Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

On Feb. 15, 2017, people paying attention to the US human space flight program were startled to learn NASA was considering putting a crew aboard the first flight of the SLS rocket system. Plans had been to send an uncrewed Orion capsule on a circumlunar flight in late 2018, but now doing it with a crew in 2019 or 2020 is being studied.

In fact this parallels a development from the early Apollo program. In 1968 the plan had been to shake down the Apollo Command and Service modules in Earth orbit with Apollo 7, add the Lunar Module but stay in Earth orbit for Apollos 8 and 9, and after that head toward the Moon. The LEM was facing delays, though, and in August George Low proposed a reshuffling of the schedule, sending Apollo 8 without a LEM on a circumlunar flight. Big difference: this wasn’t a mission three years in the future. It was sixteen weeks away. It was the 1960s, the Cold War was on, and NASA could and did improvise and take risks like that.

So Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders went to the moon and back.

Kluger’s book about the mission is a prequel of sorts to the book he and Lovell wrote, Lost Moon, about Lovell’s next, less successful flight: Apollo 13. Apollo 8 makes for a more problematic subject, because it went so damn well; I can’t see this book becoming a successful movie the way Lost Moon did. Never mind that people gave this crew no better than a 2 in 3 chance of coming back alive. You don’t build a blockbuster around waiting to see if the Service Module rocket fired or not.

Apollo 8 had one of the space program’s most poetic moments, on Christmas Eve, 1968, when the astronauts sent home video of the Earth above the Moon and read the opening verses of Genesis. You won’t find much else poetic in this book. Kluger writes competently but rather woodenly, giving a matter of fact recitation of the events. The first hundred or so pages look like a book titled Frank Borman rather than Apollo 8, describing his career from West Point to the Air Force to NASA. Then there’s the Apollo 1 fire and its aftermath, the problems with the Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn V rocket, the decision to go to the moon, the training and Apollo 7. Not until page 158 does Apollo 8 launch, and its mission occupies the rest of the book.

Space enthusiasts will want to read this book, not necessarily for any revelations but for a beginning to end compilation of the story. I’m not sure who else will. Apollo 8 was the first time humans left this planet to visit another world, a remarkable milestone in human history. By rights it should inspire stirring and compelling epics. Apollo 8 isn’t one.


If miserliness is a virtue then so is patience

Woot, yeah. Checked this morning and discovered Comixology had lowered the prices on a bunch of collections: Four on my wish list were down to $5 each and a fifth down to $11. Over on Amazon? (Which owns Comixology.) All five were down to $5. Huh. A bunch of other collections also are down to $5 including one that wasn’t on my wish list but should have been.

So they’re mine now.

All on my B-list. But I’ve been caught up for months on my A-list collections. There are some more B-listers out, too recently to be that cheap; give ’em a couple months or three. Then as for the ones I’m really looking forward to, well, they’ll be out in the next two months or so and as for when I buy, depends on how cheap I wait for them to get before succumbing.

So that’s me, months behind but pinching pennies.


The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

I’d heard of this book before, and probably of the webcomic it derives from, but for incomprehensible reasons I hadn’t read either until recently when a Twitterite posted news of a new Lovelace and Babbage story, the first in quite some time. I binge-read what comics are still online (some which are in this book have been removed), then decided I had to read the book. I tried first getting it from the library as a Kindle book but found it too hard to read — text too small and, unlike with a textual ebook, not really enlargeable. So I put in a request for the paper and ink book and waited for it.

Worth the wait.

One of the most delightful books I’ve read in recent memory. The comics themselves are funny (“This must be Twittered! Wait. This is a fan.”), engaging, and wonderfully drawn. And they, like Lovelace’s translation of Menabrea’s description of the Analytical Engine, are supplemented almost to a tail-wagging-dog level with entertaining footnotes and endnotes detailing information about the historical Lovelace, Babbage, Babbage’s Engines, and various people caught up in the story — I. K. Brunel, William Hamilton, Marian Evans (alias George Eliot), the Charleses Dickens and Dodgson, and others. The book concludes with extracts from various primary sources — including a couple of letters, hitherto little-known, that pretty much obliterate the notion that Lovelace was anything less than a highly skilled mathematician, a vital contributor to the development of computing, and someone genuinely admired and liked by Babbage — and an illustrated summary of the working principles of the Analytical Engine.

That in reality Lovelace died at 36 and Babbage never completed his computation engines is proof, if any still is needed, that the universe in which we live is woefully defective.

That Padua has produced this book is proof that it still has its great moments.

ThreeMen In aB oat

Years ago, back when I was running the Monty Python Special Interest Group of American Mensa (but that’s another story), a fellow MPSIG member recommended Jerome K. Jerome’s novel Three Men In a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). I read it, I enjoyed it. Some years later I read Connie Willis’s time travel novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which, rather obviously, was influenced by Jerome’s book; it’s a wonderful and very funny story, one of my favorites.

The Kindle edition of TSNotD is currently selling for two bucks so I picked it up, and decided to also get the Penguin Classics edition of TMiaB in Kindle format too. And now I’m telling you why not to do likewise.

As Carl Frank notes, there are formatting problems in Chapter 8. I bought the book anyway, figuring it was cheap enough and if there were problems in one chapter I could deal with them or get a refund. I found these problems did not make the chapter let alone the book “unreadable”. They affect only a few pages and all that’s wrong is a very badly placed left margin which leaves a very narrow text. Bad, annoying, but it can be read. I did indeed complain to Amazon about this and they credited me the price of the purchase.

What bothered me more was the frequent problems with spaces, or lack thereof, scattered throughout the book — or at least the first few chapters. “Hesaid” where it should be “he said” and the like. At one point “at one” should have been “a tone”. These errors certainly don’t make the book unreadable, either, but they do make it an unpleasant experience. Somewhere around chapter 4 I gave up and used my refund toward the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the combined Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel. So far it is a far more readable edition (albeit without chapter entries in the table of contents).

I can’t handle The Truth

I downloaded Terry Pratchett’s The Truth to my Kindle. Opened it up, tapped to turn a page… it went to the Table of Contents.


Tapped to go to the first page, tapped again, it went back to the ToC.

Eventually I figured out that I could turn pages by swiping, but tapping (the method I habitually use) would always go to the ToC.

So I fired off a note to Customer Service and they recommended deleting the book from the Kindle, restarting from the Settings menu, and re-downloading the book. I did that. Same problem.

So I phoned Customer Service. They recommended trying again, but this time restarting with the power button. I did that, and when I re-re-downloaded the book, it wouldn’t even open.

After trying a few more things, none of which had any effect, Customer Service said they’d issue a refund and flag the book for someone to fix. And I downloaded a different book. Which works.

I like my Kindle, a lot, but I never had this kind of problem with a paper book.

(Oh, and I like my Kindle more now that I’ve discovered how to remove the DRM. My concern about this was revived by the news that Microsoft is offering to buy Nook Media and that Nook hardware is likely to be discontinued. If I were a Nook consumer I’d be very concerned about the future of my ability to read Nook content on Android, and maybe even Apple, devices. I don’t think anything similar is likely to happen to Kindle anytime soon, but I’ve been wrong before. Should I, I asked myself, stop buying Kindle books and only get ePubs? I didn’t like that idea partly because, if you watch for sales, Kindle books can often be a lot cheaper than their ePub equivalents. I had Calibre on my Mac but didn’t know about the DeDRM plugin until I went looking for solutions. Once I installed that I was able to batch-apply it on all my Kindle books, and as a test I converted one to ePub format. It worked just fine. OK, my ebook library is now safe.)


Book review: Worlds of Arthur

Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages, by Guy Halsall, is about the legendary King Arthur, where by “about” I mean “not about”.

One could be forgiven for thinking “about” means “about”. After all, there’s Arthur’s name right there in the title. In the blurb on Amazon, Arthur’s name appears nine times along with “Lancelot, Guinevere, Galahad and Gawain, Merlin, Excalibur, the Lady in the Lake, the Sword in the Stone, Camelot, the Round Table.” The introduction talks a lot about Arthur, as do the first few chapters.

So there’s the first problem with the book, or at least with the title and the marketing of the book as well as its first pages: They lead you to expect an entirely different book than what this is. It is not about Arthur. Having counted occurrences of Arthur’s name in the promotional material, now let’s count it in Chapter 9 of the book: Twice. In Chapter 10, not at all. By the end of Chapter 11, we’ve seen his name infrequently enough that it’s no surprise to read, “Indeed, whether or not one of the post-imperial British kings was called Arthur is probably the least interesting question that one can ask about this important period.”

So what is the book about? Having read it… I’m not sure I know. I mean, if there’s a cogent, 1-sentence theme of the book, I’m not sure I can come up with it. What Halsall does in the book is to discuss the evidence regarding post-imperial Britain — written accounts from that time and soon after, and archaeological evidence; he summarizes some of the ideas people have had about this place and period in history, and the evolution of those ideas; and he gives his own views on what is and is not known, and interpretations he believes are plausible.

(I am no historian nor much of a student of history, so keep that in mind.)

Halsall argues that much that has been believed is based on bad assumptions, misinterpretation of the evidence, and wishful thinking. The arrival of the Saxons in Britain, for example, has been claimed to have occurred in the year 449, “a date as evidently precise and important as 1066” but for which there is no real evidence. The usual picture is of a wholesale Saxon invasion, pushing the British natives along a front moving east to west until Angeln was emptied and England was Saxon. There apparently has recently been a contrary view claiming that the Saxon migration never happened at all. (In this view the English language’s Germanic forebear was spoken in Britain from a much earlier time.) Halsall dismisses the latter as ridiculous, but spends much more time arguing against the former and in favor of a scenario where the Saxon migration began, perhaps as mercenaries for Magnus Maximus, in the late 4th century, and gradually continued over the following decades, not in a simple east-to-west moving front, not simply as a British-versus-Saxon conflict, but as something more subtle and complex than that. In fact, he argues, it is likely that many of the Saxons were British: that is, people who had Saxon names, spoke the Saxon language, and kept Saxon customs, but who were the descendants of  British forebears. Ethnic identity, that is, is to some degree changeable and chooseable.

I wouldn’t say Halsall changed my mind about anything, because I didn’t know enough about post-imperial Britain to change. I have a slightly better grasp of the facts now, and my cautious and skeptical self appreciates that Halsall seems to treat the subject even-handedly, being careful to point out where facts are lacking (and they are lacking to a great degree) and where unfounded assumptions have been made. So his picture of the period, which he acknowledges is plausible but not to be regarded as proven, seems to make some sense. Given that, I suspect Worlds of Arthur may be the best available book on the subject today — though, again, I am no expert, and I haven’t read any others, so really I’m only guessing.

It’s a shame, then, that the book isn’t written better. Structurally it’s a mess. Halsall keeps coming back to topics he’s discussed before, trying to make some sort of a new point or come at it from a new angle, the result being that what he has to say on the subject gets fragmented into shards scattered through the book, complete with forward and backward cross references, and he has to resort to howlers like this: “The Chronicle’s authors were thus doing something rather similar to what in Chapter 8 I will suggest the author of the Historia Brittonum might have been doing a couple of generations previously.” (That is, “I’m not going to tell you the point of what I just said, because it’s too similar to the point I’m going to make later about something that occurred earlier.”)

I appreciate that Halsall is careful not to jump to conclusions and assign “obvious” meanings to things that in fact could have meant something entirely different. Such is the nature of inquiry in progress, and too often popularizations and pseudo-scholarly books try to pull certainty out of an empty hat. The problem is, though, that this kind of caution can make for rather confusing and un-compelling reading: “In the current state of play it is difficult to know what these forts represent, or which sort of site is the more typical… It is possible that early, large sites like Burghead represent an earlier phase of large, but perhaps quite weak, kingdoms and that the small sites represent the domination of smaller areas”. So? Too many caveats and too few firm conclusions make for a problematic book; it’s hard to know how to overcome that, other than perhaps by deciding it’s not time to write a book on the subject yet. In that unfortunate sense, Worlds of Arthur may be ahead of its time.