The art of deco hood ornaments

It must be at least seventy years since car radiator caps disappeared inside bonnets. Followed, soon after, by the ornaments that once bedecked them.

Safety regulations seem to have done for the last of them these days. But you can still find a few, if you loiter around a vintage car parade, camera in hand, looking for the art of deco. Enjoy. I did.

The Spirit of Ecstasy, 1920 style.

The Spirit of Ecstasy, 1920 style.

Classic, classic art...

Classic, classic art…

Like something out of Flash Gordon - the radiator 'bullet' on a 1937 Hudson Teraplane.

Like something out of Flash Gordon – the radiator ‘bullet’ on a 1937 Hudson Teraplane.

So cool!

So cool!

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


Where old American school-buses go to die

I promised a few surprise posts this year. Here’s the first. A couple of years ago the City Council in Napier, New Zealand, decided to spend about $1.1 million on two old Thomas school-buses, which they had customised in California for that quintessential Flash Gordon look – specifically, streamline moderne.

Napier deco bus 'Belle' outside the former Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery.

Napier deco bus ‘Belle’ outside the former Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery.

It was intended to match the city’s art deco theme, but the plan didn’t go well. The buses arrived in New Zealand in late 2012 and were declared un-roadworthy on inspection in Wellington. That cost $100,000 to rectify,  and then when they did hit Napier streets in April 2013 they netted a grand total of 11 paying passengers a day, for a dead loss to the Council of $58,000 through August. It was late 2013 before passenger numbers rose.

Napier deco bus 'Belle'.

Napier deco bus ‘Belle’.

My take? If you’re going to customise an American school bus, do this. I’d pay for a ride. You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Regular writing posts, science geekery and more.

The top strange battleships of the world. Strange? I mean British.

Yesterday I listed the top five Google strings that found my blog. Not on that list was a string that found me a while back – ‘strange battleship designs’. Odd. I didn’t have any listed.

Hey – challenge! Although I can’t help thinking about the foolishness of nineteenth and early twentieth century thinking that uplifted these engines of destruction into symbols of national prestige – tributes to the pride and folly of humanity. But the geek in me has to admire the technology. And some of those designs were really, really strange. The British led the way…

HMS Victoria. Her bows are to the left. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS Victoria, looking for all the world like a carpet slipper. Her bows are to the left. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

1. HMS Victoria (1890)

Built to a financially imposed limit of 10,600 tons, Victoria was expected to carry 16-inch guns. The result was this bizarre carpet slipper, mounting just two monster guns in a turret forwards. There was talk of her using these symbols of Britain’s national inadequacy complex to blast through the Dardanelles should war break out with Russia. However, in 1893, off Tripoli, she was rammed and sunk by HMS Camperdown, after a botched manoeuvre always blamed on Rear-Admiral Sir George Tryon.

2. HMS Glorious (1917)

HMS Glorious, 1917. Bizarre light cruiser with battleships guns. Public domain.

HMS Glorious, 1917. Bizarre light cruiser with battleship guns. Public domain.

There was no arguing with the volcanic and charismatic Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher – inventor of ‘OMG‘ – who returned in triumph to the Admiralty in 1914 as First Sea Lord and was able to get five battlecruisers authorised, despite a Cabinet edict against new capital ships. Every one was iconoclastic – including Glorious and her sister Courageous, over-blown light cruisers with a stupid armament of four 15-inch guns.  They weren’t good for anything – the sailors called them the Outrageous class – and the Admiralty lost no time converting them to aircraft carriers. Their gun mountings were re-used, a quarter-century later, on Britain’s last battleship, HMS Rearguard Vanguard.

3. HMS Rodney (1927)
A cherry tree of a battleship. Why? Because she was “cut down” by Washington.

HMS Rodney after refitting at Liverpool, 1942. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS Rodney after refitting at Liverpool, 1942. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

In 1920, the world seemed about to plunge into a new naval race, led by Japan and the United States. The British were the only nation with combat experience, and applied the lessons to designs that outstripped anything in US or Japanese yards. These 48,500 ton ‘G3′ battlecruisers – more heavily armoured than battleships of the day – were ordered in 1921.

All this came as the world emerged from the most devastating war in history, prompting the US to call other powers into a naval treaty, hammered out in Washington, limiting warship size and number. Most of the new ships were cancelled, but Britain was allowed to build two ships to 35,000 ton Treaty limits. Hence Rodney and her sister ship Nelson, sometimes dubbed the ‘Cherry Tree’ class because they had been ‘cut down’ by the Washington Treaty. The bluejackets – cruelly – called them Rodnol and Nelsol, after fleet oil tankers.

Despite being ‘cut down’ they were still the most powerful battleships in the world until late 1941, when Japan commissioned the Yamato.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Regular writing posts resume tomorrow, more geekery (with custard), humour and other stuff. Watch this space.

The irresistible list of four fun weird things

Ever wondered what might happen if Charlie Brown grew up and became a cyborg mercenary in a post-apocalyptic dystopia? No? Me neither.

But a guy named Jason Yungbluth did. Hitting No. 1 on my weird list (and maybe yours…)

1. Weapon Brown.
Published here:  Warning – it’s a graphic novel, and it’s seriously graphic (no pun intended) – mostly OTT violence. Not safe for work. Or home. Or possibly anywhere. But very funny. It is, needless to say, parody.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

2. One-way Mars flight with reality TV
Then there was the Dutch plan to send people on a one-way ‘trip of a lifetime’ to Mars – funding it by (wait for it) turning the venture into reality TV. I have to say, a one-way trip to Mars would be the LAST trip I’d ever make.

3. Total physics geekery with custard
Although I’ve made a name for myself by writing history, my real enthusiasm is for physics – and I’ve found out about a way of measuring the speed of light using a microwave oven and a bowl of custard. I’ve got a post coming up…be warned. And get that custard ready.

4. A slightly odd German lexicon
Finally, anybody remember Blackadder Goes Forth? The scene where Blackadder insists the Germans have no word for ‘fluffy’? Of course I had to look it up, and I believe there are at least seventeen German words referring to ‘fluffy’. They include flaumig (fluffy feathers), flockig (fluffy snow), kuschelig (fluffy fabric), locker (fluffy hair), fusselig (fluffy), duftig (frothy/fluffy), oberflachlich (fluffy thinking), schaumig (fluffy egg whites), stofftier (fluffy toy), pluschtier (fluffy toy), not to mention fluffig, which means…er…fluffy.

Ok, so that was probably a load of quatsch … but hey…my German vocab is otherwise limited to ‘Achtung!’ (which I accidentally said in the departure lounge in Frankfurt airport, one time), ‘Panzer’, ‘Messerschmitt’ and ‘mein Luftkissenfahrzeug ist voller Aale’.

Did you find out anything funny or just plain berserk in 2013? I’d love to hear from you!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Christmas greetings, more science geekery and some end-of-year fun.

OMG – the baddest sci-fi mega-mech…e-v-a-h!

I posted last week about why huge bipedal fighting ‘mechs’ from sci-fi like Pacific Rim are unlikely, unless the laws of physics change.

Copyright (c) Matthew Wright 2004, 2012

An Airfix kit I made of a Mk IV tank – battlefield mech, 1917 era.

But that doesn’t mean sci-fi mechs have to be boring. Not at all.

More in a moment. First off – what’s wrong with a 120-metre x 20-metre biped mega-mech?  Alas, even if you could get your mech to move, it’s a 2400 square metre target balancing on pivot points wa-a-a-ay below its centre of gravity. There are reasons why soldiers don’t stand tall and walk very, very slowly towards the enemy. When it was tried, on the Somme in 1916, the British Army suffered its heaviest one-day losses – ever.

The same’s true of real mechs – main battle tanks. In the First World War, infantry tanks were high-sided. The fact that height made them targets was understood, But the design committee couldn’t compromise on the height of the tracks, because the criteria was for a vehicle able to drive over trenches – dictating a rhomboidal profile equivalent to a 20-metre diameter wheel.

My 'Dragon' model of M. I. Koshkin's T-34. Lighting rig was improvised.

A ‘Dragon’ model of M. I. Koshkin’s T-34. Sits on the shelf beside my writing desk, usually. Lighting rig was improvised.

Inter-war tanks had different criteria but were still high-sided. Then, during the Second World War, sloped armour – again, well known in naval circles – was applied by Mikhail Ilyich Koshkin to his T-34. Modern tanks follow that lead. Tank tactics reflect ‘low is better’ too – a commander looks for places to go hull-down. You can’t do that in a 120-metre high bipedal mech.

So does this mean mech sci-fi has to be dull? Not at all. I’m thinking of the most awesome mech I’ve ever seen in SF – Stanislaw Lem’s Cyclops. Total badass. To one reader, ‘goddamn dynamite, I mean, like whoa.

Best MBT in the world - the Challenger 2. Well, it's British, innit. "It's only a model". "Shh"

Best MBT in the world – the Challenger 2. “Eeee, lad, that’s ‘cos it’s British, innit.” “It’s only a model”. “Shh”. Note the background …the same as the T-34’s.

Get this. Lem’s Cyclops is an autonomous robot weighing 80 tons, 25 feet high, levitated on force fields, protected by ceramic armour and energy fields, with near-inexhaustible energy reserves. It’s armed with an antimatter cannon capable of continuous fire in all directions – annihilating everything in a constant nuclear-yield detonation, soaking the battlefield in relativistic-scale energies and lethally hard radiation.

Here’s Alex Andreev’s visual concept.

It’s from Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible (1964)I read that novel in 1978 and – setting aside Wendayne Ackerman’s peculiar translation from Polish, via German – it’s total OMG.  Mech-machine evolution…versus humans. And Lem also envisaged the ultimate end; a robot fly (‘grey goo‘). Tiny, individually disposable, always replaceable – available in multi-billions – and able to connect into swarms that were …invincible. Blasting them was like fighting the ocean with swords. The logic pivoted on energy consumption.

That was the ultimate sci-fi mega mech. Infintesimally tiny – yet, vastly huge. Expendable, yet indestructible. Brilliant. But then, Lem’s stuff always is. Here’s part of the sequence where the Cyclops goes into combat with the flies. Lem is one hell of an author! Don’t just take my word for it.  Find a copy of that book and read it – because, my friends, Stanislaw Lem has shown us how mechs are done.

And – more importantly – how we’ll relate to them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week: My review of Gravity. Before then – NaNo writing tips and advice. Watch this space.

The Kiwi love affair with American cars…and the Austin Allegro

Last week my wife and I bought a new car. Got me thinking about New Zealanders and cars. Back in the 1920s, Kiwis took to them like ducks to water – by the 1930s we were the most motorised country in the world outside North America. And a lot of the cars were American.

Deco dreaming: photo I took of a classic US car in New Zealand - art deco parade, Napier 2012.

Deco dreaming: photo I took of a 1942 Packard convertible coupe in Napier, New Zealand, 2012.

That changed in the face of 1930s government policies – import restrictions and a lurch to Mother England that created a local car assembly industry built around British products.

Austin Seven Ruby, classic British transport designed to fit into the boot (sorry, 'trunk' of) a small American car. Click to enlarge...the photo, not the car...

A 1935 Austin Seven Ruby, classic British transport designed to fit into the boot (sorry, ‘trunk”) of any American car. Click to enlarge…the photo, not the car…

By the 1950s, instead of roaring around in big American V8’s, Kiwis were puttering about in underpowered and over-complex Chummy Piddlers and Humber Milquetoasts, designed in towns with names like Lesser Peniston to meet British tax laws. But Kiwis with foreign funds could use them to import vehicles. Often American, the smallest of them three quarters the size of a continent with FireGlide transmission, FireLite headlamps, rocket fins, and half South Africa’s annual chrome output made into the front bumper.

The typical age of a Kiwi car, back then, was 20 years; and they were sold with eggs cracked into differentials or with bodywork ‘bogged’ to the hilt, liable to fall apart on first impact. Car dealers, by repute, were a bit slimy. A lot slimy, actually. But they fitted the culture of geriatric cars that gained value while lurching around the streets trailing oil smoke and bolts.

Two 1956 Ford Consuls out to seed. You can tell it's New Zealand because of the sheep. These four-cylinder Dagenham-designed vehicles were the lesser version of the classic Ford Zephyr.

Two 1956 Mk II Ford Consuls out to seed. You can tell it’s New Zealand because of the sheep.

That changed in 1972, when restrictions were partly lifted – with the result that many Kiwis ended up driving the worst car ever made in the entire 13.77 billion year history of the universe, the Austin Allegro. The steering wheel was square because Leyland were at home to Mr Cock Up during design and failed to leave room for some drivers’ knees. It was more aerodynamic when driven in reverse. And if you drove it over a cattle-stop, you couldn’t open the doors because the monocoque shell wasn’t rigid enough and they used to sag in the middle.

Car buying changed again in the 1980s when restrictions came off. Suddenly cars flooded in, mostly Japanese with hopeful English names like Cherry.  The thing was, apart from occasional silly marque names, these cars were good. Well engineered, reliable, cost-effective and designed to last.  Typified by my 1990 Toyota Corona, which I had for 18 years and which never let me down, apart from the broken con rod that killed it. (Come on, Mr Toyoda, you KNOW your cars don’t break like that usually…any chance of a new one?).

My trusty Toyota - which accompanied me on writing ventures for 18 years.

My trusty Toyota – which accompanied me on writing ventures for 18 years. Now no more… sigh…

Back to the Wright family car hunt. We discovered that a quarter-century of deregulated car market hasn’t altered the integrity of some car dealers. But others are good. I negotiated…and if you’ve seen Happy Endings, Series 3, Ep 2 – ‘Sabado Free-Gante’, where Jane negotiates for a car…well, it was like that.

So we have a new car. I think the dealer has stopped gibbering in the corner. Next challenge: the name. I’ve always given my cars stupid names – my Corona was ‘The Bishop’, solely so I could make lame British public school references to the fact that cars need polishing. The new one belongs to She Who Must Be Obeyed, so it will end up with a sensible name. Or not.

Do you have adventures buying cars – and give them names?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013