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

Buy print edition from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

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.