realistic antihero tale with Trailer Park’s bombastic phantasmagoria and got, well, a mess. Umbrella Academy knows exactly what it is and goes for broke. It’s packed with raw, unashamed emotion, much like those classic MCR tracks we were too cool to admit we loved back in high school. Which is why a very, very obvious pop song choice enhances the scene instead of distracting from it. 

The cast are revelling in the madness, with Kate Walsh’s Noir-Fatale-Meets-Middle-Management turn as The Handler being a standout. It’s also good to see Robert Sheehan getting some juicier roles: Mortal Engines—which looked set to be his big break—was a dud, and he’s been mostly wasted since Misfits. He can’t do a US accent to save himself, but failing to make the Oscar-Wilde-esque Klaus Hargreeves Irish was a mistake anyway. Cameron Britton and Sheila McCarthy have an unexpectedly sweet and gentle subplot—it’s lovely to see an older couple kinda just doing their thing. The melodrama crashes into it at 100km/h in the later episodes, but by then everything is hurtling downwind, glorious and fun and on fire. 

If you’re looking for restraint, this is not the show for you. This is a show where a character gets so mad that all the lamp-posts in the street bend towards them, because their emotions have the power to reshape the world. This is a show where a character threatens to electrocute another in a heart-shaped spa pool. This is a show where the main cast—each isolated by their own damage, desperate for human connection, trying to reach out to each other and failing because they haven’t yet learnt to stop lashing out in their pain—dance alone to I Think We’re Alone Now, then the camera pans out to show a cross-section of the house to show they’re all dancing together. It spits on subtle, and comes out with something so ridiculous that it makes its way back around to beautiful. 

Also, Robert Sheehan kisses another man and it’s fucking hot

Umbrella Academy is currently available on Netflix NZ. 

How to Lose a Million Bucks in Bitcoin: an Aro Valley Love Story

I don’t know whether I’m a millionaire. It’s a disgraceful state of affairs. 

This might take some going back through time. 18-21 were rough years for me. I was a bogan nerd, newly moved to Wellington, who wanted to be a writer and was struggling to admit to himself that he also liked boys. I drank. I initially drank rum because I thought it made me seem like a cool pirate, then I moved onto $10 red wine when I realised that I couldn’t keep up a respectable sustained BAC on anything that cost $40 a bottle. I was a Kiwi at uni, which meant I could lie to myself that my drinking was a personality and not a disease. I don’t know whether it’s the booze or the depressed brainfog but parts of those years just aren’t there. Somewhere in those three years, I fell into 100 bitcoin. Maybe. 

To understand Bitcoin, you first need to understand blockchain. Bitcoin is a currency that is built on a blockchain. They’re often used interchangeably but they’re not the same thing, any more than a ‘98 Toyota Corolla is an engine. The Bitcoin Blockchain is the largest and best-known, so it’s often referred to just as “The Blockchain”, which is where a lot of the confusion comes from. A blockchain is a distributed ledger. Which is exactly what it sounds like. You’ve seen a ledger before: 

Or not—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a physical ledger for years, but you get the idea. Whenever a transaction happens, it gets written down. Because it’s written down, you can refer back to it whenever there’s a dispute about who did what and who owns what. This is critical because—if there was no ledger—you could get one bitcoin, copy it 100 times, and become a millionaire. The bitcoin ledger records a unique code for your transaction, as well as the specific amount of money that changed hands. Each time a new user is involved in a transaction, the chain gets one block longer.  

The ledger is distributed in that it’s available to anybody who wants to access it. You can see a copy of the Bitcoin Blockchain in action right now, if you want. Each block in the blockchain must match every other block: if the transaction data in a particular block is different from the other thousands and thousands of blocks, then it’s immediately obvious that it’s fraudulent. 

The actual details of the transaction (such as details that would let somebody try to clone or steal the bitcoin) are hidden, but that it took place is available to anybody with access. This is why—according to a persistent rumour—MI5 were talking about having spies communicate on an internal blockchain: you’d have a record that two parties met without having to compromise the details of their meeting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an awful idea, an aggressively unwise idea, it’s just not quite as bad as it looks from the outset. You have a record of a meeting, but no names, no details. It would make it much more difficult for counterintelligence to interfere. It would also produce a massive amount of metadata all in one centralised place that becomes a huge target for anybody looking to compromise your operation. A single exploit, and you’re screwed. Which, being fair, is the case for a lot of encryption. 

In 2010, I took a writing gig on a bbcode geek forum. Somebody wanted me to write a poem for his girlfriend. It was their anniversary. At the end of it, he told me he didn’t have any cash, but he had bitcoin. I was furious. I sucked it down. He told me they’d be worth more in a year. I didn’t have the storage space for them, so I went out and bought a drive. It was the cheapest one I could find and it cost me $200, because external storage costs in 2010 were a motherfucker. I was even more furious. I was $200 in the hole because this asshole was paying me with monopoly money, on the promise it would turn to gold. I put the bitcoin (and, critically, the private key) on the drive, stowed it quietly away somewhere, and lost it. 

That drive, if the heat and damp or the elements haven’t got to it, is currently worth $1,764,885 NZD, less $200 for the cost of the drive. I have searched everywhere for it. I’ve probably spent a solid two months in lost weekends trying to follow my own dead, erratic trail. Maybe I sold the bitcoin in a blackout, or maybe the drive got eaten by the couch cushions, shuffled away into the realm of lost socks. From the bottom of my heart, I hope that dude had a great anniversary, because he paid a million bucks for it. 


Like I said, I was drinking a lot. I’m not willing to confirm anything that happened between 2008 and 2011 with any degree of certainty. But I remember the colour of the drive (red, a sort of deep plum-red, like old blood or bad wine), the place I got it (the Dick Smith off Lambton Quay, the one I had a fight with my girlfriend in), and the motherfucking weird flat two-pronged proprietary input that kept coming out for no reason and wasn’t compatible with any other device known to god or man. 

Who regulates bitcoin? Well, nobody. That’s sort of the point, and that’s why your libertarian friend will never shut up about it. No bank nor government controls bitcoin. The Blockchain does, in that transparency regulates it. You can’t cheat the blockchain; if you got money, it’s because somebody agreed to give it to you. It is pure capitalism: capitalism totally without restriction or outside influence. That’s also why it has constant massive peaks and troughs of value—the only people regulating it are the people buying it. It’s the sort of thing that would’ve made Rothbard wake up at 3am with damp sheets. That’s why people are getting rich, and that’s why people are losing everything. It seems like chaos from the outside, but to those riding the lightning, that’s just how it goes. That’s part of the reason the price is so elevated: what’s called noise trader risk.

Noise traders are people buying stocks not based on their actual value (the signal) but all the random bullshit around it (the noise). Usually, if something is overvalued and a bubble is about to burst, stock traders go crazy shorting it—they’re betting that it’s going to fail, so they make money when it goes down. Shorting is seen by a lot of economists as a critical process for finding the ‘real price’ of something, that is to say, the price that lines up with its actual value. Noise traders complicate that, because bubbles that should burst often don’t, or at least don’t when you’re expecting them to. If you short too early you can lose a lot of money, and if the community around a particular stock or item aren’t acting on the same assumptions you are then, well … it becomes scary to short. If your only contact with this idea is The Big Short, then it might’ve suddenly clicked why Christian Bale’s character freaked the fuck out when the housing market didn’t crash as predicted: because the ratings agencies were lying about its actual value, it didn’t go down when it should’ve, and the real trader (Michael Burry) lost his company billions. Bitcoin has some of the noisiest traders in the world, and that meant that nobody was willing to try and bring the price down. The absence of that, it ballooned wildly.

I think the most likely case is that I sold the bitcoin to buy more wine. I don’t remember doing that, but memory is a rickety machine at the best of times. There’s no transaction code anywhere I can find but that’s no surprise—I probably deleted it like the first one. The whole wallet was worth less than $20, and who keeps a receipt for $20? It was a decent year, the one where things finally started to look up. I was living in tumbledown borer-infested flat which was $200 a week and falling to pieces, but close to work, so it was a gem. 

Taika Waititi would be out and about sometimes. I was 20 and wanted to be a writer. He was famous; he’d just come back from the US after filming a TV show. Brett and Jermaine were cool and all, but Taika was a writer. I never spoke to him, but I’d pass him in the street and act like a total starstruck weirdo. He had nice eyes. I remember very little from 2010 but I remember that Taika had nice eyes and they made me ask questions, and the questions made me drink. I would’ve paid 100 bitcoins for a coffee with Taika in a heartbeat. Even today, it’s a coin flip. 

Why would you want a blockchain? Well, because you want a simple, deep ledger that records whenever a transaction takes place. I’m sure you can think of legitimate uses for that. Hell, I’m sure the accountants among you are crossing your legs under the desk, trying to pretend you’re not seeing a whole universe of possibilities unfold like a blossom in spring. Undeniably, blockchain can be a force for good. 

It’s also, unfortunately, a buzzword beloved of cranks and grifters, and every slick second son who dreams in dollar signs. It’s a fiscal wild west: the folks back east hear about gold and adventure, and all the detail gets flattened out. I’m not going to lie and tell you I’m a devoted capitalist—once you’ve read The Conquest of Bread, there’s no going back. I do however understand why there’s so many Bitcoin devotees out there: it is pure, chaotic, joyful freedom. It’s freedom that could take you to the stars or put you face-first in a ditch and you only get to find out which after you get there.

What’s really bizarre about my story is how common it is. While researching it, it took less than an hour to find a friend who said “oh yeah, me too. Huh. Wild.” Not the drinking or the sadness or Taika’s wonderful eyes, but the fortune in bitcoin that they shrugged their shoulders at, and lost. Sold for beer money because they didn’t know what to do with it. 2010 was like that: the world wasn’t on fire yet; Nazis only existed in video games; we were kids playing with grenades. That drive would pay my student loan 30 times over. It’s almost Auckland house money. I went back to the tumbledown flat a few years ago, and the place was gone. It got demolished at some point, and it was a vacant lot. I spent an afternoon looking for red, and found nothing. They’ve built a new house there now. Maybe one day the drive will come back to me, red like old wine and bad blood. Until then, I get to wonder about what could’ve been. 

In another life, I’m a millionaire. In the next life down, I’m friends with Taika. 

It’s a coin flip. 

Some locations and details in this article, as well as some part of the timeline, have been fudged to prevent identification; I don’t want to be the guy who gets a treasure hunter killed rooting around a construction site.

Andre ‘Jay’ Bourlin, one year on

CW: this piece discusses depression, and the suicide of a friend.

It’s coming up a year since my friend Andre died. Hindsight can be cruel: I knew he suffered from depression and chronic pain, and in the weeks leading up to his death he became increasingly combative and withdrawn. I knew he was having a hard time, I just didn’t realise how bad it really was; it felt like a stepping back, but not an end—he’d been working on a new manuscript and we’d been going over his opening chapters together. It didn’t seem like something you’d do if you wanted to die. 

I know from personal experience that it’s more complicated than that—people rarely plan these things. The black dog is a persistence hunter: it chases you for years, until your legs give out. 

The news hit slow. Somebody messaged me around lunchtime and I didn’t really process it. Piece by piece, over the course of the day, it broke me down. I went to a party that night, and a sudden tightness in my chest forced me outside; I ended up crying on a colleague’s balcony. I went home and wrote a letter to him that I never intend to publish, not even here—it’s an angry, selfish thing. I’m still here motherfucker, why aren’t you? You were writing a book. 

I’ve still got that manuscript sitting in Google Drive. Shared with you, trapped in amber. I tried to look at it the day afterwards, and couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’ve been told by the rest of the writing group that the last short story he wrote is genius—that it brings insight into his pain, and reading it helped them to understand and heal. I can’t bring myself to read it either. I’ve tried a few times, but can never bring myself to click the link. I don’t know what to do with either of them; they’re not going anywhere. 

There’s a lot of thinkpieces about mental health online, but whenever I try to write one, I come to the same painful answer: sometimes, things hurt and people leave. It’s been a year, and I thought with that distance there might be some peace. Instead, I ended up trying to hold back tears at my desk, going off on my lunchbreak to find somewhere safe to cry. Writing normally brings me catharsis, but this brought me nothing. I want to bring you catharsis, but I can’t. Some things just end.