Writing inspirations – bright skies before a tropical rain

A couple of autumns back I spent a week on Rarotonga, where I took this slightly dramatic picture of a tropical storm looming.

Tropical rain approaching in Rarotonga.

Tropical rain approaching in Rarotonga.

Luckily I was able to get my camera packed away before the storm broke. It was an evocative moment; the feeling of oppression, the stillness – and then the rain, with its feeling of relief. A moment to inspire writing? Absolutely.  You?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations found in a photo of a beach scene

Every so often I happen to take a photo that I later find inspiring, one way or another. Like this beach scene from Petone, at the north end of Port Nicholson in New Zealand.

Petone Beach, Wellington district, New Zealand.

Petone Beach, Wellington district, New Zealand.

For me, in this scene, it’s the interplay of wind, of colour and of shape; an abstraction that gives rise to abstract ideas as much as to the memory of the day I took the picture. Hopefully you’ll find it inspiring too.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

3D printed steak chips? It’s enough to make me go all hippy and vegetarian…

Human inventiveness seems limitless these days, so I wasn’t surprised to discover the other week that food technologists have been experimenting with 3d printed meat – currently produced, at astronomical expense, in the shape of chips.

Gallus gallus domesticus on Rarotonga, looking very much like the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus).

I’ll have my chicken free-range and wild, thanks…

Artificial food has been a long-standing SF staple – brilliantly played by Arthur C. Clarke in his hilarious 1961 satire ‘Food Of The Gods’. All food in this future was synthesised to the point where the very idea of eating something once alive had become offensive. Even the word ‘carnivore’ had to be spelt, lest it nauseate listeners, and synthetic meat had names unassociated with animals. In classic Clarke fashion, of course, there was a twist. Food synthesisers could produce anything. And there was this synth-meat called ‘Ambrosia Plus’, which sold like hotcakes until a rival company found out what the prototype was… (I won’t spoil the fun other than to point out that there’s a verb for a specific sort of meat-eating starting with ‘c’, and it isn’t ‘carnivore’.)

In the real world, 3D printed meat isn’t synthetic – it’s made of actual animal muscle cells which are artificially bred and then sprayed, in layers, to produce the product. Currently it’s a lab technique and the obvious challenge for its gainsayers is to find ways of industrialising it. Also of getting customers past the ‘ewwww’ factor of eating animal tissue bred in a petri dish and vomited into chip shape through a nozzle.

To my mind the key challenge is identifying the total energy requirement – printed meat may NOT be as efficient as current ‘natural’ methods of getting meat to your dinner table, where a large part of the energy comes from sunlight, via a grassy paddock and the digestive systems of ruminants.

Mercifully, we haven’t been told ‘This Is The Way ALL Meat Will Be Eaten In Future’, ‘The Future Is Now’ and other such dribble. Predictions of that sort pivot off the ‘recency effect’, by which whatever just happened is seen as far more important than it really is when set against the wider span of history. We fall into that trap quite often – often, these days, over products launched on the back of commercial ambition. What really happens is that the ‘way of the future’ idea joins a host of others. All of these then blend together and react with society in ways that eventually – and usually generationally – produces changes, but inevitably not the ones predicted by the ‘Future Is Here’ brigade.

In one of the ironies of the way we usually imagine our future, things that do dramatically change the way we live – such as the internet – are often not seen coming, or touted as game-changers. Certainly not in the way that food pills, flying cars and the cashless society have been.

As for artificial meat – well, I expect that if – IF – it can be industrialised, it’ll find a home in hamburger patties. But there seems little chance of it being mistaken for the real deal, still less supplanting a delicious slab of dead cow seared sirloin on the dinner table.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

When ethics overcome history

Another iconic building in my home town, Napier, New Zealand, bit the dust a while back. The Williams building – 103 years old – survived both the devastating 1931 earthquake and fire that followed.

Panorama I took of Napier's Hastings Street, Williams Building to the far left.

Panorama I took of Napier’s Hastings Street, Williams Building to the far right.

Now it’s gone down before the wrecking ball. And a good thing too. You see, it apparently only met 5 percent of the current earthquake-proofing standard. Ouch. Surviving the 1931 quake and retaining its structural integrity were, it seems, two different things.

The Williams building. Click to enlarge.

The Williams building going…going… Click to enlarge.

It’s the latest in a succession of quake-risk demolitions around the city. A few structures – such as the Paxie building, centre in the photo above, or the old State Theatre (where I first saw Star Wars in 1977) have been gutted and the facades preserved. But original ‘deco’ buildings of the 1930s are limited to a couple of city blocks. A single heritage precinct. When I was a kid, deco filled the town.

....and gone....

….and gone…. Click to enlarge

I know, I can hear the howls of protest now. ‘But – but – you’re interested in history…how can you support knocking it down?’

Easy. History is more than the artefacts it leaves anyway, but the real calculation is more immediate. A few years back, Napier’s Anglican Cathedral hall was also under threat of demolition, in part because it was a pre-quake masonry structure. The Historic Places Trust approached me, wanting me to put my authority and repute as a nationally known historian behind their effort to have it listed and legally protected. I was well aware of that history, of course. But I knew the building was a quake risk –and I hadn’t been given any engineering reports on which to base the professional opinion I was being asked to provide by Historic Places.

The biggest horror story of the 1931 quake was the way a doctor had to euthanise a badly injured woman who was trapped in the ruins of the cathedral – the only way to save her from being burned alive by advancing fires. In was an appalling moment. The decision tore at him for the rest of his life.

I wasn’t going to endorse saving a building where that might happen again. Risking human life or preserving a historic building? It’s a no-brainer, really. So while it was sad to see that building go -and sad, since, to see other structures like the Williams Building disappear – it’s really not a hard choice. What would you do?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – there ain’t room in this town for the Sheriff

One of the less known facts about New Zealand’s colonial days is the fact that we shared what has become known as ‘Pacific rim’ culture – a colonial disapora, driven in part by the hunt for gold, that left places from Victoria to California with very similar look, feel and even people.

The historic precinct in Cromwell, central Otago.

The historic precinct in Cromwell, central Otago.

This is the historic district of Cromwell, one of New Zealand’s gold-mining towns in the 1860s. See what I mean? I find that inspiring. Do you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Time’s no illusion – unlike gravity. Weird but true!

It seems axiomatic these days, especially among the quantum woo set, to call ‘time’ an illusion – a perception. Of course this is scientific rubbish. There’s no question that humans perceive time in many ways, but in terms of physics time IS real, independent of how we sense its passage.

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it wa captured at 304 Angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

Solar flare of 16 April 2012, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Image is red because it wa captured at 304 Angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

Unlike gravity. That’s the irony, you see. Gravity’s an illusion? Why? Short answer is that the universe is actually weirder than the woo brigade know. Let me explain. According to our friend Albert Einstein, gravity doesn’t exist as a force. Of course, you might have a bit of difficulty imagining gravity is an illusion if you’ve just gone for a gutser down the front steps. But trust me – it is.

Here’s how it works.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity – coming up for its centenary and proven to be true, without exception, every time it’s tested – shows that space and time are one entity. A four-dimensional reality with up-down, left-right, forward-back and time.

This space-time fabric is distorted by mass/energy (the same thing in terms of how the universe works). The usual metaphor is to imagine a rubber sheet. Mass/energy can be envisaged as a bowling ball dropped into the sheet. It’ll sag, stretching and curving the rubber.

This rubber sheet, remember, reflects not just space but also time. Consequently, a large mass (or a lot of energy) alters the rate at which time passes. You experience that every day on your phone – its GPS relies on GPS satellites, which have to account for the difference in the rate of time between Earth’s surface and the altitude the satellite’s orbiting at. Time dilation is also caused by the velocity difference between the satellite and Earth’s surface – a function of Einstein’s earlier theory, Special Relativity – which adds to the mix.

GPS works by micro-precise time measurement. If the satellites didn’t take account of Einsteinian frame-dragging, they couldn’t pin the position of your phone to a few metres.

So. Time’s real. What about gravity? Well, that’s the kicker. All-round smart guy Sir Isaac Newton, co-inventor of calculus among other things, identified a relationship between mass and gravity. The larger the mass, the more gravity it has. Simple.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Newton’s theory worked perfectly well, even allowing mathematicians of the early nineteenth century to predict the presence of a new planet – Neptune – from the way it affected Uranus’ orbit. But there were points where it didn’t work. Mercury had orbital characteristics that couldn’t be fully explained by the tugs of all the known planets.

For a while, astronomers theorised there was another world inside Mercury’s orbit – Vulcan. But it could never be found. And then Einstein’s theory came along, and the whole need for Vulcan went away.

Gravity, Einstein explained, wasn’t a force at all. It was a function of mass, sure – but not quite the way Newton thought.

Instead, Einstein calculated, gravity was an effect of the curvature of space-time. Particles would always try to take the shortest route between two places. However, if space-time was curved, they’d be forced to take a curved path. The difference was what we perceived as gravity, an effect intimately associated with mass or – and this is the kicker – energy.

Energy? Sure. Special Relativity showed that mass and energy were different aspects of the same thing (a little mass = a LOT of energy – and go on, you KNOW the equation).

Enough energy, in short, would also distort space-time and, in effect, create its own ‘gravity’. And this was where Mercury came in. The pertubations in its orbit, according to Einstein, weren’t caused by a hidden planet. They were caused by the energy of the Sun itself, acting as an additional distortion in space-time. In 1919 that prediction was borne out when some very precise measurements were taken of Mercury’s position during a transit of the Sun. It was exactly where General Relativity said it should be, if gravity was actually a product of the curvature of space-time.

This was the first proof of the theory – and, as we’ve seen, it’s been shown to be true every which way, ever since.

Gravity, in short, wasn’t a force of itself; it was a function of the way space-time was distorted by mass/energy. This also explained why you couldn’t have anti-gravity, because gravity wasn’t a real force with polarity. It was a structural product of the way the universe worked, but not something real of itself.

The biggest question that came out of this, of course, wasn’t whether gravity was real, which it obviously wasn’t – but why time seemed to move only in one direction. And that’s something that hasn’t been answered. Yet.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Oh, what a lovely blog hop!

This week Auckland writer Bev Robitai tagged me to join in the ‘Lovely Blog Hop’ – a round-robin of general all-round fun in which authors outline seven things that got them writing. My story starts in 1970, when I was 8.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful quote from Katherine Mansfield.

  1. Lots and lots and lots and lots of books. As a kid, I was surrounded with them – classics such as Arthur Ransome’s wonderful Swallows and Amazons series, C S Lewis’s Narnia, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm, and more.
  2. Graeme Beattie – ‘Bookman Beattie’, these days, New Zealand’s leading book blogger – played a part in the kick-off. Way back when, he was running his bookstore in central Napier, and a friend of my parents. One day, around August 1970, he passed on details of a book contest, run to mark the visit of Puffin’s retiring managing editor Kaye Webb to New Zealand. Kids had to write a short story. I entered – and won first prize. Fifty Puffin books. I still have some. And I thought, that was pretty cool, I’ll keep that going. I was eight. And I’ve never stopped.
  3. I was inspired by Norman Hunter. Writer of the ‘Professor Branestawm’ series, who came to my house one day in 1971-72. He was a very nice old gent and signed all my ‘Professor Branestawm’ books.
  4. On to my teenage years and I have to credit Tamatea High School for their part, in an inverse way. I learned to write in spite of them. My English teacher in 1977-79 was utterly useless. My parents arranged for me to attend writing courses at the local polytechnic as well as school, meaning I’d be taught how to write – effectively at tertiary level – providing I put in the extra hours. I was keen. Most of the classes were outside school hours, but one was only just – meaning I had to leave the school 10 minutes early, which the headmaster forbad. Yup – having failed to hire anybody capable of teaching, this worthless headmaster then tried to block my parents from having me taught competently elsewhere. Incredible! I attended the writing courses anyway, and that gave me an absolutely solid start. If Tamatea High School hadn’t been so actively useless, I wouldn’t have done them.
  5. I kept learning how to write at university. I still remember the writing lesson I got during one of my post-grad years at university, from a guy named Richard Adler, then Professor of English from the University of Montana in Missoula. No, I didn’t go there (I might never have returned, instead spending my life planting dental floss). He came to New Zealand on a Fullbright scholarship.
  6. My best teachers, as I emerged bright-eyed and bushy tailed into the world of writing and publishing, were people through the industry – Ken Hawker, former editor of Napier’s Daily Telegraph paper, who supported my writing from the outset; Frank Haden, the colourful features editor of the Dominion, who’d forgotten more about grammar than I’ll ever know, and more.
  7. Check out the battering. Is my copy of 'The Hobbit' much-loved, or what?

    Check out the battering. Is my copy of ‘The Hobbit’ much-loved, or what?

    Did I mention books? They need mentioning again. All through these formative years I was hugely influenced by what I read – especially fantasy and science fiction: Tolkien, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and a lot more.

So there you have it. Seven things that got me started. Don’t forget to check out Bev’s blog, and her books, especially Sunstrike and its sequels, exploring the Armageddon scenario that we really do need to be aware of.

And I’d like to nominate a blog to pass the Hop on to: Eric Wicklund’s ‘Momus News’. He’s a great story-teller, fun, imaginative, and always with a twist to his tales:

https://momusnews.wordpress.com/

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015