Anticipating the next trend in book cover styles

I recently dug out some of the military histories I wrote in the late 1990s-early 2000s, largely because Intruder Books are reissuing some of them and I wanted to check out the old cover designs. Not to use those covers again – the license isn’t available – but to remind myself how they looked, way back when, and just how far styles have changed.

I commissioned the artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF. I still have the original painting. That meant I also had license to use it on the cover.

I commissioned the base artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF, which Reed NZ’s designer used as the basis for this cover. I still have the original painting.

A lot of that change, I think, flows from the way new technology provokes new styles. Actually, that was happening even before software oozed into the process.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 200 px

Same book – 2015 cover. Click to buy. Go on, you know you want to…

Way back, sci-fi book covers were bright yellow and plain, in which case they were published by Victor Gollancz. Or they were traditional for the day – a cover painting (sometimes full colour), usually by Ed Emshwiller, with often hand-lettered title at the top and the author’s name at the bottom. Just like every other book on the planet, except that the sci-fi featured a spaceship or googly monster or something.

Then, around the turn of the 1970s, a young British artist named Chris Foss cut loose with an airbrush and a new concept – multi-faceted, amazingly detailed fantasy spaceships floating on abstract clouds. And he set a trend. As in: Bam! A Trend! Three milliseconds after Foss’s artwork adorned the Panther editions of Asimov’s Foundation ‘trilogy’ (it was in the 1970s), every sci-fi book cover on the planet suddenly featured fantastic, multi-faceted, hugely detailed spaceships floating against billowing backgrounds.

This book of mine was pretty hard to structure - took a lot of re-working via the 'shuffle the pages' technique - to get a lot of social linear concepts into a single readable thread.

Superb, superb design

For me, the best cover ever designed for any of my books remains the one Penguin commissioned from an Auckland designer for Guns and Utu. Just awesome. (Want a copy? Email me.)

Today’s covers are all Photoshop layer blend and SFX effects, which I can usually spot from about half the distance of Jupiter (I began working professionally with Photoshop in 1988…) Every cover on Amazon has a sameness which I just know has been done with Photoshop layer blends in various flavours. Sigh…

I’m determined this over-use of glow won’t happen for the New Zealand Military series I wrote from 1997 to 2009, half a dozen titles of which are due to be re-released by Intruder Books over the next two years. Layer clipping paths? Sure. But not glow. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the next release is coming up in time for ANZAC day. Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18. A tenth anniversary reissue, in fact. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

History you can touch – now available in North America

New Zealand has a short history by world standards – the first humans to even reach these shores did not arrive until around 1280. But it is unquestionably an interesting past – particularly once we get into the so-called ‘historical’ period after 1840, when British and Maori came into collision.

St Alban's Church at Pauahatanui, near Wellington - site of a major pa in 1845.

St Alban’s Church at Pauahatanui, near Wellington – site of a major pa in 1845.

Open warfare flared between 1845 and the early 1870s, from Northland to the northern South Island. That is virtually yesterday by historical standards, and that makes those events a history we can touch. The more so because many of those events were not in remote bush locations – but in places we can see and touch. The Battle of Boulcott Farm, for instance, was in the middle of what is today suburban Lower Hutt. The bush pa of Titokowaru, Te Ngutu o te Manu, became the Hawera District Council camping ground. Really! The Battle of St John’s Wood, in Whanganui, became a supermarket. Gate Pa is, these days, a Tauranga bowling club lawn. Te Rangihaeata’s pa at Pauatahanui became a churchyard. And so it goes on.

The cover of my next book.

The cover – click to go to Amazon

It is a salutary reminder of the way history gets forgotten that these places – used daily by ordinary Kiwis – have such a dramatic past. And that’s why I made a point, in my latest book on the New Zealand Wars, of highlighting some of the easier places to get to. We should. History comes alive if we can visit the terrain – and history this recent should not be forgotten.

The New Zealand Wars – a brief history is my third book on the subject. And it’s been released this week, in print, for the North American market. Which I think is pretty cool.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Is vandalism part of the human condition?

I have a small gripe. Vandals keep tagging a power pole just along from where I live. Marking territory, animal-fashion. It happens every few weeks. The local council always has it painted out within the day; but it highlights what, for me, is one of the saddest sides of the human moral compass.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comVandalism. If somebody has something, it seems – even something as simple as a nicely painted power pole in a quiet suburban street – somebody else wants to break it, take it away or deny it to them. Anything humans have, it seems, is targeted in its own way. Take computing. Visionaries like Bill Gates and Sir Tim Berners Lee had a concept for a wonderful and better human world, connected by computer. So what happened? Other people wrote software to damage, steal, or cause inconvenience to users. Vandalism! Somebody trying to take away what you have – these days, usually the contents of your bank account.

I see the same phenomenon in the way academics always respond to others in their territory by denying the worth of the other’s skills and work – vandalising repute in intellectualised terms. To me that is conceptually no different from the way imbeciles with paint cans performed – it’s designed to take away something that somebody else has.

It’s been common enough through history. And it always works the same way:

1. “Someone’s got something I don’t have, so I have to show I’m better by breaking it or taking it off them.”
2. “I am marking my place and showing I am more important than others.”
3.”I feel validated by doing so.”

The motives, in short, are entwined with ego, status anxiety, and with validating a sense of self. Most human actions are. However, vandalism is a selfish form of self-validation.  It validates by taking away from others. To me this the exact reverse of the way we should behave.

In fact there are other – and better – ways of validating yourself. Helping others, for instance – being kind, taking a moment to help.

If we work together to build, isn’t that better than trying to tear down what others do? It is the difference between selfishness (vandalism) and generosity (kindness).  Bottom line is that kindness is the better path. And I think that, through history, there are times when society in general has taken that kinder path – overtly and obviously. But right now, as we roll into the twenty-first century, isn’t one of them. And I think we need to change that – to nurture kindness by taking the initiative – by expressing kindness, even in small ways, to each other.

I’ve said all this before, of course, but it’s worth saying again. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How Stephen Hawking reconciled the irreconcilable

I finally caught up with The Theory of Everything the other week – an awesome biopic about Stephen Hawking, the British physicist whose life’s goal is to find a theory – a single equation – that explains – well, everything. And what they didn’t mention in the movie is that he’s already made the first big discovery along that path.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

Let me explain. There are two main theories of the universe. Albert Einstein’s ‘General Theory of Relativity’ of 1917 totally explains space-time – the macro-scale universe. Quantum physics, which emerged a little later at the hands of Paul Dirac, Max Planck, Neils Bohr and others, works brilliantly in the micro-world – specifically, scales around a Planck length (1.61619926 × 10-35  metres). But the two don’t play nicely together. Not at all.

So far, nobody’s been able to reconcile them – despite the profusion of hypotheses such as string theory, where the maths work out fine, but where nobody has been able to find any evidence to prove it. (I can’t help thinking this is why Sheldon is a string theorist…)

Finding a ‘theory of everything’ has long been Hawking’s goal; and with Jacob Bekenstein he was the first to discover a way in which both Einstein’s General Relativity and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics could work together. They found that way in 1975, at the extreme edge of the possible – inside a black hole. Here’s Hawking’s original paper, ‘Particle Creation By Black Holes’ Commun. math. Phys. 43, 199—220 (1975).

A bit of explanation first. A ‘black hole’ is actually a ‘singularity’, a mathematical point where the curvature of space-time becomes infinite. The normal laws of space-time – the ones our friend Albert Einstein described – totally fail at that point. Even causality doesn’t apply. As Hawking once pointed out in a lecture, we can’t even imagine what might happen inside a singularity (he suggested a singularity could emit Cthulthu – it wouldn’t violate the laws of physics. I disagree. I can’t even pronounce Cthulthu. I think it would emit Sauron instead.)

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Artists impression of a GRB. Zhang Whoosley, NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Luckily for us, the everyday universe is shielded from singularities by the event horizon – the point where the escape velocity of the singularity exceeds light-speed. Stuff can fall in. But nothing gets out. Hence the term ‘black hole’. Hawking disputed that. Quantum theory states that particle pairs – positive and negative – are always appearing out of nowhere, then annihilating each other. It doesn’t violate thermodynamics because the net energy outcome is still zero. The effect is known as ‘quantum vacuum fluctuation’.

What I’m about to describe is the heuristic overview – the physics of it is complex and involves some mind-exploding mathematics (‘Bogoliubov transformations’). Basically, Hawking reasoned that if a quantum vacuum fluctuation occurred on the event horizon, there was a chance that one particle, the negative, would be drawn in while the other escaped. They couldn’t annihilate each other, because nothing can escape the horizon. Being negative, the falling particle would reduce the mass of the black hole. Meanwhile the positive particle would escape – effectively as heat – from the black hole.

The result was that ‘black holes’ weren’t actually the black dead ends previously imagined. They were glowing. And they’d eventually evaporate. And THAT is Hawking Radiation.

This also meant that black holes had life limits, and while larger-mass holes had lifespans measured in billions of years, small ones would disappear quickly – which, incidentally, is why nobody’s worried about forming one with a few tens of particles in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which is about to be deployed at full power for the first time this year. It’d evaporate in way less than a microsecond. And so Hawking showed that, yes – at least in this extreme case – quantum physics and Einsteinian determinism could play nicely together.

The next question was whether the two could be reconciled in more everyday terms. And that’s been the stalling point. But if anybody can solve it – well, I figure it’ll be Hawking.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Getting winked at by a mystery star! Really

The latest wow-find from astronomers has snuck up on us by stealth. A small red dwarf star discovered in November 2013 by German astronomer Ralf-Dieter Scholz looked, first off, to be pretty ordinary.

Conceptual picture I made of a red dwarf with large companion using my trusty Celestia installation.

Conceptual picture I made of a red dwarf with companion using my trusty Celestia installation.

It even had a boring name: WISE J072003.20−084651.2, courtesy of being found lurking in data collected by the WISE Satellite. It is estimated to be 19.6 light years distant – in our neighbourhood, as stars go, but not exceptionally close. It has around 86 times the mass of Jupiter, making it a M9.5 class red dwarf, one of the smallest possible.

It is orbited – at the equivalent distance of Venus – by a ‘brown dwarf’ companion, a body with 65 times the mass of Jupiter. This world is warmed to near-luminescence by gravitational compression and – potentially – deuterium fusion, but isn’t massive enough to trigger hydrogen-1 fusion and light up like its star.

Yawn. Red dwarfs are the most common stars around. Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun, is a prime example. In fact, of the 60 stars known within 16.3 light years, 46 are red dwarfs. We’re finding lots in our neighbourhood lately because many are so cool and dim – by stellar standards – they’re invisible even to high-powered telescopes. It takes satellites with sensitive infra-red detectors to pick them up. Brown dwarfs are also appearing to these instruments – singly, or orbiting stars that (wait for it) are often red dwarfs.

Since 2013, though, Scholz’s Star has rung alarm bells. First was its proper motion – the way it tracked tangentially across the sky, relative to other stars. Eric Mamajek of the University of Rochester in New York led a team looking into that, using data collected by the South African Large Telescope and the Las Campanas Observatory’s Magellan telescope in South America. They discovered the proper motion was very slow. But the star itself had very high radial velocity – its actual speed. Around 83 kilometres a second, in fact – four times the usual velocity of stars in this part of the galaxy.

This added up to a star that was travelling fast – but which from our viewpoint didn’t appear to be moving. That’s no paradox – imagine you’re looking up a straight road at a car disappearing into the distance. It’s moving fast, but from where you’re standing, it isn’t moving left or right (‘proper motion’). That’s because it’s moving directly away – and that’s true of Scholz’s Star.

Comparison between stars and brown dwarfs. Not strictly to scale. Public domain, NASA/JPL/Caltech.

Comparison between stars and brown dwarfs. Not strictly to scale. Public domain, NASA/JPL/Caltech.

Mamajek and his team ran 10,000 mathematical simulations to find out how close it had been. And – just announced this month – they discovered that, some 70,000 years ago, Scholz’s Star skimmed past our solar system. With a closest approach of just 0.82 light years – some 52,000 times the distance of Earth from the Sun – it banged through the outer fringes of the Oort cloud, the icy cloud of debris left over from the formation of our solar system, which extends out to a light year or so.

The star was far too small and far too distant to affect the orbits of the Sun’s planets. Here on Earth, the Moon has 2,000,000,000,000,000 times the tidal effect exerted by Scholz’s Star at closest approach. But it will have perturbed some of the the ice-and-dirt clusters of the Oort cloud.  Passing stars are thought to do this every so often, and it’s thought that Scholz’s Star was far from the most serious. Some material will probably have been lobbed sunwards, and will still be on their way in – meaning there will be a small scattering of comets arriving in about 2,000,000 years. Yah, we’re talking about astronomy here – which means having a barrel full of zeroes by your desk.

Did ancient humans see the star? If we draw a circle around the Sun at 100,000 times Earth’s distance and plot Scholz’s Star’s path through it, we find the star took around 10,000 years to traverse that line. Back then it had huge ‘proper motion’ by stellar standards – enough to move across the sky by the angular width of the full Moon in 26 years.

But even at closest approach Scholz’s Star would have been around 11.8 magnitude and thus utterly invisible to the naked eye. But the thing about red dwarfs is that they’re often magnetically unstable – and emit huge flares. In some cases that can increase the brightness of the star, briefly, about 400 times. That would have been enough to make it visible as it tracked through our skies – intermittently. The jury’s out on Scholz’s Star, but Mamajek has speculated that it probably did flare regularly.

Yup, Scholz’s Star was probably winking at us. Which is kind of cool. And begs a question – what would happen if a star came even closer? More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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

Click to buy from Fishpond.

Buy from Fishpond.

Click to buy from Fishpond

Buy from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Buy e-book from Amazon

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