The Kahui Hooha-a King Hit?

July 9, 2011

“I think they’ve gone weak at the knees … We sell Mein Kampf by Hitler and the Communist Manifesto. You can buy any range of books. People have chosen this one and it’s really because of cyber-bullying.” Ian Wishart, author of Breaking Silence: The Kahui Case

Breaking silence? For some people it was more like breaking wind. Just the news of Ian Wishart’s impending book Breaking Silence on the Kahui case and its timing caused blogospherical hysteria which led to the Warehouse and Paper Plus to put a ban on stocking the book, sight unseen.

However, the Whitcoulls bookstore chain, or what’s left of it, took a more measured approach: “a decision on whether to stock the book will be made once the book has been completed and Whitcoulls has been able to evaluate its contents. Until then it is premature to make any further comment.” *

It was full term for the omniscient Mike Hoskins who declared on TV 1’s Close Up* that he didn’t need to read it to know what’s in it.  His instant intuition and uncanny mindreading ability renders Speed Reading obsolete and will save many trees. 

Journalist Wishart is writing the book, with some help from Macsyna King, the mother of twins Chris and Cru Kahui who died in 2006 in unexplained circumstances.  There are no royalties coming King’s way: three pieces of pizza and the opportunity to tell her story are her only reward for collaborating.

From the Inquisition to the Third Reich and beyond,  book burning and book banning-and sometimes author barbequeing-were the inflammatory tactics used by the powers that were to keep their ideologies intact.

In this case the book banning bandwaggon was driven by social media-little brothers and sisters, not Big Brother. Publicity about the impending book at the time of the delayed coronial enquiry into the death of the twins ignited a new Facebook group urging people not to buy it. The Macsyna was definitely not going to become the new ballroom craze in 2011.

But according to Wishart  “She wants the same thing that 50,000 people on Facebook want. She wants answers and she wants people to learn from the mistakes that she’s made and she wants people to see how quickly a life can slip into hell and what you need to do to bring it back.”

 Wishart says that his book is a biographical narrative, beginning with King’s early life and how she started going off the rails.

Families Commissioner Christine Rankin told the Close Up  programme New Zealanders need to read the book because the problem of child abuse was so serious that a better understanding was needed. “Most people go home to their ordered house and their ordered lives and they think most people live like that. There are thousands and thousands of New Zealanders that do not.”

There wasn’t even a conviction for drunk and disorderly in the Kahui case after family ranks closed in misguided loyalty.   After Chris Kahui’s acquittal King is the only real alternative if police decide to charge someone after the inquest into the deaths. Kahui’s acquittal on murder charges in 2008 protects him from further prosecution.

Child abuse in New Zealand is a national shame.  A 2004 UNICEF report 2004 on Child Maltreatment put this country third from bottom of OECD countries.  In each year of the 1990s there was an average of more than 3,000 known cases of neglect, sexual abuse or violence against children. The figures for this century won’t be any better.

For that reason Wishart’s new book  shouldn’t be banned; it should be required reading, with a compulsory short answer test.

Anything that puts the spotlight on child abuse through neglect and violence and reminds us of the sad roll call of dead children like Lillybing*, Nia Glassie* and the Kahui twins should be welcomed not proscribed.

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*Blinks   Vid Lillybing counts – excuses don’t

#Lyall Lukey 9 July 2011  My other less serious blog

Yuriy Gagarin:The Importance Of Being First

May 2, 2011

 Modest; embarrasses when his humour gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuriy; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.”Soviet Air Force doctor reporting on Yuriy Gagarin*

Ground control to Lieutenant Yuriy…

Fifty years ago 27 year old Soviet Union air force pilot Yuriy Gagarin became the first human being in space – making his own first giant orbit for mankind in a single circumference and spurring America to set itself the challenge of getting the first man on the moon by the end of the decade.

The popular and genial Gagarin was the ideal but apparently not the strongest cosmonaut candidate for the debut flight.  It seems that Gherman Titov was  ranked first but kept under wraps for the scheduled longer second space flight in the series. Gagarin was a much favoured candidate by his peers. When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as first in the space hot seat, all but three chose Gagarin. 

Apart from all his other qualities Gagarin’s short stature at 1.57 metres (5 ft 2 in) was an asset in the tiny capsule of his rocketVostok 1, which lifted off as scheduled on 12 April 1961, at 9:07am Moscow time (6:07 GMT).   

The entire mission was controlled by either automatic systems or by ground control. This was because medical staff did not know how a human might react to weightlessness, so it was decided to lock the pilot’s manual controls. A code to unlock the controls was placed in an onboard envelope, for Gagarin’s use in case of emergency. It remained unopened, though he had already been told the code by the head of cosmonaut training Nikolai Kamanin. There were a few tricky minutes at re-entry when the service module remained attached to the re-entry module by recalcitrant wires that had failed to separate but Gagarin’s admirably equable temperament during strong gyrations was equal to the situation while the module’s attitude and altitude realigned.

Later Gagarin said; “The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.”*

Ground Control was certainly in suspense until after about 106 minutes  the reentry capsule made a hard parachute landing in the Saratov region of the USSR. Gagarin made a softer one by personal parachute in the same place 10 minutes later, though at the time his detached reentry was kept secret because of what was held to constitute a full manned orbit of the earth. He had to be prepared to both die and lie for his country.

There was no slomo replay of his landing to contradict the official verdict.  A farmer and her daughter observed the strange scene of a figure in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet landing near them by parachute. Gagarin later recalled, “When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!  It was probably a collect call. 

Following Gagarin’s return to Earth he was bubble-wrapped by the Soviet authorities and incessantly paraded around for years as an example of Soviet communist success, helped by the fact that one of his most notable traits was his warm smile “that lit up the Cold War”.

When he visited Manchester in the United Kingdom some time later  it was pouring with rain; however, Gagarin insisted that the car hood remain back and refused an umbrella so that the cheering crowds could catch a glimpse of him, saying “If all these people have turned out to welcome me and can stand in the rain, so can I.”

He was finally allowed to return flying at a somewhat lower altitude but died when his plane crashed during a training flight in 1968 during bad weather, possibly after a manoeuvre to avoid a weather balloon. A legacy of early flight may have brought down the first spaceman.

Though his career as a cosmonaut was brief he left a lasting legacy. His legendary flight into space, four years after the unmanned Sputnik,  triggered John Kennedy’s prescient presidential speech at Rice University on September 12th, 1962 setting the goal of a moon landing by the end of the decade.

Before the shooting for the moon speech there was a period of American despondency, with worries that the spaceflight had won a propaganda victory on behalf of Communism. This was not the time for American boosterism. President Kennedy was quoted as saying that it would be “some time” before the US could match the Soviet booster technology and “the news will be worse before it’s better”. At the same time Kennedy also sent congratulations to the Soviet Union for their “outstanding technical achievement.”  Op-eds in many US newspapers urged renewed efforts to overtake the Soviet scientific accomplishments. 

The public challenge, in contrast to Soviet secrecy, galvanised American education, science and technology and military communities and led to the successful manned lunar shot in 1969. There was no seven year hitch, but a couple of major setbacks on the way including a fatal launchpad fire in the full glare of the media’s arc lights.

Decades later the earlier fierce space rivalry between the two titans was transmuted into an age of international space collaboration across national boundariesandacross disciplines on the international Space Station.** World views had changed, not the least because of the views from outer space first experienced by Gagarin.

His photo is the only astronaut portrait on the wall in the central section of the Space Station, said Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield: “Because we recognize that he is the one who opened the door for all of us.”* In the words of Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev, commander of the current mission at the International Space Station, from orbit 12 April 2011, “He is a human who made the first-ever step into outer space, which became a milestone for humankind at large.”

A real time recreation of Yuriy Gagarin’s pioneering first orbit, shot entirely in space from on board the International Space Station, was made this year.  The film combines this new synchronised footage with Gagarin’s original mission audio and lets us see what he saw on his trail-blazing blast.*

Since Gagarin’s epic voyage, more than 500 astronauts from countries around the world have left the Earth. Some have walked on the moon. Many, including Hadfield, have lived and walked in space.

A projectile is a self-propelled missile capable of being impelled forward. In metaphorical terms what drives a project is the energy of its participants. At the national level in New Zealand, which projects are our equivalent lunar challenges?  The Rugby World Cup isn’t a big enough or inclusive enough challenge, nor is the America’s Cup, though both consume a lot of national resources for marginal returns.

We need more than spectator sports to engage and involve people. We need worthwhile projects of national significance and a new world view projecting ourselves forward as a nation, making a quantum leap into a new orbit and expanding our sphere of influence globally by transforming ourselves into the Innovation Nation. 

As Robert Grudin, author of Time and the Art of Living put it:  “….people with great projects afoot…look further and more clearly into the future than people who are mired in day to day concerns. These former control the future because by necessity they must project themselves into it…”

Into which  future will we project ourselves?

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**Alert   Dr Jack Bacon, internationally-known motivational speaker, futurist and technology writer and author of The Parallel Bang is back in New Zealand on a speaking tour in October 2011. He was the United States’ lead systems integrator of the Zarya-the jointly-built spacecraft that forms the central bridge and adapter between all US and Russian technologies on the Space Station. Visit    If you are interested in an in-house presentation contact     


Yuri Gagarin- 50th anniversary of the first …  Vid Russia celebrates the anniversary of the first human spaceflight on 12 Apr 1961.    Vid   First Orbit  Documentary film maker Christopher Riley partnered with European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli to record a stunning new film of what Gagarin would have seen of the Earth from his spaceship. This was released online in April 2011 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight.
We Choose to go to the Moon Vid  John Kennedy’s speech at Rice University on September 12th, 1962 setting the goal of a moon landing by the end of the decade.   Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield reflects on Yuri Gagarin’s space trip 50 years ago.  Music vid David Bowie “Space Oddity”.  The making of First Orbit. 

#Lyall Lukey 2 May 2011  My other less serious blog

The $64 Billion Question: How to Turn Knowledge into Wealth?

February 9, 2011

“We work hard, we have a good quality education system, but we lack prosperity commensurate with our effort…Our way forward must be based on honest analysis, ditching self-serving myths, and embracing a long term vision with relentness commitment to make this a just, equitable and prosperous country, worthy of our children, and a place where talent wants to live.”.” Prof. Paul Callaghan*

2011 New Zealander of the Year Professor Sir Paul Callaghan is one of New Zealand’s best known living scientists. He is also a marvellous communicator, as the videos below demonstrate.

He was the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Distinguished Speaker in 2007 and he laid down a timely challenge  at the third annual Education Leaders Forum in 2009 with a stimulating and provocative presentation Education and culture change: New Zealand’s challenge for the 21st century.*His persuasive argument is laid out in his book From Wool to Weta*, which challenges us to look beyond the farm and the theme park in order to transform New Zealand’ s culture and economy.

 He argues that if New Zealand keeps relying on tourism and farming we will fall all the way to the bottom of OECD rankings pretty quickly. In a word, we are poorer because we choose to work in low-wage activities: “Tourism may provide valuable employment for underskilled New Zealanders, but it cannot provide a route to greater prosperity”.*

What’s the alternative? He argues that New Zealand’s future lies in emerging industries based on science, technology, and intellectual property exemplified by companies like WETA, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare , Gallagher, Tait Electronics and Rakon generating wealth through science and technology-based businesses and a whole host of small, smart companies we’ve never heard  doing stuff that’s incomprehensible to many of us, but the way forward for the country..

His education and science founded vision for New Zealand’s future emphasises that we should utilise science and technology to grow prosperity and a sustainable future. He argues that our landscape is magnificent and helps define who we are, but as a nation we have the potential to be a great deal more besides than a commodity farm and, in David Lange’s words, a theme park for tourists.

He advocates a shift in New Zealand from a reliance on natural resources to knowledge and innovation.  He believes there are unlimited opportunities, but one of  the challenges  is providing students with the skills required to both work in and  create innovative new businesses.

He avers that  “we fail our children through defeatist advice at school, encouraging kids to drop maths and physics because it might be ‘too hard.’ This not only ensures that those children will never be part of the emerging NZ technology sector; they will also never be an engineer, pilot, veterinarian, scientist, doctor or architect.

If we are to build the society we want our children to thrive in we must enhance our prosperity through sensible investment in education, science and technology, coupled with culture change. The first part is the easy bit. The second requires self-belief and a sense of purpose, especially when it comes to scientific research and innovation.

He quotes approvingly David S. Landes from his “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Are Some So Rich and Others So Poor? “*“Rich economies must defend themselves by remaining on the cutting edge of research, moving into new and growing branches, learning from others, finding the right niches, by cultivating and using ability and knowledge.”  David S. Landes

Paul Callaghan was born in Wanganui. He obtained his Doctor of Philosophy degree from Oxford University, working in low temperature nuclear physics. On his return to New Zealand he began researching the applications of magnetic resonance to the study of soft matter at Massey University, and in 2001 was appointed Alan MacDiarmid Professor of Physical Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington. He also heads the multi-university MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

 He has published around 220 articles in scientific journals, as well as Principles of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Microscopy (Oxford University Press, 1994). He is a founding director of Magritek, a small Wellington-based company that sells NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) instruments.

Professor Callaghan’s many awards include the Blake Medal for Leadership and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. He is a Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (PCNZM). His latest accolade comes at a time when he has been battling a serious illness for many months* while keeping up his manifold contributions to the world of science and the wider community.

As a nation can we lift our sights and shift up a gear in the way we cultivate and share knowledge and tap the talents of our people?

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*Blinks   Professor Paul Callaghan speaking at Education Leaders Forum 2009 Vid  Vid 
From Wool to Weta, Paul Callaghan – Shop Online for Books in NZ    Slideshare  Review of Landes The Wealth and Poverty of Nations…” 

#Lyall Lukey 9 Feb 2011  My other less serious blog

The Hobbit Hoohah

November 6, 2010

Little Jack Warner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, What a good boy am I!

 Warner garnered an extra subsidised plum or two and some early Christmas presents after meetings in Wellywouldbe two weeks ago to discuss the production locale for the The Hobbit, Parts I&II due for release in 2012 and 2013.

Forbes, a US publication for the financially well endowed, headlined Prime Minister John Key’s announcement   “Labor Dispute Resolved, New Zealand Economy Saved”.   Certainly the $630 million movies were worth keeping, but are subsidies the way to save the economy? Farmers and manufacturers might have a different view.

On the surface the hoohah was more Extras than Star Wars and Andy Millman would have had a field day.  JR Tolkien, now third on the current deceased entertainers earning list, would be somewhat surprised to have his children’s book in the middle of all the hoopla-and even more surprised at being treated like royalty with his latter day royalties  (Michael Jackson 1,  Elvis 2, Elvish 3).

The talent for the parallel B movie HamsTo Be or not To Be,  shot in 1D and black and white was  a line up of the usual celluloid goodies, baddies and uglies.

 Slimdog millionaire Sir Peter Jackson scored the twin roles of St Peter and a cameo reincarnation of Elliot Ness  from The Untouchables;  Robyn Malcolm aka Cheryl West was cast-and then outcast- as a gangster’s moll after she tried to crack the Whipp and get a more equitable status for her non luminary colleagues; while Helen Kelly, President of the Council of Trade Unions, played first her own father, with her personal “spoilt brat” attack on Peter Jackson, then Ginger Rogers, with her backwards  fancy  fast  footwork. Prime Minister John Key was cast as his former self, a consummate dealmaker and gladhander after coaching in how to avoid fluffing his lines.

But were bit part actors really in danger of being paid an outrageous fortune? Or as Malcolm delicately put it, no doubt harking back to her own acting roots,   “Would I really, in the words of Cheryl West, want to root my own industry?”   

It did all look a little incestuous for a while. The Government  and key industry players were afraid that the movies would go west-or maybe east-depending on the size of the filmic inducements offered. On all sides the truth was stretched further than a Hollywood limo. On TV1’s Hobbit poll the Hoi polloi was split virtually 50/50 over the Government’s hobbledehoy  approach.

Labour couldn’t be too critical. They’d been big Lord of the Rings patrons. Pete Hodgson, one time Minister of LOR, could still land a role in Hobbit I as the Wizard of Was without the need for any makeup.

It was not just multinational Warner versus battling Kiwi actors. The union boycott also had an international aspect too with the temporary presence of Australian actors union import Simon Whipp who tried to whip up a frenzy using the high profile target of Peter Jackson. All he did was provide a convenient whipping boy for the government.

It was hard to be immune to Ian Mune’s  grizzled actor charms in a post-Paul Henry Breakfast  appearance. His Chicken Little piece put the industrial relations issue into perspective. The sky was not going to fall if there were good faith discussions on pay and conditions and on getting a fair suck of the residual royalties sav.  The players needed to be wary of being outfoxed (or, in this case, outwarnered) while clutching their heads and running for cover.

The game of chicken was suddenly halted  but it was too late. The attempted union boycott had handed Warner the plump plum duff on a plate. They wanted and got a guarantee that future industrial action would not jeopardise the Hobbitt productions. The law change from employee to independent contractor was faster than Burt Munro and suited the chief suits if not the thespian Indians.  But other factors, especially the higher kiwi dollar and subsidy sweeteners, weighed more heavily in the likely balance sheet . The main creative talents  of Hollywood  are exhibited by accountants and their legal sidekicks. It’s all about the money, stupid.

Given to quick decision making, Jack Warner once commented, “If I’m right fifty-one percent of the time, I’m ahead of the game”-a sentiment with which our dealmaker  PM would be quick to concur. The film industry is worth about $3 billion a year and could have sunk like the Titanic if the Hobbitt production been shifted, though Titanic producer James Cameron has just announced that Avatar 2 is set to be filmed in New Zealand.

All this helps the tourist industry, all though just how much and in which ways, is debatable. Middle Earth at the bottom of the globe (or the top, if you refer to the Wizard of Christchurch’s upside down map) will attract new tourists to have a gander at parts of wan Gondor land as well as some remnants of Gondwanaland.

The DVDs of the two Hobbit movies will have an NZ tourist promo. At least there will be people in both even if the long and the short of it is that some will be vertically challenged.  But even a population of hobbits is in stark contrast to some of the pristine people-less 100% Pure New Zealand avid advids which have sublime sets but no human stars, let alone any extras.

Of course, in an age of computer generated special effects  live actors and natural scenery are being augmented and in some cases replaced digitally. The film industry  provides young IT people with a marvelous mix of creative projects and deadline discipline at Weta Workshops and elsewhere working on big budget movies with a high quotient of digital visuals.

This burgeoning  industry must have been a big if unstated factor in keeping the Hobbits here and points to the real salvation of the New Zealand economy: productive innovation through teamwork and technology. The presence of such a creative and productive digital galaxy, built up through the LOR trilogy and other big budget blockbusters, is a great asset for the future-and not just for movies-when the Hobbits are history.

Now Secretary of State Hillary (not President) Clinton has come and gone, apart from the defence effects of the still unclear nuclear policy thaw, the big question is how far did the PM get behind the scenes  with advancing a free trade timetable? This is much more important to the country’s  future economic strategy than  domestic subsidies  piled on thick like a premiere red carpet.

Middle Earth has already done the deal with the Middle Kingdom but a free trade agreement with the USA would really be The Deal of the Century .

Perhaps the APEC meeting next weekend will get the Asia-Pacific free trade ball rolling faster.  Russia might even want to play.

Relevant Warner  Movies
The Country Kid meets the Gold Diggers,  The Big Shakedown  Dark Victory  Looney Tunes  Yankee Doodle Dandy  Damn Yankees , Dirty Harry  A Piece of the Action  The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu   Independence Day  Risky Business  Deal of the Century  Strictly Business  The Hudsucker Proxy  Godzilla Raids again  Free Willy 3: The Rescue  The Devil’s Advocate  Eyes Wide Shut  Looney Tunes: Back in Action  Superman Returns  Cop Out  Clash of the Titans   

The Hobbit, Part I (2012, co-production with New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, WingNut Films and Spyglass Entertainment)
The Hobbit, Part II (2013, co-production with New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, WingNut Films and Spyglass Entertainment)      want-to-root-my-industry [see poll results] 

 #Lyall Lukey 6 Nov 2010  My other blog

Moon Talk-The 40th

July 20, 2009

Ok-what were the first words broadcast from the Moon’s surface after the first real moon walk 40 years ago today? 

No, not Neil Armstrong’s famous prefabricated and misquoted words: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Only recently have sound engineers managed to pick up the missing indefinite article that retrospectively save the famous lines from being tautologous). 

No, not even Armstrong’s “Tranquility base here.  The Eagle has landed.”  No, that was the second communication. 

The first rather prosaic words, from lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, whose mother’s maiden name was prophetically Moon, were “Contact light.  Motor control to ‘ auto”.  Engine arm off.”   One Giant Leap: Apollo 11 Remembered  By Piers Bizony.

Like all the  famous events we “remember”  a poteen of moonshine seems to overlay the pattern of history.  What we think we remember about the first moon landing  ain’t necessarily so, especially if we were living in New Zealand at the time and we think we recall the live video shots of Armstrong’s first foot on the moon, while Aldrin waited his turn to descend from the lunar module and Michael Collins was over the moon, like the rest of America, in the command module. The fact is that the video pictures weren’t live on this side of the Tasman.  

The Apollo 11 mission fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960s, which he articulated to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

As has often been pointed out, the goal has a clear outcome and timeframe and caught America’s imagination in a time when the USA was on the back foot in the Cold War’s sublimated space race after Yuri Gagarin’s first manned orbit less than six weeks earlier stretched the space lead Sputnik had created  for Russia in 1957.

And this morning, on the 40th anniversary of the moonwalk,  there was the clear yellow tinged disc of the new moon just above the horizon!  It’s still hard to believe (and obviously impossible for the conspiracy nutters) that people have been to the moon and left footprints frozen in time in the airless and thus windless lunar surface to prove it.

 NASA’s  current Constellation Project encompasses a new project — the Moon base and the conquest of Mars. But it is not rocket science to realise that in straitened economic times  the astronomical cost involved (at least US$150 Billion) is as big an obstacle as the scientific and technological challenges of building and inhabiting a lunar platform as a staging post to Mars.

I had dinner in Christchurch last week with two NASA people.  Jonette is working on Lunar Surface Systems and her husband Mark on engineering support. In September, their friend and colleague Dr Jack Bacon, NASA engineer working on the International Space Platform and noted futurist and author will be back in New Zealand speaking at conferences and in house meetings. He will make two public presentations in Wellington and Christchurch on The Parallel Bang-The explosive growth of human understanding in the 21st century.  More at:


Apollo 11 – Video of Touchdown and Radio Transcript  

BBC Moon Week – Three Drunk Monkeys 

Buzz- a bad rap?    Buzz Aldrin’s Rocket Experience with Snoop Dog and Talib Kweli

Lyall Lukey  20 July 09

DIY Science: Old and New Kiwi Stars

July 5, 2009

“The dinosaurs were alive when this star exploded and the light travelled here, and I was the first one to see it.”  Stuart Parker 

 Two recent Press items featured the work of New Zealand scientific amateurs who both got the jump on the professionals in their chosen fields of study although neither had specialist academic training or institutional support.

The first, by Press reporter Martin Van Beynen, recounted the story behind a recent entry in the scientific diary of a dairy farmer. The supernova prosaically named SN2009GJ exploded 60 million years. When the light finally reached Earth a fortnight ago, Stuart Parker, in a high tech bloke’s shed in Oxford, was the first to spot it, with a little help from a 14 inch telescope with a digital camera, coupled to computer scanners.  

That’s Oxford North Canterbury, New Zealand not Oxford, England and Stuart Parker is a dairy farmer and an amateur astronomer, not an academic astrophysicist. After 15 years hunting supernovas, the long hours invested paid off and he recorded the first trace of the defunct star.

SN2009GJ exploded around the time when dinosaurs, the dominant vertebrate animals of earth for about 100 million years, were about to become extinct, leaving their avian relations the birds to it. 

The second item was the news that New Zealand’s best known palaeontologist, self-taught Havelock North fossil hunter Joan Wiffen, the Dinosaur Lady, died in Hastings, NZ, last week.

Joan Wiffen had only a brief secondary education – her father believed higher education was wasted on girls. and she was expected to get married and have a family. That she duly did, and she and her husband took up rock collecting as a hobby. “I knew what I wanted – to collect fossils.”  That she also did, with spectacular results. 

Her dig at Maungahouanga, the Valley of the Dragons, in Hawke’s Bay was the first known site where dinosaurs lived in New Zealand. After some smaller finds, she cracked the big one literally by using explosives on a bone-laden large boulder and a coil of No.8 fencing wire to fashion a flying fox to extract chunks of rock bearing the first major mosasaur specimen in 1974.  

She went on to find bones from half a dozen or so more different sea and land dwelling dinosaurs, including the tail bone of a theropod dinosaur in the Maungahouanga valley in northern Hawke’s Bay in 1975, an armoured ankylosaur, a hypsilophodont, as well as a pterosaur flying reptile, and marine reptiles, such as plesiosaurs.

Her scientific endeavours included arduous and patient fossicking for fossils out in the field, forensic-like fossil preparation from fragments, and writing up taxonomic descriptions and interpretations. She put New Zealand on the palaeontological map with its own Jurassic –or at least Cretaceous-Park.

She also conveyed her contagious love of her subject by telling the story of dinosaurs downunder in many popular articles, public lectures and school presentations.   Dinosaurs have become a celebrated part of popular culture world-wide and her work contributed to this.

 Putting it in the long hours, as both the amateurs did in a most professional way,  is the kind of thing that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his recent book Outliers  to explain the reason why some people are so accomplished and so extraordinary.  He adduced his 10,000 Hours Rule: the key to achievement in any domain is not just- or not even- qualifications but time spent on task, whether practice or the “real thing”.

As Gladwell points out, when you were born is pretty important too, in terms of culture and community, and, we could add, the state of current knowledge and technology.

Galileo had to first improve the rudimentary telescope he used to track the four moons of Jupiter and then combat the hostile geocentric view of the universe still held by most scientists and clerics in the early part of the 17th century with his earth shaking heliocentric insights.

In the digital age the price of technology has reduced and its power increased so there is a  more democratic access to scientific tools which allowed Stuart Parker to be a do-it-yourself astronomer.

In the case of Joan Wiffen, whose discoveries preceded the digital revolution, it was her equally eagle-eyed scrutiny of paleontological detritus, in both found and dynamited postures, that yielded up the secrets of some of the dinosaurs that once inhabited  New Zealand and its surrounding waters to the surprise of all of us.

Her amateur work initially provoked the scepticism if not the scorn of professionals. For that reason, when her first “dinosaurs in New Zealand” discovery was released to the scientific community in 1980 she diplomatically and rather cleverly gave the honours of breaking the news to Dr Ralph Molnar, a noted vertebrate palaeontologist. She obviously thought that the bones might be more digestible  coming from a reputable scientist rather than an elderly housewife.

However, her work was eventually recognized in the annals of science and she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Massey University in 1994 and the following year a CBE.

The public recognition of Stuart Parker’s discovery, in competition with 9,000 observatories around the world, is just starting. Other forms of recognition no doubt lie in the future.

Apart from their dedication and bloody minded perseverance, what shines through is their enthusiasm for their chosen field of study. The late Joan Wiffen was a legend in her own lifetime and Stuart Parker is now a real star.

From heavens above to dinosaurs downunder, they are both a great inspiration to young and old to follow their inquisitive passions and undertake scientific enquiry and exploration no matter what their scientific background or training.

Galileo, held by many to be the father of modern science, would be pleased to welcome into his family these self-taught amateur scientists.

Lyall Lukey 5/7/09

Nancy Wake-the path of most resistance

June 14, 2009

 “Freedom is the only thing worth living for.  While I was doing that work I used to think that it didn’t matter if I died, because without freedom there was no point in living.”  Nancy Wake

 Nancy Wake lives on as New Zealand’s unsung World War II hero.  After fighting with the French resistance she became one of the most highly decorated people of the war.  She received the British George Medal, the American Medal of Freedom and not one but two Croix de Guerre from the French as well as the Medaille de Resistance and later the Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur.

After Australian journalist and rugby player Peter Fitzsimons wrote her biography in 2001*, her adopted homeland belated recognized her. In 2004 Nancy Wake was, at long last, awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia.

 In 2006 Nancy received the New Zealand Returned Services Association’s highest honour, the RSA Badge in Gold, as well as life membership for her work with the French resistance during the war. But at Government level she has not been given any recognition in her native land. It’s about time that was remedied while there is still time. 

Born in Roseneath, Wellington in 1912 Nancy has French Huguenot, English and  Maori ancestry. The family moved to Sydney when she was 20 months old. After  her father deserted the family Nancy, the youngest child, chafed at the restrictions of her religious mother.

The book which sparked young Nancy’s imagination was Anne of Green Gables, with its young,  forthright and unconventional central character and portentous opening lines: 

“The good stars met in your horoscope,

Made you of spirit and fire and dew.”

Nancy’s first awakening led her to run away from home at the age of 16 and became a country nurse under a false name, a lesson in subterfuge and coping with crises which stood her in good stead later in her deadly resistance missions in occupied France.

Her eyes were really opened when, as a young journalist, she was witness to an act of Nazi violence in Vienna. From that moment on she was determined to do all she could to free Europe of the Nazi plague.  She married a French businessman as the war broke out and lived a double life in Marseille as a member of high society and of the underground network, helping downed British airmen and others escape to Spain over the Pyrenees.

 Nicknamed the White Mouse by the Germans in the early part of her underground activities, she was anything but. In the words of her George Medal citation “Ensign Nancy Wake’s organising ability, endurance, courage and complete disregard for her own safety earned her the respect and admiration of all with whom she came in contact.”

Forced to flee to London via the mountain route, after months of training in the British Special Operations Executive, she returned to France by parachute in April 1944 in order to follow the path of most resistance.  Wake became a liaison between London and the local maquis group. She coordinated resistance activity prior to the Normandy Invasion and recruited more members. She also led attacks on German installations and the local Gestapo HQ.

 On the one occasion, in order to replace the radio and codes her wireless operator had been forced to destroy in a German raid, Nancy rode a bicycle for more than 130 miles through several German checkpoints without official papers.

During a Maquis raid in the closing stages of the European war, when the aim was to tie up as many German troops as possible and prevent them moving to the D-Day breakthrough, she killed a sentry, who had wounded her with a bayonet , with her bare hands, using a karate-like blow that had been ingrained in her by her SOE training and practiced thereafter, just in case.

Her strong personality, shrewdness and common sense- reinforced by her access by clandestine radio to military supplies delivered from England by parachute-gave her the unchallenged leadership of a large number of French patriots, a signal achievement in itself in a  male  military milieu.

 She was regarded as the bravest of the brave by her fellow resistance fighters. Colonel Paishing, the leader of the Spanish Maquis, delivered the piece de resistance for this resistance heroine: “She is the most feminine woman I know…. until the fighting starts! Then she is like 5 men!”

Nancy Wake is still alive, aged 96, in a London nursing home. She regards herself as still a New Zealander, though her last visit here was 85 years ago, and she has kept her New Zealand passport.

 She lived on the knife edge during her two quite different and extraordinary chapters of World War II. ** It may not be too late to put her on centre stage and give her the recognition that she so richly deserves in her native land.


*Peter Fitzsimons, Nancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine, published by Harper Collins, 2001.


DeCommissioning Families

May 23, 2009

 “ … we must rescue children from the harmful influence of the family… We must nationalise them…To oblige the mother to give her child to the Soviet state-that is our task.”  V. Zenzinov  1918

If you want to get away from the strident furore over the appointment of Christine Rankin as one of seven commissioners to New Zealand’s Family Commission get hold of Orlando Figes’  The Whisperers. It is an intimate portrayal of family life, to the limited extent that it was still possible, in Stalin’s Russia.

After the euphoria of the Bolshevik victory, the deadly trials of a civil war and the death of Lenin, the tyranny which developed under Stalin created an uncivil society where everybody spoke in whispers either to protect their families and friends, or to inform on friends and neighbours. 

The tentacles of tyranny controlled every aspect of private life. In fact, for the regime, there was no such thing as private life. All was the domain of the state  involved in the historic struggle. The aim was nothing less than the eradication of individualistic  “bourgeois” behaviour inherited from the old society. The battle was to transform human nature. Marx, of course, had taught that the alteration of consciousness was dependent on changes to the material state, not vice versa.

In the 1920s the Bolsheviks took as an article of faith that the bourgeois family was socially harmful because it was introspective and conservative. They do not quite set up an Anti-Families Commission but they may as well have done. The approach was much more totalitarian than that of the Nazis, where at least senior personnel could come home from a hard day’s work at the concentration camp to an eerily normal family life.

In its social dimension the Bolsheviks saw education as the key to the creation of the brave new society. In the vanguard were the pioneering leagues for children the Pioneers and the Komsomol. The dissemination of Communist values was the very raison d’etre of the Soviet school curriculum. “Lenin corners” in schools were secular shrines. The school was the anvil for reforging society.

In the words of the Soviet educational thinker Zlata Lilina “By loving a child, the family turns him into an egotistical being, encouraging him to see himself as the centre of the universe …”  No personalised learning here. 

The children of 1917 were involved in structured play to assimilate the Soviet values of collectivity, social activism and responsibility. Russian educationalists had been influenced by the ‘learning through play’ European pedagogues such as Maria Montessori.

 The young were certainly imbued with a sense of purpose through the power of their belief in the party’s cause. They also learnt that loyalty to the state was higher virtue than family ties and that informing on one’s family and friends was public spirited.

With the number of parents executed or sent to the Gulag  orphanages were a growth industry. Weak family ties and the strong collective approach made them one of the main recruiting grounds for the NKVD and the Red Army.

World War II brought a new sense of patriotism, purpose and pride which for a time transcended the fear of the regime. Fear and suspicion rolled back like a Moscow fog almost as soon as the war finished and whispering  became a gale.

Despite the revelations of the excesses of Stalin’s power by Krushchev at the 20th party Congress in 1956, Figes points out that many older Russians -from a demographic decimated by war and repression-today look back in pride at what was accomplished in the great Patriotic War with Germany and even by forced labour in the Gulags. The surviving innocent can still feel a sense of accomplishment from the gruelling work of their stolen years. The retrospective search for meaning allows myths and nostalgia to wipe out the manipulation, the betrayals, and the sheer fear which marked day-to-day life in Stalin’s Russia.

The whisperers left a lingering legacy.  In the words of Orlando Figes, “It was Stalin’s lasting achievement to create a whole society in which stoicism and passivity were social norms “. 

Despite that -or perhaps because of it- four years after Stalin’s death the Russians circled the Earth with the first satellite. In the engineered society the engineers had the last laugh.