Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Sand slugs come slip-sliding from mountain


OAKURA man Gary Bruckner is standing in a wave-tumbling storm checking out the Kumara Patch.
But the board rider and teacher (right) isn’t sizing up the surf on Taranaki’s wild west coast; he’s sampling the sand.
To put it in literal terms, he was doing research for his Beaches and Littoral Sand Transport of Taranaki study, backed by the Royal Society of New Zealand and administered by the Government.
Put even simpler, he was watching sand movements along the coast between the Hangatahua (Stony) River and Kaihihi Rd (where the Okato pub is).
Or, in other words, he was surveying a sand slug, which is a large amount of sand that gets moved along the coastline.
In Taranaki, along with the weather, how much snow is on the mountain and the surf conditions, the coming and going of our black iron sand is a common topic of small talk.
That’s why Bruckner took last year off to stake out the Kumara Patch, one of Taranaki’s most-famous surf spots at Okato.
The Californian primary school teacher, who with wife Becky became a New Zealand permanent resident in 1990, was fascinated by the region’s ever-changing beaches.
He was used to white sandy beaches that stayed basically the same. In his new land, he noticed how Surf Highway 45’s beaches transformed dramatically from storm to storm, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all.
Bruckner refers to Ahuahu Rd. “I was amazed to see how much sand filled up that bay.”
He became curious: “Where is all the sand coming from and where is going to?”
The first time he walked the Kumara patch beach, it was all just rocks (see picture below, taken in March 2006). “No sand whatsoever.”
Then in 1998, there was a huge slip on Mt Taranaki and the Stony River filled up with sediment, destroying fishing holes, and pouring sand on to the beach, covering the rocks.
“That’s the first time I saw the accretion of it,” he says.
Accretion is the building up of a beach, which is the complete opposite to erosion.
Experts from the Taranaki Regional Council told Bruckner it took five years for the Stony River to flush itself out and all the fishing holes to come back.
A great fishing year was expected in 2003, with the trout back and thriving. But the mountain was having none of that. Another large slip fell into the river, filling it up all over again and sending another sand slug sliding along the coast towards New Plymouth.
The predominant swell direction, which comes out of the south-west, hits beaches like Opunake straight on. But around the bump, it comes at an angle, pushing the sand along.
The bays along the coast fill up with sand, then when they can’t take any more, the excess is washed along to the next bay.
New Plymouth oceanographer Peter McComb describes it like this: “A bay is like a cup. When you keep filling the cup, it will get filled to overflowing. Then the sediment (sand) has to be spread elsewhere.”
Dr McComb, of MetOcean Solutions, is a “big picture” man.
He says if it wasn’t for Mt Taranaki providing the heavy-duty rock armour for the region via eruptions, the bump would have been flattened thousands of years ago.
Even now the mountain continues to protect the coast by sending slips down the rivers to replenish the sand.
“If you turned off the rivers, eventually all the sediment would be stripped off the beaches.”
He describes the mountain as a “sand factory”, with the Stony River the most efficient chute for delivering sand because of its steepness.
The latest sand slug is making a difference to the beaches, but it’s not all good news. While Oakura Beach’s sand erosion problem has gone – for now – so have a number of good paua collecting spots.
Dr McComb says that while the beaches are growing at this point in time, geological time tells a different story. “Five thousand years ago the beach was right out here,” he says using an opaque window like a white board to draw a line out from Taranaki, flattening the bump into a gentle rise.
“Twenty thousand years ago, the Maui platform would have been dry just about.”
Bruckner’s study only encompassed a twitch of the eye, not even a blink in the time scale. He also focused on just a 2.38km stretch of beach, which he marked out with five stakes.
His studies took him there every week and sometimes more, especially in stormy weather when change was often more obvious.
He regularly took GPS readings to see how far the sand stretched into the sea and measured the changing contours of the sand.
During his year of sand watching, he saw the beach grow and go dramatically.
In September last year, the sand just north of the Stony River stretched 85 metres towards the sea. In October, it measured 100m and December it went right out to 150m, covering more and more rocks. “I have the information for January – it went out even further,” he says.
Even a wee lagoon formed high up on the beach, providing a private swimming hole for his family (pictured, right).
Bruckner has graphed and mapped his results, which show the beach is definitely growing.
He’s now passing the baton, or the stake in this case, to a Waikato University masters student, who will be supervised by coastal oceanography Professor Terry Healy.
Dr McComb welcomes the study, which begins in December.
He’s hoping it reveal new scientific data about the shifting sands of Taranaki.

FREAKY FACTS... A few grains of truth

1) Sand is classified as any sediment between 0.125 and 2.0mm and is measured by using sieves.

2) A child’s beach bucket holds 3,500,000,000 grains of sand.

3) You can hunt treasure along the coast of Namibia in south-west Africa because there are teeny diamonds in the sand.

4) Someone who collects sand is called an arenophile.

5) The grains are green in Guam. The sand’s hue comes from olivine, a mineral found in basalt lava. The waves around the island wash out the lighter grains of sand, leaving the denser olivine crystals to create the green beach.

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Midnight Assembly offers indie online network

ONE dark night Alex Matthews went hunting and came up empty-handed.
The teenager from Northland was armed only with a computer, a giant net, high ideals and a curious mind. His domain was the globe.
Matthews (pictured) is one of millions of young people who meets and makes friends, shares hopes and dreams, on the internet.
“This was during the time that I avoided school like the plague, and took some time to think about the world,” he says, thinking back to 2003. “I was on my computer looking for an organisation that represented the positive, proactive youth of the world.”
The then 15-year-old couldn’t find what he was looking for.
“I thought ‘hell, I have just found one of the world’s biggest niches’,” he says.
“I was so stoked. There was no question about it; I had to create the organisation.”
So he did.
It’s called Midnight Assembly.
Matthews (now 19) says the website is an online community for people who want to change the world.
If you can imagine Bebo, MySpace and even YouTube as pop music played on mainstream radio, Midnight Assembly is alternative music that would be aired on student radio by a DJ who does it for love not money.
Unlike the commercial sites, Midnight Assembly is a charitable trust, which raises money through grants, donation, sponsorship, fundraising events, “ambitious philanthropists” (take note Sam Morgan) and more.
It has three trustees. Matthews is chairman, Jason Hansen is secretary and Stephane Jansen is treasurer. Building of the site began in November 2003; it was launched in March 2004 and became a legal charity in 2005.
Matthews and Hansen met online, realised they had a shared vision and became friends.
Now they are trying to get their message out there, taking on the big sites. Like Taranaki Fresh Milk competing against Fonterra.
“The whole Bebo thing – I have no interest in them,” Hansen says. “They are good for keeping contact with people, but this (Midnight Assembly) is more than a communication device.”
Matthews agrees. “We can offer certain human emotions that the corporate online societies can’t. They exist to make a profit.”
To get a clearer idea of this online youth community, let’s look at the group’s pamphlet blurb.
“MA exists to create a new culture. A new generation of thinkers. A new future, which has self-improvement, self-awareness, proactivity and idealism at its heart,” it reads.
“More importantly, it’s not what we are – it’s what went want to be,” Matthews says, in person.
The idea is that this virtual world can step out of the computer to make things happen in real life.
“Youth cafes, art exhibitions, music concerts, software development, fashion, trading, an artists’ collaborate,” he lists the aims. “We only exist to make a useful service.”
Matthews fizzes when talking about Midnight Assembly, a secular site, whose name stems from a poem he wrote at age 12, and now relates to what he describes as “the most insomniac generation that ever existed”.
So these wide-awake livewires hope to inspire people to design and build architecturally progressive youth centres in prime inner-city locations around the world. These would have citizen’s advice bureaus, free community space for barbecue pits, sports and “whatever”.
“The new generations of Aotearoa and the wider world need a positive vision for the future of civilization. A holistic solution needs a holistic approach and it needs to flow and be exciting,” the pamphlet reads.
“We are a tribe in a global village,” Matthews says.
“We are creating the kind of culture that we think will be needed to secure a positive future for humanity,” he says.
Matthews now lives in Wellington, but “the where” is unimportant when you can instantly play backgammon with someone from Turkey, chat face-to-face via webcam with an old mate in London for free on Skype and zoom in on your own home using Google Earth.
The borders are coming down, as fast as the Berlin Wall, and internet communities are now real. The revolution of new thinkers is here, probably online, in a room somewhere, hunting in the dark.
And this time, http://www.midnight-assembly.net/ is there, just waiting to be found.

Late Gates nearly misses cyberspace race


MICROSOFT man Bill Gates nearly missed the internet revolution because of security fears.
Surfing the net was banned in all Microsoft offices in the first half of the 1990s to prevent rival companies getting access to the company’s trade secrets.
Each day, thousands of sensitive emails circulated around the 30,000 onsite intranet PCs and Gates (pictured) didn’t want this information going further.
So, to go online, employers had to sign in and out of computers in the main library or browse the net at home.
It wasn’t until 1994, when Netscape launched its free search engine service, which was downloaded by millions of people worldwide, that Gates realised that cyberspace was the way of the future.
Now, his free Microsoft Network (MSN) is one of the world’s leading social networks, along with rivals Bebo, MySpace and Facebook.

FREAKY FACTS... Web weaving world together

1) Google is the number one search engine in the world, with almost three times the audience of nearest rival, Yahoo Search.
2) About 61% of New Zealand’s adult internet users bought something online in March this year, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.
3) The internet was invented back in 1969 by the United States Department of Defence as a means of communication in case it was attacked by Russia.
4) The world wide web was invented by an Englishman called Tim Berners-Lee in Switzerland in 1989. The first website was built at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (art at CERN, pictured) located north-west of Geneva. It was first put online on August 6, 1991.
5) Type “Bill Gates” into his own MSN Live Search engine and it comes up with 3,091,656 results. Rival search engine Google presents 21,100,100.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Twisted sisters have struck before

AN exposed region of New Zealand has been walloped by a spate of tornadoes – and it’s not the first time.
That’s why, at this stage, weather experts don’t believe the July 4 and 5 events that hit Taranaki, on the west coast of the North Island, can be linked to global warming.
Between 1951 and 1970, the region was struck by 28 twisters, says weather expert Dr Richard Turner, of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) in Wellington.
The worst year in that period was 1956, when five whipped through Taranaki.
From 1971-90 there were a dozen twisters, which is another name for the speedily spinning elongated triangles of wind produced by thunderstorms.
We are now in another high-occurrence period, with 19 tornadoes recorded since 1991, including the region’s strongest twister and now the largest number in one hit.
According to storm experts online, a series of twisters from one thunderstorm is called “a family” of tornadoes.
About seven struck Taranaki at 5.30pm on July 5, with at least two of the family – we can called them twisted sisters – storming through homes at Oakura (see cars moved about in above picture, courtesy of Taranaki Daily News, photographer, Mark Dwyer).
There was also a lone wind the day before, on July 4, which whirled its way through central New Plymouth.
All of the tornadoes were spawned by thunderstorms rumbling over the Tasman Sea.
But there is no clear relationship between the tornadoes and a weather pattern, like El Nino, says Dr Turner, a mesoscale research meteorologist.
For now, he’s ruling out any links to global warming.
That’s backed up by National Climate Centre leader Dr David Wratt, also of Niwa.
“The conditions that lead to tornadoes are not built into climate change models,” Dr Wratt says.
But there have been significant changes in temperatures, which have been going up.
“There is more heavy rain in the west and less in the east, and that could be to do with climate change,” Dr Wratt says.
“There is some evidence there have been strengthening winds to the south of New Zealand.”
Dr Turner says the other place prone to tornadoes is Greymouth, which is on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. With the Southern Alps behind, it has similar conditions to Taranaki. But it’s the Central Plateau, not Mt Taranaki, which affects the weather’s big picture.
Unlike the United States, where the prairies or flat expanses of land are the most prone to twisters, New Zealand’s tornadoes are born offshore and then head towards terra firma.
“They form out to sea because there’s a good supply of moisture for the thunderstorm,” Dr Turner says.
Thunderstorms have columns of swiftly rising air, called updrafts. Sometimes these change direction, causing them to spin. When the outstretched spinning air is contracted, it rotates even faster.
“Like a skater spinning with arms outstretched and then when they bring their arms in, they speed up,” he explains. “The updraft can rotate at a rapid rate. Then the downdrafts come and they have the spin as well.”
This updraft, which is in the middle of the storm, sucks up moisture from the sea.
“And we get heavy rain out of it, or hail, which is a sign that spinning air is coming down closer to the surface.”
It’s from angry storms like these that tornadoes take shape, or get squeezed out of.
“Often times you can get thunderstorms rapidly rotating, but no tornadoes form. I don’t know if anybody has any really good answer as to why.”
Dr Turner says nobody has forecast a tornado in New Zealand. “You can kind of predict the environment that tornadoes can occur reasonably well. The problem is, nine times out of 10 a tornado won’t develop.”
In the US, there are “tornado watches”, which tell people that thunderstorms with the power of producing twisters are coming. Once the whirling winds touch down, the watch turns into a “warning.
“One problem with Taranaki, they tend to come off the sea, which means you can’t get away.”
Also, they happen too fast for a warning to be effective.
The worst tornado to hit Taranaki occurred on August 15, 2004, near Waitara. Most members of a farming family were asleep when a twister hit their home, which was lifted off its foundations and demolished. Two people died in the natural disaster.
That event was an F3 on the Fujita Scale, which goes from 0-5, with an F6 being “off the scale”.
Last week’s tornadoes were rated between F0 and F2.
New Zealand’s most disastrous tornado struck Frankton in Hamilton on August 25, 1948. It killed three people, injured 80 and damaged 163 homes, but was only rated as an F2. “It does not have to be an F5 to cause major damage,” Dr Turner says.

FREAKY FACTS... wildly whirling winds

1) The world's deadliest tornado hit Bangladesh on April 26, 1989, in Bangladesh. As many as 1300 people were initially reported killed and 12,000 injured as a tornado cut a 13km-long track, up to 1.6kms wide.
2) Three out of four tornadoes in the world, hit the United States.
3) The fastest-spinning tornado ever recorded hit Wichita Falls, Texas, on April 2, 1958. It reached speeds up to 460km/h. This puts it in the “inconceivable” or F6 range on the Fujita scale.
4) In New Zealand, which is in the Southern Hemisphere, tornadoes rotate clockwise. In the Northern Hemisphere they spin anti-clockwise.
5) Hundreds of dead ducks fell from the sky 40kms away from the end of a tornado that whirled through Great Bend, Kansas, on November 10, 1915. That twister was so strong that debris from the town was found 137km away.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Educating fresh young minds

have planted bombs in an oil refinery in Singapore.
One explodes, pouring oil into the surrounding sea, endangering marine life and the beauty of this tropical place.
The rest of the bombs are ticking away and need to be defused, but it’s too dangerous for any human to enter the refinery site.
Instead, a crack team is charged with the task of sending in robots to deal with the bombs and mop up the oil.
The future of Singapore rests on the shoulders of these highly focused individuals.
They are just eight years old.
Thankfully, the scenario is fictitious.
But the Rulang Primary School students (pictured above, courtesy of Futurelab/Stakeholder Design) are making the robots, programming them and designing the computer software to direct them. They are also creating a communication plan to keep the “frightened” Singapore residents updated during the emergency and are also designing a business plan.
British science educator Sean McDougall says the year-long project is captivating the Rulang school students and the benefits will be obvious down the track.
“By the time they are 20 or 21, they will have a 10-year head start over children in the UK,” he says, during Efest, an online learning and technology conference held in Wellington, New Zealand, from June 25-27, 2007.
McDougall (pictured, left) isn’t there in person, but he is live and telling jokes about his home city, Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Like a sci-fi movie come to life, the managing director of Stakeholder Design is sitting in London in front of a camera. This is filming him, while at the same time he is watching us on his screen.
We can hear him, see him, interact with him and vice versa. He even takes our photograph and we raise our arms and faces obligingly.
On our stage is another, bigger screen, which he also controls from London. This projects a mixed-media powerpoint presentation involving film, photographs, graphics, graphs, and anything visually enticing to do with education.
We see the students of Rulang school concentrating on their robots and are also delivered a pictorial history lesson.

The latter painfully points out how our classrooms have failed to evolve in 200 years, while the students, who sit slumped in rows staring at an upfront teacher, are now cellphone-wielding communicators, who spend half their lives in cyberspace.
On the big screen, McDougall zooms in on some of the educational exceptions, including one captivating students through the movement and magic of water.
At Luckwell Primary School in Bristol the students have been given the task of making an “intelligent fountain” for their school.
They have all been creating designs and thinking about how it could move, look, react, sound and change.
On screen, teacher Sarah Payton talks about how the youngsters have been delighted by the idea of a real partnership with the teachers in making something come to life.
“They were really, really excited about it… that what they had to say was as important as what the teachers had to say,” she says.
McDougall says that with support from Futurelab, a multi-column programmable fountain is being built at the school and should be squirting water by September.
“The fountain is being fitted with stereo microphones and motion detectors, so it will be able to watch and listen as people pass by,” he says.
It will act like a speed camera so if kids run past too fast the water will stop. It can be used as a vote counter, and will even star as the lead performer in a school production called The Magic Wishes, in which the fountain chooses to be able to see, hear and have feelings.
Before making the big step from design ideas to fountain, the children are taught to take small steps – or their prototypes are. As part of the process, the students all make inexpensive robots, many with crayon feet that draw as they move. These are called "drawbots" (pictured, courtesy of Futurelab/Stakeholder Design).
The “wows” are heard as small sighs of longing by the teachers and parents who fill the Wellington Town Hall.
After his presentation, McDougall directs an activity in New Zealand’s capital, where we are his own thinking robots, and then takes questions from the floor.
But I corner him afterwards, via the now-traditional means of email, to ask his involvement in the projects, beginning with the Singapore mission.
Q: Who devised this school project – was it yourself?
A: “I wish! Actually, it was devised by teachers at Rulang Primary School in Singapore, using Lego Mindstorms robot components.”
He has had more involvement at Luckwell.
Q: What is your role in this project?
A: “I came up with the idea and am facilitating the process of discovery and creation. This really is a learning journey that has helped people to come together and figure out what the future of teaching and learning might look like.”

FREAKY FACTS... thinking outside the jar

SCIENCE education revolutionary Sean McDougall shares his favourite freaky facts:
1. The world’s longest-running experiment is establishing the viscosity or fluidity of tar (which is actually a liquid). A piece of tar has been suspended for the last 77 years and, so far, it has produced just eight drops.
2. If you take production processes into account, it takes 170 litres of water to produce one pint of beer.
3. If you ask 1000 people to guess how many sweets are in the jar, they will almost certainly all be wrong. But if you then add up all their answers and divide it by 1000, the average will be within 1% of the right answer.
4. The elephant is the only animal on Earth with four knees facing in the same direction.
5. Albert Einstein kept identical suits so that he didn’t have to waste time thinking what to wear.