Welcome to 2015, and hope for a wonderful year to come

For me a new year always seems to bring a sense of anticipation. We cannot know our future – but we can influence what happens, have direction, and hold to our dreams.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, that’s me doing the Tolkien fan thing.

That, for me, is the promise of a new year. And it seems to me, as climate change becomes a pressing reality and the world seems beset with senseless hatreds and wars, that them most urgent thing facing all of us in 2015, wherever we are, is the need to be kind to each other.

Kindness isn’t difficult, and it expresses in small ways, like opening a door for someone or letting them through ahead of you. If everybody on Earth behaved to each other with kindness, care, thoughtfulness and tolerance the world would, I think, be a far better place. It’s maybe a pipe-dream, but these things start in small ways, and it’s up to us individually to make that start.

I am not, of course, the only person to have suggested this.

What have I got lined up for you? Lots of stuff. More blogging, for sure – with the usual writing tips, science, and maybe some posts commenting about the world in general. It’s going to be an exciting year scientifically, what with New Horizons racing through the Pluto system mid-year. Hopefully returning data, and not slamming into some bit of debris we can’t see from Earth.

I’ve got plans for my own writing, which have been brewing for a while. You’ll find out as they unfold – suffice to say, it’s going to be exciting. For me, certainly, and I hope also for you. Watch this space!

The first big thing, in just a few weeks, is the release of my book Man Of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean (Penguin Random House). It’s been years in the making. More soon.

Meanwhile, have a great New Year holiday everyone, keep safe, and, above all – have fun!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Wrapping up the year by the numbers

Every so often a year rolls by that has an impact on those who lived through it – an impact so intense that the year becomes iconic, legendary. Like 1914, the year that the First World War began – a trauma that divided the old world from the new and set the current shape of the world on its way.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoIn a historical sense, 2014 wasn’t one of those watersheds. But it was a vigorous enough year anyway, not least because of all the 1914 anniversaries that rolled through. For me it’s been an amazing year in many ways. Books to write, blog posts to write, stuff to do that’s too boring to blog about. The usual thing. Here it is by the numbers…

275 – the number of blog posts I published on WordPress this year.

101 – the number of dollars I spent filling my car’s petrol tank just before Christmas.

8 – the number of cents per litre the price fell straight after I filled the tank.

4 – the number of my own books I worked on this year, finishing writing two of them and working with the publishers on the editorial side of all four. They are The New Zealand Wars: a short history (Libro International); Living On Shaky Ground: the science and story behind New Zealand’s earthquakes (Penguin Random House) and Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand (Bateman). The fourth, Man of Secrets, will be published by Penguin Random House in a few weeks.

3 – number of books of mine published this year (see above).

2 – number of books I published on geoscience this year (see above).

1 – number of military historians who snubbed me at parties for writing in their field (down from last year but that, I suspect, is because only one was at this event…)

I hope you all had a great 2014 and have a wonderful 2015 to come. To all my readers, thank you, very much indeed, for your kind support of my little corner of the blog-o-sphere – and especially to my regular correspondents, I’ve enjoyed and been humbled by your kind support and thoughts, and I’ll look forward to blogging with you in 2015.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Plunging into Facebook…finally…

Earlier this year I finally got Facebook going. I’d had a placeholder for a while. With a common popular name like mine, you can’t afford not to.

Wright_FacebookBut I hesitated to do Facebook. Part of it was time. I’d rather do one or two things well online than spread thin and do nothing adequately.

There was also the fact that social media is an arbitrary framework; it moulds how we are seen, and we’re prisoners to the ‘model’ envisaged by each provider. Twitter, for instance, forces quick-fire messaging, like classified advertisements (which is what a lot of tweets seem to be).

I like WordPress because you can express yourself and interact, through comments, with readers who sometimes become friends in the process. Modern ‘penfriends’ – and that, for me, is one of the great things about blogging.

Facebook? It seems to revolve around transparency and permanency of personal information, coupled with an apparently cavalier attitude to privacy. A curious paradigm, in many ways, and one that’s caused perhaps the most criticism of the service.

Still, with 1.2 billion people apparently on Facebook, there had to be something in it. So I took the plunge, put time into setting it up and am still on a learning curve. I found family members on it, along with people I knew in New Zealand and around the world. And all my blogging friends, people I’d got to know over the years online.

A little later I set up an author page, a useful place to put the latest writing news, what I’m doing, and such. And so I cordially invite all of you to leap across to Facebook now and click ‘like’ on that page…Go on, you know you want to:

https://www.facebook.com/MatthewWrightNZ

See you over on Facebook…and here on this blog…and Twitter…and Pinterest, and Google+, and Tumblr … and don’t forget my main web-page, http://www.matthewwright.net

What was that about spreading too thin again…?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Ego igitur puniar: my childhood adventures at Nelson Park School, Napier

My old primary school, Nelson Park School, is marking its centenary this weekend. Am I going to the various events? Go figure. My earliest memory there, from 1968, is of being slammed across the face by my teacher. Wham! I’d never been hit before. I was five.

Hi. I'm your teacher...

Hi. I’m your teacher…

I have no idea why the teacher hit me, but back then it didn’t take much to evoke the wrath of teachers. A friend of mine from Nelson Park School days, just this year, told me how he was punished for accidentally running into an ‘out of bounds’ area while trying to escape the school bullies. One of my wife’s colleagues, who I didn’t know as a kid – but who went to Nelson Park School at the same time – was punished for skipping for joy in jingly sandals, aged five. I am not joking.

This was the era when school had little to do with nurturing children to learn according to their strengths, and much to do with smashing them into submissive conformity to a prescribed and quiet ‘normal’, via petty army-style ‘bullshit’ routines, worth-denial, nit-picking, sarcasm and class-front humiliation, all backed with a relentless threat of pain.  I still remember the teacher who kept offering to take boys privately out the back where they would be ‘shown’ his personal ‘strap’ – the heavy leather belt with which teachers were allowed to beat children. Other staff didn’t ‘strap’ children in secret – I remember the teacher who used to whip his out and smash kids around the legs with it. The same teacher also prowled the class with a broken blackboard ruler he called his ‘Walking Whacker’. Wham! 

My class at Nelson Park School in 1969. Can you spot me? Clue: I'm the only one whose face hasn't fallen into a belt-sander.

My class at Nelson Park School in 1969, in regulation pose, including the substitute teacher. Can you spot me? Clue: I’m the only one who hasn’t face-planted into a belt-sander.

The doyen of childhood terror at that school was the deputy principal, an archetypal drill sergeant, who belted out orders and whose wrath fell on any kid that did not obey instantly to the letter. Think Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It’s a military technique. But instead of brow-beating adults so they’d walk into gunfire, this teacher used the method to traumatise children into submission. I heard that he even made kids go to the local dairy to buy him Alfino cigars.

Apparently some kids – and parents – admired this teacher for his ‘drill sergeant’ decisiveness, and apparently he had a ‘nice guy’ persona he used to switch on. But I never saw that side, and everyone was terrified of him. Just this year I discussed him with former pupils at Nelson Park School with me over forty years ago. The most complementary opinion was ‘he was an asshole‘. 

The school system in action, circa 1970...

The school system in action, circa 1970…

It took me years to understand my experience at Nelson Park School – I didn’t really get a handle on it until I researched the school system professionally, publishing my conclusions in 2004 and again in 2013. The problem was that the New Zealand primary school system of the late 1960s was well past its use-by date. It was built around early twentieth century notions of uniformity – a narrowly defined ‘right’ way of doing things; writing in a specific way with a specific hand, and so forth. Woe betide anybody who diverged. Practical human reality, of course, is far broader and more complex – the more so as time goes on and generational change brings new attitudes. But the school system hadn’t caught up, and by the time I got there it was dominated by teachers who had spent a lifetime bashing square pegs into round holes.

School routines clung to the pseudo-military ethos that had characterised the system through both World Wars, when school was looked on as a foundation for cadetship and territorial service. When I was there in 1968-72, children were still made to march into class, in lines, to the strains of marches such as F. J. Ricketts’ Colonel Bogey (1914). If the kids messed up that drill, they were marched into the school-ground and made to practise.

What made the whole thing so destructive was that this setup fostered opportunities for some staff to exploit the power the system gave them over those defined as powerless, the children. A recent – as in 2014 – review of data collected during a 1961 experiment by John Millward reveals that some ordinary adults become monsters in such circumstance because dominating those over whom the system has given them total power makes some people feel good about themselves. My own professional work suggests that one does not have to run an experiment to show this. It is part of the wider human condition. And moral compass, alas, is lost by increments.

Doubtless some kids had a good time at Nelson Park School at the turn of the 1970s. Nobody I knew there did, and my left-handedness ensured I also hit the sharp end of a tired system. The sad part is that the staff of Nelson Park School at that time had a choice. They could have tried to be reasonable, tried to view children as human beings and tried to nurture their development. By my measure, they did not. But perhaps these teachers found happiness for themselves later in better and more caring ways. One can but hope.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Why it’s so hard for writers to be discovered in the online world

Ever wondered why you don’t get as much traffic as you’d like on your blog? Or why your book’s vanished without a trace of sales on Amazon? I did some checking. In this wired world, the web is one crowded place. Every second, people put:

23 posts on WordPress
463 posts on Tumblr
5700 tweets on Twitter
54,976 posts on Facebook
5757 +1’s on Google+
And over 3.4 million emails are sent.

Woah! That’s quite apart from the growth in those services over the same time-span. I only have figures for Twitter – which gains 11 new accounts a second. Doubtless some are bots, but that’s not the point. What this underscores, for me, is the key issue bedevilling activity on the internet – especially efforts by authors to get their cut of the 51 items sold in that same second by Amazon.

That issue is discovery. Being found amidst the noise.

You spend an hour prepping a WordPress post. In that time, 82,800 other posts have been put up. In the five seconds between clicking ‘publish’ and having it go live, 115 posts have gone up. Promote it on Twitter. In the 15 seconds you spend writing the tweet, 85,500 other tweets have been sent and 165 new accounts have joined the service. Got your publicise function set to push your WordPress post out to Tumblr? While you were writing the post, 16.6 million Tumblr posts went up. And in the 3715 seconds between starting your post and finishing the publishing process, Amazon sold 189,465 items, most of them probably books. Any of them yours? No? Mine neither.

Progress, nineteenth century style; bigger, faster, heavier... more Mordor.

If internet traffic were real and needed carrying. I’m standing next to a Haulmax – 100 tons in one go, uphill. A giga-truck. I’m about 185 cm in the hat.

Ok, I’m a geek. But those numbers tell me that promotion by spam attack on whatever social media sites happen to be at hand isn’t going to make the slightest lasting difference. It’s a drop in the bucket against the quantity flowing through the internet – but a very toxic drop for those on whom it’s inflicted.

What those numbers also tell me is that the system, en masse, is anonymous and transient. Found a blog you liked, didn’t click ‘follow’, and never found it again? Happens all the time. Potential readers of yours, meanwhile, might miss your wisdom in the stream.

But you know the most important thing? The people who’ve found you through that incredible ‘noise’ – the like-minded people who find common ground and keep in contact regularly online over months or years, where you comment and ‘like’ each other’s posts, swap stories and tweets, and stay in touch – become real friends. Not artefacts of a transient 54,976-post-per-second ‘friend’ function, but real people you come to really know.

Just like our parents and grandparents had penfriends who they knew only remotely, but who became real friends. Of course we do things faster in the 21st century…

This is really what social media is about. He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata – people, people, people.

People are important.

As for that ‘discovery’ issue – well, more on that soon. Though I will say that those numbers – again – point to the obvious conclusion that pushing discovery through social media isn’t the answer. I don’t think you can sell that way either.

Time to deploy the Lateral Thinking Hat. Muahahahahaha.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

‘If it’s free, you’re the product’ – and what that means for Facebook

A few days ago I belatedly joined approximately 1.2 billion other people – more than one in seven of the world’s entire population – on Facebook.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

OK, can anybody guess what I am ACTUALLY a fan of from the ‘metadata’ on the sign around me? Or will I just get barraged with ads for stupid artisan stuff?

I’ve had reasons to be laggard. Only one is time.  I set up a Facebook placeholder do-nothing page in 2013, to protect my name – but my main leeriness with actively engaging has been their reported attitude to users. There are reports of Facebook allegedly reading private messages and selling the information. Just last month, account holders were unknowingly used for mass psychology experiments. Facebook has also been reported tracking your clicks – including (by cookie) when you’re logged off your account. In short, they know what you do. They have your profile. And a month ago, they openly announced that they’re going to track your browsing.

Most social media does this, and of course the big ones get the highest profile flak. To me, it’s one result of a web-world where users look for ‘free’. How is the service funded? Online providers have turned themselves, as they’ve grown, into advertising companies – in which user conduct, as apparent clue to user preference and want, is the prime commodity.

To me it’s a fairly obvious general outcome of the collision between the human condition, the way that condition has been shaped by history (especially the last few centuries in the west) and technology. This had led to all sorts of specific characteristics of the modern world. One of those is the way data about you – which you can’t control and don’t necessarily know, has been collected. As a friend of mine put it, if it’s free – you’re the product. 

He’s right. The Guardian called the mechanism ‘surveillance as a business model‘. And it is – the issue being not advertising you can ignore, but what might happen if somebody with different intent and value judgement has that data. Particularly when the context of your thoughts, intentions or other motives isn’t part of the data-set. This is classic 2 + 2 = 486,593. Armand Jean du Plessis – Cardinal Richieleu – summed it up in 1641: Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre. “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

As I’ve always said, the tragedy of history is that the stories change – but human nature doesn’t. Think about it.

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place...

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place…so sell me books? Actually, this is me being a science geek inside the Carter Observatory, Wellington NZ.

The other issue is that social media makes derp easy – derp that’s yours. Forever. And sure, it’s cool to publish some pic that means something to you and friends after you’ve pranked the boss. Gives you bragging rights for a day or two. Does it mean anything to anybody else?

We all derp, in various ways. It’s called being human. But do you want that pic of you with a rifle and a dead gazelle to be found 28 milliseconds after you landed a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal? Whether you shot it or not? It’s not new. French revolutionary leader Maxmilien Robespierre summed up the way societies respond to alleged conduct over 200 years ago: “Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts…” And he thought it was as valid, as a mechanism for condemnation, as a court. Sound familiar today? As I say, the tragedy of history (etc etc)…

Rule of thumb? Everything you put into the internet is PERMANENTLY PUBLISHED. Everything? Everything. And assume anybody can see it. Don’t rely on privacy settings. The judgement is straight-forward. Imagine it’s on the front page of the paper. Do you want your name attached? That’s especially so if you’re also trying to build brand and author profile. Basic media management – which pre-dates the internet – applies. How does that sit with genuinely connecting to people – and building an author platform? There are answers. More in due course.

On the other hand, Facebook is expected. Me? For now, a personal page. I might do an author page later. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Refurbishing with colour and deco

I’ve refurbished my blog this week – added a new header, new background and changed some of the colours.

Here's the original image - also check out the close-up on my Google+ homepage.

Here’s the original image – also check out the close-up on my Google+ homepage.

The header’s from a photo essay I took in late February in Napier, New Zealand.  It features the upper parts of the 1932 Masonic Hotel building on the right, in early streamline style, and the 1936 T & G building, now called (rather unimaginatively) The Dome, on the left – partly obscured by deco-style foliage.

Napier is set apart by its stunning 1930s architectural heritage. And by its climate, which matches Santa Barbara. It was around 100 degrees F on that scorching late summer day. The camera got hot too, and the photos that came out of it glowed – even the shadows were fully lit, by reflection. The photo at bottom shows what I mean. It was taken facing the opposite direction from the blog header.

What do you think of the new blog look?

Unlikely to have actually driven in 1930s Napier...but who cares?

This is the exact image that came out of the camera – editing was restricted to scaling down for the blog, and adding the copyright notice. It was taken with full polarisation. Note the flared highlights, and how the shadow side of the car is illuminated by sunlight reflected off the footpath. Same phenomenon is why Apollo astronauts appeared to be side-lit on the Moon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014