Dreaming of vintage flight in the magical age of aviation

In this era of carbon-fibre jets and everyday commuter air travel I often lament the passing of the Golden Age of aviation – those heroic days of the 1920s and 1930s when passengers boarded canvas-and-wood biplanes and then picnicked, aloft, on potted ham and champagne stored aboard in wicker hampers. It was an age when barnstorming airmen ruled the skies and ‘air races’ were all the rage, and when Amelia Erhart and Kingsford Smith were household names.

"I say, Carstairs, jolly nice day for a bit of an aerial jaunt, eh, what!' De Havilland Fox Moth at Napier airport, 2015.

De Havilland Fox Moth at Napier airport, 2015.

Luckily my home country, New Zealand, has one of the most interesting collections of operational vintage aircraft in the Southern Hemisphere. Including, thanks to Sir Peter Jackson, several Fokker Dr.1’s, neatly finished to 3/4 scale. And there’s an aerobatic team, the ‘Roaring Forties’, equipped with North American T-6 Texans (Harvards).

Former RNZAF Harvard at Napier airport, part of the 'Roaring Forties;' aerobatic team, February 2015.

Former RNZAF Harvard at Napier airport, part of the ‘Roaring Forties;’ aerobatic team, February 2015.

I photographed this one at Napier airport. The type was the Allied advanced trainer of the Second World War, and remained in that role with the Royal New Zealand Air Force until the 1970s. Today the ‘Roaring Forties’ put on tremendous displays – taking off together in formation, then swooping and circling with absolute precision.

And if you want to learn more about the RNZAF and their Harvards, among other aircraft – well, the story’s in my book Kiwi Air Power, available from Amazon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: how publishers credit photographs

Someone asked me the other day about how to credit photographs in publications. How do the professionals do it? And is there a standard?

This is MY photo. MINE. I TOOK IT. Bwahahahahaha. (This isn't how to credit a photo...)

This is MY photo. MINE. I TOOK IT. Bwahahahahaha. (This isn’t how to credit a photo…)

The answer depends on house style, the design of the pages and, to some extent, on the quantity of credit required. Terms of use imposed by the owner of the photo, or the licensing terms – such as Creative Commons – can also affect how the photo is credited. Read them. Respect them. Quantity of credit is often a major issue. Some photo libraries demand several lines of acknowledgements and references, frequently quite arcane. Others don’t. The quantity of that material helps determine where the credit goes when a book is being designed. That’s also true of material released on the internet under Creative Commons licensing. And to my mind, even if you’re using public domain material, it’s courteous to provide due credit. That said, there are three main ways publishers usually credit photographs in print books:

  1. Directly attached to the photo on the page – for example, in a small point-size font running up one side of the photo. It’s direct, up-front, and works well if the credit is short.
  2. Attached to the caption – this suits longer credit information and unmistakeably attaches the credit to the picture.
  3. In a separate page, typically as part of the back matter, with references identifying each photo through the book and crediting it. This is done often for page-design purposes in picture books – avoiding clutter – but also because it accommodates the very longest forms of credit.

These days, given the way things have swung to electronic formats, there’s also a fourth option:

  1. Hyperlinking – basically as (3), but a link associated with the photo jumps you to a separate page in the same document, which carries the credit. Care needed to ensure that, if the link fails, you aren’t breaching any terms of use.

Bottom line for the whole process is respecting the terms of use – and finding a way of presenting the credit information in a way that works for the design of the book. Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why I think Mars One is a really stupid notion

I posted last week about the silliness of trying to colonise Mars on a one-way basis, unless you’re sending Justin Bieber.

Sure, most colonists here on Earth made the trip one-way. But Earth’s way more hospitable. Even Roanoke. You can breathe the air, for a start.

Artists' impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain.

Artists’ impression of the Orion EFT-1 mission. NASA, public domain. Eventually, Orion may be part of the system that takes us to Mars – and brings us back.

Mars – that’s another planet. It has red skies and blue sunsets, temperatures that make Antarctica look summery, and surface air pressure about 0.6% that of Earth, though that’s academic because it’s mostly carbon dioxide anyway. Mars also has no magnetic field, which means the surface is irradiated from space. Then there’s the dirt, which the Phoenix lander found was saturated with naturally-formed perchlorates. Know what perchlorate is? Rocket fuel. It’s nasty stuff, it’s toxic, and the chances of keeping the habitat clear of it after a few EVA’s seems low.

The biggest problem is that nobody’s been there yet. There’s bound to be a curve ball we don’t know about. It’ll be discovered the hard way.

That was the Apollo experience forty years ago. It turned out lunar dust is abrasive and insidious. As early as Apollo 12, astronauts found dust in the seals when they re-donned their suits for a second EVA – moon-walker Pete Conrad reported that ‘there’s no doubt in my mind that with a couple more EVA’s something could have ground to a halt’. All the later Apollo astronauts hit it; leak rates soared in the suits as dust worked its way into the sealing rings.

I think it’s safe to say something of equal practical difficulty will be discovered about Mars, one way or another. Not good if you’ve just arrived – permanently. Besides, what happens if someone gets needs a hospital now? Or is injured? Well, that’s a no-brainer. You can imagine the colony consisting of a cluster of grounded Dragons with a row of graves next to it.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB 'wet lab' configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Cut-away of the modified Apollo/SIVB ‘wet lab’ configuration for the 1973-74 Venus flyby. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Mars One plan to send more missions every two years, each with four colonists to join the happy bunch. If they’re alive. My money says they won’t be. This is Scott of the Antarctic territory – high-tech for the day (Scott even had motorised tractors) but still gimcrack.

The main reason we’ve not gone there yet, despite space agencies making serious plans since the 1960s, is cost. Manned interplanetary fly-bys were (just) within reach of the hardware built for the Moon landings – and until the Apollo Applications Programme was slashed to just Skylab, NASA was looking at a manned Venus flyby for 1973-74, using Apollo hardware.

Composite panorama of Mars. Not going to be seen by the 2018 expedition, as they'll fly past the night side. NASA, public domain.

Composite panorama of Mars. NASA, public domain.

Unfortunately, stopping at the destination, landing on it, and all the rest was another matter. It was easy to accelerate an Apollo CSM and habitat module into a free-return Venus or Mars trajectory; no further fuel was needed, it’d whip past the target at interplanetary velocities, and the CM could aerobrake to a safe landing on Earth. But stopping at the destination, landing and then returning home? In rocketry – whether chemical or nuclear-thermal (NERVA), the two technologies available until recently, mass-ratios are critical.

Mass ratio is the difference in mass between an empty and fuelled rocket at all times, and fuel takes fuel to accelerate it. It’s a calculation of sharply diminishing returns, and the upshot for NASA and other Mars mission planners in the twentieth century was that a practical manned landing mission was going to (a) require a colossal amount of fuel, and (b) would still transit by low-energy Hohmann orbit requiring a 256 day flight each way, meaning more life support, which meant more fuel (see what I mean?).

Some plans looked to refuel the system from Martian resources, but that had challenges of its own. Either way, the biggest challenge in all Mars mission schemes was the first step, lifting the Mars ship off Earth into a parking orbit. No single rocket could do that in one go, meaning multiple launches and assembly in orbit, raising cost and complexity still further. With figures in tens and hundreds of billions of dollars being bandied about, and no real public enthusiasm for space after Apollo, it’s small wonder governments were daunted.

ROMBUS in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

Conceptual art of Philip Bono’s colossal ROMBUS booster in Mars orbit: Mars Excursion Module backs away ready for landing. Public domain, NASA.

My take – which is far from original to me – is don’t try going to Mars now. Focus on building a space-to-space propulsion system that offers better impulse than chemical or nuclear-thermal motors. Do that and the 256-day trans-Mars cruise – which is what drives the scale and risk of the mission, including problems with radiation doses in deep space – goes away. One promising option is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMIR), a high-powered ion drive that might do the trick if it works as envisaged. Another is the FDR (Fusion Driven Rocket). Current projections suggest Earth-Mars transit times as low as 30 days.

Of course, if your drive won’t light when you need it to slow down, you’re on a one-way trip out of the solar system. But hey…

Maybe we should send Justin Bieber on that first VASIMIR mission, just in case…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: a few interesting publisher terms

Like all professions, publishing has its own terms – many of them plain English words that mean something different within the field. Today I thought I’d share a few of the more interesting ones.

  1. The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

    The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one…

    ‘Title’. This has two meanings in the publishing industry – (a) The identifiying name given to a book, in the sense we usually know it; but also (b) a particular book. For instance, if I’m contracted to write a new book, it’s referred to as my ‘new title’.  Publishers, similarly, don’t talk about the ‘number of books’ they release in a year – it’s ‘number of titles’. The distinction helps avoid confusion with ‘book’, which to the industry can also mean ‘stock unit’. I can always tell whether an author’s worked with the trad publishing industry for a while or not, because the term leaks into everyday author-speak.

  2. ‘Release to trade’. This is when a new title is made available to the market. It differs from ‘launch’, which refers to a special social event designed to mark that release. Outside the publishing industry, the terms ‘launch’ and ‘release’ are often used interchangeably to mean a title’s on the market, but that’s seldom done within it.
  3. ‘List’. This refers not just to the catalogue of titles that a publisher has available, but by implication also to its nature – to the style of title the publisher seeks to produce and be identified with. It can also refer to an author’s own personal catalogue of titles.
  4. ‘Back list’. The prior catalogue of titles that a publisher has issued, but which may not necessarily be available. Authors can have back-lists too (mine is in process of being re-issued, heh heh heh).
  5. ‘Imprint’. This is the brand under which a book is issued. Many of the larger publishing houses issue under several imprints, each usually associated with a specific sub-brand. Penguin, for example, always issued generally under its house brand; but also into more specialist markets as Puffin (kids), Pelican (intellectual) and Allen Lane (elite).
  6. ‘Sale or return’. This refers to the practise of a publisher lending their stock to trade. If the books don’t sell, they’re returned to the publisher, hopefully undamaged. Authors, who are at the bottom of the financial food chain, usually get a proportion of royalties withheld – by contract – as the publisher hedges against too many copies coming back. While it means publishers can get mountains of books physically on sale inside bookstores, to my mind all it really does is transfer the risk of a bad stocking decision by a bookstore back on to the publisher (and, of course, the author).

There are many other terms, often technically associated with the editorial and production process. More of them anon. Do you have any curious publishing terms you’d like to share, or which you’ve encountered? Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – jumping back to 1938

There is little in this photo to say it isn’t the 1930s. The car – a Packard Six – dates to 1935. The building behind is an early example of deco-age streamline design from 1932.

Wright_1935Packard I took it during the annual ‘art deco’ weekend in Napier, New Zealand. But it makes me think; it’s too easy to look at old black-and-white photos and forget that, way back when, the world was in colour for those living through it. Henry Ford insisted that customers could have any colour, as long as it was black; but by the 1930s cars were emerging in pastel shades – typified by the cream of this immaculate 1935 Packard Six. That highlights one of the essentials of writing; infusing colour – in all its meanings – into writing. A thought to inspire. Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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What ever became of all the good in the world?

I am always astonished at the limitless capacity humanity has for intellectualising itself away from care and kindness.

Quick - burn the intruding historian! Avenge ourselves!

School. If you’re accused, you’re guilty!

Many years ago, when I was at school, there was a coat cupboard at the back of the classroom. Next to the cupboard was a trestle table on which had been set a class construction project. The bell went. The class joyously leaped from their chairs and surged to the cupboard, shoving and ramming each other as they fought to get their coats and escape.

I’d hung back to wait for the scrum to clear and saw the cupboard door being forced back by the desperate mob, into the trestle table. I rushed to try and rescue it – too late. The whole lot collapsed to the floor as I got there. Needless to say I was blamed. Everybody had seen me standing over the ruin and it (again) proved what a stupid and worthless child I was, and how dare I claim I was trying to save it, I totally deserved what was coming to me.

So much for trying to be a Good Samaritan.

But – but you say – surely I had rights? No. I had absolutely none. Back then, teachers given power by the system used it to smash those the system had defined as powerless, the kids, and so validate their own sense of worth. If I was seen near a broken table and the teacher decided I had done it – well, then obviously I’d done it, and how dare I protest my innocence.

The main ethical problem with this sort of behaviour is that guilt-on-accusation and summary justice stand not just against the principles of our justice system, but also of the values of care on which western society prides itself. But that is how society seems to work, certainly these days. We have trial-and-conviction by media even before someone alleged of a crime has been charged, just as one instance.

All of it is a symptom of one side of human nature. A symptom of the way humans intellectualise themselves into unkindness. It stands against what we SHOULD be doing – stands against the values of care, compassion, kindness and tolerance that, surely, must form a cornerstone any society.

There is only one answer. We have to bring kindness back into the world – together. Who’s with me?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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In which I discover someone’s selling a book of mine for $4896.01

The other day I was blown away to discover someone was trying to sell one of my books, new on Amazon, for $4896.01. Plus shipping.

Yes, it's a four-figure sum for one of my books. Amazing. Click to enlarge.

Yes, it’s a four-figure sum for one of my books. Amazing. Click to enlarge.

The Reed Illustrated History of New Zealand has been out of print nearly a decade, and I’m not sure where the vendor got their stock from. I don’t see a cent for it, of course – I’ll have fielded the $1.50 royalty (less tax and expenses) when it was originally sold. Thing is, I’ve got a couple of copies myself, new, and I’ll happily undercut that vendor. Let’s say $US4895. I’ll even throw in the shipping, free. Call me.

I discovered this while sorting out my Amazon author page. It was time. I’ve got an awful lot going on just now. My book Man Of Secrets was released by Penguin Random House at the end of January, and last week the first in a series of reissues from my military-historical back list became available. Next week my book The New Zealand Wars (Libro International 2014) will be released in print for the North American market. And I’m also contributing to an Australian science-fiction compilation, which I expect will be published later this year.

So it’s all happening, and I thought I’d better get my own online arrangements in order. Starting with my Amazon author page. Check it out for yourself.

My Amazon author page. Click to check it out.

My Amazon author page. Click to check it out.

Some authors are known for one ‘thing’ – a specific non-fiction subject or a fiction genre, and eyebrows get raised if they do something else. I’ve never felt limited by such things. My work breaks into three categories: (a) military-historical non-fiction; (b) social-historical non-fiction; and (c) fiction. I’ve negotiated a partial re-release of my back-list in (a), but new stuff is primarily (b) and (c).

I’ve also set up a Facebook author page – which I cordially invite you to ‘like’, if you haven’t already. It’ll be populated with the latest news and other stuff related to what I’m doing – or what I find interesting.

Watch those spaces. And this one.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015