Rest in peace, my old friend

This weekend, I found out that an old friend of mine passed away.

I like to think that I’m good with words; however, when it comes to grief, my vocabulary feels awkward and stunted. And inadequate. So, so, inadequate – woefully so. How, I wonder, can words adequately express the confused mix of memories, thoughts and emotions that run through my mind? They all push to the forefront simultaneously, clamouring for attention – demanding it, even – without order or structure. How to put that on a page in a fashion worthy of such a heavy subject?

Perhaps it’s easiest to start with the basics.

Continue reading “Rest in peace, my old friend”

Little Daydreamers

Those who know me best know that I am a daydreamer. I’ve always found that I think of the best ideas when I’m daydreaming – and, more importantly, the best questions.

It is partly in celebration of daydreaming, and partly in celebration of my three-year-old daughter Abigail, that I recently started writing children’s fiction. As of last Thursday, I am now represented by Wordlink literary agency for ‘Abigail and the birth of the Sun’, the first in what I hope will be a series of books aimed at encouraging scientific literacy and curiousity among children in the pre-school age bracket.

‘Abigail and the birth of the Sun’ is the story of an intensely curious little girl who seeks answers to some of life’s biggest questions – in this case, where the Sun and the planets came from. The answer to that question involves a supernova, a journey through interstellar space, and the subtle yet pervasive force of gravity.

I’ve been writing since I could first hold a pencil, and while I’ve had some success in publishing non-fiction, this is the first time a literary agent has agreed to represent me for my fiction work. Although it’s still early days, I’m excited for the future. So, watch this space!


My promise

20 week scan

I think of you every day, every hour, every minute – and yet I have never seen your face.

You live deep within me, permeating every corner of my heart and mind – and yet I have never held you in my arms.

Excitement, joy, wonder, fear, worry – they all war inside me, competing yet complementary, and all drawing my mind back to you.

I wait, impatient, heart aching;

to see your face, to hear you cry, to witness your first breath.

I think of your first word, your first step;

I think of you meeting the world with open arms and an open mind,

soaking in all the world has to offer, with my gentle hand to guide you along the way.

Nothing has ever felt so right.

And yet, the way is littered with pitfalls, wrong turns, and all manner of dark things:

on the outside, the oft-cruel menagerie of life, merciless and apathetic;

on the inside, the piercing cries of a troubled mind, bearing down upon you with the weight of generations.

Will you be safe? Will you be happy?

Will life give you everything that I dearly hope it does?

I can make you but one promise:

I will love you, fiercely and completely.

No choice you make, no step you take, will ever break that promise.

When the sun shines, I will be there to share its rays with you;

when the rain pours, I will bring an umbrella to shelter you.

I will wrap you in an impenetrable cloak of love,

For now, and for ever.

On writing (and not writing)

“I don’t like writing – I like having written.”

This over-used and widely attributed phrase is by far the most succinct summary I have ever heard of the sublime agony that is writing. Despite what popular culture would tell us, writing rarely flows from the fingertips like grammatical gold. It’s hard. Like, really hard.

You sit and stare at your computer, willing the embryonic ideas swimming around in your brain to present themselves on the page in a neat and orderly fashion. A sentence comes to mind, then a paragraph, and occasionally a page or two. Sometimes you love what you’ve written, and you can sleep easy knowing that your place in the pantheon of brilliant writers is secured. Other times you agonise over every word, worrying if you’ll ever get it right. Doubts circle over the carcass of your prose like vultures, waiting to feed on the thin veneer of your self-esteem. Why is it so hard? My last book/story/article/chapter was so much better – am I losing my knack? So-and-so writes so much better than me – why would anyone want to read my tripe? And perhaps the biggest doubt of all – why does everyone else find it so easy?

I can answer the last question with two simple words – they don’t.

Continue reading “On writing (and not writing)”

Dear Website

Dear website,

I’m sorry I haven’t been around much lately. It’s not you, it’s me – I started a new job at the Waitangi Tribunal in July, and ever since then my life has been divided between the forty-hour working week, thesis work in the evenings and on weekends, and the occasional nap or two. Still, that’s no excuse for being neglectful, and I will try to be a better… er, website guy… from now on.

Continue reading “Dear Website”

My beef with the Drake Equation

I’ve got some issues with the Drake Equation.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the Drake Equation is a mathematical statement designed to estimate the number of detectable intelligent civilisations in our galaxy. It was devised in 1961 by Frank Drake, Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, and it assumes the following form:

N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L


N = The number of civilizations in The Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.
R* =The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.
fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.
fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

When Drake first proposed the equation, he and his colleagues calculated that there were ten intelligent civilisations in the Milky Way at any given point in time. Since then the Drake Equation has been one of the cornerstones of speculation on extraterrestrial life, both in fiction and non-fiction.

But here’s the problem – many of its variables cannot be adequately estimated based on our current knowledge of the universe. In other words, the Drake Equation is an exercise in guessing.

Continue reading “My beef with the Drake Equation”

Pseudohistory and anti-intellectualism: Why it sometimes sucks to be a historian

“Extraordinary claims require extraorinary evidence.” (Carl Sagan)


Sometimes, being a historian sucks.

This weekend, a book purporting to reveal a secret history of pre-Maori colonisation of New Zealand will will hit the shelves of major bookstores. Titled To the End of the Earth, its authors claim to have discovered evidence that explorers from Greece, Spain and Egypt settled here thousands of years before the arrival of Maori.

Nonsense, you say? I agree wholeheartedly. The problem, however, is that many people gobble up this kind of populist, pseudohistorical nonsense like the latest episode of American Idol. The comments section of a stuff article discussing the book’s release is testament to that fact; riddled with conspiratorial outrage and anti-intellectual high-fives, it’s enough to make the average historian cry.

Why? Because the claim that the arrival of Maori in New Zealand was predated by an earlier civilisation has been thoroughly discredited by dozens of historians, archaeologists, ethnologists and anthropologists, including H. D. Skinner, Ruger Duff, Arthur Thomson, Keith Sincialr, Michael King, James Belich, K. R. Howe, and more recently Paul Moon, Atholl Anderson, Scott Hamilton, Matthew Dentith, and David Riddell. Yet the notion of pre-Maori colonisation persists, like a tick burrowing its way into the nation’s public consciousness.

I’ve decided not to bother engaging with this kind of nonsense for two very good reasons. Firstly, it’s not my area of expertise; there are far more knowledgeable academics who have, and will continue, to pour scorn on it. But more importantly, engaging with it on an academic level provides it with a legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve. Instead, I’d like to contextualise it by outlining the ongoing discourse of anti-Treatyist literature that it falls within. I will also compare this literature to its far more virulent cousin, the Australian History Wars, and demonstrate why it is so important for academics to ignore these kinds of pseudohistorical challenges.

Continue reading “Pseudohistory and anti-intellectualism: Why it sometimes sucks to be a historian”

Why Rosemary McLeod is wrong

Yesterday, Dominion Post columnist Rosemary McLeod wrote a controversial piece titled “Why I feel for the kids of ego-trippers”. In it, she criticises the ‘strange’ methods of conception employed by, amongst others, female-to-male transgender men who have given birth to children. Her overall argument is that such men are ego-tripping, publicity-craving ‘he/she’s’ who are inflicting psychological damage upon their children.

Naturally, Rosemary’s vitriolic column has stirred up considerable protest, including today’s picketing of the Dominion Post office by members of the ‘Queer Avenger’ lobby group. The Wellington Young Feminist’s Collective has also criticised the Dominion Post for being ‘complicit in transphobia’ by publishing the piece.

The majority of commenters on the Post’s website have also condemned the column. However, a small handful have criticised the ‘disgusting quagmire of gender confusion’ supposedly brought about by ‘[s]hrieking fanatical people [who] don’t think very clearly’. Such comments are typical of anti-protestor/anti-feminist/anti-difference rhetoric that seeks to marginalise one’s opposition as illogical and unreasonable, and I will not dissect them in any depth here.

As a white, straight, cisgender middle class male, I can’t pretend to fully comprehend the discrimination that transgendered individuals face on a day-to-day basis. I also haven’t experienced the inner turmoil of coming to grips with one’s gender identity, or the long and protracted process of transitioning.

Nevertheless, as a historian, i’m constantly faced with writing about things that I haven’t directly experienced myself. Therefore, I feel compelled to respond to Rosemary’s column in whatever small way that I can. But how? Well, since Rosemary’s supporters seem convinced that their opponents are shrieking, unthinking fanaticists (a sentiment as offensive as it is incorrect), I thought i’d give them what they apparently crave – a cold, hard, logical breakdown of Rosemary’s argument, and an itemised analysis of why it is completely wrong.

Continue reading “Why Rosemary McLeod is wrong”

Kiwi Fascism? The New Zealand Legion, 1933-1935

On the evening of 28 February 1933, a two-seater Gipsy Moth flew into Milson Aerodrome in Palmerston North. As the small biplane rumbled to a halt on the grass runway, a Wellington urologist by the name of Robert Campbell Begg climbed out of the back seat. Tall, lean and well-dressed, there was a certain air of mystery about the man and his secret late night flight.

After a well-deserved night’s rest, Begg met with a small group of prominent farmers and businessmen in the Chamber of Commerce building. His aim, he told them, was simple – to form a new national movement that would unite the country to resolve the crisis of the Great Depression. That movement would become known as the New Zealand Legion.

In total, Begg travelled 5276 miles by rail, car, air and ferry between 17 February and 26 March. He attended 42 meetings and oversaw the formation of seventeen Divisions of the new movement. Within several months, the Legion boasted over twenty thousand members and captured the attention of every major newspaper in the country. By mid-1934, however, the movement was all but defunct.

Despite such a dramatic achievement, the New Zealand Legion has attracted little historical attention. Even trusty Google has heard little about it, apart from a brief and overly simplistic wikipedia entry. One of the great things about my research, however, is that I get to shed light on movements such as these. So, in the spirit of open source, here is my little contribution to the rise and fall of the New Zealand Legion.

Continue reading “Kiwi Fascism? The New Zealand Legion, 1933-1935”