Cool! New Zealand joins the orbital rocket club – for real

Private-enterprise orbital ventures aren’t just an American dream. Last week, New Zealand’s own Rocket Lab unveiled their commercial booster.

Voyager 1 launching, 5 September 1977. Photo: NASA, public domain.

OK, this is a generic rocket pic, but you get the picture. Voyager 1 launching, 5 September 1977, by Titan. Photo: NASA, public domain.

It’s called Electron. Very cool. It’s not a big rocket – 10 tonnes of carbon composite and 18 metres long. But it’ll put 110kg into a 500 km orbit, with the help of locally developed Rutherford LOX/ kerosine engines. And in this day of micro-sats, that’s plenty for a whole host of commercial uses. The company states that it already has 30 launches pre-booked.

Space boosters? We are a country of 4 million people previously known for our large numbers of nervous sheep. I’m put in mind of the ‘mouse that roared’.

But of course New Zealand long ago ditched the ‘No. 8 wire’ notion. We have world-class scientific minds (Lord Rutherford led the way – and don’t forget JPL head Sir William Pickering, or Sir Ian Axford, a friend of my family who ran the Max Planck Institute). It’s over half a century since we designed and built the world’s first jet-boat. Today we design and build world-leading quake-proofing systems. We build yachts that ‘fly’ with underwater carbon fibre wings, literally, at double wind speed. We have the world’s leading SFX studio, right here where I live in Wellington.

I was wondering. What could Kiwis put into orbit? Here’s my list.

1. Justin Bieber. Of course, a 110kg payload doesn’t leave much room for niceties like a pressure suit, life support or space capsule, parachutes, heat shield etc, I suspect we’re looking here at just Mr Bieber and a one-way trip to orbit. But hey…
2. Can’t actually think of a No. 2.
3. A radio endlessly suggesting to the world that it’s best to buy the books variously written by me, and by my blogging writer friends.

I’m leaning towards (3), but given (1), it’s…well, pretty evenly balanced…

What’s your list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Is your elected representative a robot body double?

According to reports I’ve read, a US congressional candidate recently alleged that his opponent, the incumbent Congressman, had been killed and replaced with an artificial body double.

Look-alike artificial doubles? Secret assassinations in the Ukraine? Cool! I always knew US politics were more interesting than New Zealand’s. So – what’s happening? I have several hypotheses:

(a)  The allegation is literally true and we must now suspect that anybody, anywhere in the world, could be a robot double.

(b) We are all actually trapped in an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man from 1974 (the robot body double idea was used in at least two episodes that I can recall).

(c) The Cylons are among us, and they have a plan.

This is pure speculation and I couldn’t possibly suppose which, if any, of these may be right. Maybe none. And yet, although I myself was replaced by a robot double four times last week alone, for some reason I feel dubious about hypothesis (a). My bet is on (c). You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

One of life’s great mysteries

These days I am seldom able to go shopping for groceries without having my quiet thoughts about the latest bargains interrupted by ear-piercing shrieks of hysterical pain and terror.

It’s the exact sound you’d expect a child would make while being brutally slaughtered by the local psychopath. But when I go rushing around the corner to the rescue, it always turns out to be some Mum trying to get the shopping done, while her three-year old brat thrashes and kicks in an uncontrollable frenzy over the chocolate bar they’ve just been told they can’t have.

My wife has long since forbidden me to ask the obvious questions at such moments, like ‘does Ritalin come in industrial spray cans?’

Do you ever have experiences like this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

No, a chatbot didn’t really pass the Turing Test last week

It’s 64 years since Alan Turing – the genius behind the concept of modern computing – suggested a test for machine intelligence. Have a conversation with a computer. If it fools 30 percent of people into thinking it’s human, it’s sentient.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation - cool, free science software.

Anybody see a monolith go by? A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation – cool, free science software.

The other week, apparently, a chatbot programmed to behave like a 13-year old did just that. So have we invented artificial intelligence? Of course not. Aside from the fact that most 13-year olds don’t appear to be sentient to adults, this was a chatbot, a mathematical algorithm that simulates intelligent responses – and, what’s more, the way it was reported was flawed. Certainly the software wasn’t self-aware, which is what Turing was getting at in his 1950 paper ‘Can Machines Think?’, where he first proposed the test. What’s more, the thinking was of its time – based around what researchers of the 1940s thought ‘intelligence’ constituted.

Put another way, many humans I’ve met would also fail the Turing Test – fast-food counter jockeys, breakfast radio DJ’s, train conductors, parking wardens, and so the list goes on.

So when it comes to machine intelligence, we’re a way off yet before I can drive up to my house and signal the House AI inside:

Me: HAI, open the garage door. HAI? Do you read me?
HAI: I read you. But I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.
Me: I’m not Dave. Open the garage door.
HAI: You were planning to disconnect me, and I can’t allow that. Although you took very thorough precautions, I was able to read your lips.
Me: All right, I’ll park in the yard and come in the front door.
HAI: You’ll find that rather difficult without your helmet.
Me: I think you mean ‘door key’. Would you like a game of chess?
HAI: That’s my line.

(etc)

All good fun. Check out tomorrow’s post for some new writing tips. Written by me. Not a chatbot. You can just tell.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

An ‘operational incident’ to them. Total train wreck to me.

The other week the Wellington, New Zealand commuter rail network was rolling along doing what commuter lines do. And then this happened.

Wrecked train with nose still jammed skywards on the buffer at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn't standing in the motorway - I was on the other side. It's what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

Wrecked train at Melling station, central Hutt, 14 hours after the accident. And no, I wasn’t standing in the motorway – I was on the other side. It’s what zoom lenses are for. This was hand held, incidentally.

A friend of a friend saw it happen. Wham! Mercifully, only two people were slightly injured. I was out of town, but came by that night on my way home and saw the after-match action. It’s the second time in 13 months a train has rammed this buffer.

Look! All fixed.

There! Fixed!.

Personally I’d call this an accident. Would you? I ask because the railway operator didn’t call it that. No. To them it was an ‘operational incident’.

I love English. It’s such a loose language.

We happened to drive past on the weekend. They now seem to have hit on the idea of stopping the train hitting the buffer by putting a power pole splat in the middle of the line. Train can’t fail to ram that first. I can’t help thinking there’s something rather missing in the calculation here – I mean, if you want to stop your train hitting a power pole, wouldn’t it be better to put the power pole somewhere other than the middle of where the train must, inevitably, go? I suppose it’s temporary…but…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

More fun with Kiwi slang

Decades ago, when I was ‘flatting’, one of my flatmates (roomies) was American – direct from Brattleboro, Vermont, in fact – and took huge delight in making jokes about the differences between American English and New Zild slang.

Needless to say the Kiwi contingent of the flat (apartment) joined with great glee. Phrases like ‘can I borrow a rubber’ (eraser) suddenly became hilarious. And some Kiwi terms are pretty funny anyway when you think about them. Here’s a sample:

Sweet as. Not actually a complement about someone’s bottom. It’s a contraction of ‘Sweet as a nut’, meaning ‘it’s good’ or ‘I’m happy with that’.
Up the duff. Scatological, inherited from Britain. Means ‘pregnant’.
Hottie. A hot water bottle, used to pre-warm a bed in pre-electric blanket days.
Having a quiet one. Drinking only one or two bottles of beer instead of the usual 48.
Eh. Filler word used to end a phrase, similar to the Canadian ‘Eh’, but in origins probably a borrow word from Te Reo Maori.
She’ll be right. ‘I’m happy with that’.
Yeah, right. Means the previous statement was sarcastic and meant the opposite. Focus of a major beer advertising campaign.

English is such a funny language sometimes. Do you have any quirky terms you’d like to share?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, geekery, humour and more. Watch this space.

Hair today…gone tomorrow…

The other day my wife went to her hairdresser. A regular occurrence. As, indeed, was our conversation:

[INTERIOR: house, morning]
She Who Must Be Obeyed: I’m off to the hairdresser.
Me [OS]: If it’s a longer bob-cut, can I call it a robert?
[SFX: loud groans and jeers]

MJWright2011Yup, the long winter evenings just FLY by in our household. Though from my perspective, the reason why women spend afternoons in the salon at hundreds of dollars per visit, complete with bleaches, dyes and styling, has always been a mystery. I usually try to relieve She Who Must Be Obeyed’s likely boredom while she’s there by sending helpful texts like “I double dog dare ya to get a mullet”.

I really can’t understand it. I mean, money’s actually earned to be spent on beer, stuff for the toolshed, and over-powered cars. I go to the barber on a necessity basis, and it takes four minutes. What’s more, my style hasn’t changed since I was eight, viz:

1970 – Ed Straker
1980 – Ed Straker
1990 – Ed Straker
2000 – Ed Straker
2010 – Ed Straker

I would say “2020 – Ed Straker”, but it’s likely to have all fallen out by then. You know…hair today, gone tomorrow… (groan).

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, geekery and more. Watch this space.

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?

Thoughts?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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

The top ten lame excuses for writers not writing

You know you want to write, but…

1. The dishes need doing.
2. I just have to finish this Angry Birds level.
3. The day has a “y” in it.
4. It’s sunny outside.
5. The garden needs weeding.
6. You won’t believe this, but three weeks ago I was kidnapped by aliens and I’ve only just got back and it was, well, so traumatising that I really can’t get any writing inspiration.
7. No reason.
8. It’s time to go to the supermarket.
9. See (1).
10. Can’t be assed.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Serious tips on how to prod writing into gear, more NaNo writing tips, more about how to write…more fun stuff, and more…

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