Four top questions that sort of defy answers

Today I thought I’d share a few conundrums…

Matthew Wright1. Why is it that for the whole history of humanity, we’ve had no problem surviving on ordinary water. But in the last ten years we’ve only been able to survive with water-and-salt ‘hydration’ mixes sold for absurd prices in designer bottles?

2. Why do we have to buy ‘detox’ products and get pushed to go on ‘detox’ diets when we have functioning liver and kidneys?

3. How do astrologers get by now Pluto’s been demoted from planet status?

4. In 1555, the apothecary (pharmacist) Michel de Nostredam (Nostradamus) predicted the world would end in 1987. Why are we still here?


 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and general blogging mayhem. Watch this space.

A bit of fun with Bram Stoker’s favourite word

I’ve often thought it kind of odd that vampires can only be killed by being staked through the heart.

Cydrean_Vampire_darkgazer_svg_medIn Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel Dracula, the eponymous vampire was actually slashed to – er – death with Bowie and Kukri knives. So much for Buffy’s “Mr Pointy”.  Which brings me to the (ahem) point of this post, which is actually how English changes. Know what Bram Stoker’s favourite word was? It wasn’t ‘stake’ or ‘vampire’. Let me give you some clues from Dracula (1897):

“the bright voluptuousness of much sunshine”
“the ruby of their voluptuous lips”
“a deliberate voluptuousness”
“a soft, voluptuous voice”
“voluptuous wantonness”
“a voluptuous smile”
“with a languorous, voluptuous grace”
“the bloodstained, voluptuous mouth”
“the voluptuous lips”
“voluptuous beauty”
“the voluptuous mouth”
“so exquisitely voluptuous”

Fred Saberhagen put a good deal of time into lampooning Stoker’s over-use of this particular adjective in The Dracula Tapes.

Curiously, though, the modern meaning – let’s say ‘a full-figured and attractive woman’ – isn’t the one Stoker actually used. Its earlier meaning was closer to the Latin, volupas (pleasure) – and meant something pleasurable or given to pleasure or gratification. It could mean sunlight, as Stoker indeed used it.

The lascivious overtones were there, to some extent, but not in the way they are today. I’m not sure Stoker’s book was responsible for the transition, either.

For me it underscores one of the most interesting things about English. It changes – and often without intent on anybody’s part. That says a good deal about human nature – about the way we interact, for it is only through those interactions that the language can change.

The English language is – well, how can I put it? Voluptuous.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

The good news, bad news book adventure…

I happened to be passing a bookstore last week and spotted their bargain table in the doorway. A small stack of one of my older books, Behind Enemy Lines, lurked on it amidst the piles of cookbooks and pet-lovers manuals.

My title is front centre. Sigh.

My title is front centre, flanked by cookbooks. Sigh.

It’s an anthology I edited a few years ago and published with Random House – a dozen-odd exciting Kiwi partisan and escape stories from the Second World War. It sold well enough, but inevitably there’s stock left over – now jobbed out. The fate of most older titles, in the end.

The good news? I’ve since seen this, one of my books on normal sale, in a shop window just around the corner from the shop with the bargain table. Much better news. Of course, you don’t need to visit the bookstore to buy it, you can click on the cover on the top right…(subtle hint here…)

My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in a bookstore window, Lambton Quay, Wellington. Cool.

My book Guns and Utu (Penguin 2011) spotted in a bookstore window, Lambton Quay, Wellington. Cool.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 27: when badder is better

There’s been a storm this week about Sharknado - Asylum’s latest ‘so bad it’s good’ take on big-budget disaster movies. Global warming causes uber-tornadoes that send sharks plunging into the streets of Los Angeles. Chomp.

Photo: Mentis Fugit

Pictures at a Dr Grordbort exhibition, Wellington 2012; fantastic art, a brilliant riff on Golden Age B-movie sci-fi, and a wonderful satire of Britain’s Edwardian-age social militarism. Photo: Mentis Fugit

The physics of it don’t work out. But hey…

Asylum make ‘mockbusters’ like last year’s Nazis at the Centre of the Earth. It seems to have everything – an Evil Secret Antarctic Base, a Nazi UFO, zombie stormtroopers, even (spoiler alert, I suspect) Evil Robo-Hitler, Wolfenstein-style. You know the trope - ‘Nazi Super-Science. For when regular Super-Science isn’t evil enough’.

Extreme silliness. Of course, movies so bad they’re good have been around a while. Frank Zappa wrote songs about them (‘Cheepnis‘). Troma released some masterful parodies decades ago (remember Toxic Avenger?) And there’s the grand-daddy of them all – Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes. Saw it. Laughed. As intended.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington - restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The Roxy cinema, Miramar, Wellington – restored to fabulous 1930s art deco condition by Peter Jackson. A photo I took in 2011.

The best are deliberately bad, and inevitable deadpan delivery is part of not taking themselves seriously. Deadpan is smart humour. The makers know it. We know it. And we all have a great time.

The best I’ve seen was Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, which was utterly brilliant.

Can writers learn from this? Already have. Take Harry Harrison’s Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers – a deadpan pastiche of totally bad space opera. Though that genre was self-mocking enough; E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith was lambasted for tripe, but actually knew precisely what he was doing – and by the end of it was sending himself up. Quite consciously.

Don’t get me started on how good the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings is. A comic novel in its own right, even if it wasn’t sending up You Know What.

What it tells us is that ‘deliberately funny bad’ sells. But only if it’s good. It demands more skill than serious ‘good’ writing  - getting that deadpan irony right is difficult. Like the movie makers, the writer has to be able to do ‘bad’ without appearing ‘incompetent’ – to wink at the reader and get them to laugh with them – not at them. The tongue has to be planted firmly in the cheek.

Harking back to the movies for a moment – the master at this sort of thing remains Vincent Price (1911-1993). A very fine dramatic actor, but also a great comedian. Check out Champagne for Caesar (1950). Very funny. He got the balance spot on.

Your thoughts? And have you seen Sharknado yet?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

More Martian dumbness: NASA drew a giant WHAT on the red planet?

The other day my wife ordered a latte – which she then had to photograph because of the way the coffee and soy happened to mix, a kind of ‘ooer, that looks a bit rude’ shape, if you looked at it the right way.

The point being that NASA has been getting stick for apparently drawing the same thing. Thing, I did say ‘thing’, didn’t I? A sand drawing, with its Spirit rover, right there on the Martian pud, I mean pug.

Of course, by the time I went to check the JPL site, the pic had been replaced by this one... Public domain, NASA.

Of course, by the time I went to check the JPL site, the pic had been replaced by this one… Public domain, NASA.

Purely accidental. Honestly, officer. (“Pfft, chortle, ooer, that looks a bit rude“).

OK, so if ”paredoilia’ is seeing faces in random patterns, what’s the word when people perceive what in old Devonshire dialect was a ‘tallywag’, outlined in Martian tyre trails (but only if you look at it sideways).

The good news? In 2023, four lucky people will get the chance to see NASA’s – er – artwork in person. Maybe. A Dutch fellow is looking for people to go on a one-way trip. Unlike Denis Tito’s  plan for a couple to spend a 501-day marital sojourn in a Dragon capsule, lining the walls with their own excrement, this one will involve landing on Mars. Also in modified Dragon that, I suspect, would be like living in a 1960s police phone box which, alas, wasn’t bigger on the inside.

Taking off again? Uh…no…

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.

Which means the life support system has to last forever. I expect it’ll be made of duct tape. Eventually. Oh – and the voyage’s going to be turned into reality TV.

Would I go? Plus side…

1. I’d be on a different planet from Justin Bieber and his monkey.

2. It would get me on TV along with re-runs of The World’s Greatest Loser.

3. You don’t have to line the walls with your own excrement like Tito’s crew.

4. If I wanted to be called the next Jeddak of Barsoom, I’d be in the right place, unlike now when they all look at me funny.

5. I’d get a front row seat for the next ‘NASA drawing’ on Mars.

But I have to say that the green hills of Earth are looking pretty good about now.

Would you go on a one-way trip to Mars? And what do you think NASA should draw next on the Red Planet?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Introducing the Acme Miracle Editorial Version Tracking Process

Welcome to the Acme Miracle Editorial Version Tracking Process, designed to create the maximum possible editorial confusion while keeping the content as far from completion as possible. As used by civil servants.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-md1. Insert the word ‘final’ into the filename as early as possible.

2. When it’s edited (again), create a relative qualifier. ‘New final’, as opposed to ‘old final’.

3. Move on to the ‘final FINAL’.

4. Then the ‘new final FINAL’.

5. Then the ‘updated new final FINAL.’

6. Decide the ‘old updated new final FINAL’ is better after all.

7. Ignore the ‘last modified’ date and send one of them randomly to the publisher.

8. Discover they typeset the wrong version, decide to edit one into the other.

9. Make changes. Tell the publisher that’s it.

10. Make more changes. Tell the publisher it’s just two or three little fixes.

11. Look at dozens of random pages, finding something to change every time, each of which is the ‘very last’. Send them, individually, to the publisher at erratic intervals.

12. On receiving the printed copy, open the document. Spot something. Time for a second edition. Go back to (1).

Now, I made this up for laughs…but I have a horrible feeling that it happens, in Dilbertian offices. I hope I’m wrong about that.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Top things I have never understood…

I have never understood quite a lot about the world. Why, for instance, it always happens that…

1. Whenever you’re in a supermarket queue, the air is inevitably shredded with hysterical cries of pain and terror. You look around for the murder scene only to discover some three year old has been told by their mum that they can’t have the chocolate bar in the checkout rack.

2.Whenever you approach an ATM machine without a queue, people hastily swarm in from the side, ahead of you, to form a queue before you can get there.

3. Whenever you do the laundry, no matter how sunny the day is, it starts raining three seconds after you peg the last shirt out.

4. The teller in the post office puts the ‘closed’ sign up just as you get to the head of the queue.

5. Trek may have predicted auto-opening doors, but contrary to what you see in Trek, they enter their ‘close’ cycle just as you get to them.

…and finally…

6. When the zombie apocalypse hits, you discover you’re one of the zombies.

Any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

The Acme Instant Logline Generator

All novels need a logline, sometimes also known as a hook line – a single sentence that describes the plot and acts as a sale pitch to agents and publishers.

The form is usually “[Character name], [character description] has to [action] in order to [result].”

The result usually has an emotional content. Hard to winnow your story down to it? Try this. Begin with the logline instead. All you need, in fact, is a six-sided dice. Roll once for each variable and complete the sentence:

1. Roger Dodger the old Codger,
2. Peregrine Hyphen-Hyphen Folderol,
3. Snoot,
4. Adele,
5. Eric,
6. Heinz Dasistwirklicheinesehrdummelangeswortistesnicht von Abernatürlichistesjaabsolutichdenkeso of Sehrgutwerdeichgehenundhöreaufmeinekraftwerkalben,

1. a world-renowned horologist,
2. a rock god,
3. an up-and-coming railway enthusiast,
4. a truck driver specialising in cab-over series Macks,
5. an unemployed random-generator writer,
6. a rodent exterminator,

has to

1. win a challenging drag race
2. build a box-girder bridge with a toothpick
3. write a vampire fan-fic novel
4. learn how to sing and dance
5. cook a souffle
6. defeat the evil Thog monsters from Planet Zil

in order to

1. become the Ruler of the Universe.
2. rescue beloved from certain doom.
3. be home in time for tea.
4. get to Buckingham Palace and receive a knighthood.
5.  audition for ‘America’s Got Talent’.
6. finish up at the beginning again, only better for it.

Have fun.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Inspirations: Music, art, writing and unleashing the inner geek

As a writer, I have never regretted chugging through the Royal Schools of Music grade system. Music offers skills that feed directly into writing. Learning how to write a tune to words, for instance, rammed home why it’s important, even in prose, to have rhythm.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of one of my analog synths… dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable. Pop quiz: can anybody identify it from this clipped close-up?

There’s a more subtle side to it, too. Music is about evoking emotion in the recipient – the satisfaction of listening, hope, despair, anger, laughter. So is writing. That’s one reason why rhythm of words is important. For writers, as for musicians, it helps evoke a response.

I still have a small collection of vintage analog synths. They all work – including my Moog, which was old and battered when I bought it in 1987. The fact that it functions 37 years after it left Moog’s Trumansburg factory is testament to the quality.

It is also an expressive instrument, meant to be played like a violin, not a piano. You can do things with pitch-bender, potentiometers and modulation wheels that give the sound life. If you have never heard a Moog 24dBa high-pass ladder filter being overdriven, you’ve missed something. Here’s someone using the filter as a resonator. Here’s Erik Norlander playing the biggest Modular Moog I’ve ever seen.

The worn out ribbon pitch-controller on my Micromoog. Apparently Bob Moog invented that device for Beach Boys keyboard player Brian Wilson.

One of the doyens of the Moog, way back, was Brit prog-rock icon Rick Wakeman. He defined the ‘rock opera’ via such classics as Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (1974), essentially a modern oratorio.

I saw him in concert, here in New Zealand, last year – and @grumpyoldrick didn’t disappoint. He spilled off a flight from the UK and gave a 2 1/2 hour show, using the Wellington City Council’s Steinway Model D, all from memory. He had the audience in stitches – he is a great comedian. Along the way he explained how he had been taught to put feeling into music. You close your eyes and imagine what you want to convey – the feeling of a summer’s day, for instance.

To me, that summed up music as art. Art is about conceptual shapes and patterns that convey feeling and emotion. Notes are flawed tools to express an inexpressible form – idea, which is emotional. The essence of art is conveying that emotion, however imperfectly, by whatever medium, to others. And that is true of writing, too. The medium is words; but the essence is emotion.

Wakeman was taught that about his art from the beginning. Others, including me, had to learn it later. The hard way.

Do you find art in music, in writing? How do you see these things?  is music inspirational for you in these ways? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Russian meteor could be Pope resignation conspiracy, but I prefer science

It was one of those awful coincidences. Last Friday evening I was having a few beers with a friend, in a local pub. He was calculating the likely impact energy if 2012 DA14 – due to make a close pass over Indonesia – were to ever hit us.

Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).

Earth. An image I made with my Celestia installation (cool, free, science package).

There are websites with Java script that do this, but it’s easy yourself if you have figures for velocity and mass –  a function of volume and density – plus the formula and a calculator. (Yes, I know it had been published, but it’s fun to do the math. I’m a geek and so are my friends. Remember…geeks won….)

Nobody realised another object was about to explode over Chelyabinsk – ‘Tankograd’ of Second World War fame.

The 1200 injured from flying glass is the largest human toll recorded from a meteor strike. The cost to Russia will be in the millions of roubles. Not to mention the fact that thousands of people are facing sub-zero temperatures in windowless homes, until they can be fixed.

All that because the Pope resigned. Well, it’s obvious. The Conspirating Ruling Archaic Poodles, a secret cabal nobody has ever heard of, used their stooges to drop one of their orbiting Bombs Utilising Low Level Seekrit Hyper Invisible Termination on the Vatican, thus covering up the Pope’s resignation, but because secret organisations always make basic arithmetical errors, it hit Russia instead. I have proof this is true, because they fly in invisible black helicopters. Well, have you seen one? Quite. Proves they exist…

And yes, I know that is a really, really stupid theory…but hey, it’s not the dumbest one out there.

Needless to say, the science involved actually answers all questions. First off – the energy involved is mind-blowing on the scale of us mere humans.

How mind blowing? Try this. The Russian rock was maybe 10,000 tonnes mass and 17 metres diameter, by NASA estimate. Yet still exploded with an energy equivalent, some estimates suggest, of around 500,000 tons of TNT. How come?

Well, it’s entirely to do with kinetic energy, which you calculate according to the formula 1/2 MV<exp>2.  It was moving at over 63,000 km/h when it hit the atmosphere. That gave it a kinetic energy (roughly) of around 500,000,000,000,000 joules. Translated into human terms, that’s what a 1-kilowatt fan heater would emit if run constantly for 15,844 years (it would run out in about March in that last year).

That’s a lot of energy. So why did it explode? At the speed this sucker hit us, it was moving so fast it couldn’t push the atmosphere out of the way. The air was compressed ahead of it, got super-hot, and then began vapourising the front side of the meteor. But the back side was still ice-cold. After a while, differential thermal stresses exceeded the tensile strength of the object – and boom! A lot of the kinetic energy translated into a massive shock wave, shattering glass over that huge area, and powerful enough to be detected in Alaska. Some became heat. Some was retained in the fragments of meteor that hurtled into the ground, which will be found sooner or later (they’re looking now).

The take-home lesson from Friday? The odds of a damaging meteor hitting us, by human time-spans, are low . But these things do happen. And we didn’t see this one coming despite a determined effort of late to detect everything in our vicinity that might be a threat. We’ve even found the S-1VB stage from Apollo 12, which is lobbing around in a weird orbit nearby. But Friday’s rock – still a city-buster – was too small.

A Hubble picture of Jupiter after it had been machine-gunned by Comet Shoemaker-Levy in 1994. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

A Hubble picture of Jupiter after it had been machine-gunned by Comet Shoemaker-Levy in 1994. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Worse, even if we had seen it, there was nothing we could have done.  The laws of physics are clear; Bruce Willis and a gang of Texan oil-riggers aren’t going to save the day at the last moment. I’ve explained why in an earlier post – check it out. Even if you could carry enough rocket fuel to get to an incoming rock and blow it up (which you can’t….trust me…) most of the bits will still hit the Earth with the same net kinetic energy. And it’s that energy that’s the problem.

That doesn’t mean we can’t find ways of handling it. Given decades of warning,  even spray-painting the side of a space rock black will work, by changing the way it re-radiates solar energy, asymmetrically. Over years, that will change the orbit.

Of course, space debris usually isn’t isolated. A comet can break up, leaving trails of objects following its original orbit. Jupiter was slammed by just such a train ‘o doom  in 1994. There’s a fair chance that we might have to try and deflect half a dozen potential impactors all at once.

Personally I’m not going to lose sleep over it. No point worrying about things we can’t control. And the prospect of being slammed by a space rock is pretty far down the list. Here in New Zealand, for instance, it’s more likely we’ll be hit by an earthquake – in fact, there was a small one in my city on Saturday and another tremor this morning.

What’s your take? Should we worry about that which we cannot control? Or get on with life?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Kindness 2013’ returns next week. Coming up this week: more sixty-second writing tips, Write It Now part 6 – and more.