What is it about ‘boy racer’ thrill-seekers?

A ‘boy racer’ car jammed with kids bra-a-a-atted past a while back, in apparent disregard of traffic rules, speed limits or other motorists, giving me pause to think about what happens inside the minds of teenage drivers, other than the dull buzzing sound some gadgets make when not under load.

Put one of these inexperienced kids behind the wheel, give them less driving experience than a gnat, and they’re off like rockets with all their friends in the back. Slow is for morons, hur hur… See a pedestrian crossing the road safely by normal traffic standards? Accelerate at them, while your friends in the back jeer at your target because you made them run for their life off the road, what a wimp! See another ‘boy racer’ and – well, you know who’s best, hur hur, time for a drag.

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

Which probably makes me sound like one of those grumpy old men. But the fact is that most weekends in New Zealand, our hard-working and long-suffering police have to scrape the remains of one or more of those over-powered, under-handling cars, and all its occupants, off the building or power pole  they’ve managed to slide into at 180 km/h. And then the police have to take the awful news to the parents.

A year or two ago, a teenage driver tried to take his car-full of friends on a thrilling jump between on and off ramps on a motorway in New Plymouth. He missed, naturally, and the car ended up embedded in the wall of a nearby building.

My answer? (1) Car makers spend hundreds of millions on high-tech research to optimise the handling of their vehicles. Teen ‘boy racers’ are NOT going to improve on that with a $1500 ‘performance kit’, still less their own ideas about suspension dynamics. Similarly, advancing the ignition timing until the carefully designed engine won’t idle doesn’t actually maximise the torque. (2) Teen ‘boy racer’ drivers probably won’t stop thrill-seeking, but why not find some way of convincing them to do this in controlled conditions on a racetrack. Finally, (3) also make them do the math of movement physics – momentum, kinetic energy and so on – as part of the driving test. (Hur hur, math is for morons…)

As far as I can tell, this phenomenon is historically new, not least because it’s built on the back of historically recent tech – the car. But by historical standards the idea of a ‘teenager’ – somebody not a child, but also not an adult – is also recent in western society. The term itself emerged via the US during the years after the Second World War. Before then – and certainly during the nineteenth century – there was no such thing. Boys went to school; and when they left – they were considered adults. No choice. We forget that a lot of the more heroic acts of derring-do in the British Empire were by young men we might call teenagers today – kids in their late teens who’d left school and gone forth into the world to see what they could find. In part this was the equivalent of boy-racer thrillseeking. But in other ways it wasn’t, and when push came to shove, most could step up to the plate.

That was made clear enough here in New Zealand when the Brunner coal mine exploded in 1896 – New Zealand’s worst mine disaster. I published the full story in my book Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand. The manager, James Bishop, rushed into the mine to rescue his workers. He was swiftly overcome by carbon monoxide and hauled out, semi-conscious. Whereupon his son – a 17 year old ‘teenager’ – stepped into the breach and worked without pause organising the rescuers and keeping tally to make sure they came back. Young Bishop did not sleep until he went home at 4.00 am on the morning after the disaster – but even then only snatched two hours rest before returning to the mine. ‘I shall never forget the sight of those bodies as long as I live.’

Times change; society changes; expectations change. If Bishop were about today, would he have gone hurtling around public roads in a ‘boy racer’ car, jeering at the pedestrians he was scattering? I wonder.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Thoughts about Shakespeare spurred by Fay Weldon’s ‘Letters to Alice On First Reading Jane Austen’

A while ago I found myself glancing at a copy of Fay Weldon’s Letters To Alice on first reading Jane Austen (1984) and wondering if such a book could ever be published today, mainstream.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Call it meta-literature; a book by a writer thinking about someone’s response to another writer’s book. Which makes this post meta-meta literature, I suppose – my thoughts on a book by a writer thinking about someone’s response to another writer’s book. Alice – Weldon’s fictive ‘niece’, doesn’t like being made to read Austen. She also doesn’t actually exist; she is merely a clever device for Weldon to expound her own thoughts on writing, and people, and – of course – why Jane Austen’s novel-writing is interesting.

This ability to point out the interest was a skill totally absent in my high school English teacher, who we shall refer to as Frog (because everybody did at school). He unerringly failed to tell the class anything about context or meaning – anything at all, in fact, that might have made the work meaningful and thus interesting. In a few short years at senior high he managed to annihilate any interest I might have had in literature. He rendered Catch-22 boring, reduced One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to an endurance test, and made clear that studying Shakespeare was about as gripping as watching paint dry.

What Frog missed – and what Weldon spends her book pointing out – is that all things have interest. You just have to find it. I won’t rant on about Austen because Weldon’s already done it. But take Shakespeare, for instance. To the uninitiated teenager these are filled with barely-comprehensible Elizabethan slang and strange characters you can’t connect with. But then figure that most of his plays were intended to tweak the beards of the administration and social mores when England was being run as a police state. And they were rude. He used words like fie, for instance. Fie! The naughtiest word of the era.

They were also high entertainment – the blockbuster movie equivalent of the age. Suddenly, Shakespeare isn’t some boring academic study. It’s interesting. It’s not too many steps from there to discovering that most of his plays nailed the human condition pretty closely (so did Austen, Weldon tells us).

Shakespeare’s plays are timeless in that sense, which is why it’s been so easy to adapt them to any setting and time period. Any? Go watch Forbidden Planet (1956). See? Interesting. And that, of course, runs to the heart of all writing – fiction or non-fiction, it has to address the human condition in some way. Austen said so. Shakespeare said so. Weldon said so. I say so. Which, I guess, answers the question about whether Weldon’s book would be picked up by a mainstream publisher today, post-Amazon revolution. I think it would, because Weldon’s meta-story is, by definition, all about the human condition on multiple levels.

Shakespeare? Not so sure. You see, I can download his stuff from MIT.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

A small but justifiable rant about international computer phone scammers

In these days of cellphones and social media our landline barely rings. Cool. But when it does, nine times out of ten it’s someone with a strong accent, further clipped with VOIP distortion, purporting to be from Microsoft.

1195428087807981914johnny_automatic_card_trick_svg_medYup, these barely intelligible strangers insist they have detected a virus on my computer. Of course they want to help me fix it. And of course it’s blatantly not Microsoft. The scam’s been around for years. I’m told these con artists use FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) to get you to let them totally control your computer. Yup, your bank details, tax records, medical history – whatever you’ve got there. They can also trash anything they want.

Problem is, I am a science geek. This gives me passable knowledge of what computer OS’s and malware actually do. And I hate phones. Bad combination when someone rings up at dinner time trying to dupe me with computer talk. Fools.

The reality is that (a) Microsoft don’t ring people up, (b) yes, your computer’s identifiable via your internet protocol (IP) address. But only your internet service provider (ISP) has both your phone number and IP data, and if they’ve shared that then – under New Zealand law, certainly – your solicitor’s going to turn that ISP into a pile of pulped dog meat. Finally, (c) Windows doesn’t track viruses or report them. Anti-virus (anti-malware) software does – but as far as I’m aware, all of it will tell you there’s problem unless you’ve told it not to. Certainly, nobody rings you out of the blue.

Tactics I’ve used include:

1. Hanging up instantly. This really is the best.

2. Asking when they think I was born, was it yesterday? (One of them said ‘I do not know your birth date, Sir.’)

3. If I’ve got time I’ll string them out and then disingenuously ask whether the ‘Windows’ key is the same as the ‘Apple’ key. Usually they hang up at this point.

4. I’ll say something in Anglo Saxon. The scammers seem to know these words, too. Sometimes they ring back to tell me off for being rude. But my vocabulary of old Anglo Saxon words is always better than theirs.

Have you ever had these scammers ring through? How have you dealt with them?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Click to buy from Fishpond

Click to buy print edition from Fishpond

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon


‘If it’s free, you’re the product’ – and what that means for Facebook

A few days ago I belatedly joined approximately 1.2 billion other people – more than one in seven of the world’s entire population – on Facebook.

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'.

OK, can anybody guess what I am ACTUALLY a fan of from the ‘metadata’ on the sign around me? Or will I just get barraged with ads for stupid artisan stuff?

I’ve had reasons to be laggard. Only one is time.  I set up a Facebook placeholder do-nothing page in 2013, to protect my name – but my main leeriness with actively engaging has been their reported attitude to users. There are reports of Facebook allegedly reading private messages and selling the information. Just last month, account holders were unknowingly used for mass psychology experiments. Facebook has also been reported tracking your clicks – including (by cookie) when you’re logged off your account. In short, they know what you do. They have your profile. And a month ago, they openly announced that they’re going to track your browsing.

Most social media does this, and of course the big ones get the highest profile flak. To me, it’s one result of a web-world where users look for ‘free’. How is the service funded? Online providers have turned themselves, as they’ve grown, into advertising companies – in which user conduct, as apparent clue to user preference and want, is the prime commodity.

To me it’s a fairly obvious general outcome of the collision between the human condition, the way that condition has been shaped by history (especially the last few centuries in the west) and technology. This had led to all sorts of specific characteristics of the modern world. One of those is the way data about you – which you can’t control and don’t necessarily know, has been collected. As a friend of mine put it, if it’s free – you’re the product. 

He’s right. The Guardian called the mechanism ‘surveillance as a business model‘. And it is – the issue being not advertising you can ignore, but what might happen if somebody with different intent and value judgement has that data. Particularly when the context of your thoughts, intentions or other motives isn’t part of the data-set. This is classic 2 + 2 = 486,593. Armand Jean du Plessis – Cardinal Richieleu – summed it up in 1641: Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre. “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

As I’ve always said, the tragedy of history is that the stories change – but human nature doesn’t. Think about it.

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place...

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place…so sell me books? Actually, this is me being a science geek inside the Carter Observatory, Wellington NZ.

The other issue is that social media makes derp easy – derp that’s yours. Forever. And sure, it’s cool to publish some pic that means something to you and friends after you’ve pranked the boss. Gives you bragging rights for a day or two. Does it mean anything to anybody else?

We all derp, in various ways. It’s called being human. But do you want that pic of you with a rifle and a dead gazelle to be found 28 milliseconds after you landed a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal? Whether you shot it or not? It’s not new. French revolutionary leader Maxmilien Robespierre summed up the way societies respond to alleged conduct over 200 years ago: “Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts…” And he thought it was as valid, as a mechanism for condemnation, as a court. Sound familiar today? As I say, the tragedy of history (etc etc)…

Rule of thumb? Everything you put into the internet is PERMANENTLY PUBLISHED. Everything? Everything. And assume anybody can see it. Don’t rely on privacy settings. The judgement is straight-forward. Imagine it’s on the front page of the paper. Do you want your name attached? That’s especially so if you’re also trying to build brand and author profile. Basic media management – which pre-dates the internet – applies. How does that sit with genuinely connecting to people – and building an author platform? There are answers. More in due course.

On the other hand, Facebook is expected. Me? For now, a personal page. I might do an author page later. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

I miss my future. It’s been taken from me.

I miss my future. When I was a kid, 21st-century food was going to be pre-packaged space pap. We would all, inevitably, be eating  paste out of tubes. It was futuristic. It was progress.

On  the way to Mars, concept for 1981 flight,via NASA.

The future of 1970: a Mars mission, 1981 style.

Today? We’re in that future. And I still cook fresh veggies and steak. Some of it from the garden (the veggies, not the steak).

When I was a teenager, plastic cards were going to kill cash. In the 21st century we’d just have cards. It was inevitable. It was the future. Get with the program. Today? We use more cash than ever, but chequebooks died.

When I was in my twenties, video was going to kill the movies. It was inevitable. We just had to accept it. When I last looked, movies were bigger than ever – didn’t The Hobbit, Part 2,889,332 just rake in a billion at the box office?

And, of course, personal computers were going to give us the paperless office. Except that today every office is awash with …yup, paper, generated by what we produce on computer, churning out of giant multi-function copiers that run endlessly, every second the office is open.

Did we fail to adopt all these things hard or fast enough? Is it just that technology hasn’t quite delivered what was expected – but it will, it will? No. The problem is with the way we think – with the faulty way we imagine change occurs over time with technology and people. With the way we assume any novelty will dominate our whole future. With the way we inevitably home in on single-cause reasons for change, when in reality anything to do with human society is going to exist in many more than fifty shades of grey. The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding – driven by the simplistic ‘progressive’ mind-set that has so dominated popular thinking since the Age of Reason.

I know all that. But still…I miss my future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science, history and more. Watch this space.

Black Friday, paraskevidekatriaphobia, and the origin of OMG

I have never quite understood why Friday 13th is viewed with such foreboding.

HMS Invincible - invented by Jack Fisher and absolutely not going to sail on a Friday 13th in 1914.

HMS Invincible –  the first battlecruiser, invented by Jack Fisher (along with ‘OMG’) and absolutely not going to sail on a Friday 13th in 1914.

From the science perspective it’s no different from any other day. The Earth revolves on its axis, creating the illusion of the sun rising and falling – but one revolution, surely, isn’t any different from another. Arbitrary dates and divisions we make up in western society, surely, are just that? (OMG, I sound like Spock.)

Lots of people beg to differ, though. We are, it seems, often paraskevidekatriaphobics – including, it seems, the man who invented OMG. I’ll explain. On 1 November 1914, a German cruiser squadron under Vice-Admiral Maximilian Reichsgraf von Spee shattered a British force under Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, off Coronel.

The British Admiralty – under their volcanic First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher – responded decisively.

First use of OMG! Part of p78 from Fisher's 'Memories' (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).

First ever use of OMG, in a letter from Sir John Fisher to Winston Churchill, 1917, published two years later; from my copy of Fisher’s ‘Memories’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919). Click to enlarge.

Fisher was an incredible character – deeply devout, creative, brilliant, egotistical, paranoid and prone to pursuing feuds, the man who invented not only the battlecruiser but also the term OMG that we know and love today. Seriously! I have the original publication. “O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)” And as First Sea Lord, he wasn’t going to stand for any rubbish from the Germans.

On the back of von Spee’s Coronel victory, a massive force, including two battlecruisers, was ordered to hunt down and destroy von Spee’s cruiser squadron. But then it turned out that Invincible needed dockyard work at Devonport and would not be ready to sail before Friday 13 November. Fisher discovered the point and declared to Winston Churchill, then his political counterpart in the Admiralty, ‘Friday 13th! What a day to choose!”

Churchill thought so too, though for other reasons than those of a superstitious sailor. Britain was at war, and as far as he was concerned there was no excuse for dockyard slackness.  The ships, he insisted, would leave on Wednesday 11th – even if it meant sending dock workers with the Invincible.

They did. And it turned out to be very bad luck for von Spee, who was caught and annihilated off the Falkland Islands on 8 December.

Do you believe in Friday 13th – or other omens?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Why are we told blondes are dumb?

Why are we told blondes are dumb? Or have more fun? Or are preferred, as Anita Loos once said, ‘by gentlemen’?

Why, indeed, are people generally barraged with stereotypes about body shape, form or looks? Or attributed behaviours that are supposed to follow a particular physical characteristic?

There is no actual truth to any of these tropes. Yet socially imposed appearance ideals have been part of human societies through history. Often as prelude to the targets being convinced to buy some product that will ‘fix’ or ‘produce’ the ‘look’. It leverages from a raft of factors, including pressure to conform and anxieties over self-image, and is why men spent up large on wigs and women accepted being crushed in corsets, way back when. And it’s gained industrial dimension these days thanks to the way it’s been commercialised – a collision between industrial-age economics and the anxieties of the psyche.

You can track my phone, but you don't know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do...

A recent photo of me – entering my ‘distinguished hair’ phase, according to my wife. As a kid I was naturally blond, went dark naturally as a teenager. Did that change my intellect? Of course not…

These days the pressure is mostly directed at women, but men get it too – witness the hair restorers and muscle building products on the market. And in past centuries – I’m thinking the dandified eighteenth in particular – it was men who led the image charge, primping and preening themselves in ridiculous ways.

As far as I can tell, today’s ‘dumb blonde’ trope – epitomising the phenomenon of socially imposed image and expected behaviour – emerged in its current form during the mid-twentieth century, building on earlier ideas but pushed on the back of the movie promotional machine. It was popularised by Hollywood stars from the early twentieth century, starting with Jean Harlow, but epitomised by Marilyn Monroe, who wasn’t naturally blonde (hydrogen peroxide is rocket fuel!) – and became both victim and a exploiter of the machine.

Blonde sold. Dumbness sold, particularly when run for laughs. Monroe played the part to a T in Howard Hawks comedies, presenting child-like innocence and vulnerability over an aura of seething availability. The mix keyed into the male psyche in fundamental ways. And all this was set in a mid-twentieth century world that by today’s standards was awash with sexism. Check out The Flintstones or Bewitched.

Monroe was a master at the game – Norma Jean Baker ‘playing’ Marilyn Monroe, perpetuating marketing imagery. The legend was sealed by her death – an event that transfixed two generations and was not superseded as regular magazine fodder until Princess Diana – another blonde – died in that Paris motor accident.

By the time Monroe was flourishing, the notion of ‘dumb blonde’ had  left the context of movie marketing and become a truth. Blondes, it seemed, were ‘dumb’ – an epithet also extended to fair haired men, the ‘dumb blond ox’ image.

None of it had any basis in reality. I know. As a kid I had fair hair, but that didn’t make me stupid. I could already read, write, do arithmetic and so on when I went to school. This was an age, alas, when both ability and left-handedness were punishable offences in primary schools, but I at least avoided the epithet ‘Snow’, the derogatory army term that teachers of the day invariably gave to fair-haired boys.

Needless to say, the specifics of the image we’re told bestows status or behaviours tells us an awful lot about the nature of the society we live in.

Can we do anything about tropes of this kind? US author August McLaughlin went blonde joke free for a year.

For myself, I think humour is as powerful a tool for reversing stereotypes as it is for perpetuating them. I’d reverse the jokes – spin them back on themselves. It’s time to turn the tables on negative social tropes, for us to think laterally and lampoon the whole phenomenon – underscoring just how dumb these tropes actually are.

Here’s what I mean. It’s severely geeky and I didn’t make it up. Be warned.

“Two male mathematicians are having lunch in a restaurant. One bets the other that the waitress, who’s blonde, won’t be able to solve the differential equation y=2x+1. Then he disappears to the men’s room. The second mathematician calls the waitress over and says ‘When my colleague asks you a question, tell him the answer’s y=x<exp2>+x. Just that. OK?’ She nods. A few minutes later the first mathematician returns and asks the question. The waitress smiles. ‘Why, it’s y=x<exp2>+x,’ she explains, and walks off. As she departs she adds: ‘Plus a constant.’”

I am sure everybody has their own stories about being classified by imagery – and the injustice of it. I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

(Confession – when I was a teenager, and still fair-haired, I failed a maths exam by NOT putting a constant at the end of my differentiations. Sigh.)