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

Did T-Rex really have feathers and taste of chicken?

Think dinosaurs and the first thing most of us imagine is a large two-legged carnivore with 15-cm teeth, power-shovel jaws and dinky forelimbs. A beast of prey that spent most of the Upper Cretaceous going ‘raaargh’ and having absolutely anything it wanted for breakfast.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes Jaws look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f.35. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

Tyrannosaur jaws. Makes the Great White look like Mr Gummy. Photo I took hand-held at 1/25, ISO 1600, f3.5. Just saying. Click to enlarge.

It was thanks to those jaws and 6-metre body that Tyrannosaurus Rex – named such in 1905, over a decade after the first fossils were discovered – was captured by popular imagination well before it became the surprise anti-hero in Jurassic Park.

Never mind the fact that – if we DID meet one, Lost World-style, a bullet or two would turn the hungriest T-Rex into T-Rug. Still, the point that humans are Earth’s all-time apex predator didn’t stop T-Rex speaking to nineteenth and early twentieth century concepts of animal machismo. It was still one of the most dangerous animals to walk this planet. And that made it scary to imagine a meeting. Especially for someone not equipped with a Remington Model 700 BDL. Or running shoes.

Part of the magic came about because Tyrannosaurs died out at the end of the Cretaceous, some 65 million years ago. And that remove in time has given them mythic status. We know them only through bones. Our imagination fills the gaps. And that’s why we keep re-inventing them, even as science and new discoveries, together, unravel an increasingly clear picture of what they were like.

Guanlong Wucaii - an early Tyrannosaur from China. Photo I took hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. I held my breath.

Guanlong Wucaii – an early Tyrannosaur from China. Note the feathery coat. I took this hand-held at 1/3 second exposure, ISO 800, f 5.6. Yes, that’s a third of a second. I held my breath…

Let me explain. To nineteenth and early twentieth century science, dinosaurs were scaly, lumbering, tail-dragging reptiles of which the most ferocious – and certainly the hungriest – was the Tyrannosaurus Rex. That name, ‘King of the tyrant lizards’, said it all.

An 1863 reconstruction of Iguanodon vs Megalosaurus - complete with Iguanodon's thumb-bone wrongly placed as a nose spike. Classic Victorian-age thinking. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

An 1863 reconstruction of Iguanodon vs Megalosaurus – complete with Iguanodon’s thumb-bone wrongly placed as a nose spike. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The image came out of nineteenth century ideas of ‘progression’ and the ‘tree of life’ (a pre-Darwinian notion) which helped shape popular concepts of evolution as directional ‘advance’ from reptiles to dinosaurs to mammals, each ‘superior’ to the last and thus dooming its dull-witted predecessor to extinction. It was a mind set that took decades to shake – hence the dispute in the 1980s over whether dinosaurs generated internal heat endothermically, like mammals and birds, as asserted by Robert Bakker.

The actual answer, of course, was staring us in the face all along – and Bakker was right, though it wasn’t until the early twenty-first century that enough fossil evidence had been collected to convince the whole scientific community.

Dilong Paradoxus, an early Tyrannosaur. Photo I took hand-held at 1/13, ISO 800, f 5.0.

Dilong paradoxus, an early Tyrannosaur. Photo I took hand-held at 1/13, ISO 800, f 5.0.

We’d known for a while that birds were related to dinosaurs – specifically, theropods, which is the same dinosaur group T-Rex hails from. But the truth didn’t emerge until the early 1990s when increasing numbers of fossils were found in China with clear feather impressions. All, initially, were theropods – the bird ancestors and cousins. But then, earlier this year, a dinosaur species not associated with the bird descent line was found to be also feathered.

Dilong Paradoxus - a reconstructed model. With feathers...

Dilong paradoxus – a reconstructed model. With feathers…

The old idea of dinosaurs as reptiles had already been under fire. And suddenly the truth became obvious. They weren’t reptiles at all. Dinosaurs, like birds, were feathered. Not for flight, mostly, but for insulation – and, doubtless, display. Not only that, but we already knew dinosaurs all had the same skull structure as birds, the same specific skeletal features including pneumatised bones – and half the dinosaurs were, in fact, bird-hipped. They laid eggs in nests. And if it looks like a bird and tastes like a bird… Well, the reality is that birds aren’t descended from dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs. We’ve even discovered the genes inside the chicken genome that atavistically give chickens dino-jaws with teeth, instead of a beak.

The fact that birds are surviving dinosaurs resolves a lot of questions. Want to know how dinosaurs lived? Look out the window at sparrows. Want to know if they were endothermic? Stick a thermometer in a chicken’s – er, well, anyway, you get the idea.

Think Velociraptors were like Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a large turkey...and looked like this...

Think Velociraptors were like the ones portrayed in Jurassic Park? Think again. They were about the size of a human….and looked like this… And NO, it is NOT going to get its temperature taken, thank you.

As for our King of the Tyrant Lizards? Well, it turns out that T-Rex was among the last of a long family of Tyrannosaurs, not all of which were quite as big and ferocious as the Big Guy. They all had feathers – not for flight, but for insulation. They all laid eggs. They were all bipedal. And their tails didn’t drag – tendons kept them agile. If you met one, you might think it was a funny looking bird. One that wanted you for lunch.

Here's the diorama - Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right - yup, their close relative, Gallus Gallus. A chicken.

Here’s the diorama – Velicoraptor mongoliensis, Dilong paradoxus, and, off to the right – yup, their close relative, Gallus gallus domesticus. You don’t think I’m the ONLY one to make chicken jokes when discussing dinosaurs, do you?

Of course the world of the dinosaurs is long gone – not because they were doomed to be out-evolved, but because their environment changed, literally with a bang. And that comet-driven extinction, 65 million years ago, didn’t just kill dinosaurs. It killed just about everything. Of the dinosaurs, only flying examples – the birds – survived.

All this was brought home for me, graphically and with a lot of special effects, when I went to check out an interactive exhibition in Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s National Museum. It’s where the first Iguanadon bone ever found is held – it was brought to New Zealand in the 1840s by Walter Mantell, son of the discoverer – and it’s where I took these photos. And if you want to see me personally dodging Tyrannosaurs and see others prancing along the Wellington waterfront – well, I took some photos…

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Putting this week’s space tragedies into perspective. It’s ROCKET science, folks

I started writing this post after the Orbital Sciences rocket explosion earlier this week. Unmanned, nothing hurt except pride and stock price. I was going to begin with a joke about how the sound of a rocket blowing up is spelt.

Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969, illuminated by light reflecting from the regolith. Photo:NASA.

Rocket science in action. Buzz Aldrin descends to the lunar surface, 20 July 1969. Michael Collins, in his autobiography, Carrying The Fire, figured the mission had a 50/50 chance. Public domain, NASA.

Then news came of the Virgin Galactic tragedy during test flight on Friday, and it didn’t seem right. Appalling news and certainly not something to joke about. In such moments we have first to think of the family, friends, and colleagues of those affected.

To me both accidents underscore the fact that rocket science is – well, rocket science. It’s gained that repute for a reason. We’ve long fantasised about space-flight becoming as routine as jumping into the car. But the laws of physics – particularly, the way the energy curves rise – tell me that reality is otherwise, especially when we think of going into orbit or beyond. While it’s tempting to put the Antares booster failure down to use of left over Soviet moon rocket motors from the 1960s, the fact remains that all rockets, and especially those required to boost something into orbit or beyond, are high-tech engineering that push the limits of materials physics. And complex systems, inevitably, fail in complex ways.

The problem is the energy curve, which is exponential. On the face of it, rockets are simple – so simple that medieval technology could produce them. Something burns in a combustion chamber, hot gases rush out a nozzle at one end and push the rocket in the other, thanks to the Third Law of our friend Sir Isaac Newton.

The penultimate firework - JATO units, seen here thrusting a B-47 into the skies. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The anti-penultimate firework – JATO units, seen here thrusting a B-47 into the skies in the mid-1950s. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Unfortunately it doesn’t scale up well. The Royal Arsenal, at Woolwich, was able to make fireworks into battlefield weapons by the turn of the nineteenth century, the ‘Congreves’ fired at Fort McHenry to produce ‘the rockets’ red glare’ of the US national anthem. But powder rockets were limited by chemistry. Other chemical reactions – liquid oxygen and an oil fraction, for instance – offered more energy, and by the first decades of the twentieth century, engineers were working on liquid fuelled rockets.

The problem engineers hit was mass ratio, the difference between the mass of an empty and fuelled rocket. This is everything in rocketry. The equation is R = (Mpt/Me) + 1, where R is the ratio, M is mass in kg, Mpt is propellant mass, and Me is empty rocket mass. It’s important because of the other rocket equation, Δv = Ve*lnR, where Δv is total change-of-velocity capacity, Ve is exhaust velocity and R is mass ratio. Ln is the natural logarithm of X, the exponent to which the transcendental number e (2.7182818…) has to be raised to equal X, which in this equation is R. See what I mean about rocket science? 

OK, enough geek porn. The point being that the lighter the rocket vs fuel mass, at all times, the better off you are. A rocket with half-empty tanks is lugging wasted mass, and that is a killer when it comes to the energy needed to reach orbit.

Atlas booster with Mercury MA-9 atop. NASA, public domain.

Atlas booster with Mercury MA-9. NASA, public domain.

That’s why Convair’s SM-65 Atlas booster, developed from 1951, was an aluminium balloon that dropped two engines on the way up. It’s why the Saturn V Moon rocket had three stages, renewing that mass-ratio every time it dropped an empty stage.

Achieving this wasn’t easy. In theory, a chemical rocket is simple – a tank of fuel (let’s say kerosene), a tank of oxidiser (let’s say liquid oxygen). Pump both into a combustion chamber, ignite them, and off you go. Actually, problems begin at once. Liquid oxygen (LOX) is super-cold – a light blue liquid that boils at 90.19 degrees Kelvin (-297.3 degrees Fahrenheit, -183 degrees Celsius). You have to pump it into the rocket at the last minute, because it’ll boil off fairly soon even in the best-insulated tank. You have to keep LOX away from its fuel (kerosine or liquid hydrogen, typically) until it’s needed. But sealing joints can be difficult. Early seals used Ulmer leather, which LOX tended to saturate and ignite. Today various exotic compounds are used. Duct tape is NOT among them.

Wait, there’s more. Kerosine and oxygen burns at 3670 degrees K – (3396.8 deg C, 6146.3 deg F). Even titanium melts at 1668 deg C. How do you stop your motor melting? One answer is to make a thin double-wall chamber and nozzle and use your LOX (or liquid hydrogen in a LOX/LH rocket) as a coolant, before sending it into the combustion chamber. Of course, you have to get the rate of flow right to make sure your cryo-liquid provides enough cooling – but relate that to the flows needed to burn properly in the motor.

That takes a ton of geekery. And there’s the fact that being super-cooled on one side and super-hot on the other is a Bad Thing in terms of metallurgy, one of many reasons why big rocket motors have reliable firing times, without maintenance, of minutes.

Apollo 12 lifting off. The SIV stage is the one just clear of the tower. Moments after this photo was taken, spacecraft and tower were hit by lightning. Photo: NASA alsj/a12/ ap12-KSC-69PC-672.jpg

Apollo 12 lifting off. Moments after this photo was taken, spacecraft and tower were hit by lightning. Photo: NASA alsj/a12/ ap12-KSC-69PC-672.jpg

That’s without considering pressures. Combustion chamber pressures in the F-1 motor that launched men to the Moon topped 70 megapascals – 1,015 psi, or around 69 times the pressure of the air you and I happily breathe at sea level. That makes ‘thin-walled’ a moot term with the only answer being – you’ve guessed it – more mass, even if you do something mathematically clever with curves and ribs to increase relative thickness.

The next problem is firing. Asymmetric combustion can cause shock waves strong enough to destroy the motor. Rocketdyne made their huge F-1 burn properly – and launch men to the Moon on the back of 750,000+ kg of thrust per motor – with tests that included igniting black powder charges inside the combustion chamber during engine firings.

Since the mid-twentieth century, developments in chemistry have offered ways of building solid fuel rockets that approach liquid-fuel energies without the mechanical complexity. But once lit, they can’t be stopped. That worried Space Shuttle launch controllers, who envisaged chunks of burning SRB crashing through the windows of the Cape control centre if there was an emergency abort-and-fly-back.

F-1 motor firing on test. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

F-1 motor firing on test. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Wait, there’s even more to rocketry. All the thrust is at the bottom of the stack – like trying to loft a pencil balanced on your finger. One answer is to add gyroscopes (more mass). What about control vanes in the rocket blast, or wings? The former have to stand up to metal-melting blasts. The latter add drag during the initial launch phase and (naturally) mass.

The current approach is to pivot the motors, though this adds mass – and then, how do you instruct that system? Yup – gadgets that add even more mass.

By any measure, the science demands expensive and exotic materials, expensively machined to miniscule tolerances, because the engineering parameters are completely unforgiving. A near-invisible scrap of loose metal in a valve – even an over-tightened screw with a slight burr over which a wire passes and abrades – might be enough to kill a system. That’s why rocketry is so expensive. It’s why I doubt we’ll get ‘gas-and-go’ car reliability for orbital rocket launchers. To do that, we need a different technology.

For me the amazing thing isn’t that rockets fail. It’s that they don’t. Much. They are incredibly complex machines – and they do stuff that, in an everyday sense, is not ordinarily possible. To me that underscores the tremendous skill and work that goes into any launch. Very, very talented people work like Trojans, doing very, very smart things, to make sure. I salute them. They are tweaking the nose of physics, as we currently understand it. And most times, it works.

See why it’s called ‘rocket science’?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why ebola puts the zombie apocalypse into proper perspective

I spend quite a bit of time wondering about the zombie apocalypse. Like why I and a few drinking buddies will be sole humans out of 7 billion who aren’t turned into zombies? If I put gym treadmills outside every window on my house, will that be enough to stop the zombies coming in, and can I generate electricity that way? And why do we suppose it will be a ‘human’ zombie apocalypse? Maybe we’ll be inundated with zombie llamas. Here in New Zealand someone made a movie about zombie sheep. Very funny it was, too.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

1707 map of North West Africa showing the arbitrary colonial divisions. Wikimedia Commons.

But really I shouldn’t worry. Zombies aren’t real. Unlike the ebola outbreak in West Africa, which is very, very real – and no laughing matter. So why the zombie thought? Well, a friend of mine suggested that the social impact of the ebola outbreak raging in West Africa has a lot in common with the way we imagine a zombie apocalypse in the west. Everybody you know and love is suddenly snatched away by a quick and lethal infection that seems to have come out of nowhere. It spreads by touch. If you help them – as you must, because we are all human and care is the highest human virtue – you risk getting it. It devastates families. It destroys organised society. And nobody is immune. Nobody.

This is actually true of any pandemic – ebola, of course, is far from the first serious disease to erupt in a population. I suspect that the fact that we envisage the social impact of a ‘zombie apocalypse’ in terms that so closely match a real uber-pandemic disease outbreak is indicative of the depth to which our fear of pandemic is etched into our cultural make-up.

None of that reduces the tragedy unfolding in West Africa. There is only one up-side. Viruses transmit in two ways. There’s airborne – usually meaning you breathe them in after somebody nearby has sneezed. Or sometimes the infected mucus settles on a surface, you touch that surface and fail to wash your hands, then transfer the virus to your mouth when eating. The other main mechanism of transmission is ‘serum’, meaning the virus is carried in body fluids.

Ebola is of the latter variety. You have to make direct contact with the patient’s body fluids. That makes it hard to catch. Medical professionals run a high risk while treating victims, as do family in close promixity to a victim; but it’s not in the ‘catchability’ league of airborne viruses.

The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The enemy: the ebola viron. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Down side is that ebola remains live and infectious after the victim has died. That’s why health officials have been carrying bodies away with full bio-hazard procedures.

So why has it been happening? Ebola was first noticed in West Africa in the mid-1970s, though it was around before then. But it was always isolated. The disease was SO quick and SO lethal that outbreaks burned themselves out. But this time it hasn’t. From the viewpoint of the virus it’s a great survival mechanism. For humans? Not so much.

That’s not the only reason why it’s been so difficult to contain the outbreak. By one of the ironies that dog the real world, the countries it’s hit are the least able to handle an emergency of this kind. Borders are arbitrary and spanned by social groups, a function of colonial-age map-making – making ‘border closing’ difficult. Infrastructure is poor by western standards. Crowded living conditions and poor urban sanitation make serum transmission easier. Another issue is that it takes a week or ten days after infection for the symptoms to show – but during that time, the victim is infectious. And that makes for a perfect storm.

Ebola is unlikely to spread widely in the West as it stands. But if ebola becomes entrenched across populations in West Africa, as seems likely, it’s got more opportunity to mutate. And that’s where the bad news starts. Just to put ebola into perspective, the current lethality of about 90 percent is well above the 30-60 percent of the Black Death that ripped through Europe in the mid-fifteenth century. It’s way above the 10-20 percent mortality rate of the 1918 flu pandemic.

Sure, there are vaccines in the works. It takes time to develop them, time to manufacture them – and time is something that just isn’t available right now. Certainly not for the poor folks affected in West Africa. Maybe for the world. Damn.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Living on shaky ground – out this week

A major earthquake rattled much of the southern North Island of New Zealand during the early hours of Tuesday morning – magnitude 5.5. It woke Kiwis from southern Hawke’s Bay to Wellington and was classed as ‘strong’ by our seismologists.

Living On Shaky Ground 200 pxLuckily nobody was hurt, and no damage was reported. Good news in a land where earthquakes are a fact of life. Curiously, it came in the very week my new science book on seismology and earthquakes is being published by Penguin Random House. Living On Shaky Ground: the science and story behind New Zealand’s earthquakes. Good thing I wasn’t writing a book on the zombie apocalypse. Though, scientifically speaking, we get so many earthquakes here that I’d have been surprised if there wasn’t one when the book was released.

That, of course, highights why I wrote it. One of New Zealand’s biggest ongoing issues is earthquakes and the volcanoes and tsunami that go with them. It’s a vital subject – an immediate subject. Certainly that’s true for the long-suffering folk of Christchurch whose city was shaken to pieces, with terrible loss of life, in 2010-11. However, life atop the collision point of major tectonic plates is something that every Kiwi has to come to terms with.

The Christ Church Cathedral - icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;'etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.

A photo from the book – one I took of Christ Church Cathedral – icon of Christchurch for well over a century and the raison d’etre for its founding in 1850, wrecked by the devastating earthquake of February 2011.

The real issue, of course, is what’s in store for us. That’s something science can tell us – the physics of earthquakes. I’ve looked into that in this book, outlining, for general readers, how the science works, what it’s about, and what we can expect from the scientific understanding. It’s a vital subject – certainly here in New Zealand, where earthquakes are a constant fact of life. And to me, that also makes earthquakes something more than just science. They are also a human phenomenon.

Pedestrians and cars at the bottom of Molesworth Street, Wellington, after the magnitude 6.6 shock of 16 August. Aftershocks up to 5+ magnitude were still rolling in when I took this.

Pedestrians and cars at the bottom of Molesworth Street, Wellington, after the magnitude 6.6 earthquake of 16 August 2013. Aftershocks up to 5+ magnitude were still rolling in when I took this.

What do I mean? To those living in earthquake zones the real issue is the human reality. Earthquakes are not a nebulous future risk; they are a certainty. The question is not if, but when and how. And to me, the human reality – the way we react to these cataclysms of nature – is as important a focus as the science, and something I’ve built into the book. Underscoring, for me, the point that science – for all that we view it as abstract – is really as much a human endeavour as anything else. Isn’t it.

So how do we react? And what is the science behind earthquakes? I’ve got a few posts coming up on that – though you’ll need to check out the book to get the full story. What I will say, though, is that such events almost always provoke people to find strengths in themselves that, perhaps, they did not know they had. That, to me, is such a wonderful testament to the reality of human nature.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why I run an Apple-free household but am still cool

Apple’s theatricals this week haven’t convinced me to buy an iPhone 6 – which, as Ron Amadeo pointed out, has the same screen size and features as a 2012 Nexus 4. George Takei got it right when he tweeted that he couldn’t remember the last time so many got so excited about 4.7 inches.

Not that this an admission of being un-cool, though it might seem so to the phanbois. Earlier this week I commented on some guy’s blog that I’m Apple-free. Other products do all I want at less cost and I’m not interested in the Apple cool factor. Another commenter wondered whether I still watched black and white TV.  Absolutely. I watch shows about sarcastic assholes.

Get real folks. Apple isn’t a religion. They make consumer products. For profit.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

My Apple-free desk. From the left: ASUS laptop, i7 4771 Windows desktop (yes, the same CPU Apple use in their iMacs), i7 860 Windows desktop.

When I look at the venom displayed on some of the forums and blogs, against Apple-critics, I suppose I got off lightly. But as I say, commenting that I don’t buy Apple isn’t license for the fans to make personal attacks of any sort. Apple are a consumer product company. Competitive. But failing to buy it doesn’t, by definition, make you a luddite.

I suppose it’s not surprising, really. Apple’s schtik – originated by their late CEO, Steve Jobs – was an appeal to cool, to the social status that, we are conditioned to think, comes with this consumer product or that one. That approach underlies most big brands, of course – and it certainly worked for Apple. Hugely. In the late 1990s Apple was a dwindling computer company that had failed to compete with Microsoft. Jobs came back on board and reinvented it as a lifestyle choice – a company whose products bypassed the reason circuits and drove straight to the appeal of emotion.

It worked a treat. People didn’t buy Apple because they could get a sharply better phone, or sharply better computer. Apple’s gear was always well engineered, well designed and reliable. But so was the gear sold by other major manufacturers. Most of it was also just as easy to use. That wasn’t why people bought Apple. They bought Apple because it was a statement about themselves. They get drawn into it – I mean, I heard that some guy in Australia microchipped his own hand, on the off-chance that some rumoured feature might be built into the iPhone 6.

It was, by any measure, a brilliant recovery. Genius. But when I look at the sarcasm, the personalised anger with which some respond when anybody questions Apple products – when I suggest that, maybe, other products are as good – I have to wonder. Do people validate their own self-worth by ownership of an Apple product? Is that why they get so angry, sarcastic and abusive? So personal?

Is this where Jobs wanted his customers to go when he reinvented Apple?

For myself, I don’t feel the need to define or validate myself with any consumer product. It’s just stuff, and these days it’s increasingly short-life stuff. For me, phones, tablets and computers are things you buy for a purpose. Not to make you better than somebody else. Products. For me that’s the arbiter. Will it do the job I need it for – properly, and without compromise? And at what cost – up-front and lifetime? How reliable is it? Will the maker support it for that lifetime – and a little way beyond – at reasonable cost? If I drop a phone, what will it cost me to replace it?

All these reasons keep intruding whenever I look for any new consumer product. The fact that this path has produced a wholly Apple-free household, I think, speaks for itself.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why celebrity phone hacking is really everyone’s problem

Until last week, I’d never heard of Jennifer Lawrence, still less known that she apparently had salacious selfies on her phone’s cloud account. Now, it seems, everybody in the world has the news, and apparently the stolen pictures will be made into an art exhibition. Do I care (just checking the care-o-meter here)? No.

But what I do care about is the fact that the celebrity selfie hacking scandal is everyone’s problem.

1195428087807981914johnny_automatic_card_trick_svg_medMy worry has got nothing to do with the way the public debate has been sidetracked by red-herrring arguments, all flowing from the cult of celebrity that began, in the modern sense, as a Hollywood marketing device during the second decade of the twentieth century. That’s why these pictures get targeted. Hey – get a life. Celebrity Bits are the same as Everybody Else’s Bits. Get over it. Celebrities are also entitled to their privacy and property, just like everybody else.

No – the problem is the principle of data security. Everybody’s data security. It’s an arms race, on-line and off. People store all sorts of things on electronic media these days. Medical records, bank account details, passwords. Some of it ends up in the cloud. Some doesn’t, but even home computers may not be safe. Hacking goes on all the time, often looking for your bank account. It’s a sad indictment of human nature that those perpetrating this vandalism look on it as an assertion of superiority. I believe the term is ‘owned’, spelt ‘pwned’.

Artwork by Plognark Creative Commons license

Artwork by Plognark Creative Commons license

It’s not going to be resolved by passing laws or codes of conduct. Some immoral asshole out there, somewhere, will spoil the party.

All we can do is be vigilant. Various services are introducing two-step authentication, in which you can’t just log on by password, you have to add a code that’s sent to your phone.

You still need a strong password. I am amazed that the most popular password is – uh – ‘password’, pronounced ‘Yes, I WANT you to steal my stuff’. Other stupid passwords include ’123456′, the names of pop-culture icons (‘HarryPotter’) or something published elsewhere, like your pet’s name.

But even a password that can’t be associated with you has to meet certain criteria. The reason is mathematical – specifically, factorial, a term denoted with an exclamation mark. In point of fact, the math of password security gets complex, because any human-generated password won’t be truly random – and terms such as ‘entropy’ enter the mix when figuring crackability. But at the end of the day, the more characters the better, and the more variables per character the better. Check this out:

  1. Any English word. There are around 1,000,000 unique words in English (including ‘callipygian’) but that’s not many for a hack-bot looking for word matches. Your account can be cracked in less than a minute.
  2. Mis-spelt English word. Doesn’t raise the odds. Hackers expect mis-spellings or number substitutions.
  3. Eight truly random lower case letters. Better. There are 208,827,064,576 combinations of the 26-letter alpha set in lower case.
  4. Eight truly random lower and upper case letters. Even better. These produce 53,459,728,531,456 potential passwords.
  5. Eight truly random keystrokes chosen from the entire available set. Best. There are 645,753,531,245,761 possible passwords.

If you use 10 truly random keystrokes, you end up with 3,255,243,551,009,881,201 possible combinations. But even that is still crackable, given time – so the other step is to change the password. Often.

Make it a habit. And – just out of interest, seeing as we’re talking about true randomness, does anybody know what the term ‘one time pad’ means?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014