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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Yes – a Kiwi might go to Mars, but I still wish it was Justin Bieber

A New Zealander’s reached the short-list of 100 possible candidates for the one-way Mars One mission proposed for 2025-26 by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, co-founder of the project.

Personally I’d have preferred they despatched Justin Bieber and left it at that. But the presence of a Kiwi isn’t bad given that the original long-list ran to 202,586 individuals.

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.

Still, I can’t quite believe the plan. Settlers will be lobbed to Mars in batches of four, inside modified Space-X Dragon capsules. They’ll land, build a habitat based on inflatable modules and several Dragons, and remain there for the rest of their lives. Kind of like Robinson Crusoe, but with all of it beamed back to us for our – well, I hesitate to use the word under these circumstance. Entertainment.

I doubt that the show will run for many seasons. The development timing for the mission seems optimistic – a point I am not alone in observing. There have been a wide range of practical objections raised by engineers at MIT. But apart from that, nobody’s been to Mars before. Sure, we’ve despatched over 50 robots, 7 of which are still operational. But that doesn’t reduce the challenges involved in keeping humans alive in a hostile environment for their natural lives, and I figure from the Apollo experience that there’ll be curve balls along the way.

Those challenges will begin as soon as the colonists are cruising to Mars, a 256 day journey jammed into a 10-cubic metre metal can along – eventually – with 256 days worth of their wastes. Think about it. Popeye lived in a garbage can. The first Mars colonists? Well, they’re going to live in a commode. Hazards (apart from launch-day waste bags bursting on Day 255) include staying fit in micro-gravity and radiation flux. That last is the killer. The trans-Mars radiation environment was measured by the Curiosity rover, en route, and turned out to be – on that trip anyway – 300 millisieverts, the equivalent of 15 years’ worth of the exposure allowed to nuclear power plant workers. A typical airport X-ray scan, for comparison, delivers 0.25 millisieverts.

I suppose the heightened risk of cancer isn’t really an issue, given their life expectancy on Mars (68 days, according to MIT). Though if the sun flares – well, that’ll be too bad. (‘My goodness, what a lovely blue glow. Nice tan.’)

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Unfortunately the radiation problem continues on the surface of Mars. The planet lacks a magnetic field like Earth’s and its atmosphere is thin, meaning radiation is a threat even after you’ve landed. The answer is to bury yourself under Martian dirt, but Space One’s plans don’t seem to include that. There also a possible problem – which we’ll look at next time – with the nature of that dirt.

Whether the intrepid colonists will get away is entirely another matter. Apart from the hilariously optimistic timetable, the project relies on a modified version of Space-X’s Dragon, which has yet to be human-rated. And then there’s funding, which I understand will come from media coverage. But I suspect the likely barrier will be regulatory. These people will be flying inexorably and certainly to their deaths, and odds are on it will be before the natural end of their lives. Will the nation that hosts the launch permit that?

Still, let’s suppose there are no legislative barriers. And let’s say the colonists get to Mars without their hair falling out or the waste bags bursting and filling the cabin with – well, let’s not go there. Let’s say they land safely. Suddenly they’re on Mars. Forever. What now? And what about those curve-balls?

More next week.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Waitangi Day: the story behind the Treaty

It’s Waitangi Day here in New Zealand – the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty that established a Crown Colony in these islands. These days it’s a public holiday.

Possibly the closest equivalent in the US is Independence Day, though the New Zealand version isn’t quite the same. Our day is usually divisive, and the normal outcome is a succession of public spats in a couple of key places around the country – including Waitangi itself – while just about everybody else ignores it and has a day off. To me that isn’t really how it should be, but it’s hard to see what can be done to change it – such matters are generational.

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

Reconstruction of the Treaty being signed. Note William Hobson (left centre) in his blue morning coat and hat. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

I’d like to think things might be less tense if people better understood the differing historical and present realities of the Treaty of Waitangi, so called because it was signed at Waitangi (Wailing Waters) just north of the Te Tii marae (formal meeting place) in the Bay of Islands. These are indicative of the way that the Treaty is a living document, not just a historical relic – something that underscores its importance and value to New Zealand. Legally and constitutionally, it remains a key founding document; and the idea of the Treaty – its social place and meaning – has been re-cast many times since it was signed, reflecting changing values, all of them valid to their own times. Some of the mid-nineteenth century ideas were backdrop to the career of the man whose hidden private life and character I explored in my latest book Man Of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean (Penguin Random House 2015). Donald McLean,  coincidentally, arrived in the Bay of Islands just as the Treaty was being signed – little realising that he had a career ahead of him as a major Crown land buyer and Native Minister whose job it was to live by its values. Sort of, anyway. (Click on the cover in the sidebar to the right to check it out).

Those ideas, in turn, were very different from the way it was seen in the late nineteenth century, or the twentieth, or today. Needless to say, all of the ways the Treaty has been seen are a far cry from the gimcrack way the Treaty was actually set up in 1840.

Gimcrack? Sure. In 1839-40, when it was mooted and then signed, the British weren’t very interested in setting up a colony in New Zealand. Theirs was a trading Empire, and although there was a supply centre developing in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand lay far off the main trading routes. To a penurious Treasury, it seemed to offer only cost and very little benefit.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi - now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi – now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee on the grass to the right of the flagpole, about where the flagpole was in 1840.

But pressure was growing to do something. The place had become a haven for white criminals – escaped convicts from Australia among them – and there had been some nasty incidents, including the Elizabeth affair, when a British sea captain apparently chartered his ship to Maori so they could conduct a war expedition that ended in heavy bloodshed and, allegedly, cannibal feasting on board the British vessel. Nobody objected to what Maori had done; it was accepted that they were at war and the conduct of the war party was precisely correct according to their own values. The problem was the intimate involvement of a British sea captain; not only had he profited from it, but apparently his crew had gotten rather too enthusiastically involved – and by British law, those actions rendered him a pirate.

A photo I took in 2011 of the 'Treaty House' at Waitangi - the home of British Resident, James Busby from 1833. Now restored as a museum. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

A photo I took of the ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi – home of British Resident James Busby from 1833. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

In this context the Treaty was an expedient – a cheap way of applying British law to a country that, it seemed, was going to be drawn into the British sphere whether the Treasury and Colonial Office in London wanted it or not.

The moment came in a brief window of time when a war-weary Britain was exploring a more liberal and humanist approach to the world. The Anglican-based Church Missionary Society led the charge, arguing that British civilisation would unerringly destroy any indigenous peoples it encountered. The Colonial Office was effectively a hot-bed of ex-CMS officials; and the Treasury – which reflected similar thinking – was insistent that a New Zealand colony could only be set up with the full consent of Maori, by Treaty.

That was why the Treaty was ordered. It was done in haste by officials such as William Hobson, who were not familiar with New Zealand – he was, in fact, a naval commander – and it was drafted in circumstances where neither he nor his local advisors were sure whether it should apply to the whole of the New Zealand archipelago or just the part around the Bay of Islands. Even the way it was signed was ad-hoc. It was put to local rangitira (chiefs) on 5 February 1840; they did not agree during korero (discussion) that day, so Hobson arranged for a further meeting on 7 February. But next morning, 6 February, chiefs arrived to sign it. Hobson decided to take up the offer and rushed to arrange it, clad informally in a morning coat rather than his official naval uniform. Later, when the Treaty was taken around New Zealand, the only people the British actively sought to sign it were rangitira who had signed the 1835 Declaration of Independence, which the Treaty of Waitangi superseded – its whole first clause, in fact, was given over to that purpose.

The Treaty remains the only example of its kind in the world – and it’s fitting that it has become a blueprint in New Zealand for race relations since. But that’s a far cry from its gimcrack origins, a fact that underscores just how times change, and how interesting a foreign land history really is.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How long is the ‘now’ moment we live in?

How long is ‘now’ – you know, the evanescent moment we live in and usually let past without properly experiencing it.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoNow, like time itself, is largely seen as a philosophical issue; a personal perception that stretches or shrinks depending on what we are doing. For a kid, an hour spent in a classroom listening to the teacher drone on about stuff the kid neither knows nor care about is an eternity; yet an hour hurtling about with friends at play disappears in a flash. Adults have a different perception of time again; that same elasticity flowing from interest and enthusiasm, but metered often by a sense of purpose. Yes the job’s boring, but it has to be done.

Beyond that is the concept of the ‘moment’ itself. What is ‘now’? In Buddhist philosophy it means being mindful – fully and properly aware of one’s immediate self, immediate place, and immediate environment. It means having awareness of the fullness of the moment, even in its transience, even as we think about past or future.

But what ‘is’ a ‘moment’, scientifically? The reported research indicated that a ‘moment’, to most people, is two or three seconds. Then that perception of ‘now’ vanishes and is replaced by a new one.

If we match that to attention spans we find that the typical time spent on any one item on the internet is literally only a couple of ‘moments’. And then when we realise how shallow the internet must be.

It also underscores just how important and valuable mindfulness actually is. Because a couple of blinks, literally, and the ‘now’ moment is gone.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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Should we be dispassionate about writing – like Spock?

The other week I argued that Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara was a poorly written Tolkien rip-off that put me off the rest of the novels. Responses fell into two camps – people who agreed and thought the whole Shannara series was dismal; and those who were offended.

Wright_Typewriter2Fair point. People don’t have to agree – indeed, differing opinions are great, because they push discussion. And maybe something nobody thought of will come out of it. That’s what counts. Good stuff.

But what intrigued me about the discussion was the level of emotion it provoked in one or two places. A couple of of the responses were – well, a bit personal. Surely it’s possible to chat about the abstract value or otherwise of books? And then I got thinking. In some ways it isn’t, because the purpose of both reading and writing is emotional.

Authors write because they get an emotional satisfaction from doing so. Readers read because of the emotional journey it produces. By describing the opinion I and apparently others have of Brooks, I’d affirmed one sort of opinion. But I’d also trodden on the toes of others, who got a positive charge from reading his material.

The question, then, is whether writers and readers should step back from the emotion? In some ways I don’t think it’s possible for reading, because the very purpose of reading is to have an emotional experience. People read to become entangled in the emotional journey – be it to learn something, to feel validated, to find place, or simply to be distracted. However, I think it’s essential for writers to step back.

Yes, authors write because they get their own emotional satisfaction from doing so – from producing material that meets a need of their own and which will take others on an emotional journey. But at the same time, the clarity of thought that this process requires demands abstraction. How often have you written something in the heat of a moment and then, later, read through it and realised it’s foolish?

Authors have to be able to not only include the intended emotion, but also to step back from their own entanglements from time to time – to look at what they are producing from a more abstract perspective. Only then can the content and intent become properly clear – and the emotional journey on which they are going to take the reader emerge in balance. Really, we all have to approach writing like Spock would.

Seething with emotion underneath – sure – but not letting that get in the way of careful thought and analysis. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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New Zealand’s part in the Battle of Dogger Bank

It’s a hundred years this weekend since the battle of Dogger Bank – 24 January 1915 – the first clash of late industrial-age big-gun warships in history. As Winston Churchill pointed out, nobody quite knew what would happen.

HMS New Zealand, Indefatigable class battlecruiser given by New Zealand to the Royal Navy in 1909. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS New Zealand, Indefatigable class battlecruiser given by New Zealand to the Royal Navy in 1909. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

New Zealand was intimately involved. Our ‘gift ship’ to Britain, HMS New Zealand, formed part of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battlecruiser Force, which was heavily engaged. A fair number of Kiwis were serving on board at the time. The battle was an outcome of a risky German strategy to draw out part of the British fleet and whittle down their superiority. This initially involved sending battlecruisers to bombard towns along the British coast – Hartlepool and Lowestoft among them – with the German High Seas Fleet lying in wait nearby to spring the trap.

In late January 1915 the Germans sent their First Scouting Group – three battlecruisers, supported by the large armoured cruiser Blucher – to attack British fishing fleets on the Dogger Bank. This time the High Seas Fleet was not in support. However, the British were tipped off by ‘Room 40′ decryption of German signals and put forces to sea to intercept.

Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

It was a dramatic day. The British sortied their Harwich Force of light cruisers and destroyers, and their Battlecruiser Force, under Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty. The latter encountered the German battlecruisers, under Rear-Admiral Franz Hipper, just after 7.00 am on 24 January. The Germans turned for harbour. Beatty gave chase, and a helter-skelter pursuit followed.

We can imagine the scene – the British ships plunging forwards amid clouds of coal and cordite smoke, guns spitting fire while, deep inside their hulls, sweating stokers shovelled coal into the furnaces and the engineers forced the steam plants over design figures. At 8.52 Beatty opened fire at the unprecedented range of 18,000 metres.

SMS Seydlitz, flagship of Rear-Admiral Franz Hipper at the Battle of Dogger Bank, nearly lost when a British hit penetrated one of the turrets and set ammunition ablaze. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

SMS Seydlitz, flagship of Rear-Admiral Franz Hipper at the Battle of Dogger Bank, nearly lost when a British hit penetrated one of the turrets and set ammunition ablaze. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

In theory Beatty’s five heavy ships had it all over the Germans. In practise, the Germans got away, thanks to a signalling mix-up after Beatty’s flagship Lion was crippled. Beatty wanted the slower Indomitable to attack Blucher, leaving the rest of the British force to pursue the main German units. Command-and-control still relied, Nelson-style, on flags, and as Lion fell back, Beatty’s flag-lieutenant, Seymour, hoisted two signals at once. They were misread as one by Rear-Admiral Sir A. G. Moore, on board the New Zealand, who presumed they meant Beatty wanted the whole force to attack Blucher. The result was that the British swung around to pulverise the lagging armoured cruiser. By the time Beatty was able to transfer his flag to the Princess Royal, it was too late to catch the fleeing German battlecruisers.

Opinion afterwards was mixed. The Kaiser forbad further tip-and-run raids. To the British public, the battle underscored the popular image of battlecruisers as naval cavalry. Beatty, already a rock star with the British public, became all the more dashing on the back of it.

HMS Lion, Beatty's flagship, crippled at Dogger Bank by only a few hits. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS Lion, Beatty’s flagship, crippled at Dogger Bank by only a few hits. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

There were other opinions in the Admiralty. The First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, was furious. Moore might have obeyed a mis-flown signal, but Henry Pelly of the Tiger – the physical leader of the British line after Lion dropped out – could have kept the chase. ‘Any fool can obey orders,’ Fisher stormed. Whether the British force – down to two 13.5-inch gunned battlecruisers backed by New Zealand and the slower Indomitable – could have tackled three modern German vessels was a moot point, the more so because British shooting was atrocious. Blucher succumbed to a rain of short-range fire, but the three big German vessels received only seven hits between them, out of 869 13.5-inch rounds lobbed their way. Part of the reason was that the engagement was mostly fought at far greater ranges than the fire-control systems were capable of handling. But it also highlighted lack of practise facilities at their base in the Firth of Forth.

SMS Derfflinger, second German battlecruiser in their line, firing a salvo. Public domain, Wikipedia.

SMS Derfflinger, second German battlecruiser in their line. Public domain, Wikipedia.

To this was added the technical performance of the warships. Lion was knocked out of battle with just 16 hits, including some that penetrated her main belt armour. She had to be towed back to Rosyth by the Indomitable. Analysis revealed problems with construction detailing as well as the risks of building warships that sacrificed armour for speed.

The Germans also learned from the experience. The Seydlitz had almost been lost when a hit aft fired ready ammunition in one of the two aft heavy gun mounts. The fire spread to the other mount. Neither magazine exploded, but the Germans tightened their munition-handling procedures to prevent a repeat of the incident.

This meant that when the battlecruisers came to blows a second time, fourteen months later, the British came off second best. But that is another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Do societies re-package their narratives of recent events? And is that ‘history’?

The other day a reader commented on a post I’d written about 9/11 as history and pointed out, quite rightly, that it doesn’t take long for events to be ‘packaged’ in ways that stand against the more dispassionate requirement of historians to understand.

The cover of 'Shattered Glory'. Now out of print.

The cover of ‘Shattered Glory’. Out of print (sigh…)

I agree. There’s no doubt in my mind that dramatic events affecting whole societies are swiftly re-invented by those who live through them. Not least because of emotional entanglement with what’s just happened. This is normal, historically. I traced just such a re-invention of New Zealand’s 1915 Gallipoli defeat in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin 2010). By April 1916, just five months after the stalled campaign ended in an ignominious retreat, it had been re-cast as a glorious victory, because it was a sacrifice for Empire. This reflected prevailing pop-sentiment of the day towards our place in a wider British Empire and helped address grief at the death toll, which was colossal for a country of just under 1 million souls. But the conception of Gallipoli as triumph was the exact opposite of the military defeat and human truth; a demonstration of the way societies, en masse, rationalise events to suit immediate emotional needs. And it had an impact on our view of history because, in a demonstration of the stickiness of re-invention, that view is largely what guides the popular conception of New Zealand’s Gallipoli experience today, nearly a century on.

So can we analyse recent events ‘historically’, in the same sense that we can analyse something that happened a century or two ago? History-as-discipline is one of the intellectual pursuits that self-examines its analytical philosophy. Hobsbawm, for instance, didn’t divide history via round-number centuries but by events, typically, political and social (‘social’, inevitably, encompasses ‘economic’, which despite the ‘hardening’ of economics with a mathematical over-gloss since the late 1940s, is at heart about society).

To Hobsbawm, the nineteenth century was ‘long’, book-ended by the French revolution of 1789 and the First World War of 1914. Whereas the twentieth century was ‘short’, framed by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the end of the Cold War in 1992.

Those arguments were possible because Hobsbawm stood at the end of the cycles; they were evident to him and he had a distance to perceive what had happened in fully historical terms, certainly as far as the ‘long’ nineteenth century was concerned. But what about things that have just happened? Things we popularly call ‘historic’ but which still burn fresh in memory and haven’t achieved the more sonorous quiet of a deeper past?

To me there are several issues. The first is the problem of context. Sometimes, the deeper over-arching forces that drive the widest patterns of history – combinations of long-standing technological, social, political, ideological and, it seems, environmental factors – aren’t obvious for decades afterwards. We can’t tell precisely what a particular development may mean until it’s put into place not only of what went before, but also of what went after – and, usually, some time after. Last week’s, last year’s or even last decade’s news won’t cut it in these terms.

The second issue is the related one of emotional perspective. It takes about 25-30 years, or more, for one generation’s problem to be resolved and replaced by another; and also for the people primarily involved in it to be far enough back to be treated with the (ideally) abstract dispassion of history.  It is only now, for instance, that we are seeing treatment of Winston Churchill that moves beyond the pro- and anti- partisanship of his life and immediate decades after his death.

Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai.

Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai, a place that brings the human condition into sharp relief. Something happened to me five minutes after this photo was taken that gives the lie to notions of ‘rational egoism’. Ask me in the comments.

Thirdly there’s the ‘recency’ phenomenon, in which we tend to view events just gone as larger than those further back, to the cost of proportion. This also fuels a tendency to view whatever just happened as the arbiter of the future. Take the Cold War, which – via Hobsbawm’s thesis – was a temporary product of the way the old world collapsed in 1914-19. But you wouldn’t have known that living in the middle of it. And when it did finish with the predictable collapse of the Communist economy, Francis Fukuyama insisted that history had ended – that Western capitalist ideology, as he defined it, had won, and there would be no further change. Ouch. This was ‘recency’ in full display.

The reality of abstract historical analysis, of course, is that it has nothing to do with ‘direction’ or ‘progress’ towards an inevitable or ideal one-dimensional ‘end’ such as I believe was implied by Fukuyama. Indeed, by definition, history cannot end. It’s a product of human change through time; and the onus is on historians to understand that deeper human condition, the ‘unity in diversity’ beloved of social anthropology, as a pre-requisite to being able to understand how that then expresses itself in ever-smaller scales of detail when framed by a specific society.

I’ve found through my own work in the field that practical detail changes affecting a specific society usually happen generationally – sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes with sharper impact as happened in the 1960s when the generation brought up in wake of the Second World War objected to the philosophy of their parents.

And so we have the tools with which to approach the issue of ‘recent’ history. The pitfalls of those tools may not be fully overcome – indeed, logically, they cannot be; but to know they are there and to understand how these limitations work is, I think, a very great step towards being able to couch recent events in more dispassionate light.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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