Friday, January 27, 2006

Ad Astra Per Aspera

You'll be hearing a lot this week about the Challenger disater, which hits its 20th anniversary tomorrow. But today is also the anniversary of another space disaster, that of Apollo 1. Three people (Command Pilot Virgil I. Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee) died when a spark turned the 100% oxygen environment of the test capsule into a blazing inferno.

Grissom is one of the lesser remembered heroes of the early Space Age. He is probably best remembered as the guy who said:

If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.

He died shortly thereafter. But first, he wrote a book about his experiences in the Gemini Program, called Gemini.

I found this book at the Friends of the Library Booksale 2 years ago. It is pretty beat up, with many pages falling out and with a frayed binding. There is no cover image or dustjacket. I would link to it, but I think it is long since out of print.

The style is very simple and straightforward. Grissom was an Indiana man who grew up to be an Air Force test pilot who was tapped to populate the emerging human space flight program. He puts on no airs as he describes his beginnings and his suprise at being named for what was at that time a very low profile endeavor. Grissom goes out of his way to give credit to the hundreds of engineers and scientists on the ground that made his flights possible.

While in part an autobiography, the main focus of the book is to explain why the space program is important. While much of his argument is based on Cold War politics - namely, we need to beat the Soviets up there - there is also the triumph of the human spirit argument which is made infinitely more poignant with the knowledge one gets from reading this man's thoughts and knowing the price he would pay for following his ideals.

A large portion is also dedicated to arguing a version of that quote up above - an argument against the opponents of the space program, who claimed (and still claim) that it was too dangerous, that someone was going to die. Here Grissom simply states that he knows the risks, and that he trusts the engineers and support staff implicitly.

If Grissom had not died on Apollo 1, he would have been at the top of the list for being the first man to walk on the moon. He never made it that far, but his life and his death allowed the men who followed him to take his place. His book, which was sent to his editor shortly before his death and was published posthumously, is charming and touching and fascinating and down-to-earth (forgive the pun).

It's also all but forgotten by everyone except the Library of Congress. Let's hope Grissom doesn't suffer the same fate.

From the plaque honoring him and his crew:




Space heroes make me gush. Godspeed Gus!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Tampa, FL

I have been in Tampa for the past few days. It was to have been the culmination of 2 weeks of backbreaking labour, the last resulting in 70 hours of billable time. A demo for a Congressman. Cancelled, of course, at the last minute.

Anyways, I will be back again in two weeks, with a new camera this time, and with Electroplankton. In the meantime, there are a few pictures up on Flickr.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Two Mediocre Books

Well, I just finished two pretty unsatisfying books. One was The Trial, by Franz Kafka, and the other was The Supernaturalist, by this guy named "Eoin Colfer." I could not wait for either of them to be over.

Kafka's book is, obviously, about a trial. Its prose has that charming cadence that only comes when translating German into English, but it's at about that point where its entertainment value ended for me. I'm aware that this is an important piece of literature and all that, and that "Kafkaesque" has entered our common lexicon (according to the back of the book), but it was just kind of boring.

Any sympathy one might have for the main character as he is persecuted by a faceless bureaucracy is insensibly siphoned away as he does stupid thing after stupid thing and worries and wrings his hands over bits of manners and protocol. I know I'm supposed to be shocked and horrified by Kafka's image of the world here, but I dunno, yawn, I guess.

One part of note is the appendices. There's an afterword by the fellow who published this book after Kafka's death. It largely has to do with how Kafka wanted all his papers burnt upon his death and how this guy found Kafka's will and then, instead of burning his papers, he published them in book form. This part, though, okay, it's forgivable, because of Literature and Posterity or whatever. We have this great book now because he ignored Kafka's dying wish. But then the guy proceeds to publish Kafka's diary there in the back of the book, Appendix F or something. It's the poor man's innermost thoughts about him feeling lonely and scared and all that jazz. Anyways, it was kind of sickening to me.

Next we have The Supernaturalist. This one my mom gave to me from the high school library book fair. It's a young adult novel, which is usually a recipe for success in my book. This one though, uninspired. 4 kids band together to save the world from little glowing alien things that only they can see. Sounds pretty good, but it never really goes anywhere.

The universe is sort of like a kid's version of Bladerunner, with that Future of the 80's feel to it. Giant polluted city, no ozone layer, giant corporations that control everything, conspiracies, all that standard stuff. The plot twists are either uninspired or predictable, and the manuscript has more than its fair share of glaring typos that I was kind of surprised made it through the editing process (or the spell checker).

I think this book might actually be pretty fun and good to the age group for which it is intended, but where Harry Potter is also fun for adults to read, this one isn't so much. Even if you are a kid in the right age range, I would skip it - there are plenty of better options out there. Like Dragonlance.

Let's hope the third time's the charm here. I might have to go back to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire pretty soon.

Monday, January 02, 2006

House of Leaves

Whoa. So I just finished House of Leaves, by one Mark Z. Danielewski. It was craaazy and pretty awesome.

It's a (postmodern) horror book, mostly, and that's where you'd find it in the bookstore. To give you a brief synopsis: it's about a guy who discovers that the interior of his house is 3/4 of an inch bigger than the exterior. As he is trying to figure out what's wrong with his tape measure, a door appears in his living room which should lead out into his front yard, but which instead leads into a dark hallway and structure that seems to go on forever. I won't give too much away, but the cover of the book has a giant spiral staircase on it; you can go from there. Here's a hint: it doesn't go up.

This story though, is framed in another story which takes place mostly in the copious footnotes. The narrative structure is as follows: the house story, as told by a documentary film, as described by an academic paper on the film, written by a crazy old man who recently died, as edited by another man who is slowly going nuts, as further edited by the (fictional) publishing company. None of the narrators are particularly reliable, something which is made explicit early on. Each different narrator uses a different font, which spares you from the Faulkerian agony often associated with books with this structure.

The main body of the story, the story of the house, is, like I said, presented as an academic paper written on the (nonexistant) documentary film about it. This is interesting, because it allows the author to make explicit a lot of the symbolism and to delve a lot more deeply into the characters and their motiviations than would ordinarily be possible. It also, as Wikipedia notes, provides a satire on academic criticism. There is a whole chapter, for instance, about why the guy decided to return to the house, after XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. Another whole chapter on the entymology of the word "echo," as well as the scientific and mythological background of the concept.

This is both good and bad. It is good in that it forces you to think a little more about the story then you ordinarily would outside of an English class, and it is good in that it provides an effective way to raise the suspense (by being written under the assumption that everyone has already seen the movie and knows what will happen), but it is also bad in that sometimes it gets a bit dull. There's a lot of overanalysis in there, which I think is intentional, but is also kind of tedious at points.

The other half of the story, carried out in the footnotes, is about the editor of the book as he takes lots of drugs, has lots of sex, and slowly decends into madness. This part is, much of the time, similarly tedious, but it is (arguably) the most important part of the story, depending on your interpretation. It is cut up into small chunks and spaced out enough that it is bearable. Most of my dislike for these sections I think stems from the fact that they kept me away from exploring the house. Lots of sex, drugs, and rock and roll in these parts, though, so buyer beware.

Then, there's the actual physical structure of the book. It is crazy. As I mentioned, each narrator is in a different font. The long and numerous footnotes have footnotes which have footnotes. Sometimes there are only 5 words on a page, sometimes there are a gajillion. Sometimes the words are upside down, sometimes they are written backwards, sometimes entire pages have the strikethru tag applied to them. Other parts are missing entirely, sometime words or parts of words are missing (the original manuscript has been burned, or scratched out). Sometimes all of these things happen at the same time. And then there's the fact that "house" is always in blue.

The formatting is usually done with a purpose, not just to be annoying. At one point the characters are lost in the neverending tunnels and as they become more and more panicked and disoriented, the text becomes more dense and convuluted until you are as lost as the characters. It sounds kind of stupid, but in practice it was really effective.

There's a lot to this book; apparently it took the author 10 years to write it. You can read the book and think you got most everything out of it, and then read the Wikipedia article on it and realize that you missed like half of the stuff (including secret messages encoded in the text). (PS: like me).

It has an interesting and creepy story that keeps you going, and it also makes you think without being too dense to be an enjoyable bedside read. I would recommend this to anybody that thinks they can persevere through it; it's not an easy book to read, but it's easy enough, and it is pretty interesting. Also it makes you feel smart. Who can argue with that?

(House of Leaves)

Sunday, January 01, 2006


So my 25th birthday has come and gone, and now I'm officially almost in my mid-twenties. This is older than I ever thought I would make it to, so this is a pretty solid achievment. A life lived looking both ways and only mostly ignoring safety labels has paid off, thus far. Or maybe I'm just lucky. Who knows. The point is: look at this sweet present Maura got for me:

That right there is the definitive biography on one of my two heroes, the ol' TJ. It's on the mantle because it is extra special. The series is called Jefferson and his Times, by Dumas, and I have read the last one, which you can see in the photo is entitled The Sage of Monticello. It was excellent (as you may have heard), and I look forward to reading the rest of the series as soon as I finish the other million books I have in my queue. I'm going to need a new bookshelf soon.

Anyways, I'm excited.