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

A chat with Elvis about Nibiru and other woo

Every other Tuesday, Elvis* – who’s living on Mars disguised as a walrus – drops in for a burger from the slider joint just down the road, because nobody on Mars knows how to make a good one. This week, as we chowed down on Chicken Anchovy Supreme, I mentioned that somebody’d posted a comment on my blog about Scholz’s Star – the red dwarf that skidded past the solar system around 70,000 years ago.

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 large companion using my trusty Celestia installation.

By this guy’s proposal the star – sorry, ‘Nibiru’ – hosted a planet with intelligent life who’d come to Earth and coded secrets into our genes, and he pointed me to a website that – er – proved it.

Actually, when I looked at the site, it was filled with stuff about aliens – aka Sumerian gods – wanting to steal Earth’s gold in order to warm their planet. A prelude, I suppose, to the way aliens always wanted to steal women and water in the 1950s.

Elvis wasn’t worried. Between mouthfuls, he told me this sort of argument is common enough among the woo brigade. There’s no point trying to counter-argue using science because the people who peddle this stuff believe what they say as an act of their own faith in it and merely get angry if you question it.

I still thought science might offer something and pointed out that red dwarfs are the smallest and most innocuous looking stars ever, but they have an unfortunate habit of suddenly exploding into a wild fury. Their brightness can increase 400 times or more on the back of a major flare. They make our local solar flares, even the biggest, look feeble. And if you’re in the way of that licking – well, there you are, an innocent little cell just starting out on the evolutionary tree, and suddenly you get the world’s worst dose of radiation poisoning and die. Oops.  And before life can re-develop, the broken bits get radiated. And again…and again…and again…

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 was captured at 304 Angstroms. (NASA/SDO, public domain).

That happened on early Earth, too, when our Sun was young and boisterous. Life didn’t start developing until after the Sun had stopped lashing us. Turns out that life needs a stable environment. Red dwarfs don’t offer one – ever. And that, I explained to Elvis, was quite apart from the fact that alien life is – well, alien. The chances of an alien planet producing a biota identical to ours is pretty low.

Not to mention that Scholz’s Star is orbited by a brown dwarf companion at the distance of Venus – a companion that has three-quarters the mass of the star, meaning they’re actually orbiting a mutual point in space where their gravitation balances, the barycentre. Planets could stably orbit the barycentre, providing they were further out again – but that would put them too far away to have human-type life on them.

And the other problem is the travel. Sure, Scholz’s Star came close by astronomical standards. But that’s the point. Astronomical. It never came closer than 0.82 light years. Yup, light – the fastest thing you can get – still took eight-tenths of a year to reach it. In everyday terms, that’s 7,800,000,000,000 kilometres. Woah! As I told Elvis, our fastest space probe, New Horizons, would take 16,000 years to cross that distance.

He nodded throughout. Obviously he didn’t dispute it. But I hadn’t addressed his basic point.

‘The problem,’ Elvis suddenly said, ‘is that as a species we humans suffer terrible delusions about self-importance.’

‘Don’t say that too loudly,’ I said ‘you’ll upset people.’

‘What do I care? I live on Mars.’ He crumpled his burger wrapper.

‘Tuesday week?’

‘Yeah.’

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

*Well, he says he’s Elvis, anyway. But even if he’s AN Elvis (as I actually suspect) rather than THE Elvis, who cares? He talks sense, which isn’t bad for someone who lives on Mars most of the time and has to hide inside a walrus costume to avoid being mobbed by Elvis impersonator fans.

Writers – one-trick ponies or polymaths?

I have never accepted the notion that authors are supposed to only be expert in whatever their last book happened to be about, as if they are one-trick ponies. The issue was highlighted for me when I fielded a question from a journalist about my science book Living On Shaky Ground. I was known as a historian, so how had I been able to understand the physics?

It's a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really...

It’s a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really…

The reality is that the sciences, physics particularly, have been so much a part of me that the issue never arose – the real question is how somebody who’d started in the sciences became a historian. And when I look at the unprovoked malice with which strangers in New Zealand’s historical academia have welcomed my contribution to their territory, I often wonder myself. But I digress.

In any case, I am, first and foremost, a writer. For me writing is about looking at some of the questions of human reality. That path leads into every aspect of human endeavour.

The supposition that ‘experts’ can only know about the narrow field in which they work follows the Western notion that people are only capable of achievement in one field. This is true of the academy, where it’s embedded to the point that personal validation is usually entwined with status in a narrowly defined topic, such as twentieth century military history. I’ve even seen that used as worth-denial within disciplines – one historian bagging another for being, allegedly, ‘outside’ a very tiny field of alleged speciality.

All this is an outcome of the way that Western intellectual pursuits, particularly, have been compartmentalised. But it’s classic false-premise, because it presupposes that somebody cannot be expert in more than one area; or if they are, their expertise is somehow ‘inferior’ to that of those who limit themselves to a single field or topic.

Actually, I remember a radio interview I did in which the interviewer was wondering how I, having been brought up in New Zealand’s North Island, could possibly know enough about the South Island to write a book about its history – I think he had the notion that ‘history’ was all about collecting funny local stories that you happened to know because you’d been brought up with them. I had to explain that it’s a profession and the research principles apply to any topic, irrespective of where I happened to have been brought up.

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, 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’.

That’s true for much more than just regional history in New Zealand. The thing is that true writers have to be curious about everything. Writing demands being able to intellectually synthesise, to get an overview of subject.

I think becoming expert in more than one area – and familiar with a very broad swathe of things – offers huge advantages. It is where creativity comes from – big-picture thinking. Too often, especially in specialist academia, studies focus on close detail and miss the wood for the trees.

To my mind, expertise backed by a very wide general understanding is a better sort of expertise, because it is given context. Getting there demands several things. It demands a restless curiosity. It demands an ability to understand more than surface detail and to perceive the shapes and patterns that drive the wider world. It also demands abstraction. So in answer to ‘generalist or expert’, the actual answer, then, is ‘both’. The word for all this, I think, is ‘polymath’. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing inspirations – little house I used to live in

I used to live in one of the houses in this photo, on the south edge of Karori Park in Wellington, New Zealand. I won’t say which – it’s thirty years since I was there and I have no idea who lives there now. But I remember the place, and I remember being able to look out on the park while I tapped out my thesis on my mechanical typewriter, and Madonna got into the groove on the stereo.

Little house I used to live in...

Little house I used to live in…

The ‘Young Ones’ were still showing on New Zealand TV. And, on the other side of the park, Katherine Mansfield’s childhood home still stood. Actually, it’s still there now.

I’d already written my first books, as part of what amounted to an internship with the New Zealand Forest Service. But I had no idea where that might lead. Or whether I might ever really write professionally, though even then, that was what I wanted to do.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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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

Writing inspirations – the art of the radiator cap

Who’d have ever imagined that an Italian car company might produce radiator caps in the shape of a rearing elephant? Well, Bugatti did. Here’s the one adorning their 1930 Bugatti T-46.

1930 Bugatti T-46 radiator cap.

1930 Bugatti T-46 radiator cap.

It’s an amazing piece of 1930s sculpture by any measure – and here it is, as part of a vehicle. Of course, there’s no question that cars – and 1930s cars especially – were wonderful examples of industrial art. And I think that it’s in discoveries such as this that writers can find inspiration, if they know where to look for it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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Aviation dreams: the P-51 Mustang comes alive

The other week the pilot of a P-51 Mustang fired up its Rolls Royce Merlin – all 27 litres of classic engine – right next to me. Moments like these don’t come around very often.

P-51 Mustang at Napier airport, February 2015.

P-51 Mustang at Napier airport, February 2015. Note the blade motion.

That sound is one of the classics of the piston-engined world. And it has to be experienced, up close and personal, to be really understood.

This particular Mustang is owned by Jetfighter Ltd, based in Auckland, and I photographed it at Napier airport. The Royal New Zealand Air Force received 30 just after the end of the Second World War, part of a batch of 370. The order never eventuated and in 1951 the 30 P-51’s were deployed instead with the Territorial Air Force, where they remained in service until the middle of the decade.

And if you want to learn more about the RNZAF and its Mustangs – well, the story’s in my book Kiwi Air Power, available from Amazon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015