Selfies with dinosaurs – the angry birds of the chalk era

I managed to take a selfie with ‘real’ dinosaurs the other week, thanks to some clever SFX. Cool. But in other ways it wasn’t too remarkable – because the latest science says these remarkable creatures, who once dominated the earth and whose chief badass was Tyrannosaurus Rex, are still with us today. We call them ‘chickens’, and usually pressure-cook them in secret herbs and spices.

Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge...but I wouldn't want to meet a hungry one without a Stryker to hand, even so. Click to enlarge.

Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge…but I wouldn’t want to meet a hungry one. Click to enlarge.

That’s right. Birds aren’t ‘descended from’ dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs - specifically, a type of theropod that survived the comet extinction and spread to fill a variety of ecological niches today.

Most of their Cretaceous-era (‘Chalk-era’) relations, such as T-Rex - also a theropod – couldn’t fly. But that didn’t stop most dinosaurs being brightly coloured, feathered (mostly) three-toed, hollow-boned, bipedal egg-layers. Just like birds. And, of course, that means dinosaurs were almost certainly warm-blooded. Like birds. Angry ones. (Go download the app.)

All this was brought home to me a few weeks back when I visited an exhibition about Tyrannosaurs – a long-standing dinosaur family of which T-Rex was one of the last and largest – in Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum. I’ve already posted about the first part of the experience. The other part was the fabulous high-tech special effects that the museum used to bring their subjects to life.

That included some live action green-screen type SFX, fed back to museum-goers on huge screens - like this one. That’s me on the right, being checked out by my new friend Dino. Cool.

I'm on the right - a selfie I took with my SLR, green-screened and slightly foreshortened (uh.... thanks, guys) with some dinosaurs. Cool!

I’m on the right with SLR to my face in this selfie, green-screened and horribly foreshortened (uh…. thanks, guys) with dinosaurs.

I often walk on the Wellington waterfront. Until now, I'd never met dinosaurs on it... More green-screen fun.

I often walk the Wellington waterfront. Plenty of seabirds to see there, but until now, none of their ancient cousins. More live-action SFX fun in the T-Rex exhibition. I was lucky to take the photo - these things were moving. Note the feather coats and bird feet.

Velociraptor mongoliensis reconstruction, apparently life-size, which is bigger than I'd have thought (most of them were about the side of an annoyed turkey).

Velociraptor mongoliensis, apparently life-size, which at approximately 2 metres snout-to-tail is bigger than I’d have thought. Most of them were about the size of an annoyed turkey. Another hand-held ambient-light photo (note movement blur in the guy behind the display).

The whole exhibition, really, wasn’t about T-Rex. It was about what dinosaurs have become for us; symbols of total badass, which stands slightly against the fact that by the Cretaceous era they were actually feathered, bird-like and really pretty fluffy looking, including the ones that would have eaten you.

All this is a complete turn-about from earlier thinking. Victorian-age scientists looked on dinosaurs as slow, stupid, splay-legged, tail-dragging, cold-blooded lizards, doomed to extinction. The word ‘dinosaur’ remains a perjorative today in some circles for this reason. They were wrong, though in point of fact there HAD been large, splay-legged, exothermic animals in the Permian period (299-251 million years ago). There were two main land animal families at the time – the Synapsids (mammal ancestors), which included the fin-backed Pelycosaurs, like Dimetrodon. And there were the Sauropsids (reptile and dinosaur ancestors). Then came a Great Death, bigger than the one that ended the Cretaceous, that killed 90 percent of all life on the planet in less than 100,000 years. The jury’s out on what caused it, though climate change played a part. All the Synapsids died out, with the exception of a few species such as the Cynodonts, now regarded as mammal ancestors.

Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.

Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.

Dinosaurs came into their own two ages later, the Jurassic – and flourished particularly in the Cretaceous. By this time they were as far from their reptile ancestors as mammals were. Dinosaurs were feathered not for flight, but for display and insulation. They laid eggs in nests. They had hollow (pneumatised) bones. They fell into two types; Orthinischians (bird-hipped), which included the big quadrupedal herbivores; and Saurischichians, lizard-hipped dinosaurs which included the theropods and – paradoxically – therefore birds. Indeed, some of the Cretaceous theropods, like the various species of Troodon, were originally classified as early birds, which they weren’t. But only birds survived the K-T extinction event, 65 million years ago, apparently because they were small.

Did smarts play a part for dinosaurs? Apparently not. They were relentlessly tiny-brained. And the fact that dinosaurs flourished for tens of millions of years, out-stripping the mammals of the day, suggests that – despite our own conceits – intelligence wasn’t required for a survival advantage. But it’s possible they were smarter than we think. Their surviving cousins, today, offer insight. Crows are as pea-brained as all birds. Yet they can solve complex logic puzzles. So maybe dinosaurs had a different sort of intelligence from us.

More on that soon. But for now I’ll leave you with a final look at one of the biggest predators of the dino-era – the magnificent T-Rex, as seen in all good museums… especially one near me, just now. A feathered, hollow-boned, six-tonne carnivore with bird-feet, jaws with the strength of a hydraulic ram – 3000 kg worth of bite – driving home 15-cm long teeth. Speaks for itself, really.

The real thing - Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards, in all his glory. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.

The real thing – Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Writing inspirations – the stories an old boat might tell

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants and for writers of all persuasions – is a photo I took of an old boat in Sydney harbour.

A boat in Sydney harbour...

A boat in Sydney harbour…

The planking and paintwork says it all; and as writers we have to wonder who sailed on this boat over the years – what were their lives, their experiences, their hopes and their dreams? What are the stories that flow around this old boat?

A moment to ponder, to think, and to be inspired.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: keeping focus as you write

It’s often difficult to keep the focus going as you write. Apart from the creative muse running dry there’s the relentless call of – well, everything. Noises outside, social media, The Internet and all the rest.

None of it is helped by the fact that these days we’re conditioned to have an attention span of around – OOOH, POSSUM! – fifteen seconds.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

That’s one of the down-sides of the internet where, according to the figures I’ve seen, the average user flips between media around 27 times an hour. That’s a little over two minutes per interaction – Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, texting, messages and so on. We are conditioned to have an endless hunger for new, an endless quest for instantly gratifying entertainment.  All of it shallow, transient and brief. And even brief sometimes isn’t brief enough. I’ve seen stats for YouTube videos in which, typically, viewers last about 90-100 seconds into a four-minute video before flipping off to something else.

It’s not limited to the web either. TV scripting usually demands an ‘action moment’ every eight seconds or so – a hook – as a device for capturing channel surfers. That’s had its impact on the pace and rhythm of the stories which, by earlier standards, can best be described as frenetic.

We live in a world where instant fun, instant gratification and constant novelty is expected, where any one thing can capture us for seconds or at best a couple of minutes at a time. A world of derp, not to put too fine a point on it. That stands in diametric opposition to the sustained single-thread concentration demanded of reading – and, more especially, of writing. But that conditioning is insidious, especially because we usually write on the very same tool we use to get that massive wealth of content flowing past us.

So how do we get around it?

There is only one answer. Ignore the distractions. Switch off the internet. Turn off your phone. Take yourself away from screens, except the one you’re working on. Or switch off the computer altogether, sit down with pen and paper, and get going for a solid planning session as a first step to writing.

Most of us have to wedge writing in around other things, and that can be turned to an advantage too. If you schedule your writing time – even a thirty-minute burst – it can sometimes be possible to also orchestrate it so there are no interruptions.

The very best writers do it. Jonathan Franzen apparently writes on a laptop disconnected from the internet, sitting in a room facing a blank wall. No distractions; just the inner voice.

It really is the only way to go.

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

Essential writing skills: action, contemplation, or both?

One of the hardest parts of writing fiction is finding the elusive balance between action and contemplation.

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume...

Photo I took of some essential writing fuel I was about to consume…

On the face of it, the split is easy. Novels that look inward – that appear superficially plotless, slow, boring and which rely on internal character mood as driver – are typically classed as literature. They are the sort of books that school curricula use to torture disinterested kids with. Such tomes have narrow appeal, often snobbishly asserted by those who like them for its supposed ‘high-brow’ nature, or used by the author as a device to validate themselves around intellectual pretension.

Tales with more action and an ability to capture the interest of a much wider audience are more usually ‘populist’, often dissed as ‘shallow’ or ‘pulp’ by those who imagine they have ‘higher’ interests.

Personally I don’t regard any of these things as ‘ranked’. Indeed, I don’t draw a distinction between ‘literature’ and ‘popular’ fiction. Really, it’s different aspects of the same thing – a way of taking a reader on an emotional journey. And from my perspective, populist literature is the way to go because it appeals to such a wide audience. But that doesn’t mean ditching character contemplation.

Want proof? Go read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. It’s a graphic novel – the bottom of the food chain as far as the literati are concerned. A comic. Er – isn’t it? Actually, it made Time magazine’s top hundred novels of all time, putting it up there with Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye and Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings among others.

Gibbons and Moore nailed it as far as I am concerned – producing characters who were rounded, multi-dimensional, and where the plot was effectively driven by their needs as characters. Why have a cardboard superhero when you can have a neurotic one? It could have been presented as literature – but it wasn’t. It subverted the whole genre of the graphic novel.

What does this mean for writers? It means that the onus is on all writers, whether aiming for a populist market or not, to build due contemplation and character development into their stories. The whole essence of fiction writing is the character arc – this is where the tension comes from. It is where the reader is captured. The narrative adventures of the plot, however exciting they may be, are backdrop to that arc.

That’s true of all fiction writing – literature or not.

Soon – how to make that work. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: why a bad first draft is better than no first draft

There is an old adage – attributed to Will Shetterly – that a bad first draft is better than no first draft. Something of a cliché these days, though it also happens to be true.

Wright_Typewriter01For me the more interesting point is why it’s true. And that comes down to the nature of writing, which is all about an emotional journey – both for the author and the reader. That’s true of all writing, fiction and non-fiction.

The challenge authors face is translating that journey into the written word. Ideas, inevitably, emerge as concepts. They have a crystalline clarity and perfection in the mind that vanishes in the effort to write them down. Part of the problem is that we usually think in simultaneous concepts, whereas writing is a linear thread. The art of writing is the art of translating from one to the other, and it’s difficult. But there is also the fact that words, themselves, are imperfect tools for expressing the inexpressible. For beginning writers, for whom words are not yet their servants, the task is doubly hard.

All authors wrestle with the issue – it is this, more than any other – that has prompted such remarks as Hemingway’s declaration that we are all apprentices. It’s true.

What that means in practise is that the transition from ‘no draft’ to ‘first draft’ is often a struggle, because the written words –which make the concept concrete – inevitably never live up to the imagined perfection in the mind of the author. A large part of that is because our concepts-in-mind always come with the emotional sense, a feeling, attached to them – and this is what has to be translated, somehow, to the page.

It’s that act of translation that is the challenge. But once it has been expressed – once that concept has been pinned down in the form of words, however bad or imperfectly, a draft can then be worked on. That’s especially true in this age of word processors.

So that, in a nutshell, is why a bad first draft is always better than none. It’s a first expression of that translation of concept to words – a first effort to meet the challenge. It gives a writer something to work from, to ponder. Even to throw away, if required. But it’s better than nothing, because a concept in the mind, un-expressed, will always be perfect in ways that writing cannot be.

Do you get frustrated with that transition from concept to word?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Writing inspirations – big sky and big country

Today’s writing inspiration – for NaNoWriMo entrants and for writers of all persuasions – is a photo I took of one of New Zealand’s fabulous landscapes. Big sky. Empty road. A vastness that belies the true scale of these modest South Pacific lands.

Wright_EastWanaka2013

This is just east of Lake Wanaka, in high summer. I find it inspiring. Do you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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