Answers to questions

It’s a lot easier to look things up these days (thank you Mr Google). Often, instead of taking something for granted, I do some research. It feels good when the pennies drop. Here, I share.

What are bugs?

When part of my job was writing ecological leaflets for schoolchildren, and producing simple-English summaries of ecological research, there was one scientific word that I found almost impossible to replace with something simpler. That word was ‘invertebrate’. ‘Creepy-crawly’ was just too kiddywinky, but ‘animals without backbones’ only raised more questions. A list would work if it was short enough, but it was usually too cumbersome. I’m afraid I mostly gave up and just called them invertebrates.

a weta, a type of cricket
Coincidently, Bug Lab was the work of Richard Taylor’s Weta Workshop

Now there seems to be a partial solution — the word ‘bugs’. Judging by the “Bug Lab” exhibition at Te Papa in Wellington and “Bugs, Our Backyard Heroes” at Puke Ariki in New Plymouth, the term is now used to mean all arthropods, in other words insects, spiders, centipedes and crustaceans (at least terrestrial crustaceans, ie woodlice but not crayfish). At both museums it seems to be a marketing catchword to cover whatever they think people will be interested in. In fact, at Puke Ariki one of the displays is of powelliphantid snails; it just doesn’t matter to the general public, many of whom will be surprised to learn (if they notice) that they aren’t all insects.

As for entomologists — it looks like they’ll just have to give up the term ‘bugs’ and refer to real bugs as hemipterans. And in the field of IT, legend has it that the original computer bug in 1946 was a moth that jammed a relay. It seems a pity that the term ‘moth’ wasn’t used instead. There’s something appealingly descriptive about the idea of moth-eaten software.

 

Living in a Lockwood

I live in a wooden house. Not a house with a wooden frame, but a Lockwood house — with walls and ceilings of solid pine (Pinus radiata). When newly built the wood was an attractive light buff colour, but now it’s mostly a fairly dark orange. This is typical of Lockwood houses, to the point where new-builds these days use blonded wood to counteract the effect. But why does it happen?

plastic button contrasting with darkened wood
The wood was once a close match to the colour of this plastic button covering a screw head

varnish showing darkening with ageVarnish on the door frame, showing how it has darkened with age

I used to think that maybe wood just got darker because of the effect of light, or it oxidised, or something like that. Then I noticed that the wood in our house with lightest colour was in areas where it got the most light, particularly window sills on the northern side. Furthermore, I couldn’t see how it could oxidise when it has been covered with a sprayed-on lacquer varnish since it was built.

I remembered a handy model-making trick. Old kits often have decals that have gone yellow. The trick is to tape the decal sheet up on the inside of a window for a few days so that UV in the sunlight can bleach the yellowed varnish and make the decals usable again. And that’s what I think has happened to our house: the varnish has changed colour.

I had a look around, and I soon found the evidence I needed. By the front door, some varnish had been brushed accidentally onto the door frame. It wasn’t visible originally, but now it shows up clearly as brown brush marks. The varnish is the problem.

 

Thunderbird 2

Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds has been around since the mid 60s, and it’s now popular with a new generation of kids thanks to the locally made reboot Thunderbirds are Go. One of the main attractions has always been the big International Rescue machines. Which was your favourite?

I’ve always thought a lot of the gadgetry was pretty ridiculous, and the design of Thunderbirds 1 and 3 just a bit silly, but the design of Thunderbird 2 — the big green cargo machine — is great. Nevermind that it couldn’t possibly fly with its tiny little wings, and I don’t understand how it can hover without intakes for its VTOL thrusters; I just like how it looks elegant and plausibly real.

Where did the designer, model-maker Derek Meddings, get his inspiration from? I think I know.

In the 50s the Fairchild aircraft company made a one-off derivative of the C-119 Packet, called the XC-120 Pack Plane. A big lumbering thing with detachable and interchangeable cargo pods. It got a lot of publicity at the time, and popped up at airshows for a number of years until they scrapped it.

Look familiar?

 

Island under a cloud

Very often I look out the window at our view of Kapiti Island, and there’s a cloud hanging over it. Sometimes it’s hanging over the island and nowhere else, and the odd thing about it is that it’s thickest in the middle so that it quite neatly reflects the silhouette of the island itself. Why? What is it about the island that seems to attract a cloud like this?

cloud over Kapiti Island
Kapiti Island on a typical day

windflow over Kapiti IslandWindflow over the cliffs of Kapiti Island

I got the answer recently on a flight into Paraparaumu Airport. We flew down from the north and circled around the island to land from the south. As we did so, we had a clear view of the steep cliffs on the usually unseen western side — and there was that cloud hovering just to the east of the highest peak (Tuteremoana, 521 m).

It was quite a privilege to see the island from such an unusual point of view, and on such a nice day.

Looking at how high and sheer the western cliffs are, it seemed clear what was happening. The prevailing westerly wind must be blowing in from the Tasman Sea, hitting those cliffs and being diverted almost vertically upwards until the cooler temperature at the higher altitude condenses the water vapour into a cloud.

If I’m right, then there should be no cloud over the peak when the wind is offshore. And from my observations so far, that does seem to be the case.

Is death funny?

I’ll say it — I don’t think zombies are funny.

Once upon a time, executions were a spectator sport. Death and dying really got people excited. These days, not so much; we’re supposed to be much more enlightened. Which is why I’m puzzled by the current fascination with zombies. There are zombie films, zombie parties, even zombie festivals. Pretend to be a dead person walking, and people will laugh at you.

Is it just me (and my tendency to over-analyse things), or does anyone else think there’s something a just a little bit wrong with laughing at dead people? I know it’s done for its shock value, but I feel that there could be something else lurking in there as well. A lack of respect for the dead? A lack of empathy with people who die? That would be a worry, because if you go too far down that route, you end up really unfunny like the Nazis or Pol Pot.

So, why the popularity? Well, it seems to be the same as the long-standing fun of a horror movie. It’s a bond formed when you all scream together. It’s like a fairground ride or the challenge of having extra-hot chilli — the thrill of feeling a little bit frightened, and also a chance to pretend that you’re not afraid.

So, the answer is: no, death isn’t funny, but for some it can be fun.

Cyclone, hurricane or typhoon?

What’s the difference? The Wellington rugby team is called the Hurricanes — a reference to the strong winds that characterise the captital’s weather. But does New Zealand actually ever have any real hurricanes?

The answer was easy to find: absolutely not. New Zealand only ever has occasional tropical cyclones, such the Wahine storm of 1968 (which I remember vividly).

The naming of these three cyclonic weather systems is a matter of local convention. It’s typhoon in the northwest of the Pacific, but hurricane in the northeast Pacific and north Atlantic (basically, either side of the United States). Both typhoons and hurricanes rotate anticlockwise. Everywhere else, in other words more or less the whole Southern Hemisphere, the corresponding clockwise-rotating system is a cyclone.

So why is the team named after a Northern Hemisphere weather system? I just don’t know, and I can’t find any explanation. An example of creeping Americanisation? Probably just ignorance.

Tree roots

Sitting in a school playground recently (waiting to pick up a grandson), I noticed a faint crack in the asphalt. And then another — long cracks, not very noticeable, but all radiating far out from the tree I was sitting under. I knew what they were because last year when I was digging a trench across our back lawn, I kept striking woody roots that seemed to be quite a long way from the nearest tree.

rootball of a felled pine
A macrocarpa rootball in an adventure playground on Mt Victoria, Wellington

Sometimes after a strong gale, shelterbelt trees have been uprooted on nearby farms. Looking at the exposed roots, all horizontal with no taproot, it has always seemed to me that the platform they create is too small to support much sideways thrust. I’ve vaguely wondered just what magic keeps most trees upright.

Now I think I know. It’s the extensive network of small roots that spread out just below the surface of the ground. There’s a lot more to a tree besides the bit you can see, and its purpose is not just structural, it’s the way the tree finds the water it needs for transpiration and photosynthesis.

 

Kiwi wings

The generic name for a kiwi is Apteryx. That’s Greek for “without wing”. So how was TVNZ’s ‘Goodnight Kiwi’ able to use his wings to flick off switches, put out the milk bottle and tuck himself into bed, and why do nearly all the cute little mascots, dolls and cartoons in souvenir shops show a kiwi with wings?

A real (non-souvenir) kiwi in its nocturnal environment

A cute souvenir kiwi (note the nostrils at the wrong end of the bill)

The question is, does a kiwi have wings? Perhaps they have little ones like penguins, and they just hold them so close that you don’t normally see them. Let’s have a rummage in the furry plumage of a kiwi; what do see? Nothing but a bony-looking vestige of a wing a few centimetres long. Not really cute at all, and certainly not capable of expressive gestures or fine manipulation. So why are they so often depicted so differently?

I think that there are two sorts of kiwi. There is the real kiwi, the ‘official’ kiwi: the national emblem, a rare nocturnal animal never seen by most New Zealanders. And then there is the kiwi as we’d like it to be: a cheerful, cheeky little chap able to poke fun with his flight feathers.

It’s an example of the way society gradually agrees on a fiction. Facts become more palatable. Creatures become more human-like. Historical figures and events get simplified and sanitised. Most people believe what they want to believe and don’t let facts get in the way.

Two questions, same answer

Time for some science. Here are two questions that I think most people will get wrong. They’re questions that are important, because if you understand the answers then you are a little bit closer to understanding how the world works.

The first question is: When plants grow, where does the stuff that makes up the new plant matter come from? Most people will say ‘the soil’. Wrong.

The second question is: When you lose weight, where does the weight you lose go? Most people will say ‘down the toilet’. Also wrong.

The answer to both questions is carbon dioxide. Yes, invisible CO2 gas.

Carbon compounds make up the body mass of both plants and humans, and CO2 is the source of carbon for plants. They take the CO2 from the atmosphere and water from the soil, and use the energy of the sun through photosynthesis to make nearly everything they need to grow.

In humans there is a process that works the other way around, releasing energy stored in fat and converting the fat to water and CO2. You breathe the CO2 out, and that’s where your surplus weight goes.

Gee, Swiss Charley

Sometimes I have to wonder about the news media, because sometimes things in the news aren’t explained. What I wonder is whether they presume that everyone knows, or whether they don’t know that there is an explanation.

Case in point: after the recent murders by religious psychopaths in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, people around the world took to holding up signs saying “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie). Two questions come to my mind — what does ‘Hebdo’ mean, and what is the significance of “Je suis Charlie”.

So here are my answers to my own questions. First, ‘Hebdo’ is French for ‘Weekly’. As simple as that. It’s short for ‘Hebdomadaire’.

For the answer to the second question, you have to have seen the film Spartacus with Kirk Douglas in the title role. When the Romans asked for Spartacus (leader of the slave revolt) to identify himself so that they could crucify him, everyone stood up one by one and claimed to be Spartacus. And that’s what they’re doing here with ‘Charlie’, in a symbolic sort of way.

I have a feeling that grand gestures like this will be lost on the terrorists. After all, the response of the Romans was fairly straightforward: they simply crucified everyone.

© 2017 Tony Pritchard