Writing inspirations – a coffee bar for gentlemen, apparently

Today’s writing inspiration is a photo I took of a coffee bar in central Wellington, New Zealand, with a very – er – unusual brand name.

It's called - er - what?

It’s called – er – what?

I had to look at it twice. And then photograph it. Also intriguing are the silhouettes of old-style police. Inspiration for a story? You betcha.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Why this week’s comet landing is way better than celebrity butt-fests

This week’s landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was a landmark in space history – not because the comet apparently bore a passing resemblance to the Kardashian backside that was competing for place in the news, but because surface gravity on 67P is about one millionth Earth’s. You don’t land so much as drift in and try like hell to stay there.

Potential landing sites on the double-lobed Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Potential landing sites on the double-lobed Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Add to that the fact that the cometary surface is like a rugged boulder-field and you have a recipe for Ultimate Challenge. That’s what made the landing so risky – and why ESA’s Philae lander was equipped with harpoons, ice-screws, and a down-firing thruster. When they failed, Philae landed on the comet, then bounced a kilometre back into space before the comet’s lazy gravity pulled it back. It was also a funny sort of bounce because the comet isn’t a sphere – it’s more like a dumb-bell. When Philae came down a second time, it bounced again before eventually settling.

For me the three-bounce landing (at 15:34, 17:25 and 17:32 GMT on 12 November) has a wow factor well beyond landing on a comet for the first time e-v-a-h. It’s also about gravity – and that means it’s about Einstein, one of my favourite physicists. Let me explain. Gravity doesn’t just cause celebrity butt-sag, after a while. It’s also why the comet’s where it is today. Fact is that 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko experienced a gravitationally-driven orbit change in 1959, when an encounter with Jupiter dropped its perehelion (closest approach to the Sun) from 2.7 to 1.3 astronomical units, giving the comet its current 6.45 year period. That’s why it’s where it is now.

Gravity is also how ESA got the probe to the comet. It was boosted, during a decade-long journey, by gravity assist manoeuvres, swing-bys of Earth and Mars that exploited space-time curvatures around the planets to accelerate the probe (three times) and decelerate it (once), without burning a single gram of fuel.

Ain’t physics neat. So just what is gravity? This looks like a stupid question. Actually, it isn’t.

Rosetta's long odyssey to the comet - with slingshot gravity boosts from Earth and a de-boost from Mars. NASA, public domain.

Rosetta’s long odyssey to the comet – with slingshot gravity boosts from Earth and a de-boost from Mars. NASA, public domain.

The thing is, we think of gravity as a ‘force’. But actually, according to Einstein, it isn’t. We just perceive it as such. Here’s why. Science started looking at gravity in earnest when all-round super-geek Sir Isaac Newton worked out the math for the way gravity presented in everyday terms, which he published as part of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. His gravitational theory worked (and still works) well at everyday level – you could calculate how apples might fall, figure out planetary movements and so on (the key equation is    F = G \frac{m_1 m_2}{r^2}\ , which defines the force between two point-sources of defined mass.) Newton’s triumph came in 1838 when astronomers realised that Uranus wasn’t quite where it should have been, based on the tugs of the known planets. French mathematician Urbain Leverrier and British mathematician John Couch Adams, independently, reverse-engineered the data to pinpoint where an unknown planet should be – and sure enough, there it was. Neptune.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

But as science began fielding more data, it became evident that Newton’s equations didn’t account for everything – which is where Albert Einstein comes in. His General Theory of Relativity, published in 1917, is actually a theory of gravity. General Relativity supersedes Newton’s theory and portrays gravity by a totally different paradigm. To Newton, gravity was a force associated with mass. To Einstein, gravity was not a force directly innate to mass, but a product of the distortion of space-time caused by mass/energy, which bent the otherwise straight paths of particles (‘wavicles’), including light.

The proof came in May 1919 when British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington measured the position of Mercury during a solar eclipse. Mercury’s perehelion – the closest point to the Sun – precessed (moved) in ways Newton couldn’t account for. Einstein could – and the planet turned up at precisely the place general relativity predicted. Voila – general relativity empirically proven for the first time. I don’t expect that Einstein leaped around going ‘woohoo’, but I probably would have. And general relativity has been proven many, many times since, in many different ways – not least through the GPS system, which has to account for it in order to work, because space-time distortion also causes time dilation. (If you want to live longer, relative to people at sea level, live atop a mountain).

Einstein’s key field equation, as it eventually evolved, is G_{\mu\nu}\equiv R_{\mu\nu} - {\textstyle 1 \over 2}R\,g_{\mu\nu} = {8 \pi G \over c^4} T_{\mu\nu}\, – which I am not going to explain other than to point out that it could be used to calculate the space-time distortion caused by the mass of, say, a Kardashian butt. This would be a hideous waste of brain-power, but at least means I’ve managed to put both Einstein’s field equation and a reference to society’s shallow obsession de jour in the same sentence. As an aside, I also think Einstein got things right in more ways than we know. I don’t say this idly.

Philae lander departing the Rosetta probe for its historic rendezvous with the comet. Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Philae departing the Rosetta probe for its historic rendezvous with the comet. Taken by the orbiter’s OSIRIS camera. Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

One of the key things about both Newton and Einstein is that their theories treated clumps of particles – a mass such as the Earth for instance – as if the gravity originated in a mathematical point at the centre of the mass, even though the gravity (‘space-time distortion’) is produced by every particle within that mass. And that works perfectly at distance. But in detail an uneven distribution of mass –  a mountain range, for instance, or even a celebrity butt – can introduce local pertubations. Small – but calculable. It’s because of ‘mass concentrations’ that satellites we put around the Moon eventually crash, for instance.

Which brings me back to the science adventure on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 28 light-minutes away outside the orbit of Mars. With a long-axis diameter of around 5 km and a composition of loose rocks held together by ices, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko doesn’t have enough mass to bend space-time much. It has, in short, almost no gravity. Orbiting it, as Rosetta has been doing since 6 August, is more like a lazy drift around it. To land is more akin to docking than anything else. There’s not a lot to hold Philae ‘down’, and it doesn’t take much to bounce off. To that we have to add the dumb-bell shape of the comet’s nucleus, which produces complex (if gentle) space-time curvatures, meaning a ‘bounce’ on the comet isn’t going to be a simple parabola like a ‘bounce’ on Earth.

All of which underscores the tremendous technical achievement of the landing – bounces and all. The final lesson? Don’t bother with celebrity butt. Einstein and comets are FAR more interesting.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Fun, sun and the usual Spinal Tap hilarity on the other side of the ditch

It’s time for a weekend get-away, and She Who Must Be Obeyed and I decide the other side of the Tasman is, once again, the place to be. Sydney is one of our favourite get-away destinations, cheaper to reach than parts of New Zealand and alive with a vibrancy that underscores its place as one of the world’s great cities.

Sydney Opera House on Bennelong Point, with Circular Quay beyond.

On Sydney harbour: I recklessly took this from the Manly Ferry as it cut its way to Circular Quay.

We’ve been there often enough before, and these weekends usually don’t turn into Spinal Tap adventures until we get there. This time the shenanigans begin when She Who Must Be Obeyed picks up the tickets from the travel agent.‘I see you didn’t take the fourth night free.’ ‘What free night?’ Turns out the other staff member, who we’d booked with, hadn’t mentioned it, and we are stuck with three.

Oh well, it’s still an extended weekend in a good hotel up from the historic district. Until the shuttle-bus rolls up at a different establishment at the eastern end of the CBD, a place with the same name but thoroughly down-market air, awash with tour groups and fading nineties tat. This is what the agent has ACTUALLY booked. But hey, I think as I skid on the body hair of the last occupant, possibly left by the cleaners as a kind of memento on the bathroom floor, we’ve stayed in worse places. The only major down side, to my wife’s annoyance, is that the TV remote keeps sticking on channels showing Dr Who.

Sydney Opera House.

Sydney Opera House with Circular Quay to the right.

We head into central Sydney where a walking tour departs at 2.00 pm from the Archibald Fountain in Hyde Park, ‘every day, rain hail or shine’. Except, we discover in true Spinal Tap terms, today. ‘Sorry, not enough people,’ explains the guide. ‘I’m really sorry, it’s not worth my while. Maybe tomorrow.’ Not my definition of professionalism, but hey… We side-step into St James Church on King Street, where we scan the memorials on the walls for New Zealand historic figures from the 1840s. I find some I’d missed last time. And then we dive into the shopping district where – predictably – we discover the retail stores carry exactly the same brands and range we get in New Zealand, at much the same prices.

The Opera House Bar.

The Opera House Bar.

Dinner is at our favourite sushi train, a place on Liverpool Street whose hard-working staff prepare it in front of their largely Japanese clientele. We go there every time we’re in Sydney. It’s great sushi, and the sense of theatre is underscored by the concierge calling every time someone enters, repeated in unison by the chefs. Careful questioning reveals it isn’t some kind of good-luck ritual, as I fondly imagine, but – mundanely – ‘customers arriving’.

My view from the Makoto sushi bar, Sydney.

My view from the Makoto sushi bar, Sydney. I took this with my phone – I wasn’t going to lug 1.5 kg worth of SLR and lens to dinner.

Another night we eat in a pub of a kind long since extinct in New Zealand – red 1970s carpet, half-tiled walls and an air of tired grandeur and extensive drinking. We find a table under a giant projector screen. ‘Nice to be away from all the New Zealand news,’ I say, just as the screen lights up with the Hawke’s Bay vs Northland game in my home town of Napier. In an effort to feel I am somewhere different I order an entire schooner of XXXX lager (yes, that really is the brand name), having forgotten that in NSW a ‘schooner’ tops out at 285 ml. The one I actually mean is the ‘Middie’, which is approximately 32.8 litres and can be knocked back by any good Aussie or Kiwi in the ten seconds between the start of the six o’clock time pips and the top of the hour.

Inside the Victoria Building on George Street - Victorian-age mall.

Inside the Victoria Building on George Street – Victorian-age mall. Click to enlarge.

Back at the hotel we discover that (a) a couple have moved into the room next door, (b) the soundproofing is in the same basket as the floor cleaning, and (c) our neighbours like each other very, very much. After the Beast With Two Backs makes its third Australian-accented intrusion into the room next door I’m ready to yell ‘get a bloody room’ through the wall despite the fact that, rather obviously, they already have.

We take the commuter ferry along Port Jackson to the historic farm-museum at Parramatta, where I look at Rev. Samuel Marsden’s desk and discover that I know more about its context than our guide. The thing about Sydney is that this is where New Zealand’s pakeha history began. Specifically, at this very desk, where Marsden the ‘Flogging Parson’, so-called because he used to get his jollies watching convict women being whipped, plotted to set up the first permanent pakeha settlement – a Church Missionary Society station – in the Bay of Islands. And managed it, finally, in 1814. Yes, it’s true – history is interesting, if a bit on the ewwww side.

The not-so-sandy end of Manly Beach.

The not-so-sandy end of Manly Beach.

On our last full day we head down to Circular Quay to catch the Manly ferry. Manly, out by the heads, is a great swimming beach, and the water is inviting apart from one small problem. ‘Sheet,’ I explain in my best Australian, ‘we left the cossies across the deetch.’ The calming presence of She Who Must Be Obeyed stops me saying anything more in Australian. Probably wisely.

A busy Saturday on Sydney harbour.

A busy Saturday on Sydney harbour. Click to enlarge.

Our adventures don’t end as we leave our hotel for the airport. We get to the departure lounge, but I can’t help thinking something’s missing. And it is. The aircraft. Then when it does arrive and we settle in, someone near the back decides they have Ebola or have left the eggs boiling back home, and the time is therefore Totally Deranged o’clock. More delays while officials rush about and take the passenger off, then disembowel the hold in a Lord Of The Rings scale quest for their luggage.

Eventually the engines spool up and we depart, 90 minutes late, with what looks like an attempt to taxi back to New Zealand but turns out to be a crawl to the furthest possible runway, all to a soundtrack of Jimmy Barnes’ ‘Last Train Out Of Sydney’. Apt, I think, as we finally surge into the air and the lights of that city disappear behind us.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Real physics is just weird sometimes. Like, totally.

One of my pet irks as a reader of science fiction is the way some authors play fast and loose with science. Sometimes it works. But usually, for me at least, the suspension of disbelief in SF is carried by the science as well as by story and characters. Goes with this particular genre.But that doesn’t preclude imagination. Physics sometimes gets very weird. Especially where our friend Albert Einstein is involved.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of his principles was that nothing can travel faster than light. The end. And that’s been proven over and over and over. Of course, this spoils interstellar SF plots, so finding plausible ways around this annoying limit has been a focus for SF authors ever since Einstein came up with it. But very few have explored the weirder consequences of FTL travel.

Try this. Imagine you’ve got the most powerful telescope ever made. You can see spaceships with an instant faster-than-light (FTL) hyperdrive around nearby stars. The drive, using the Principles of Handwavium, allows them to jump from any star system to any other in zero time. That means they are moving way faster than light.

One day, your friends arrive at your house fizzing about their recent FTL journey from Earth to the nearby star 61 Cygni A, then to Proxima Centauri, then home.

Four and a bit years later, you’ve got your friends over for dinner, and your telescope pointed at Proxima Centauri. You see their ship appear around that star.

Seven years and a few weeks later, your friends are again over for dinner. Through the telescope, you see their ship disappear from around 61 Cygni A, departing on its instant journey to Proxima – where you saw them arrive all that time before, from your viewpoint

In short, you can watch your faster-than-light friends departing after they arrived, even though the trip was in normal sequence for them.

How does it work? Well, it’s all relative. 61 Cygni is 11.4 light years away, so light from that star takes that length of time to reach us on Earth. If you watch stuff going on there, from Earth, you’re looking back in time to the tune of 11.4 years.

Proxima Centauri is 4.3 light years away. Same deal for time – 4.3 years.

So what’s happening? The ship moves instantly. But light doesn’t. The light from Proxima, showing the ship arriving there, only takes 4.3 years to reach Earth, so it arrives before light from 61 Cygni showing it departing. And the ship reaches Earth before the light from either star arrives. So from Earth, you see the journey in reverse order.

See what I mean about weird? I’m put in mind of a piece of doggerel which, I’m told, has an unusual provenance of its own:

There once was a woman named Bright
Who could travel much faster than light
She departed one day,
In an Einsteinian way
And returned the previous night.

It’s not something sci-fi writers often consider. But there’s probably a story in it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Swearing and cussing? Sirrah! It’s a lot of craven murrain

The other week the Prime Minister of New Zealand used a word in public that literally means the ordure of a male cow. The colloquial meaning the PM deployed it for was ‘rubbish’.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Thou dankish unchin-snouted malt-worm!’ William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Oooh, naughty. Or is it? Way back in 1970, the same word was publicly used by Germaine Greer when she visited New Zealand. Then, police issued an arrest warrant. This time? The PM is in the middle of an election campaign in which everything he says or does will win or lose voters – and nobody batted an eye.

But of course. In New Zealand, today’s generation don’t regard this term as particularly offensive. I’ve seen the same word used in book titles, in the US it was the title of a Penn and Teller series, and so on. But that’s swearing. Words come and go. If they didn’t, we’d all swear like that impious swiver, Will Shakespeare.  Zounds! (God’s Wounds). The big word of his day was fie. But wait, there’s more. Not satisfied with the general vocabulary – which included some of the Anglo Saxon we use – the immortal bard is usually credited with coining around 1700 new words, many of them boisterously intended. You can check some of them out for yourself – here’s a Shakespeare insult generator.

What changes is the degree of offence society considers the word causes to ‘polite’ ears. That’s how Benjamin Tabart was able to use Shakespeare’s vilest word in his 1807 childrens’ tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Of course, by that time the hot potato word was ‘damn’, so offensive in polite society it was soon censored to d—d. That became a swear word too – ‘dashed’.

As always, older swear words that now seem acceptable aren’t directed ‘at’ anything. They’re abstract intensifiers that have lost connection with their original meaning. That’s different from offensive words intended to demean others’ behaviours, beliefs or cultures, which never become acceptable, any time. The fact that new terms of this latter kind keep turning up says quite a bit about the unpleasant side of the human condition.

But abstract intensifiers, directed at revealing one’s response to an ordinary event – like stepping in dog poo – are something else, and the funny thing is that any word will do, providing it’s understood. Sci-fi authors coin new ones often as devices for reinforcing the difference between ours and their future society. In Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) the word was ‘frack’. An obvious homophone, but it worked well anyway. Or there’s Larry Niven’s Ringworld-series ‘futz’, which to me sounded like a mashup with putz. But you can’t fault the logic – the ‘different but not TOO different’ principle demanded of accessible SF.

I’ve only seen one place where a different word emerged. It was in Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero. The forbidden term, the deeply offensive word of his galactic future, repeatedly used by his ‘starship troopers’? Bowb. It echoed 1930s slang, but Harrison made it the verboten word and used it with stunning effect – a multi-purpose obscene noun, verb and adjective with which readers instantly identified because of the context. ‘What’s this, bowb your buddy week?’ a trooper demands as his power suit fails and nobody stops him drowning. ‘It’s always bowb your buddy week’, the gunnery corporal tells the troops as the man sinks.

Bowb. Conveying the intensity of personal emotional response to the abstract without the current-day offence.  And that, of course, is the essence of writing – transmitting the intended emotion to the reader. Way cleverer than using existing swear words.

Trouble is, when I use bowb  in conversations, people look at me funny and think I’m a gleeking, beef-witted dewberry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

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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