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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My top five writing records…

It’s over 30 years since I started writing my first book for publication. It’s been a pretty wild ride at times.  The whole lot has been through the traditional system – and today I thought I’d share the top five ‘record events’.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

1. The most money someone wanted for a license fee on any project I’ve worked on.
Not for a book, but I had to include this because it’s so crazy. The copyright owners wanted to charge $15,110.39 for use of one cartoon from a 60-year old magazine. Ouch. I could have commissioned new artwork for less than ten percent of that. The idea of using it was promptly dropped.  I’m still not sure what the extra 39 cents was for.

2. The fastest rejection.
Nine minutes, from a university press. They also told me never to bother them again. Usually a publisher rejects work through inaction – they neither know, nor care about, the hopeful author. But this was so decisive and fast that I’d obviously tripped up over a prior decision about dealing with me. The weird part? I was a total stranger. I have a shrewd idea as to what was going on. But it worries me that people I don’t know, and have never had an argument with, nonetheless feel so strongly they feel able to act as judge, jury and executioner, behind my back, and in absence of my knowing they have an issue. It’s not how western morality is meant to work, though it’s consistent with the moral void I’ve discovered every time I try to deal professionally with New Zealand academics or their wannabe hangers on.

3. The longest running contract before publication.
In 2003 I signed a contract with Penguin to write a biography of Sir Donald McLean. Before I’d finished, a biography of the same guy appeared, the existence of which was previously unknown to me or to Penguin. We agreed to put mine on hold for a while until the dust settled. It’s being published in February 2015.

4. The most books I had published in one calendar year.
Five. Four new titles and one reprint with amendments. I didn’t write them in one hit, of course – publishers stack ‘em for specific release times, and books chase each others’ tails.

5. The most danger I’ve ever been in as a result of writing.
There was the time when I was doing my aviation journalism jag, and I found myself in a C-130 Hercules, punting along at about 200 feet on a low-alt exercise with the rear door open and a Toyota Hilux bouncing on its chains beside me. But that wasn’t actually dangerous.

No, the most danger I’ve been in was in Archives New Zealand reading room, when a military historian who I’d never met before saw me, crossed the room, and stood over me with balled fists and red face, demanding to know what I was doing. He was very, very angry. I thought I was going to be hit, and I think I would have been if I’d stood up. I’ve had people back me into a corner and spit at me, in libraries, but this one wins the prize. Why did it happen? See (2).

Could be worse, of course – at least I’m not John Lennon.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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‘If it’s free, you’re the product’ – and what that means for Facebook

A few days ago I belatedly joined approximately 1.2 billion other people – more than one in seven of the world’s entire population – on Facebook.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

OK, can anybody guess what I am ACTUALLY a fan of from the ‘metadata’ on the sign around me? Or will I just get barraged with ads for stupid artisan stuff?

I’ve had reasons to be laggard. Only one is time.  I set up a Facebook placeholder do-nothing page in 2013, to protect my name – but my main leeriness with actively engaging has been their reported attitude to users. There are reports of Facebook allegedly reading private messages and selling the information. Just last month, account holders were unknowingly used for mass psychology experiments. Facebook has also been reported tracking your clicks – including (by cookie) when you’re logged off your account. In short, they know what you do. They have your profile. And a month ago, they openly announced that they’re going to track your browsing.

Most social media does this, and of course the big ones get the highest profile flak. To me, it’s one result of a web-world where users look for ‘free’. How is the service funded? Online providers have turned themselves, as they’ve grown, into advertising companies – in which user conduct, as apparent clue to user preference and want, is the prime commodity.

To me it’s a fairly obvious general outcome of the collision between the human condition, the way that condition has been shaped by history (especially the last few centuries in the west) and technology. This had led to all sorts of specific characteristics of the modern world. One of those is the way data about you – which you can’t control and don’t necessarily know, has been collected. As a friend of mine put it, if it’s free – you’re the product. 

He’s right. The Guardian called the mechanism ‘surveillance as a business model‘. And it is – the issue being not advertising you can ignore, but what might happen if somebody with different intent and value judgement has that data. Particularly when the context of your thoughts, intentions or other motives isn’t part of the data-set. This is classic 2 + 2 = 486,593. Armand Jean du Plessis – Cardinal Richieleu – summed it up in 1641: Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre. “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

As I’ve always said, the tragedy of history is that the stories change – but human nature doesn’t. Think about it.

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place...

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place…so sell me books? Actually, this is me being a science geek inside the Carter Observatory, Wellington NZ.

The other issue is that social media makes derp easy – derp that’s yours. Forever. And sure, it’s cool to publish some pic that means something to you and friends after you’ve pranked the boss. Gives you bragging rights for a day or two. Does it mean anything to anybody else?

We all derp, in various ways. It’s called being human. But do you want that pic of you with a rifle and a dead gazelle to be found 28 milliseconds after you landed a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal? Whether you shot it or not? It’s not new. French revolutionary leader Maxmilien Robespierre summed up the way societies respond to alleged conduct over 200 years ago: “Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts…” And he thought it was as valid, as a mechanism for condemnation, as a court. Sound familiar today? As I say, the tragedy of history (etc etc)…

Rule of thumb? Everything you put into the internet is PERMANENTLY PUBLISHED. Everything? Everything. And assume anybody can see it. Don’t rely on privacy settings. The judgement is straight-forward. Imagine it’s on the front page of the paper. Do you want your name attached? That’s especially so if you’re also trying to build brand and author profile. Basic media management – which pre-dates the internet – applies. How does that sit with genuinely connecting to people – and building an author platform? There are answers. More in due course.

On the other hand, Facebook is expected. Me? For now, a personal page. I might do an author page later. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Refurbishing with colour and deco

I’ve refurbished my blog this week – added a new header, new background and changed some of the colours.

Here's the original image - also check out the close-up on my Google+ homepage.

Here’s the original image – also check out the close-up on my Google+ homepage.

The header’s from a photo essay I took in late February in Napier, New Zealand.  It features the upper parts of the 1932 Masonic Hotel building on the right, in early streamline style, and the 1936 T & G building, now called (rather unimaginatively) The Dome, on the left – partly obscured by deco-style foliage.

Napier is set apart by its stunning 1930s architectural heritage. And by its climate, which matches Santa Barbara. It was around 100 degrees F on that scorching late summer day. The camera got hot too, and the photos that came out of it glowed – even the shadows were fully lit, by reflection. The photo at bottom shows what I mean. It was taken facing the opposite direction from the blog header.

What do you think of the new blog look?

Unlikely to have actually driven in 1930s Napier...but who cares?

This is the exact image that came out of the camera – editing was restricted to scaling down for the blog, and adding the copyright notice. It was taken with full polarisation. Note the flared highlights, and how the shadow side of the car is illuminated by sunlight reflected off the footpath. Same phenomenon is why Apollo astronauts appeared to be side-lit on the Moon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Don’t forget to watch TV this Sunday

The first episode of the four-part history documentary Making New Zealand, for which I was interviewed, will be screening nationally on Prime TV in New Zealand this Sunday, 18 May, at 8.30 pm.

The remaining three parts are showing at the same time next week, the week after and so forth. I don’t know how much of the interview I did will be shown, but we’ll see.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

How I ended up on national TV without noticing

The night before last, and all day yesterday, people were telling me I’d been on TV.

MJWright2011They didn’t mean last week’s interview slot on TV3’s breakfast show. This was something else. Apparently I was part of a programme promo. Which, inevitably, I missed, because I don’t actually watch TV. I mean, I really don’t. It’s taken me a decade to discover the Battlestar Galactica re-boot.

The cover of Big IdeasStill, the surprise promo means only one thing. About fifteen months ago I was interviewed, fairly extensively, for a four-part series on New Zealand’s engineering history. I’ve written books on it, one of which - Big Ideas (Random House, 2009) hit the New Zealand best seller charts and stayed there for several months.

I always thought I’d missed the series – after all, as I say, I don’t watch TV. But a few days ago I was advised it’s coming, and now it seems a clip from the interview is part of the national promo.

I really should make a point of watching this one.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014