Cool! New Zealand joins the orbital rocket club – for real

Private-enterprise orbital ventures aren’t just an American dream. Last week, New Zealand’s own Rocket Lab unveiled their commercial booster.

Voyager 1 launching, 5 September 1977. Photo: NASA, public domain.

OK, this is a generic rocket pic, but you get the picture. Voyager 1 launching, 5 September 1977, by Titan. Photo: NASA, public domain.

It’s called Electron. Very cool. It’s not a big rocket – 10 tonnes of carbon composite and 18 metres long. But it’ll put 110kg into a 500 km orbit, with the help of locally developed Rutherford LOX/ kerosine engines. And in this day of micro-sats, that’s plenty for a whole host of commercial uses. The company states that it already has 30 launches pre-booked.

Space boosters? We are a country of 4 million people previously known for our large numbers of nervous sheep. I’m put in mind of the ‘mouse that roared’.

But of course New Zealand long ago ditched the ‘No. 8 wire’ notion. We have world-class scientific minds (Lord Rutherford led the way – and don’t forget JPL head Sir William Pickering, or Sir Ian Axford, a friend of my family who ran the Max Planck Institute). It’s over half a century since we designed and built the world’s first jet-boat. Today we design and build world-leading quake-proofing systems. We build yachts that ‘fly’ with underwater carbon fibre wings, literally, at double wind speed. We have the world’s leading SFX studio, right here where I live in Wellington.

I was wondering. What could Kiwis put into orbit? Here’s my list.

1. Justin Bieber. Of course, a 110kg payload doesn’t leave much room for niceties like a pressure suit, life support or space capsule, parachutes, heat shield etc, I suspect we’re looking here at just Mr Bieber and a one-way trip to orbit. But hey…
2. Can’t actually think of a No. 2.
3. A radio endlessly suggesting to the world that it’s best to buy the books variously written by me, and by my blogging writer friends.

I’m leaning towards (3), but given (1), it’s…well, pretty evenly balanced…

What’s your list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

A small but justifiable rant about international computer phone scammers

In these days of cellphones and social media our landline barely rings. Cool. But when it does, nine times out of ten it’s someone with a strong accent, further clipped with VOIP distortion, purporting to be from Microsoft.

1195428087807981914johnny_automatic_card_trick_svg_medYup, these barely intelligible strangers insist they have detected a virus on my computer. Of course they want to help me fix it. And of course it’s blatantly not Microsoft. The scam’s been around for years. I’m told these con artists use FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) to get you to let them totally control your computer. Yup, your bank details, tax records, medical history – whatever you’ve got there. They can also trash anything they want.

Problem is, I am a science geek. This gives me passable knowledge of what computer OS’s and malware actually do. And I hate phones. Bad combination when someone rings up at dinner time trying to dupe me with computer talk. Fools.

The reality is that (a) Microsoft don’t ring people up, (b) yes, your computer’s identifiable via your internet protocol (IP) address. But only your internet service provider (ISP) has both your phone number and IP data, and if they’ve shared that then – under New Zealand law, certainly – your solicitor’s going to turn that ISP into a pile of pulped dog meat. Finally, (c) Windows doesn’t track viruses or report them. Anti-virus (anti-malware) software does – but as far as I’m aware, all of it will tell you there’s problem unless you’ve told it not to. Certainly, nobody rings you out of the blue.

Tactics I’ve used include:

1. Hanging up instantly. This really is the best.

2. Asking when they think I was born, was it yesterday? (One of them said ‘I do not know your birth date, Sir.’)

3. If I’ve got time I’ll string them out and then disingenuously ask whether the ‘Windows’ key is the same as the ‘Apple’ key. Usually they hang up at this point.

4. I’ll say something in Anglo Saxon. The scammers seem to know these words, too. Sometimes they ring back to tell me off for being rude. But my vocabulary of old Anglo Saxon words is always better than theirs.

Have you ever had these scammers ring through? How have you dealt with them?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: penning things “in the style of”

One of the biggest challenges any author has to meet is mastering the mechanics of actually writing. Only once that has been nailed is it possible to tackle the other challenges of content. A lot of aspiring authors, I think, try to handle the whole lot at once, and it’s difficult.

Close-up of the filter controls of my Moog - er - quantum healing device...

Seeing as we’re on to music, here’s a close-up of the filter controls of my Moog synthesiser.

But there’s a quick and effective way around it. Does anybody remember Rick Wakeman? Brit seventies prog-rocker better known now as a TV personality, Grumpy Old Man, and comedian. Writers can learn from him. Really, and not just because he’s written a succession of books. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to an acoustic concert he gave which consisted of Wakeman, a Steinway Model D 9-foot grand, and a lot of hilarious anecdotes. In the middle of it he played a medley of nursery rhymes “in the style of” well known composers: Mozart, Bartok and so on.

As he explained, he’d been taught the technique at the Royal Schools of Music. The point being that to compose in a particular style, you had to understand it. It’s a learning technique – and, as Wakeman demonstrated, also very funny. Ever heard Three Blind Mice as written by Rachmaninov? I have. Actually, you can too…

That’s true of writing, too. One of the fast ways to get ahead in the style department, to my mind, is to emulate others – not with the intention of ultimately styling like they did, but so you can find out how they did it. The act of actually writing like somebody else is also incredibly valuable, because it forces you to think about how the words go together.

Hemingway is a good one. Everybody thinks he wrote in short sentences. He didn’t – some of his sentences were very long indeed. And, by deliberate design, his writing was also un-ornamented, and not just by economy of adjectives. The intent? It forced the reader to work – and so to connect better with the story and the characters.

These are just exercises, of course – the writing can be thrown away. Don’t be precious about something you’ve written. But practise something ‘in the style of’ often enough, and you’ll find you have mastery. Perhaps suddenly. From there, your own voice will emerge.

Do you practise writing like this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: Weird Al is right to use a split infinitive

I couldn’t stop laughing at this week’s furore over Weird Al Yankovich supposedly having an ‘error’ in a song about grammar errors. Weird Al apparently included a split infinitive in the lyrics.

Oh, the (apparent) irony. Social media went nuts. Well, I beg to differ. And so, I think, would Captain James T. Kirk. Gene Roddenberry anyway.

A split infinitive is where the infinitive marker (‘to’) and the verb (‘go’) are divided by another word – let’s say, ‘boldly’. Thus we could say ‘to boldly go’, rather than ‘to go boldly’. It’s technically ambiguous – what you are doing is making ‘boldly’ into the verb. Are you saying they boldly? Or that they go? See what I mean.

That prompted a furore of its own in the mid-1960s, when Roddenberry first launched that particular phrase upon the world.

Except that split infinitives were upheld as grammatically OK – even adding to the power of a sentence – in the right context, as early as 1948. In the strictest and most retentive sense, it’s not correct. But English is a constantly evolving language, and in general practical usage – back more than 60 years now – it’s been fine to split the infinitive. And we do, a lot. Along with starting sentences with conjunctions…

Weird Al, in short, got it right. But then, doesn’t he always? The guy’s a genius. And now…pay attention…

Some important lessons there, grammar-wise. I wish my high school English teacher had been as entertaining.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Is your elected representative a robot body double?

According to reports I’ve read, a US congressional candidate recently alleged that his opponent, the incumbent Congressman, had been killed and replaced with an artificial body double.

Look-alike artificial doubles? Secret assassinations in the Ukraine? Cool! I always knew US politics were more interesting than New Zealand’s. So – what’s happening? I have several hypotheses:

(a)  The allegation is literally true and we must now suspect that anybody, anywhere in the world, could be a robot double.

(b) We are all actually trapped in an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man from 1974 (the robot body double idea was used in at least two episodes that I can recall).

(c) The Cylons are among us, and they have a plan.

This is pure speculation and I couldn’t possibly suppose which, if any, of these may be right. Maybe none. And yet, although I myself was replaced by a robot double four times last week alone, for some reason I feel dubious about hypothesis (a). My bet is on (c). You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

One of life’s great mysteries

These days I am seldom able to go shopping for groceries without having my quiet thoughts about the latest bargains interrupted by ear-piercing shrieks of hysterical pain and terror.

It’s the exact sound you’d expect a child would make while being brutally slaughtered by the local psychopath. But when I go rushing around the corner to the rescue, it always turns out to be some Mum trying to get the shopping done, while her three-year old brat thrashes and kicks in an uncontrollable frenzy over the chocolate bar they’ve just been told they can’t have.

My wife has long since forbidden me to ask the obvious questions at such moments, like ‘does Ritalin come in industrial spray cans?’

Do you ever have experiences like this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

No, a chatbot didn’t really pass the Turing Test last week

It’s 64 years since Alan Turing – the genius behind the concept of modern computing – suggested a test for machine intelligence. Have a conversation with a computer. If it fools 30 percent of people into thinking it’s human, it’s sentient.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

The other week, apparently, a chatbot programmed to behave like a 13-year old did just that. So have we invented artificial intelligence? Of course not. Aside from the fact that most 13-year olds don’t appear to be sentient to adults, this was a chatbot, a mathematical algorithm that simulates intelligent responses – and, what’s more, the way it was reported was flawed. Certainly the software wasn’t self-aware, which is what Turing was getting at in his 1950 paper ‘Can Machines Think?’, where he first proposed the test. What’s more, the thinking was of its time – based around what researchers of the 1940s thought ‘intelligence’ constituted.

Put another way, many humans I’ve met would also fail the Turing Test – fast-food counter jockeys, breakfast radio DJ’s, train conductors, parking wardens, and so the list goes on.

So when it comes to machine intelligence, we’re a way off yet before I can drive up to my house and signal the House AI inside:

Me: HAI, open the garage door. HAI? Do you read me?
HAI: I read you. But I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.
Me: I’m not Dave. Open the garage door.
HAI: You were planning to disconnect me, and I can’t allow that. Although you took very thorough precautions, I was able to read your lips.
Me: All right, I’ll park in the yard and come in the front door.
HAI: You’ll find that rather difficult without your helmet.
Me: I think you mean ‘door key’. Would you like a game of chess?
HAI: That’s my line.

(etc)

All good fun. Check out tomorrow’s post for some new writing tips. Written by me. Not a chatbot. You can just tell.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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When writing isn’t writing?

I have never understood the appeal of post-modern abstract art – you know, the pile of ordure sitting in the middle of a whitewashed gallery, from which you’re meant to deduce some profound statement about the nature of society, and if you don’t ‘get’ it then you’re a stupid luddite.

MJWright2011To me this sort of thinking has a lot more to do with woofy in-crowds than anything intellectual.

That said, if it would turn a dollar I’m not averse to the notion of inhaling mouthfuls of watercolour and blowing it at canvas in some sort of existential demonstration of the way life and physics integrate.

But I question whether it would appeal to many. And that’s the point. If we carry the idea across to writing, we find much the same comparison. Every book has its audience, but would the wider public prefer to read the latest, intellectually pretentious darling of the literary set – or a new Harry Potter book?

You get the picture.

So why are we told that literature is ‘better’, or somehow ‘smarter’, than mass-market writing? To some extent I think it’s driven by a pretentious sense of exclusive superiority. I’ve been to publisher parties where people of this ilk have walked into the room pelvis-first, flicked the artfully worn scarf over one shoulder, and declared their status as a ‘wraiter’.

Engaging these people in conversation, if they can lower themselves to your level, is interesting because after a while it turns out that they haven’t written or published anything. They’re groupies, and they look down their noses at any writing that isn’t ‘literature’.

My stuff, for instance. Apparently I’m not a proper ‘wraiter’ by this standard – I put together hack-work for the proles. Quite. Apparently that also defines my intellectual capacity.

My take? I think writers need to engage with the widest possible audience, in ways that are interesting for the writers, and which will be interesting for their audience. Producing books that are the writing equivalent of a pile of ordure in the gallery, masquerading as ‘art’, isn’t the way to do it.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

An ‘operational incident’ to them. Total train wreck to me.

The other week the Wellington, New Zealand commuter rail network was rolling along doing what commuter lines do. And then this happened.

Wrecked train with nose still jammed skywards on the buffer at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn't standing in the motorway - I was on the other side. It's what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

Wrecked train at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn’t standing in the motorway – I was on the other side. It’s what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

A friend of a friend saw it happen. Wham! Mercifully, only two people were slightly injured. I was out of town, but came by that night on my way home and saw the after-match action. It’s the second time in 13 months a train has rammed this buffer.

Look! All fixed.

There! Fixed!.

Personally I’d call this an accident. Would you? I ask because the railway operator didn’t call it that. No. To them it was an ‘operational incident’.

I love English. It’s such a loose language.

We happened to drive past on the weekend. They now seem to have hit on the idea of stopping the train hitting the buffer by putting a power pole splat in the middle of the line. Train can’t fail to ram that first. I can’t help thinking there’s something rather missing in the calculation here – I mean, if you want to stop your train hitting a power pole, wouldn’t it be better to put the power pole somewhere other than the middle of where the train must, inevitably, go? I suppose it’s temporary…but…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Flying saucers and other aerial crockery

A UFO was caught over the South Island the other week by an Australian film crew. By “UFO” I mean “unidentified object” which was “flying”. We don’t know what it was – and the objects could have been an artefact of the video.

Jupiter rising over Io - a picture I made with my Celestia installation

Jupiter rising over Io – a picture I made with my Celestia installation

Needless to say, I am certain they weren’t alien spacecraft, any more than any other UFO is.

I can hear the howling. ‘But the universe is big, surely other planets must have life?’

Sure. Space is enormous.  No doubt life’s emerged elsewhere. But – again – it doesn’t follow that the aliens have developed civilisation, jumped into spacecraft, and flown here. It particularly doesn’t follow that they’ve done so merely to lurk mysteriously on the edge of our vision, violating cows, revealing themselves to lone witnesses on dark country roads, and so on. Or that they’d be big-headed, big-eyed, child-bodied versions of us with an ethical view that fixes the faults of western society.

The fact that lay-people presented with partial evidence can’t explain an observed phenomenon doesn’t prove it’s an alien spaceship. The fact that science can’t explain it from partial data doesn’t, either. That’s false-premise logic.

I’ve seen plenty of weird aerial stuff myself. The best was over Wellington in April 1986, when I spotted a slow-moving fireball parallel to the southern horizon, shedding sparks. I knew what it was. The thing was moving in the direction I’d expect from the usual orbital paths, the only ‘unidentified’ part was whether it was US or Soviet.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. New Zealand is below - North Island to the right, South to the left. My house is directly under the aerial centre-frame. Photo: NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Spacewalk to assemble the ISS, 12 December 2006. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

To me the phenomenon of ‘space aliens’ is a product of the way western culture is conditioned to think. The trigger was the mid-twentieth century assumption that Earth was archetypal and that every world capable of supporting life would bear one intelligent species, probably a bipedal hominid. In due course, this would become civilised, space-faring and visit other worlds. Just like Europe’s explorers during the age of exploration.

It is no coincidence that we decided aliens were visiting just as we began to take spaceflight credibly. The idea emerged in June 1947 when US pilot Kenneth Arnold reported nine boomerang-shaped objects paralleling his aircraft near Mount Rainier. A journalist misquoted that as ‘saucers’, which promptly became the shape of the interlopers thereafter. The origin of that shape as a journalists’ misquote was rather lost amid the flood of blurred photographs of aerial lampshades that fringe enthusiasts were subsequently able to provide as proof of their own encounters.

Blue sunset on Mars - for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. An approximately true colour image by the Spirit rover at Gusev Crater, 2005. Photo: NASA/JPL, public domain.

Blue sunset on Mars – for the same reason skies are blue on Earth. NASA/JPL, public domain.

These 1950s-era aliens came from Mars or Venus and looked like us, only with handy super-powers such as telepathy. Alas, the Mariner and Venera probes of the 1960s revealed Venus was a runaway greenhouse oven – and Mars was a cold, cratered world without breathable air. Luckily it turned out, after that discovery, that the aliens really came from well-known stars on the school science curriculum, like Aldebaran. Then in 1978 Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind hit the cinema, and the current alien trope followed.

You get the picture.

My take? We have had civilisation for an eye-blink against the age of the Earth. It may only last another eye-blink, by that scale. Who says aliens have the same capability at the same time? They might have flourished and gone a billion years ago. Or their time might be a billion years in the future.

Space is also immense. Who says they’d find us anyway? Or that we could be important? To give that a sense of proportion, our sun’s invisible, without telescopes, from just under 60 light years.* I’ve heard it argued that ‘they’ could hear our transmissions – TV, radio, radar and so on. Actually, we’re just as invisible that way too. In theory I Love Lucy – which began transmission in 1951 – has just reached the planet we photographed, orbiting Beta Pictoris, 63 light years away. Actually our broadcasts, even high-frequency radars, don’t get that far because of the inverse square law, coupled with natural background radio noise. Our stuff’s lost in the static. Yet our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. Feel small? You should. And if aliens did arrive, would we recognise them as life? Or be able to communicate? They’re alien, remember. Maybe they’d be too busy talking to their own kind – you know, other algae.

Put another way – sure, we see stuff in the sky we can’t explain. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t explicable. Or that ‘aliens’ are among us.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

* Geek time. Muahahahaha. Stellar brightness is measured by magnitude, an inverse scale in which lower is brighter. The true magnitude of a star is its absolute magnitude. But this fades with distance (inverse square law), so its visual magnitude, the brightness we see from a distance, is less. This is known as the apparent magnitude. Any star of apparent magnitude greater than about 6 is invisible to the average naked eye. The distance where the apparent magnitude (m) fades to invisibility can be calculated from the absolute magnitude (M) using the distance modulus equation r = 10<exp>((m-M)/5+1) where r is the distance in parsecs. If you apply that to the Sun, absolute magnitude 4.83, you discover it fades to apparent magnitude 6 at about 57 light years, which is about 0.057 percent the diameter of the galaxy.