Collisions of coal: an author’s perspective

My biography of coal in New Zealand was published this month by David Bateman Ltd. It’s a book taking as its subject a ‘thing’, but in reality telling the human side of that ‘thing’ in all its dimensionality.

Coal 200 pxReview comments so far have been excellent – ‘this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark‘ and ‘a fascinating read…such a good way of understanding NZ history‘ among them.

It was certainly fascinating to write. I’ve been trunking on in this blog about ways and techniques of writing – well, this book represents one way I put those things into practise.

All writing – fiction and non-fiction alike – must have structure, a theme, a dynamic around which to take the reader on an emotional journey. In fiction, that’s the character arc. In non-fiction, the author has to find something else; and for me the obvious angle was the intersection between humanity and this unique – almost chance – product of nature. That gave me the organising principle for the book, the thread around which I could weave the story. To do that I had to draw together a whole lot of thinking in areas that – on the face of it – seem quite disparate, but which in reality are all expressions of the one thing, our relationship with the world and with ourselves.

It was a story of collisions. You can’t tell the story of coal without delving into how it came to be, product of peat swamps and geological processes that, in New Zealand’s case, stretch over sixty million years. To give that context I decided to set it against the span of human existence – which, at best, is a tiny fraction of that time. The time during which we have dug up and burned that coal is shorter still, a tiny eye-blink against the span of years during which our coal resources formed.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

The question follows – why have we been so profligate in our burning? The answer, also explored in the book, flows from our nature and the way we think. The mid-to-late nineteenth century, when New Zealand’s coal was first exploited on an industrial scale, was an age of a particular style of thinking. It was common across the industrialising world but particularly evident on the whole colonial frontier from the United States to Australia and South Africa – and one of the key drivers of the impecunious pace with which we dug up and burned the coal.

That same thinking also introduced another side of the human story of coal – our attitudes to it; the way we relied on it and yet also saw those who dug it as a social threat; and the way we relentlessly found news ways of exploiting it.

One theme became increasingly clear throughout. We have been digging and burning coal, not just in New Zealand but around the world, with ever-increasing pace in the last 250 years. The fact that coal is no longer burned in domestic homes has disguised the fact that in the last few dozen years particularly, that pace has skyrocketed.

Today, coal combustion produces 43 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly half. And the jury is back on climate change. It’s happening – and it’s an own goal. Big time. Making coal the chief villain.

That was why I ended the book the way I did. With – a well, you’ll just have to check it out for yourselves.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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My problem, as a bloke, with Top Gear, number plates and laddish silliness

I can’t see what the fuss is over Top Gear’s provocative Porsche number plate – you know, the one that got Jeremy Clarkson and the rest hustled out of Argentina before the wrath of a mob.

Aha - Clarkson's book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his...

Aha – Clarkson’s book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his (and in front of Julia Gillard’s).

Allegedly it was an off-colour reference to the British victory in the Falklands War of 1982. Personally I figure Clarkson’s protestations of innocence are correct. I mean, apart from anything else, wringing the meaning out of those letters demanded a fair amount of subtle thinking, and Top Gear isn’t exactly subtle. It’s a show about ‘Brit lads’ being ‘laddish’ with lad’s toys on a big budget with the help of a slick production team, some very fast sports cars and a good deal of British public school potty humour. This is the show, after all, who claim their engineering workshop is in Penistone. And who did have an intended ‘substitute’ plate for the Porsche reading ‘Be11end’.

Surprisingly, Top Gear didn’t make a point of visiting Urenui when the show came here. Depending how you translate it, the name is Te Reo Maori for ‘Great Courage’ or ‘Big Penis’. Instead Clarkson damaged one Toyota Corolla on a narrow bridge and drove another up Ninety Mile Beach. Not uber-fast, either. Once, the beach was the racing track where Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith went for 300 mph in an aero-engined streamliner in 1931, just in case anybody thought the Land Speed Record was exclusive to people named Campbell (Smith missed). But today it’s legally a public road, with a speed limit. (OK, so Clarkson’s Corolla wasn’t thrashed, it just got salt and sand sprayed through engine and running gear. I hope I never end up owning that one.)

You laugh at the British silliness. You think, ‘gee, I wish I had the chance to drive that’, that you could drive like The Stig, and that you too could play conkers with caravans. Or turn a Robin Reliant into a space shuttle. But to me, these days, Top Gear seems rather tired. Formula. There are, I suspect, limits as to how long a band of middle-aged men can cavort through our Sunday evening TV being big-budget yobbos.

Still, I can’t complain. My latest book ended up stacked, cover out, behind Clarkson’s the other day – and one can but hope that the reflected fame was, well, reflected in the sales…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Why New Zealand doesn’t need to worry about a zombie apocalypse

New Zealand has been hit by three significant earthquakes in the last two days. Luckily not strong enough to do damage, and remote enough that even a larger shake would have been more nuisance than apocalypse. But they are a sharp reminder that we live on some very ‘shaky isles’. The next one might well bring tragedy.

The Christ Church Cathedral - icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;'etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.

The Christ Church Cathedral – icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d’etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin.

It’s to get a better handle on that looming apocalypse that GNS Science have been exploring the Alpine Fault this past few months – drilling far down to set up an early warning system that will give us some prior hint when is about to rupture. Not if, but when – this fault moves every three centuries or so, and it last ruptured in 1717. Go figure.

Well, actually you don’t have to. A study published in 2012 indicated there was a 30 percent chance of a devastating quake occurring on that fault some time in the next 50 years – before 2062. Because probabilities are calculated as bell-shaped curves, this did not mean a quake would occur precisely in 2062; it meant the quake might occur any time from 2012 (low probability) through the mid-twenty-first century (high probability), to the early 2100s (a low chance of it happening that late, but a very high probability of it happening, if it hadn’t happened by then).

This fault is thought capable of generating quakes with magnitude of up to 8.3. Huge. A Civil Defence exercise held in 2013, built around that potential, can best be described as scary. While researching my book on earthquakes, I contacted the author of the exercise – who filled me in on the details. Uh…ouch.

For obvious reasons the science of earthquake engineering is well developed in New Zealand. Some of the world’s leading systems have been invented here, notably the lead-rubber base isolator. This is designed to keep a building ‘floating’ above its foundations. When an earthquake hits, the ground moves – but, thanks largely to its moment of inertia and the reduced energy being transmitted to it, the building doesn’t. Not so much anyway. The first system was installed in the early 1980s in what was then the Ministry of Works building, and major structures to receive it since have included Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum; and Parliament buildings.

It’s a clever idea. And tricks like this – along with a raft of others – all have to be applied quite seriously in earthquake zones. One of the outcomes, certainly as far as civil defence planning is concerned, is that the likelihood of casualties during the quake is reduced. Buildings constructed with proper attention to earthquake-proofing won’t collapse, and if they’re done right, they also won’t shed parts that crush people beneath. That’s what caused most of the casualties in the 1931 Napier earthquake, for instance, which provoked New Zealand’s first serious earthquake-proofing regulations.

Study, inevitably, is ongoing. But what I can say is that New Zealand doesn’t need to worry about a ‘zombie’ apocalypse. The ‘earthquake’ apocalypse we’re actually facing is serious enough. For more…well, you knew I’d say this – it’s all in my book.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Forecasting New Zealand’s seismic apocalypse

This weekend’s tragedy on Japan’s Mount Ontake reminds us that life around the Pacific ‘rim of fire’ is often risky.

That string of tectonic plate collisions stretches around the whole circumference of the Pacific and has shaped life in many ways. It was cause of the 2011 tsunami that devastated eastern Japan. It gave the US Yellowstone. It provokes earthquakes. It has also shaped my home country, New Zealand – and has been doing so for at least the past ten million years. The obvious question is ‘what next’ – something that has exercised seismologists and vulcanologists for generations. One way of finding out is to look back into the past, figuring out where fault lines are and how often they move.

Karaka Bay - on the eastern side of the city where Port Nicholson opens out to the sea through a narrow channel.

Karaka Bay – on the eastern side of the Miramar ‘was-an-island-before 1460′ Peninsula

That’s certainly been a focus of ongoing work in New Zealand, which straddles the collision between the Australian and Pacific plates and is prone to massive earthquakes. And of all the historical quakes, it seems few were as spectacular as the series that ripped through the country around 1460, as an indigenous Maori culture began to emerge from its Polynesian settler origins. All of them were around magnitude 8 or higher. They began, it seems, in the south as the Alpine Fault moved. Then there was a quake off what is now Wellington. And another in the Wairarapa. And another at Ahuriri, creating the Te Whanganui-a-Orotu lagoon. Wham! Tsunami followed, 10 metres or more high.

Maori refer to the 1460 Wellington quake as Haowhenua – the ‘land swallower’. Superficially that’s a paradox; the quake created land, raising the channel between Miramar, then an island. But the quake also triggered tsunami, washing far around the coasts and inundating settlements and gardens on the south coast of the Wairarapa. For Maori, the key issue was the loss of food-stuffs by a disaster that had, literally, swallowed their land.

It's all in an ordinary industrial-style street.

This movie studio in central Miramar was underwater before 1460.

A succession of quakes of this magnitude remains unprecedented. Seismology, to date, has usually treated quakes as independent events. And yet it’s clear that earthquakes occur in clusters, and seismologists have been asking questions of late that point to connections. One of those is interactions between fault lines. A quake on one fault might deliver enough energy to a nearby fault to trigger it, providing that fault was already under stress. There is also the effect of ‘slow quakes’. This only emerged in the early twenty-first century when GPS measurements revealed that, at certain points where the Pacific plate dives under the Australian – usually east or west of the New Zealand land mass itself – there are areas where the two slip slowly, but not smoothly. Huge earthquakes follow, but the energy released is spread out over months and not detectable by conventional instruments.

What these quakes seem to do is stress shallower fault lines, east in the plate interface. Current analysis indicates that a slow-slip quake under Kapiti island in early 2013 was likely cause of the succession of conventional quakes that struck in a semi-circular arc around Kapiti from mid-2013 – the Cook Strait and Grassmere quakes of July and August; the Eketahuna quake of January 2014; and the Waipukurau quake of April 2014.

All were severe quakes, but not in the league of the 1460 series. As yet the jury’s still out on the linkages. If the hypothesis is right though, the issue is obvious. Slow quakes might provoke successions of conventional shallow quakes in New Zealand. And if the 1460 sequence was one of those, it’s clear these quakes can be large indeed.

That begs a question: what would happen were New Zealand to suffer a similar quick-fire succession of huge quakes? That’s something I’ve tackled in my book Living on Shaky Ground (Penguin Random House). I won’t repeat the details here – suffice to say, it’s spectacular and I can’t help thinking that Mars looks appealing about this time of year.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: tackling the invisible hurdle

I’ve been posting these past few weeks about the challenges facing writers in the new environment. The biggest hurdle, of course, is so huge it’s invisible.

Books on sale in a real bookshop. Some of them mine...

Books on sale in a real bookshop. Some of them mine…

Let me explain. A few years ago the challenge authors faced in being published was – being published. The road was paved with hurdles. A starting author first had to write something good enough to be competitive with the professionals. Then they had to find the agent, who in turn had to get a publisher interested in circumstance where publishers, more often than not, went with previously published authors who had an established record.

Eventually, if everything went well, the book would appear. And – usually – not do too well. Most books didn’t do much more than break even – and publishers know the odds. The figure I’ve seen is that about one book in ten does really well. The rest don’t, and publishers accept that because having a reasonably broad range of books in their lists is part of the deal.

These days the paradigm’s changed. That world is still there, but authors also have the option of self-publishing through Amazon.

I could hear the cries of ‘squee – no entry barrier!’ all the way down in New Zealand.

There are two problems with this. The first is what Chuck Wendig calls the ‘shit volcano’ quality issue. Everybody can publish, so everybody does. ‘I learned English in school, so I can write…right?’

That sudden flood of authors (no pushing at the back) creates the second issue, which is just as big a barrier as the old agent model. Discovery.

In July this year Amazon listed 32.8 million separate titles of all kinds for sale. In that same month, they shifted 120,000 e-books a day, as best-sellers, of which 31 percent were indie published. You get the picture. Any individual book is going to be lost in the noise, no matter how good – or bad – it happens to be. Yes, the review system’s there, but a good book that doesn’t get good reviews – perhaps because nobody’s found it – won’t float to the top. That isn’t a problem for Amazon – they profit from the aggregate. But it’s a major issue for any individual author.

So – all that’s happened is that one ‘filter’ has been, effectively, replaced with another. One that cannot be reasoned with because it’s part of the environment, like gravity. The question is what to do about it. How can a writer – armed with an identical tool-kit to every other hopeful out there in internet-land – get found?

And when they are, how can they sell their stuff?

It’s a new paradigm. More soon. Meanwhile – what are your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Ego igitur puniar: my childhood adventures at Nelson Park School, Napier

My old primary school, Nelson Park School, is marking its centenary this weekend. Am I going to the various events? Go figure. My earliest memory there, from 1968, is of being slammed across the face by my teacher. Wham! I’d never been hit before. I was five.

Hi. I'm your teacher...

Hi. I’m your teacher…

I have no idea why the teacher hit me, but back then it didn’t take much to evoke the wrath of teachers. A friend of mine from Nelson Park School days, just this year, told me how he was punished for accidentally running into an ‘out of bounds’ area while trying to escape the school bullies. One of my wife’s colleagues, who I didn’t know as a kid – but who went to Nelson Park School at the same time – was punished for skipping for joy in jingly sandals, aged five. I am not joking.

This was the era when school had little to do with nurturing children to learn according to their strengths, and much to do with smashing them into submissive conformity to a prescribed and quiet ‘normal’, via petty army-style ‘bullshit’ routines, worth-denial, nit-picking, sarcasm and class-front humiliation, all backed with a relentless threat of pain.  I still remember the teacher who kept offering to take boys privately out the back where they would be ‘shown’ his personal ‘strap’ – the heavy leather belt with which teachers were allowed to beat children. Other staff didn’t ‘strap’ children in secret – I remember the teacher who used to whip his out and smash kids around the legs with it. The same teacher also prowled the class with a broken blackboard ruler he called his ‘Walking Whacker’. Wham! 

My class at Nelson Park School in 1969. Can you spot me? Clue: I'm the only one whose face hasn't fallen into a belt-sander.

My class at Nelson Park School in 1969, in regulation pose, including the substitute teacher. Can you spot me? Clue: I’m the only one who hasn’t face-planted into a belt-sander.

The doyen of childhood terror at that school was the deputy principal, an archetypal drill sergeant, who belted out orders and whose wrath fell on any kid that did not obey instantly to the letter. Think Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It’s a military technique. But instead of brow-beating adults so they’d walk into gunfire, this teacher used the method to traumatise children into submission. I heard that he even made kids go to the local dairy to buy him Alfino cigars.

Apparently some kids – and parents – admired this teacher for his ‘drill sergeant’ decisiveness, and apparently he had a ‘nice guy’ persona he used to switch on. But I never saw that side, and everyone was terrified of him. Just this year I discussed him with former pupils at Nelson Park School with me over forty years ago. The most complementary opinion was ‘he was an asshole‘. 

The school system in action, circa 1970...

The school system in action, circa 1970…

It took me years to understand my experience at Nelson Park School – I didn’t really get a handle on it until I researched the school system professionally, publishing my conclusions in 2004 and again in 2013. The problem was that the New Zealand primary school system of the late 1960s was well past its use-by date. It was built around early twentieth century notions of uniformity – a narrowly defined ‘right’ way of doing things; writing in a specific way with a specific hand, and so forth. Woe betide anybody who diverged. Practical human reality, of course, is far broader and more complex – the more so as time goes on and generational change brings new attitudes. But the school system hadn’t caught up, and by the time I got there it was dominated by teachers who had spent a lifetime bashing square pegs into round holes.

School routines clung to the pseudo-military ethos that had characterised the system through both World Wars, when school was looked on as a foundation for cadetship and territorial service. When I was there in 1968-72, children were still made to march into class, in lines, to the strains of marches such as F. J. Ricketts’ Colonel Bogey (1914). If the kids messed up that drill, they were marched into the school-ground and made to practise.

What made the whole thing so destructive was that this setup fostered opportunities for some staff to exploit the power the system gave them over those defined as powerless, the children. A recent – as in 2014 – review of data collected during a 1961 experiment by John Millward reveals that some ordinary adults become monsters in such circumstance because dominating those over whom the system has given them total power makes some people feel good about themselves. My own professional work suggests that one does not have to run an experiment to show this. It is part of the wider human condition. And moral compass, alas, is lost by increments.

Doubtless some kids had a good time at Nelson Park School at the turn of the 1970s. Nobody I knew there did, and my left-handedness ensured I also hit the sharp end of a tired system. The sad part is that the staff of Nelson Park School at that time had a choice. They could have tried to be reasonable, tried to view children as human beings and tried to nurture their development. By my measure, they did not. But perhaps these teachers found happiness for themselves later in better and more caring ways. One can but hope.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why I run an Apple-free household but am still cool

Apple’s theatricals this week haven’t convinced me to buy an iPhone 6 – which, as Ron Amadeo pointed out, has the same screen size and features as a 2012 Nexus 4. George Takei got it right when he tweeted that he couldn’t remember the last time so many got so excited about 4.7 inches.

Not that this an admission of being un-cool, though it might seem so to the phanbois. Earlier this week I commented on some guy’s blog that I’m Apple-free. Other products do all I want at less cost and I’m not interested in the Apple cool factor. Another commenter wondered whether I still watched black and white TV.  Absolutely. I watch shows about sarcastic assholes.

Get real folks. Apple isn’t a religion. They make consumer products. For profit.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

My Apple-free desk. From the left: ASUS laptop, i7 4771 Windows desktop (yes, the same CPU Apple use in their iMacs), i7 860 Windows desktop.

When I look at the venom displayed on some of the forums and blogs, against Apple-critics, I suppose I got off lightly. But as I say, commenting that I don’t buy Apple isn’t license for the fans to make personal attacks of any sort. Apple are a consumer product company. Competitive. But failing to buy it doesn’t, by definition, make you a luddite.

I suppose it’s not surprising, really. Apple’s schtik – originated by their late CEO, Steve Jobs – was an appeal to cool, to the social status that, we are conditioned to think, comes with this consumer product or that one. That approach underlies most big brands, of course – and it certainly worked for Apple. Hugely. In the late 1990s Apple was a dwindling computer company that had failed to compete with Microsoft. Jobs came back on board and reinvented it as a lifestyle choice – a company whose products bypassed the reason circuits and drove straight to the appeal of emotion.

It worked a treat. People didn’t buy Apple because they could get a sharply better phone, or sharply better computer. Apple’s gear was always well engineered, well designed and reliable. But so was the gear sold by other major manufacturers. Most of it was also just as easy to use. That wasn’t why people bought Apple. They bought Apple because it was a statement about themselves. They get drawn into it – I mean, I heard that some guy in Australia microchipped his own hand, on the off-chance that some rumoured feature might be built into the iPhone 6.

It was, by any measure, a brilliant recovery. Genius. But when I look at the sarcasm, the personalised anger with which some respond when anybody questions Apple products – when I suggest that, maybe, other products are as good – I have to wonder. Do people validate their own self-worth by ownership of an Apple product? Is that why they get so angry, sarcastic and abusive? So personal?

Is this where Jobs wanted his customers to go when he reinvented Apple?

For myself, I don’t feel the need to define or validate myself with any consumer product. It’s just stuff, and these days it’s increasingly short-life stuff. For me, phones, tablets and computers are things you buy for a purpose. Not to make you better than somebody else. Products. For me that’s the arbiter. Will it do the job I need it for – properly, and without compromise? And at what cost – up-front and lifetime? How reliable is it? Will the maker support it for that lifetime – and a little way beyond – at reasonable cost? If I drop a phone, what will it cost me to replace it?

All these reasons keep intruding whenever I look for any new consumer product. The fact that this path has produced a wholly Apple-free household, I think, speaks for itself.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014