Archive for the ‘From the armchair’ category

Diary of a Cosmonaut: 211 Days in Space by Valentin Vitalievich Lebedev

28 September 1999
Categories: From the armchair

coverA fascinating, if flawed, first-person account of life aboard the Soviet space station Salyut 7. Flight engineer V. V. Lebedev and his commander, Anatoly N. Berezovoy, broke all long-duration spaceflight records during their 1982 mission. To do so, they survived equipment failures, long and tedious work days that brought frequent bouts of panic, and lousy handling by ground controllers. Lebedev’s diary captures the wonder and uniqueness of living in space, expresses quite poetically the beauty of Earth, and explains the difficulties involved in working with equipment designed by those who had never experienced zero gravity.

His writing reminds me a lot of the memoir of Andrei Sakharov in the way it expresses an immense desire to succeed for his country, tempered by a deep sense of personal inadequacy and fear of failure. (I had begun to think this a facet of the Russian psyche until I started to read Eugene Cernan’s wonderfully entertaining and candid autobiography.) At the same time, I found myself wishing I could read Russian; the frequent grammatical errors (likely the result of translation), such as dropped articles and odd verb tenses, even make it read like a Russian speaking English. (Of course, the many spelling errors are inexcusable, but that’s just par for the course for today’s publishing industry, which no longer employs copy editors.)

The part I found most interesting was the explanation of a rearrangement of modules that the crew performed. They had arrived in Soyuz T-5 and docked at the “forward” port. Months later a visiting crew docked at the “aft” port in Soyuz T-7. (Obviously, there’s no “fore” and “aft” in space. For convenience, crews maintained the reference frame of the Salyut as it had been oriented at launch.) After a week, the visiting crew left in the nearly spent T-5, leaving the fresh T-7 for Berezovoy and Lebedev to use. However, a soon-to-arrive Progress resupply bus required the use of the aft port to refuel Salyut, so the T-7 had to be moved to the fore. Trouble is, the bizarre vagaries of orbital mechanics, coupled with the limited handling characteristics of the Soyuz T model, meant that the crew could not easily drive around the station and dock at the other end. A fly-around was tricky yet possible, and was routinely done in later years by the Shuttle during Mir docking missions, but with the small, single-module Salyut there was an easier way that requires only a mental shift in perspective.

The solution: they boarded the Soyuz and undocked, backing straight away from Salyut along the “r-bar.” (The r-bar is the imaginary line passing through the centres of gravity of the Earth and Salyut; I could explain its significance, but not here.) Then, rather than move the Soyuz, the Salyut was ordered by ground control to slowly spin around its centre of gravity by 180 degrees. The crew then moved the Soyuz forward to redock at the forward port. It’s as if they had a house with two garages at opposite ends, pulled the car out of one garage and left it idling in the driveway as the entire house spun around to present the other garage, then pulled straight back in again. Neat and elegant.

After nearly 300 pages, a translator’s note interrupts to explain that the remainder of the book has been edited to remove much of the repetition and tedium of Lebedev’s diary. The last 3 months of the flight are thus stuffed into a mere 50 pages. I considered this a disappointment. I admit that the book, up to that point, gets pretty tedious at times. But my feeling was that if Valentin could survive the actual experience, I could easily make it through his description of same. After all, at any time I could put the book down and take a walk outside, a luxury the Salyut crew did not have.

There are other drawbacks to the book. One was that the copy I read had occasional double-struck pages, so every letter had a faint, offset ghost—not so bad as to cause one to think they had double vision, but certainly enough to make the words fuzzy.

Another problem is a total lack of technical documentation. The book contains: 2 reproductions of technical notes with Lebedev’s handwriting, so splotchy I doubt I could read them even if I understood Russian; a two-page glossary of terms and acronyms that is missing several of the terms used in the diary and which usually gives such terse explanations (such as “Kristall: Electric furnace”) that no real information is given; and a brief list of cosmonauts mentioned by the author that omits their patronymics, oft-used nicknames, and biographical data of any sort. A diagram of the layout of Salyut 7 would have been very helpful, as would more verbose explanations of the various experiments, to better understand the procedures Lebedev describes in detail. Perhaps a re-issue of this out-of-print book could solve these problems.

All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone studying space history. It provides an interesting insight into long-term space living, but is not necessarily an indispensable entry in an armchair astronaut’s space library.

(Note: this book is out of print.)

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

20 August 1999
Categories: From the armchair

coverTalk about ironic. I had almost completed what I thought was a pretty good review of Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash (“snow crash” is a term for when a computer crashes so fundamentally that the video driver can’t draw anything but static to the screen, resulting in a look similar to the snow of a poorly tuned TV). Then the lights went out. Of course I hadn’t saved in nearly an hour, and lost the whole thing.

What is it about the genre of cyberpunk that always makes it so dark? I mean, the original cyberpunk author, P.K. Dick, usually reserved the darkness for his themes. At least you got the feeling that the sun had a chance to shine once in a while. But then they turned one of his stories into Blade Runner, and cyberpunk has been gloomy ever since.

It’s obvious, even without reading the author’s notes on the back page, that Snow Crash was written during the late Reagan/Bush era while listening to loud, depressing music. The society of the near future has collapsed, governments have dissolved, inflation is so rampant that billion-dollar bills are chump change, and corporations rule everything. America (the “United States” is just one more corporation) is divided into fenced-in, cookie-cutter “burbclaves,” each with its own philosophy and laws, and the streets are lit with the “loglo” of innumerable corporate logos. The most popular rock band is Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns, and the “Metaverse,” Stephenson’s less-abstract version of William Gibson’s cyberspace, is purely black except where development has occurred amid the vastness.

But atop this slate Neal has layered massive doses of humour, fun, and not a few really bad puns—such as the main character, a half-Japanese called Hiro Protagonist. Pizza delivery is handled by the Sicilian Mafia, and Uncle Enzo himself will personally apologise to you if your pizza takes more than thirty minutes… then your delivery guy will quietly disappear. The Metaverse has built-in subroutines that allow its original developers (including Hiro and his hacker friends) to drop safes, anvils, and various other Tex Avery props on their adversaries merely by uttering a word. The climactic battle of the future is fought between two anachronisms, a katana-wielding samurai and a harpoon-chucking Aleutian. And the leads, Hiro and the 15-year-old chick skateboard courier, Y.T., move through their dismal world with such aplomb and wit that Snow Crash is a joy to read despite the post-apocalyptic undertones.

And man, the attack dog/security robots known as Rat Things totally rock. Read this book, at least so you have a chance to know Fido.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

29 June 1999
Categories: From the armchair

coverI’ll make it simple: read this book. It’s worth the back pain from carrying the goddamned heavy 900-page brick around. It’s worth the lost hours of sleep when it becomes so gripping that it is difficult to put down despite its weight. It’s even worth the price, though I recommend buying it now, while Amazon.com is still selling at 30% off, for reasons I’ll explain later.

Neal Stephenson has created two parallel stories, one a World War II yarn of secret code-breakers and the extremes necessary to keep their secrets safe; the other a modern-day tale of high-tech corporate intrigue. The two stories are intricately entwined, as many of the modern players are children and grandchildren of the WW2 cast and find themselves unraveling the same mysteries that were buried 50 years ago. Sunken Nazi submarines in the Philippines filled with gold; a secret society pulling hidden strings; red herrings sprinkled throughout (my favourite has something to do with Unix superusers, a ruse even non-hackers will get if they’re paying attention); a gung-ho U.S. Marine getting it on with his beloved and then running off to blow shit up; there’s a little bit of just about everything in this book.

A metaphor that comes to mind is that of a large, well-used, and valuable computer hard drive. The files are fragmented to beat the band, there are a handful of bad sectors, and the whole thing is stuffed to capacity. With each new chapter (some quite small), the book jumps around from past to present (always in the present tense, unless it’s a flashback), and often it’s left to our imagination or a later exposition (up to hundreds of pages later) to explain how some characters got to where they are from where they were the last time we saw them. Yet the content is so entertaining, and frequently highly informative, that the reader is pulled further along without worrying much about those details. Not that the book lacks for details. In fact, it is almost nothing but. Some might say that taking three pages to describe Randy’s elaborate Cap’n Crunch ritual is excessive, but I feel I know that character and his motivations much better now that I fully understand one of his idiosyncrasies.

I fear this book is popular enough that a movie deal will soon be inked. This would be a mistake, since while most movies are purely plot-driven, in the book the plot is frequently an afterthought. Much of the “action” takes place in characters’ heads, and a lot of pertinent information comes in the form of long-winded, tangent-surfing dialogues. A movie could easily fit all the physical action into a couple hours, but the essence and intelligence of Cryptonomicon would be lost.

A fine example, and one of my favourite chapters, is when Lawrence Waterhouse visits the Qwghlmian church and has a dramatic pipe organ epiphany. The action is itself funny, but the best part is the running monologue in Lawrence’s head as he hypothesizes on a world-wide conspiracy of women to control the male ejaculation—while simultaneously inventing the digital computer. A film could not possibly depict this adequately.

In other words, you’ll just have to read the book. But get it at a discount, or pick it up at the library, and here’s why: the publisher, Avon Books, could not be bothered to hire a competent copy editor. Unfortunately, the text seems to have been fed directly from Neal’s laptop (or his BeBox) into the presses without even the benefit of a spellcheck. Missing punctuation, transposed letters, and outright misspellings occur an average of once every 10 pages throughout. (Note to Neal: we know you like the word abbatoir [sic] since you use it in both this book and your thought-provoking essay on the computer industry, but repeat after me: A-B-A-T-T-O-I-R. One b, two t’s. One b, two t’s.)

Worse, both the standard-issue code example (“Attack Pearl Harbor…”) and the appendix describing the Pontifex Transform contained errata that affected the outcome of those systems. Ultimately I took to carrying a pencil around with my copy and performed my own editing, which was at once malicious fun and an annoyance. This book, and Avon in general, are not the only ones guilty of this. In fact, shitty copy editing is rampant throughout the industry, and it’s time book buyers took a stand. I can live with the unevenly cut page edges opposite the spine, since that seems to be a common “feature” these days, and doesn’t affect the readability. However, if I’m going to kill a few trees, dump dioxins in a river somewhere, and pay 25 bucks of my hard-earned cash, damn it, I think it’s only fair that I get my money’s worth. It doesn’t cost much to print a book, publishers, so hire someone to do a little quality control!

Please excuse the tangential rant. Cryptonomicon is an excellent read. I’m still debating whether I want to start up one of Stephenson’s other books… or start this one over again.

The Nazi Rocketeers: Dreams of Space and Crimes of War by Dennis Piszkiewicz

6 January 1999
Categories: From the armchair

coverI am not an apologist for Wernher von Braun. While he was an excellent manager and a smart engineer, he was also an opportunist and a shameless self-promoter. However, I feel it is simplistic to condemn him as a war criminal due to the atrocities at Dora and the Mittelwerk, where von Braun’s creation, the A-4 rocket—better known by its military designation V-2—was built during the last years of World War II. One would then have to consider the aircraft designers at Avro and Boeing to be directly responsible for the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo. (It is not my intent to suggest that they are.)

von Braun was a space pioneer who attempted to exploit the German army in order to finance the development of the first rocket to reach beyond the atmosphere. In doing so he found himself exploited by the Nazis, and by the time the V-2 reached the living hell known as the Mittelwerk the production of the rocket, and the means by which it was produced, were well beyond von Braun’s control. At that point he did the smartest thing one can do in a totalitarian regime: he kept his head down and his mouth shut. That he did not later own up to atrocities sparked by his creation was not, in my opinion, amoral or disingenuous. von Braun merely did not consider himself responsible.

Piszkiewicz, however, seems to. His book is full of unsubtle aspersions such as the following quote about von Braun: “Looking for motives in a man’s soul is like trying to see what is at the bottom of a deep and dark river. There are secrets crawling through the bottom ooze, but they are slippery and inclined to wiggle away with the current.” The image is that of a muck-feeding eel. Even the cover of this book is leading: for one, the subtitle conveys obvious bias. For another, the photograph shows von Braun striking an odd pose in a shoulder-and-arm cast after having broken both in a car accident. Piszkiewicz twice mentions this pose, calling it a “mysterious” and “awkward salute.” He seems to be saying it could almost be mistaken for a half-assed Nazi salute; perhaps this is meant to imply von Braun was a half-assed Nazi.

Piszkiewicz frequently speculates on von Braun’s motivations and generally attributes them to a belief in and support of Nazism. His sources rarely, if ever, support these claims. Though von Braun was a member of the Nazi party and an honourary officer in the SS, he is never cited as espousing Nazi views and only used his rank when necessary to protect his engineering team and their technological documents. Piszkiewicz has set out in search of the devil in Wernher von Braun and has come up short. Though the story he tells is an interesting one, his prose is often cut-and-dried, his similes are facile, and he calls ironic that which is merely poetic. Ultimately I only finished reading the book out of fairness for this review.

A much more balanced and informative account of the Peenemünde years is The Rocket and the Reich by Michael Neufeld, World War II curator at the National Air and Space Museum. Those interested in the day-to-day horror and brutality of the Mittelwerk from a survivor’s perspective should refer to Planet Dora by Jean Michel.

Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal by Michael D’Antonio

4 June 1998
Categories: From the armchair

coverWritten in a narrative style, with some reconstructed scenes for effect and continuity, Atomic Harvest documents the lives of several people who lived near and worked at the Hanford Atomic Reservation in eastern Washington state, where the majority of the United States plutonium supply was produced and refined.

One of these people is Tom Bailie, who grew up on a farm just across the Columbia River (and downwind) from Hanford. At the age of four Tom was inexplicably and severely paralysed and only recovered after living for several months in an iron lung. Tom recalls the childhood sight of men in uniform carrying Geiger counters and shovels, who would occasionally walk slowly through the Bailie wheat fields—and sometimes dig up shovelsful of dirt to place in protective bags, which they would take with them. When asked, the men would always say that it was a routine inspection and that no danger existed. Their assurances are perhaps belied by the fact that as an adult, Tom found himself sterile—and the unwitting down-home figurehead in a media frenzy as people began to realise that all was not well at Hanford.

Casey Ruud was a quality assurance inspector at Hanford who stumbled upon numerous hazardous conditions at Hanford. When management ignored his audits, Ruud leaked information to the press. Following a Congressional hearing at which he testified, Ruud was fired from his job at Hanford.

Karen Dorn Steele was a local reporter who discovered, among other things, documents that mentioned a secret experiment at Hanford known as the Green Run. In 1949, as part of the Green Run experiment, over 5000 curies of radioactive iodine-131 and xenon-133 were released without warning into the atmosphere. By comparison, the notorious Three Mile Island accident of 1978 released a “mere” 15 curies of I-131 into the environment.

This is only one example. The litany of toxic problems at Hanford is long and frightful. Hanford is likely the most polluted site in the western world, unless one of the other sites in the nuclear complex—Rocky Flats, Savannah River, Fernald, and Oak Ridge—is worse. Each of these sites have had a long history of inadequate safeguards and disastrous near-catastrophes. Today, Hanford no longer produces plutonium, yet it employs many more people than it ever did during its decades of operation. These people are working on environmental cleanup—a multi-billion-dollar enterprise that is still in an experimental phase. Someday the lessons learned about toxic cleanup at Hanford will be salable to the world, to clean up the radioactive cesspools (especially in the former Soviet Union) that the Cold War generated.

Atomic Harvest is an intriguing, frightening book. Many of the events surrounding the demise of the nuclear complex in the 1980s and ’90s escaped my attention when they occurred—and it leaves me wondering just how much the media really told us at the time. (It also makes me wonder what we’re not being told today—for example, no one seems to want to mention the notion that India’s latest nuclear tests may well have released radioactive gases into the atmosphere.) It is a scathing report on the dangerous secrecy, born in the Manhattan Project and mutated by the Cold War, under which the nuclear complex operated. It also brings to light the unflinchingly callous attitude of the U.S. Government toward the health and safety of its people.

In general I found Atomic Harvest to be an interesting, informative, and eye opening read. I have a slight qualm about its accuracy, however. In two places the book makes reference to a subject about which I know a great deal—the U.S. space program—but gives glaringly inaccurate information. Astronaut Eugene Cernan’s name is spelled “Sirnan,” and the ill-fated launch of Space Shuttle Challenger on 28 January 1986, is said to have taken place in “early January.” My concern is that if the book flubs little pieces of data I know are wrong, how much stock can I place in other portions of the book where I know little about the subject, but am eager to learn?

This gripe aside, but allowing for a small level of inaccuracy in the details, in general Atomic Harvest is forceful, gripping, and a valid indictment of Cold War lies and attitude. Not only did the Cold War cost the United States alone something on the order of $5 trillion—and create a world-wide economic disaster—but the resulting environmental cleanup it engendered will take far longer and cost far more than the Cold War ever did. Thousands of “Hanford downwinders” who suffered and died from cancer, thyroid disease, and myriad other ailments are still paying the price of their government’s policies. Unfortunately, we are all downwinders.

(Crown Publishers, 1993.  Note: this book is out of print.)