Archive for December, 2005

Doggo Days

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

The changing of the guard at the Wellington Transmission Centre took place every day at 7 a.m., 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the afternoon shift commenced at 3 p.m. and, on Sundays, the morning and evening shifts commenced at 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. There were other shifts such as noon to six, eleven to five, and eight to five, but the three key shifts kept the transmission station running around the clock.

In the days of analogue communications, the transmission stations of the New Zealand Post Office were the places where speech circuits were multiplexed together for long-distance communication via broadband links. The individual speech channels were electronically stacked into groups of 12, then into supergroups of 60 and finally into broadband systems of 960 circuits. Other methodologies were used, but this was the backbone of the communications network in the 1970s and early 80s.

At the end of the day, smaller transmission stations would put their alarm systems into “night service” for monitoring – usually by operators at the nearest manual toll board. If an alarm occurred, the shift supervisor would call out one of the techs. But some stations had regional responsibility, and were staffed 24 hours a day.

At Wellington Transmission, the dog-watch commenced at 11 p.m., at which time the three “doggo staff” would take over from the evening’s 5-11 shift. Around the country, a similar hand-over was occurring at Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Christchurch and Dunedin in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

As 11 p.m. approached, logs were checked, alarm consoles scrutinised, and intelligence from the evening shift was passed over. At Wellington, if Robbie was shift boss, there’d be a cheery “How are ya, sunshine?” followed by his walking to the radio monitor panel to the accompaniment of snapping fingers. The monitor would be set to National Radio and there it would stay. Woe betide anyone who changed it to another station – unless, of course, some fault investigation required it.

Over the next hour, things would be bedded down for the night – logs analysed, and headed up for the new day, statistics prepared, teleprinter messages summarised and the midnight message WN TRANS TO ALL STATIONS, THIS IS SEQUENCE 1, would be sent on the omnibus teleprinter to transmission stations at group or zone centres. While the midnight message was being typed, the late Relda Familton would be starting her graveyard shift at National Radio ending her summary of the morning’s fare with her usual quip “this and that, music and chat.”

The stage was now set for a new day of work. Scheduled maintenance could commence and, if a fault developed, instructions for its rectification would be sent in authoritative phrasing on the omnibus printer; cross-patching of working circuits could not be carried out without such authorisation. This was the scene in the Test Room.

Next door, in the Radio Telephone Terminal, the designated “TO” (Technical Operator) would have followed a similar routine with his or her counterpart on the previous shift. Scheduled radio contacts with ships which were written in chinagraph pencil on the Sked Board would be checked. Unusual propagation conditions announced by Australia’s Ionospheric Prediction Service, IPSO, would be consulted.

Any calls in progress would be checked on the hour, and the status of the circuits entered into the radio logs. If the signal had deteriorated, then the circuit would be taken back from the toll operators and an immediate QSY (frequency change) carried out.

As the outgoing shift headed off, a cuppa might be shared on a quiet night before the members of the team headed to their designated midnight routines. For the TO this always involved the ten past midnight sked for the weather stations at Raoul and Campbell.

More often that not, the cuppa was a snatched affair for the Technical Operator. The radio circuit for Chatham Island had to be taken down for the night and, if Scott Base had enjoyed a rare evening of favourable propagation, they too would have to be shut down when ready.

Communication with Scott Base in Antarctica was best carried out in the evening hours, provided the sun was not playing merry hell with propagation and trying to light the sky with aurorae. Wellington and Scott would meet on pre-arranged frequencies every evening and proceed to tune a “commercial” circuit. Through the background noise would come the barking huskies of Scott’s test tape – I’m convinced the tape recording had more noise on it than the radio circuit did! If man-made or natural noise was present, the receiving station at Makara, on Wellington’s south coast, would be consulted. Tests would be carried out and a frequency change made to achieve an M3 quality circuit – the lowest grade allowed for private toll calls, except in an emergency.

Once a quality circuit had been achieved, the five-band privacy would be switched in to encode the speech on the radio circuit and Scott Base was ready to go. The circuit was switched through to the Wellington TMX (manual toll exchange) and calls to family and friends could commence. The circuit needed regular monitoring as reception could rapidly deteriorate. The circuit was usually taken down by 9 or 10 in the evening.

In all my time in the radio terminal, Scott Base was only kept up round the clock on two occasions – once (for many days) when the DC10 crashed on Mount Erebus and on another occasion when a VIP on a military transport was overdue on a flight back from the ice. On the former occasion, we even managed to put up a second circuit – usually on the other sideband – for Scott so that the numerous police and air accident inspectors could carry out their work. On the second occasion, raising Scott Base in the middle of the night involved some ingenuity – and alarm at their end. After all, the cold war was still in progress at the time, and the TO at Scott feared the worst while he was trying to get his transmitter warmed up.

By the end of the doggo shift, Relda Familton would have signed off from her graveyard shift on National Radio and headed home. In the radio terminal, her voice would again be heard as the TO at Chatham Island ran their test tape for receiver tuning by the staff at Makara. A new day of skeds was beginning. “This is a single sideband transmission for receiver alignment purposes from ZLC Chatham Island. This station is operated by the New Zealand Post Office.” I can still hear her pearly tones today.

1885 in Poverty Bay

Friday, December 30th, 2005

At this time of year, as we approach New Year’s Eve, our thoughts naturally dwell on the past twelve months and our future prospects.

I wondered – What was occupying the minds of our ancestors in Poverty Bay one hundred and twenty years ago in 1885?

The year 1885 had been notable for the formation of the Cook Hospital and Charitable Aid Board, land in Kaiti had been valued at £11 per acre, and Alan McDonald was elected mayor of Gisborne. A bridge had been erected across the Te Arai River at Manutuke, replacing the punt which had operated since the bridge erected in 1874 had been washed out in 1876. There were 16 solicitors, 18 surveyors and 17 licensed interpreters in practice in Gisborne, and the Cook County Cheese, Butter and Bacon Company had opened a cheese factory at Matawhero (opposite the modern-day saleyards) in January of 1885.

By year’s end, J.A. MacKay in “Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast N.I., N.Z” was reporting a drought on the East Coast with only 7 inches of rain in the 7 months to January 1886, and that the situation in Gisborne was almost as bad.

Local pubs were prominent advertisers in The Poverty Bay Herald of December 31st 1885. Dickson’s Argyll Hotel in Gladstone Road was advertising its bars, dining, reading, sitting and bed rooms, and its plunge and shower baths. The Roseland Hotel at Makaraka was in the hands of E.J. Beresford, the Waerenga-a-hika Hotel was being run by William Cooper and the Turanganui Hotel was being promoted by S. De Costa, proprietress.

Long-time stationer Thomas Adams advertised his wares and the Gisborne Gas Company advised that it was renting gas stoves for 2/6 per month, while William Adair was still advertising Christmas bargains – perhaps the fore-runner of our present-day Boxing Day sales … which last a week.

The P.B. Herald reported that the tender for the last 6 ½ miles of the Gisborne to Wairoa road had been let to Brownlow and Will for section 1 and Corcoran for section 2 and the road was expected to open to wheeled traffic in May the following year.

But the biggest news story was the bush fires down south at Norsewood, Makotuku, Makaretu, and Carterton with significant loss of property and volunteers being conveyed to fight the fires by special trains. Ormondville was threatened according to the paper of New Year’s Eve 1885, and funds were being raised for homeless settlers and their families.

Looking ahead to 1886, the P.B. Herald announced that the postal note system was to be implemented to enable the transfer of funds, and 6d would be charged for telegrams for delivery the same day.

Poverty Bay Turf Club was anticipating its two-day meeting on January 12th and 14th, while two columns-worth of stallions with such exotic names as Emir Bey, Young Pretender, Prince Arthur III and Merrylegs advertised their services for standing at stud.

I suppose the stallions, at least, were looking forward to 1886 with smiles on their dials.

[Thanks to J.A. MacKay and the National Library’s “Papers Past” website for some data]

Summer at McRae Baths

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Another summer holiday excursion in the 60s was a trip to the McRae Baths in Gisborne. Situated on the banks of the of the Waimata River, near its junction with the Taruheru, the complex was a popular holiday destination for kids.

The main pool, which was 100 feet by 36 feet, was opened on the 4th of April 1931, following several years of lobbying and fundraising. The £1800 which had been raised was handed over to local authorities in 1930, at a time when there was considerable unemployment in the depression-hit town. This enabled the work to be carried out as state-subsidised relief work, with the RSA providing additional financial support.

The site had been gifted by Alexander McRae but he never saw the completed work as he died in 1925 at the age of 95. The McRae Baths were superseded by the olympic pool complex in the 1970s and the site is now known as Gisborne Marina.

Being the only sinker in a family of water rats, I spent a lot of time at what we called “The Crayfish Baths” in all weathers and all seasons. Highlight of the night-time meetings of the Swimming Club was the lip-smacking sweet cocoa dispensed (by St John’s?) from the caravan parked at the entrance.

In summer, it was baking hot sitting or lying on the stepped concrete terraces to left and right of the main entrance. A better location was over on the wooden grandstand which backed onto the river bank. Refreshing breezes (on summer days) passed through the structure, as swimmers cavorted or competed below us in the main pool.

A special treat was an ice cold bottle of Coca-Cola (forbidden fruit) purchased from the harassed attendant in the ticket office, if our parents weren’t with us. These attendants were responsible for selling entrance tickets, rescuing drowning swimmers, selling drinks and ice creams and policing the big black NO RUNNING signs that graced the blue-green changing shed walls. A quick “fweeet” of that whistle would cause people to freeze and silence to descend as an offence was swiftly dealt with.

Leaving the pool, we’d hobble across the hot sharp stones of Vogel Street, and perhaps pause to look at the ROAD CLOSED signs nailed across the entry to the William Pettie Bridge. This old wooden bridge had been condemned for years, and the big 1966 earthquake probably was its death-knell. It would be several more years before it was replaced by the graceful curves of a new concrete road bridge, sometime in the 70s (or was it the 80s?)

On the way home, we’d walk bare-footed on the molten tar footpaths of Ormond Road. On an extra hot summer day, having walked past the glass-walled lube bay of “The Service Station with Merritt” hoping to see a mechanic down in the deep pit, we would pause at another of Gisborne’s little oddities. There would sometimes be a small hastily fenced area in the middle of Ormond Road as it began its gentle uphill climb. Poking through the tarmac would be a remnant of Gisborne’s past – the tramlines. Buried under successive layers of asphalt over the years, they would poke their heads up on a hot day as they expanded on the northern side of the Fitzherbert Street points.

For most of my time in Gisborne, the tramlines were our barometer for a hot summer. If they appeared like some subterranean augur, then it was hot, and would be remarked upon in The Gisborne Herald. Old-timers would suck their teeth and remark that they hadn’t seen “The Tramlines” since the summer of fifty-eight, or somesuch date.

If we had a sixpence or two left, we’d buy ice creams at Hamilton’s Dairy before swinging around the corner and heading home. Even then we were loyal shoppers, favouring “our” dairy over the one at MacLean Street.

[some data from J.A. MacKay, “Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.”]

Life’s a Beach

Monday, December 26th, 2005

In my earlier days, before I got my first bike, I tended to be tail-end-charlie in the excursions of my older brothers and sisters during the summer school holidays.

One popular trip was the walk to the beach, across the clanking “Billie Goat’s Gruff Bridge” at Derby Street, stopping to select honeysuckle flowers to suck on the way. They always told me that the yellow ones were poisonous, but the white ones were OK. Knowing my siblings, this was probably because the yellow flowers had sweeter nectar and, as there were only a couple of thousand of them available, they had to be protected from my predations. To this day, I still don’t know whether they were joshing me.

If we had time, we’d make sure no-one was coming and furtively climb over the side of the bridge and underneath it. The bank was steep but navigable, and we could hide in secret as people walked or rode their bikes overhead. The bridge was an ancient wooden structure, decked with huge wooden planks that had started to bow with age. As a cycle rider approached, the timbers would resonate, and the planks rattled for several seconds after they’d biked past. The curious “wap-wap-wap” sound combined with metallic rattling and squeaking of old iron nails is something I remember to this day.

Cables, water pipes and the gas main for much of Whataupoko were slung on the sides of the bridge. The gas main hissed noisily as its volatile contents passed through, and the massive bolted joints were a thing of curiosity. Women in high heels had to literally tip-toe across the bridge for fear of losing a heel in the open knot holes or the gaps between the planks. The river always looked mysterious when peered directly down on through one of those open knot-holes.

Leaving our secret lair, we’d clamber back onto the bridge and head up Derby Street, passing the gas works with its coal sorter going “shuff-shuff-shuff” and call in for something less healthy than honeysuckle at the Little Wonder Dairy. The shop was a small room on the streetfront of a house, crammed with all sorts of wonderful goodies sitting on the (to me) tall counter or hung on trellis on the walls or stacked on the shelves behind the shopkeeper. We were “known” to the various shopowners over the years, but the only one whose name I can recall was Mister Visser, a kindly Austrian chap.

From the dairy, our trek would take us up the hill to Gladstone Road past the gasometers. There were two – one red the other silver. I used to marvel that something so big could grow and shrink from visit to visit depending on how much gas was in storage. From here, we had a choice. Straight ahead led to my grandmother’s place, left led us past the town clock to another turn into Grey Street and down to the beach.

On the beach trip, another feature would attract our attention, the old steam locomotive. A frozen relic of an earlier age, the small loco had been welded to a couple of rails on the footpath near the skating rink. To my eyes at that age, it was HUGE, and it was a struggle to climb up into the cab to look at the remaining brasswork and firebox.

From there it was only a few minutes more, past the railway station, to the hot grey sands of Waikanae Beach. I spent many, many hours at Waikanae in my younger days, both on the beach or in the curious 1950s collection of buildings that stretched from the surf clubhouse to the motor camp.

For a youngster, there were hours of entertainment to be had there. After a paddle in the open paddling pool and an ice cream bought from the kiosk there were the glassed observation rooms to be checked out. These concrete labyrinths afforded a view of the beach, and provided peaceful, sheltered seating for tired elders when us little horrors weren’t in them. But when we were there, they were places of resounding claps, echoing wails, pealing shrieks and other ghostly noises which were amplified to a satisfying degree by the inward curving concrete walls.

On one beach trip, I recall one of my brothers sitting atop the concrete wall of the promenade. He was either pushed from behind or slipped and slid down onto the sand grazing the skin on much of his back. It was vivid red and starting to bleed as he slipped his shirt on and we set off on the long walk back home.

En route, we worried anxiously, and debated back and forth. With scarcely a thought for our brother who might have bled to death on the walk, we worried – Would Mum be so angry that she grounded us for a week, and we couldn’t go back to Waikanae?

Christmas Days Past

Sunday, December 25th, 2005

It’s funny, but I can’t remember many of the presents that I got as a kid.

But I can remember the sights and smells of Christmas Day. Particularly the smell of a brace of chickens draped in bacon roasting in the oven. Back then, chicken was something of a treat, and tasted more gamey.

When they arrived at the table all crispy golden, the smell of the steaming stuffing as my father carved them would have me drooling – well almost. There would be squabbles and sulks over who got a leg, but I preferred nice slices of breast meat, and eagerly searched for some of the succulent skin with that crispy crunchy bacon attached. A dollop of herby stuffing set things off very nicely indeed.

There would usually be ham freshly sliced off the bone, especially if there was a big group sitting down to lunch. The ham would have been baked in the oven in the days leading up to Christmas, filling the house with wonderful smoky smells. It was a work of art, draped in pineapple rings held in place by toothpicked cherries, the skin scored and studded with cloves.

Simple salads complemented the meats. The standard of the time was iceberg lettuce finely sliced and dressed with sliced tomato and boiled egg. There was always a tomato and cucumber salad steeped in malt vinegar – another staple of the time. And, of course, boiled new potatoes.

A creamy “highlander” mayonnaise made from condensed milk, egg yolks, mustard powder, vinegar and salad oil whisked together added a savoury flavour to the salad. It was also excellent spread on bread, instead of butter, to make chicken and stuffing sandwiches with the leftovers.

For Christmas lunch, the large dining table in the rumpus room would be set, and the clan would gather. My grandmother, who sometimes had a glass of sauterne might mark the special occasion by having a Pimm’s. Remember the label? “Pimm’s No. 1 Cup.”

The banquet would begin, and so would the talk. Stories, memories, humorous events, talk of family and friends. And on it would go. All afternoon. Sometimes we’d finish lunch with a homemade Christmas pudding and we’d eagerly search through our plates to find the thruppences that had been put in. The winner was the person who got the single sixpence.

People would disappear to assigned duties as the dishes were washed and dried, while others popped out to visit neighbours and friends. The group would re-form as evening drew on and the leftovers were brought out. Sandwiches would be made with thinly sliced Findlay’s bread, taken straight from its bright yellow waxed paper wrapping. The evening meal was a relaxed, informal event, enabling everyone to make the most of the opportunity for a chinwag while people were gathered.

The only interruption to the torrent of chatter was a pause to listen (and later watch) the Queen’s Christmas Message to all her loyal subjects.

As we packed up for bed, two of us would be thinking of the wishbones, we’d gotten from the chickens. The impatient ones tried them immediately, others tucked them away in a high place where they could dry out ready for an emergency when we had a special wish that needed them.

Where’s That Pesky River Gone Now?

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

We’re all used to getting up in the morning after a storm and heading off around the neighbourhood collecting recycling bins, rubbish bins and even garden furniture which has wandered off overnight.

But what do you do when you climb out of the “scratcher” and find that your river has buzzed off overnight?

This interesting situation confronted the Greene family at Kaiariki, Poverty Bay in 1876.

The heavy rains that fell in January of that year caused more flood damage in Poverty Bay than any of its recorded predecessors. At Wharekaia, 22.85 inches of rain fell in a week. On the flats, the floodwaters broke out of the Awapuni Lagoon, flattening the sandhills as they went.

Seven women and six children were rescued at Makauri by a boat sent from Gisborne, and a yacht rescued Mrs Bilham who was marooned on the western side of the Waipaoa River.

The Greene family found their river – it was waiting for them at the back door – having decided to change its course overnight.

I Blame My Mother

Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

She was a Wellingtonian. Born and bred. Through and through.

Perhaps it was her stories about bustling electric trains to the Hutt Valley in the 1930s, the mysterious “opium dens” in Haining Street as she scooted past on her way to Wellington Tech as a teenager, or the building projects that her father worked on in the capital.

My first visit to Wellington in the early 1970s sealed my fate. Seeing the “skyscrapers” of Lambton Quay, munching a burger at Big Tex on the corner of Cuba and Ghuznee Streets, walking along the invigorating waterfront, a night spent up at Carter Observatory watching a lunar eclipse, a ride on the train up to Coastlands for the novelty of Saturday shopping followed by lunch at The Fisherman’s Table. I was hooked.

And so I moved here in 1979, and can’t escape for long.

Back then Wellington was a government town. Property magnate Bob Jones poked the borax at its grey shoe brigade of civil servants and backed Carmen for mayor. An SIS spy featured in the press for having a pork pie and a Penthouse in his briefcase while on assignment. Hip flasks were smuggled into Dr John’s Disco to help invigorate the soft drinks. Worcestershire sauce sprinkled onto buttered white bread was the entree at one of Courtenay Place’s many chinese cafes. And on the way home to Mount Vic. along Vivian Street, Carmen would be touting for trade “Hi boys, how about a coffee?” at 3 a.m.

Leaf through any of Pat Lawlor’s excellent books on Wellington, and you’ll realise Wellington’s long history as a sociable town. Even in the 1970s and 1980s it was a place of exotic eateries and bars. The Acropolis in Dixon Street was often something of a riot, and you had to be there early if you wanted to order their stuffed vine leaves. More sedate dining could be had at the Vienna in Manners Street where the star dish was tournedos rossini – tournedo steaks wrapped in crispy bacon.

The California Steak Bar in Willis Street offered prompt service, leaving plenty of time for a leisurely drink upstairs at the nearby Carlton Hotel before closing time. One knocked on the front door of Orsini’s Restaurant in Cuba Street to be let in past the cramped pianist. Candle-lit tables were shoe-horned into every available space, and street light entered via shuttered windows. After a show, the old world Midland Hotel was a favourite stop for a late night drink – the first floor bar offered tea and coffee in silver service with crisp linen napkins.

Windows on Wellington, located on the 20th floor of the Williams City Centre was a place where staring into her limpid pools competed with staring at Wellington’s sparkling jewels laid out below us – fantastic venue, shame about the menu.

If an evening dancing in Chloe’s at The 1860 was your thing, then you could always still get a feed at the somewhat gloomy Camelot restaurant in the days of 10 o’clock closing with such fare as pate steak or a “Sir Loin” dish. Then you could carry on to Slack Alice nightclub on Plimmer’s Steps.

Many of these establishments have disappeared over the years, along with the streets like Sturdee and Farish which served them. The Mexican Cantina’s original location in Willis Street is still in use – by Ye Jun. The clientele is more sedate, but I’m certain that the carpet is original and the steps are just as steep.

Wellington has long been a place where people from all over New Zealand came to because there was work. What a melting pot! And yet, its a windy old rat-hole. The winters can be damp, and the summers are mild – not baking hot like in Gisborne. Those frequent southerlies slice through you like a knife. The threat of a big earthquake hangs over us like the sword of Damocles.

But then its a wonderfully compact city. Crammed onto the edge of a harbour of magical beauty. Houses stuck to the sides of steep hills as if glued there. Populated by people of every race and creed. Commuting to work is a doddle if you’re on one of the railway routes.

No matter how grim the work-day morning, you pop out of that first railway tunnel and hurtle over the top of the motorway at Ngauranga Gorge and hear out-of-towners gasp as they get a quick glimpse of motorway mayhem before they plunge into the second tunnel; and then “pop” out the end and down the slope toward Wellington. There she is: sparkling in the morning light, tall buildings cheek-by-jowl with the hills looming above them.

Sometimes Lambton Harbour is like mirror glass, tinkling in the sun. Sometimes she is angry, whipped up by 10 metre swells outside the heads in Cook Strait. At other times she is mysteriously filled with fog, like a gigantic cappucino. Never is she dull.

And when family or friends visit, and you take them “down town” on foot, looking at the architecture, monuments and art works which are at every turn, you know why you live here.

Sipping a cup of coffee in the street while a former Prime Minister walks past on his way to a board meeting at Bullshit Castle (aka POHQ). A politician perches on one of the seats for a meditative smoke while locals look on as they chew the fat over a brew. If Peter Jackson’s got something on the go, then there will be a movie truck parked somewhere shooting some film. Buskers buzz away in the background, and perhaps you’ll get a wind-up from some of the street theatre associated with the Festival of the Arts. Tourists off the cruise liners chatter away in their own lingo and peer at maps in the summer.

The peace might be shattered by a protest march down the main streets to Parliament, or by Victoria University students following a pipe band in their capping parade. Traffic halts for some formal parade of soldiers, sailors or airmen commemorating an important event, and the city takes on the appearance of a garrison town with military uniforms at every turn.

Wellington is a town with heart. Its a living, working, capital city with all the attendant baggage of modern day life. There’s malcontents, troublemakers, burglars and muggers like any other big town. But there’s even more Wellingtonians to balance the equation – people who care and love the place.

And more of those Wellingtonians are writing about its history. Full marks to NZ Post in Tawa for prominently displaying “The Streets of Tawa” by Bruce Murray right beside the tills. This Tawa Historical Society publication is just out, and is the perfect stocking-filler for giving to local bookworms.

And that reminds me – I haven’t yet bought Clyde Quay School’s historical calendar for next year. Where would we be without these people who are preserving our past and bringing it alive?

Windy Wellie – it’s Home.

MCDEM Poorly Prepared

Tuesday, December 20th, 2005

It is rumoured that a report on tsunami risk and readiness in New Zealand will be released today by the Ministry for Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM).

If the rumour is true, then MCDEM are, as usual, hiding their light under a bushel. There is no report available on the Ministry’s website which is running like a three-legged dog.

The website, which is advertised in the emergency section at the back of the Yellow Pages, should be designed for fast, effective dissemination of information on earthquakes, floods, tsunami alerts, and other disaster events. However, it is loaded with graphics and poorly laid out and maintained. As a means for keeping the public informed it is a dismal failure.

The publications section needs an urgent revamp, and an effort should be made to provide issue dates for the files that are available. Interestingly, the search function which should be able to filter the few publications with release dates does not work.

The Ministry has been criticised in the past for poor response to flood events, and undertook to review its performance. Part of this review was to include a re-assessment of its public communications. Clearly, this has not resulted in much-needed improvement of its website.

afternoon update: Two tsunami-related reports have now appeared on MCDEM’s website. They are not logically filed under “What’s New” or “Publications” but can be found under the “Favourites” tab at the left of the main screen.

Earthquake Swarm near Seddon

Monday, December 19th, 2005

Another earthquake swarm has commenced activity 10 km east of Seddon in the South Island.

The swarm of shallow earthquakes commenced with a magnitude 3.9 event at 4:54 p.m. on Sunday December 18th. This was followed by a magnitude 3.6 event at 6:29 p.m. A magnitude 3.7 earthquake, which was felt in Blenheim, was recorded by Geonet at 4:19 p.m. today.

The area was plagued by a similar swarm of earthquakes last month when 9 tremors occurred between November 1st and 11th. Two of the largest events shook goods off shelves in Blenheim. The area also experienced a series of 7 other earthquakes nearby at the same time.

The latest swarm does not appear to be attended by nearby quakes at this stage, the most recent other nearby event being a magnitude 2.9 quake 20 km north-east of Seddon on December 7th.

Details on individual earthquakes can be obtained via the link to the Geonet website.

Telex messaging – a whole new language

Monday, December 19th, 2005

Mastering the telex service involved learning a new language of compressed words and acronyms, methods for adding emotion into a telex “conversation” and other etiquette.

The first, and most important, lesson was that telex messaging was a half-duplex operation, much like an address and reply conversation. Attempting to type a message while the other operator was sending resulted in characters from both operators being mixed unintelligibly and quickly led to mechanical keyboard lockups as mechanical buffers overflowed.

An interactive telex call involved alternating messages between the two parties with each operator indicating that they had finished transmitting by sending + at the end of their last word or ?+ on the last line which invited a response.

If the sender wanted to indicate that they were finished, they would end with ++ which invited the other party to confirm they had finished with +++ The last lines of a telex conversation would look like this:
followed by an exchange of answerback codes.

If one party needed to stop for some reason, they would transmit MOM PSE (one moment please) which let the other party know they were still involved in the conversation but otherwise engaged.

If they were thinking of a response, they would often alternately hit the numbers and letters keys which would cause the other telex machine to mechanically switch between numbers and letters mode without printing unnecessary characters. This was a highly expressive action as the receiving party would see the print head rotating indecisively back and forth without printing – a clear indication of uncertainty if ever there was one.

Anger was often expressed by several hits on the bell key or typing over the top of the other party – a very rude gesture. Growing anger could also be expressed by deliberately typing characters at a regular but slow rate such as DO YOU AGREE??? in letters sent at 1 second intervals.

With its origins in morse, many radio operator terms ended up in daily use on the telex service. RGR was, of course, “roger” for agreement. STBY or SBY meant “standby” or “please wait.” PSE was “please,” and TKU was “thankyou,” or TKS was “thanks.” MNG was “morning,” GM was “good morning,” TMW was “tomorrow,” and CUL was “see you later.” Operators who became known to each other over time would often refer to each other as OM – “old man” – such as in CU TMW OM.

GA had to be read in context, as it could mean both go ahead and good afternoon, but was not a challenge for an experienced operator. GA+ obviously meant “go ahead” as it was followed by one or two + characters indicating the sender had handed over to the other party. GA OM at the beginning of a message was an abbreviation for “good afternoon, old man,” and would usually be followed by more text.

In the early days of the Internet, when it was evolving from a text-based medium, many of these conventions entered into the etiquette of the time, and became known as “netiquette.” Sadly, much of the netiquette has now fallen into disuse.

Earthquake Weather

Sunday, December 18th, 2005

Wellington’s recent run of hot, humid and light-wind days has brought talk of “earthquake weather” back into conversations recently. The subject even popped up on Kim Hill’s Saturday morning show on National Radio yesterday.

Hill was firing on all cylinders for most of her programme and her sometimes irritating interruption of her subjects was working very successfully in producing a conversational type of show. She wandered through a multitude of subjects such as coffee importing, books, gifts, food and sport in a thoroughly entertaining fashion. The conversation with food expert Ruth Pretty was highly informative, with Hill surprising Pretty with a few potato tips of her own. The discussion about Moby Dick was another conversational highlight of the show. Only during the sport discussion with Ken Laban did she end up “out of synch” with her guest, causing Laban’s organised presentation to sometimes falter with her interruptions.

Kim Hill raised the topic of earthquake weather through an anecdote of her time on the West Coast, in which discussion of its existence was attended by the timely occurrence of a shake.

To a certain extent, the concept of earthquake weather can be self-fulfilling, with people noticing and reporting more earthquakes on quieter wind-free days. In addition, the restless nights during humid weather cause fewer people to sleep through earthquakes that occur during the night hours. But there could be more to it than that.

At first, it might seem odd that the weather might be associated with the release of tectonic pressure in an earthquake. In fact, many seismologists of the closed mind variety instantly dismiss the possibility.

However, there have been members of that fraternity who have considered and studied the possibility. So far, nothing has been proven conclusively, but some interesting aspects of the meteorological relationship have been indicated.

One of New Zealand’s scholarly scientists of last century, the late George Eiby briefly mentioned the subject of earthquake weather in his book “Earthquakes”. This is not surprising, as George had a lively mind and anyone who heard his highly entertaining after-dinner speeches at various events such as the annual dinner of the The Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand would know that his scientific mind was not closed.

Eiby mentioned that a Japanese study of 18 major earthquakes over a 530 year period found that 12 of the events occurred on fine days, 2 on cloudy days and 4 on rainy days. He added that this inconclusive study told us more about the Japanese climate than it did about earthquakes.

Charles Richter, remembered by his Richter Scale for measuring earthquake intensity noted that minor shocks increase at the beginning of California’s rainy season, when large air masses are constantly changing air pressure values. However, Eiby pointed out that there didn’t seem to be a corresponding pattern of triggering undersea earthquakes during the daily tide changes, which cause a ten times greater change in pressure on the sea bed than the air pressure changes cause on the land.

An indirect relationship between weather and earthquakes was suggested when heavy rain in the Bay of Plenty deposited up to a billion tons of floodwater in the area in 2004. A swarm of earthquakes near Lake Rotoiti between July 18th and August 8th caused additional damage to houses and roads, and triggered numerous landslides. Dr Martyn Reyners of IGNS suggested that the sheer weight of the water could have triggered earthquake activity in the earth’s thin crust in the area.

In the case of the three Matata earthquake swarms and flood earlier this year, the earthquake activity had commenced before the flash flood occurred. So, while the shaking may have contributed to the residents’ woes, there was no causal relationship between the two.

So, while some tantalising relationships between weather and earthquakes may exist, it seems that there is no definitive “earthquake weather.” Nevertheless the concept persists, and it was widely remarked upon in the East Coast area during the 1960s and 1970s, mainly by older people who recalled the 1931 Napier earthquake which occurred during a lengthy period of warm summery weather. The clement weather greatly assisted the recovery and cleanup activity throughout the Hawkes Bay and Gisborne regions, and possibly reinforced the view that earthquake weather is hot, still and humid conditions.

Happy Holidays

Friday, December 16th, 2005

“Hooray! … Hooray! … Hooray!” Cheers carried upon the breeze from Tawa School yesterday afternoon reminded me of younger days when I too experienced that exciting moment when school was over for the year. Six glorious weeks of Christmas Holidays were ahead of us. No more school until February.

The last day of school was an important day. Plans to meet friends from more remote locations had to be put in place in advance. As we walked across the soccer field toward the college bike sheds, arrangements for expeditions and forays were made. We all knew that the next few weeks would be busy with family stuff but, once those baking hot January days arrived, there would be bike trips to Gray’s Bush, day trips out to Hexton along the back Ormond Road crammed in the back of a mini van if a driver could be bribed, forays out to Valley Road, visits to mates in Kaiti, soccer games to be watched at parties in Childers Road, expeditions to the gun emplacement (and later the observatory) on Kaiti Hill.

The making of fruit wine would be experimented with. My peach and apricot concoctions usually went mouldy but, with the enhancement provided by many years of memory, I recall one talented fellow-brewer making a stunning beetroot wine that rivalled a modern-day pinot noir. Electronic projects would be built, letters written, books and magazines read and exchanged.

Our trusty bikes would get us about Gisborne and its environs. For many years I had a super-modern Fireball with smaller wheels, banana seat and “easy rider” handlebars. This was the ultimate in style, with funky racing-car gear lever mounted on the main bar, and whitewall tyres. The carrier was mounted on the front, and steering was heavy when the saddlebags were loaded with loot for a day’s outing.

The banana seat was set far back to produce the “easy-rider” effect which had its downside in wet weather. The rear tyre pumped a jet of water up the back of the bike and, with a tail-wind, the jet sometimes overtook the rider at intersections. One of the first modifications was the attachment of a mud-flap to reduce the “camouflage” effect given to my back by muddy water on wet days.

The bike was so popular that everybody wanted to ride it, including the mother of a mate over in Kaiti. Until that time, I had thought her a friendly but sedate lady. Not so. When riding my Fireball round her backyard, this 50-year-old would whoop and carry on like one of us kids. I remember her first attempt to ride the thing – sitting far back on the black banana seat wobbling about the yard, with her husband collapsing in a heap shouting “Wooo mama, what’s that thing sticking out the front?”

Bleeding edge technology has its down time, and the Fireball had its share of gearbox troubles. On those occasions, being vertically-challenged, I’d requisition an old black lady’s bike from the stables so that I could keep up with my mates. Her name was Henrietta and she had amazing balance. One of my favourite tricks was cycling along Gladstone Road at high speed, arms folded, wobbling the seat. This would set up slow oscillations in the two diagonal bars to the front forks causing the front wheel to waver this way and that. My own private roller coaster. Young and bullet-proof, and there were no cycle helmet regulations in those days!

Henrietta, though an old model, had the remarkable innovation of a fork lock. Depending on how the handlebars were set, once the lock was engaged any miscreant stealing her could only travel in a straight line or circles. She was never stolen on any of our outings! The bike’s long gone, but the fork lock key NGN30 still survives.

Though my parents frowned on the practice; at the end of a long bike trip, or any bike trip for that matter, it was always necessary to speed up as I rode up the driveway, hurtled down the side of the garage, bounced over the storm drain and skidded to a halt on the earth floor of the stables. Henrietta had her own stall, the horses were long gone.

As was Judge Jones’ buggy which had lived in the coach-house adjacent to the stables. That was the woodshed in my day. A place of labour, where wood was stacked, later to be collected for the fires inside the house, and the kindling was chopped. These and other chores were the source of pocket money which financed a steady diet of Kwench bars, boots and shoes, aniseed wheels and hard jubes. More durable booty was often hidden somewhere in the woodheap to escape the predations of brothers who were experts at finding caches of goodies in more orthodox locations.

Happy holidays. 🙂

Nature Personified

Thursday, December 15th, 2005

The recent flood event in Poverty Bay, following hard on the heels of the Labour Weekend flood in October set me to thinking about the history of floods and droughts in the area.

Trusty old J.A. Mackay in “Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast N.I., N.Z.” records that a flood in the area during the 1820s was called by local Maori the Kingi Hori (King George) flood. This was followed by another event in 1841, when the Waipaoa River changed its outlet. This river uses the Poverty Bay flats as part of its flood plain and, though it has been the source of much misery with its flood episodes, is responsible for bringing much of the rich soil covering to the area from the steep slopes inland.

Another flood in 1847 was thought to be worse than the ’41 event, but local Maori thought that neither was sufficiently severe to earn the award of a special title.

The Wikitoria (Victoria) flood of March 1853 must have been worse than the previous two to have earned a title. Interestingly, though Victoria was on the throne, the flood was not named after her, but after a notable local woman who died at about the time of the flood. One hopes that Her Majesty was amused.

Maori also named large earthquakes, according to Eiby in his book “Earthquakes” – such as Hao-whenua (the land swallower) which occurred ca 1460. It is possible that this rather large earthquake, believed to be magnitude 8, was responsible for lifting up the piece of land now occupied by Wellington International Airport, and ended Miramar’s days as an island. Prior to this, ancient Maori rowed canoes through this area on their way to fishing trips in Cook Strait.

Nowadays, we tend to name earthquakes and floods after the area that they affected – such as Gisborne earthquake, Manawatu Flood etc.

But the personification of nature’s “thrilling” events lives on in some aspects of meteorology. The mention of Cyclone Giselle conjures up horror images of the ferry Wahine sinking in Wellington Harbour with all those passengers aboard, while we stood by unable to reach her in 1968. Giselle was also responsible for the highest wind speed ever recorded in New Zealand – 267 km/h in Cook Strait. It was a vicious storm.

The name of Cyclone Bola reminds us of those Poverty Bay hillsides scarred by massive slips, and grass and debris caught in fences and on overhead lines in 1988.

I wonder what natural event might personify 2008?

Earthquake series near Kermadec Islands

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

A series of eight earthquakes along a 600 km stretch of the Kermadec Ridge north of New Zealand commenced on December 2nd. Between the 2nd and the 12th, three events in the magnitude 4 range, four events in the magnitude 5 range and one event of magnitude 6.4 were reported by the United States Geological Survey. All but one, which was 173 km deep, were at depths of 46 km or less.

The Kermadec Ridge, which includes Raoul Island, sits above the subducting Pacific Plate. The area is also part of what is known as the Tonga microplate, a plate fracture zone which extends from the eastern North Island to south of Western Samoa and the area east of Fiji.

Two other events in this microplate area (magnitude 4.1 and 4.0) occurred nearer New Zealand on December 2nd and 5th.

Yesterday’s magnitude 6.7 earthquake between Fiji and Wallis & Futuna occurred near the northern edge of the Tonga microplate.

Geonet Analyse yesterday’s Earthquakes

Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

Geonet were prompt to analyse the reports submitted by members of the public who felt yesterday’s earthquakes, posting an updated report at 6 a.m. today. The report is available via the Earthquake Information link on this blogsite, and is accessed by clicking on “News” at the top of the Geonet webpage.

The magnitude 5.0 northern Wairarapa earthquake at 2:55 a.m. which knocked items off shelves in Dannevirke attracted 294 “felt reports” from the public.

The magnitude 4.5 earthquake near Porirua at 9:09 p.m. which knocked items from shelves in Porirua, Wellington and the Hutt Valley attracted 532 “felt reports” from the public. The worst damage was reported from Titahi Bay.

So many people responded to the second earthquake, that Geonet apologised for problems that were encountered in filing reports on their server. Seismologists use the data from “felt reports” to refine their seismic hazard modelling tools, and the large response from the public is to be applauded.

The “felt earthquake” programme was started by the Seismological Observatory in the days of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. Back then, pre-paid report forms were completed and mailed to the observatory. Details about the quake were mailed back to respondents to acknowledge their contribution. With the launch of the Geonet website, it soon became possible to file a report on-line. However, the code that was written made it difficult for linux and Mozilla users to file reports. It is hoped that any revamp of the site will take the opportunity to write code that can be used by browsers other than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

The National Earthquake Information Centre, which is operated by the United States Geological Survey was forced to revamp its website after last year’s Boxing Day earthquakes and tsunami. The entry page contained a handy interactive world map of latest earthquakes but the demand was so high, that the servers groaned under the load caused by international interest in the events. The site now greets users with a list of earthquake events, with the CPU-intensive interactive maps being nested on deeper pages.