The new ‘Thunderbirds’ – fab or fail? I know what I think…

There’s no getting around it. Just about every bloke of A Certain Age in Britain and its former Empire was brought up with Gerry Anderson’s TV sci-fi classic Thunderbirds. It was at once charming, cheesy, funny, serious and melodramatic, but also hip and very, very cool.

A photo I took of the Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I've had since forever... And it's not tilt-shift. This is what happens on a focal length of 190mm at f 5.6, natural light with exposure time of 1/100.

The Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I’ve had since forever… and yes, I KNOW Thunderbird 4 is a submarine.

Thunderbirds captured the imagination of virtually every kid who saw it when it came out in 1965 – whatever their age, for it also turned Anderson into a pop-culture sensation in Swinging Sixties London. The show’s iconic radio call-back line, ‘FAB’ – not an acronym but a reference to the pop-culture word – summed it up. For me the show was inspiring. Among my books are several on engineering. Guess what got me on to it.

One of my earliest memories of TV – snowy black-and-white, miraculous to a 4-year old me – is watching the ‘Mole’ wobble out of Thunderbird 2’s pod and burrow to the rescue with the help of its rear-mounted rockets. I mean, how cool (if impractical) is that? Not to mention the Thunderbird machines themselves, invented by the stuttering genius engineer ‘Brains’ (aka Hiram J Hackenbacker). In true 1960s style these were atomic powered super-planes.

My favourite was always Thunderbird 2, a forward-swept wing frog capable of 8000 kph. Then there were the marionettes with their big heads, because the solenoid moving their lips couldn’t be made smaller. Their bounce-walk got so embedded in pop-culture that, even a generation later, advertisers were able to subvert the clunkiness without fear of people not ‘getting’ the joke:

Into this flowed Airfix and Revell kit-bashing  curious hybrids of B-58 Hustlers, F-104 Starfighters, Saab Drakkens and so forth. The Mole was made up of bits of Atlas booster, B-58 Hustler and the Airfix railway truss bridge, all poised, like many Thunderbirds vehicles, atop a 1/16 Vickers Vigor tractor chassis. Just for the hell of it, here’s the real Vigor with its Christie-style suspension:

Atlas booster with Mercury MA-9 atop. NASA, public domain.

The Thunderbirds Mole. No – the Atlas booster for real. NASA, public domain.

One of the big appeals of Thunderbirds was its effects complexity. Vehicle suspension really worked – this in small scale, no less. The Tracy brothers entered their craft via complex sliding couches, couch-trolleys, extensible platforms and so on. Thunderbird 1 didn’t just take off. It ran down a conveyor belt for no apparent reason and only then blasted off from a hangar with a real-world lemon-squeezer glued to the wall, hurtling skywards via a sliding swimming pool (well, how else do you launch a VTOL swing-wing hypersonic aircraft?). And then there was Thunderbird 2 with its pivoting palm-tree runway.

The man behind it was Derek Meddings, whose SFX work was leading-edge for the day – so good that when Stanley Kubrick was looking for effects experts for 2001: A Space Odyssey, he called Anderson.

Then there was the ‘2065’ setting with its secrecy schtik – this last a feature in most of Anderson’s work, never explained logically, but very cool nonetheless. And that’s without Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her faithful butler, Aloysus Parker – the comedy turn, but what a character.

My favourite model. I've had this Dinky toy of it since I was a kid. For some reason, I've never tossed it out...

My favourite model…

There was always talk of a remake, but the problem was re-creating the charm of the original. When the first effort happened in 2004 – live-action – it was panned. Rightly, too. And now we have another remake. Made in my own city of Wellington by Pukeko Pictures, owned by Sir Richard Taylor. I was at a book launch late last year and spotted him in the group, but I didn’t manage to talk to him. A pity, I’d have liked to have had a chat.

So how’s he done? I guess everybody’ll have their opinion. As for me? Well, the double-length pilot reprised the main disaster of Lord Parker’s ‘Oliday, which was pretty cool. But it all ran at breakneck pace – there was no time to savour the settings or enjoy the story, as there had been in the more leisurely original. Inertia seemed to have disappeared, too – epitomised by Thunderbird 2, all 400 tonnes of it (or whatever an 80-metre long freighter aircraft is meant to weigh) flipping about as if it was a Dinky toy. The original – for all its cheesiness by today’s standards – conveyed a proper sense of momentum and inertia.

Plus side is that it’s embraced modern effects tech, blending it – subtly – with carefully chosen model-work. The sensibilities have moved on too. There was a lot about the original, including its 1930s-style “Oriental villain”, smoking, implicit sexism, and other period touches that are either unacceptable today, or meaningless to a modern audience. We’ll see where Tintin Kyrano’s reinvention as Tanusha ‘Kaya’ Kyrano, with her own special Thunderbird, goes as the series unfolds.

So yeah, it’s different, but they’ve nailed today’s entertainment needs the way Anderson nailed those of the 1960s. Anderson always was up-to-the-minute; so I suspect that, if Anderson was doing it today, and had access to today’s CGI, this is how he’d have done it too.

And did anybody notice – apart from quick-fire references to Hackenbacker and Meddings – the really specific Space 1999 Eagle command module in the first episode?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Can we sell books with suggestive gibberish?

The other day I tried to buy a little smackerel of something from a fast food joint. When I went to close the deal the fellow behind the counter suddenly said “Wuddawuddabopbopbop.” Hilarity ensued.

Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.
Goon: WUDDAWUDDABOPBOPBOP.
Me: Sorry, still don’t get it. Can you repeat it slowly, not louder?
Goon: WUD – DA – WUD – DA … (etc).

It turned out he was trying to sell me an add-on. The speed of the patter, I suspect, was part of the technique to get an unsuspecting customer to buy a delicious handful of whole unboned chicken, lovingly dropped through an industrial macerator, chemically bleached, mechanically reconstituted into bite-sized chunks with artificial flavour, wrapped in sawdust and MSG before being deep-fried, left for half an hour to go lukewarm, then served up in a grease-stained cardboard cup.

ClickhereandbuymybooksOK?

ClickhereandbuymybooksOK?

That led me to wonder whether I couldn’t get bookstores to do the same for books. You know – somebody picks up the latest best-seller and ends up being on-sold a couple of other titles. The trick is mangling the request so the hapless book buyer doesn’t know what they’re ending up with – they think they’ll be getting two sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey whereas they’ve just bought a pile of books by that guy Wright (for selection, click on the titles in the right hand column of this blog).

And this is where you come in. Drop me a comment with your take on just how a bookstore attendant might mangle things so as to slip in one of my titles (that column on the right) – or one of your own. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – posing answers to the questions left by an abandoned trailer

I have no idea what the story is with the trailer I spotted in a paddock near Martinborough. Why has it been left there? And the trail left by the tractor unit is clear enough. But why is it curved?

Trailer in paddock near Martinborough.

Trailer in paddock near Martinborough.

To me, scenes that leave me asking questions are inspiring – not least because my imagination can roam, finding those answers. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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