krpalmer: (Default)
The Digital Antiquarian led off an eight-part series on Tetris with an introduction describing the first computers in the Soviet Union (which helps show how plenty of things could be said about that game) and their initial application to cybernetic economic planning. That did sort of surprise me by itself. Aware of how mainframe computers in the West could be viewed with suspicion ("Big Blue," after all, has the same initials as "Big Brother"), it had been easy enough to suppose that had some bearing on things over in the "Mirror World." (As it turned out, though, a later entry in the series did touch on attempts to apply computers to surveillance...)

The discussion that followed that first part made several references to a book by Francis Spufford called Red Plenty, described as a historical novel footnoted with hard research about the Khruschev thaw and the years when it had seemed the Soviet Union was growing faster than capitalism could manage. Looking up more information on the book, I became interested enough to order a copy through the nearest bookstore.
Thoughts on the book and thoughts inspired by it )
krpalmer: (smeat)
In eking this journal along through the ten-year mark (although I've just taken a step of a certain weight in switching off crossposting to the Livejournal it started as when new terms of service there, pushed at us instead of just sort of snuck by, raised a gut-level uneasiness), I have thought it'll get harder to make up "anniversary" posts. However, where there might not seem to be much of a difference between, say, "thirty years since" and "forty years since," there is one between "ninety years since" and "the centennial"...

I've been contemplating for a while the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, but in taking note of what seems the general attempts these days to give it significance in the Canadian historical consciousness, I've got to wondering if Canada stands out by efforts to look back to the First World War singling out a "success." Just among the other Dominions brought into the war with Great Britain, my general understanding of Australia and New Zealand is that they focus on the futile struggles to break open a back door of the war at Gallipoli, and even Newfoundland, which wouldn't join the Canadian confederation until after the Second World War, looks back to the heavy losses of its small force at the Battle of the Somme.

There are risks in narrowing history to single moments in time. Capturing the ridge at Vimy was one operation in one more larger, inconclusive battle as crisis started really setting in for the Allies in 1917, and for all the mythologizing afterwards (although to say efforts to play up the battle only picked up in recent decades as its last survivors died do remind me I've seen a book from a Canadian centennial series that picked the battle as its "headline of that decade"), the war didn't help national unity so far as the conscription crisis pried apart English and French Canada. At the same time, I might have a weakness for "counter-counterarguments," and while making the Second World War "the good guys versus the bad guys" can neglect how much of it hinged on Germany turning to attack the Soviet Union and how much that reshaped the world afterwards, to the best of my understanding the First World War wasn't quite a matter of "the side scratching its head over why its flower of youth being fed into a grinder wasn't working somehow lasted long enough to declare victory"; to that extent at least Vimy could be seen as a step towards learning to get through the Western Front. I suppose, though, I've also thought that perhaps we've come to remember Vimy from the First World War because one specific moment that keeps coming to mind from the Second World War was the unsuccessful Dieppe raid.
krpalmer: (Default)
When one of the two ships of the lost Franklin expedition was found underwater two years ago and then identified as HMS Erebus, I took note of comments about this matching Inuit testimony that also suggested the other ship of the expedition would have been crushed in the ice and sunk. While I could suppose efforts would continue to find HMS Terror, it was easy enough to imagine a jumble of shattered timbers in a deep channel wouldn't be easy to locate.

This morning, though, there was an article on the front page of my newspaper (not quite as large as the first article two years ago) that proclaimed Terror had been found not that far from Erebus, and that it was in even better shape than its fellow ship. Once again, local reports helped, although this one was rather more recent. The further twist to a narrative I was familiar with years before of the doomed crew abandoning their long-frozen-in ships and struggling south to die, victims of an unwillingness to adopt native skills, is certainly intriguing, but it does point straight back to the hopeful speculation I saw at the first discovery of the chance of written records managing to survive underwater. There's always the next Arctic summer, of course.
krpalmer: (Default)
Rarely one to pass up a book sale, I stopped in at one at the library in my home town. Racks and tables of small paperbacks had been set up outside, but as I mulled over some of the old science fiction novels there (and in the end didn't get many of them, although some of them I already had in other editions), a biography of King Edward VII of England caught my eye. When I went inside and saw a second biography of him on the crowded tables there, that made my mind up to get both of them. I knew the general story of the turn-of-the-twentieth century king (including his long wait through the nineteenth century to become king), but thought a bit more detail and some different perspectives would be interesting.
One things leads to another, and then another )
krpalmer: (Default)
A few years ago, I found an article in a fifty-year-old issue of the arts, culture, and history magazine "Horizon" that intrigued and amused me with its thoughts about the then-hypothetical idea of "universal libraries" on that old stand-by of microfilm. In going back my collection, though, I happened on an editorial comment in the very next issue that seemed that much more up-to-date. In discussing an article by Gilbert Highet dwelling on the bottlenecks ancient texts had to pass through to reach the era of printing (along with the whole "decline and fall" business and ideological pruning, there were issues such as having to copy papyrus scrolls to parchment codices), it managed to make a suggestion of its own:
The quote at some length )
krpalmer: (Default)
A book at the library about "Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Rise of Fake News" caught my attention, and I decided to sign out "Broadcast Hysteria". While I might think of the radio program as a "secondary" development from H.G. Wells's original novel, I've heard the stories about the later work too, including watching a television documentary about it just a few years ago. It turned out the book's author A. Brad Schwartz had worked on that documentary as well, turning up letters people had written to Welles and the FCC right after the radio program to get a new perspective on the old tales of "mass panic" and the more recent suggestions those tales were in fact "tall."

Drawing on the contemporary records, the book squarely addresses the newspaper reports of panic (and the suggestions the whole problem had been people "changing stations"), but humanizes the people who were frightened from the object lessons they might have been made. In tracking beyond that to the later career of Orson Welles (also touching on in passing the conventional wisdom that the only thing that got in the way of Citizen Kane was the unwarranted hostility of William Randolph Hearst) and then the contemporary media landscape, I suppose the book just might invite a few loaded comments from some about it "overstepping itself." It got me thinking, though, and one thing it brought to mind was something it didn't touch on itself.

In describing the broadcast itself and the reactions recorded, the book suggested the people who panicked the most (if to "flee" only in rare cases) weren't thinking so much of "the Martians" as turning half-heard dialogue into more realistic contemporary threats. That had me thinking of how some of the first people to say the US Air Force was "covering up flying saucers," just as if to not believe "definitive proof" unidentified flying objects are alien spacecraft is hidden somewhere would be to face the possibility it doesn't exist, were thinking back to the newspaper reports of the the broadcast and concluding aliens were something people would uniquely "panic" about. Things shifted and twisted from there until the seemingly interesting idea of "life out there" was all but lost under accusations of the wickedness of authority, but I did get to wondering if they just might have been different had a subtler picture been known.
krpalmer: (Default)
I happened to look in the right direction at the library to see the books on polar exploration, and one of the titles, "An Empire of Ice," caught my eye. Even though I might have imagined the book from that to bring up the usual arguments for "British polar incompetence," I took it off the shelf anyway to see the subtitle brought up "science" in the Antarctic, and remembered an article in Scientific American from a few years ago during the centennial of the first journeys to the South Pole. (After finishing the book, I hunted out the issue and saw the article had also been written by the book's author Edward J. Larson.) In the introduction, Larson mentioned how whenever someone learned just what he was writing about they would dwell on the contemporary conventional wisdom of Robert Falcon Scott as the compleat incompetent and Ernest Shackleton as the man who brought the men under his immediate command back alive. (Roald Amundsen, who closed out the era when polar explorers would only get "nearest" to their goals through repeated success, seems to have made it look so easy that efforts to make a big deal of him still don't seem to direct too much attention his way.) He promised that in focusing on the scientific efforts of the two British explorers he wouldn't dwell on the contemporary perceptions, which got my attention enough to make me sign the book out.

While there have certainly been efforts made to condemn Scott's scientific ambitions too by pointing out how Edward Wilson, "Birdie" Bowers, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard went through "The Worst Journey in the World" to collect emperor penguin eggs during the months-long Antarctic night on the hope the embryos in them would prove some theories soon disproven anyway or making a big deal of Scott's party pausing to collect some geological samples on their doomed journey back from the South Pole, the book puts them and the other efforts in perspective, connecting them to previous scientific expeditions and contemporary theories. Along with the collecting of biological and geological samples, the study of ice (although I wondered if the explorers suggesting the Antarctic ice had retreated when they reached it might attract undue attention from some) and plenty of meteorology (Larson brings up Susan Solomon's "The Coldest March," which argues Scott was caught by unexpectedly and unusually cold weather, but doesn't make as much of a point of that himself), there does happen to be some pointing out of the contemporary racism that sought "scientific" justification. In the end, though, the book suggests that the scientific side of the expeditions, in being downplayed in favour of mere "ordeals," left things open to be taken apart by a later and less easily impressed age. The question that gets asked in different contexts about whether "knowledge" is "worth losing lives for" may still lurk all the same, although I did get to thinking how Cherry-Garrard's own book tries to tackle it in closing. Given that my strange sympathy for "convenient targets" can extend to some historical figures, I was willing to accept this book in any case.
krpalmer: (Default)
With the news that one of the ships of the lost Franklin expedition had been found sunken in the Arctic, I started wondering how long it would be before we knew just which of the two ships the wreck was. On the radio news yesterday, though, I heard the name HMS Erebus given. I admit my first reaction was to think of a post I'd seen just after the first announcement which sorted through the Inuit testimony and concluded the ship was likely HMS Terror. That then made me think of a novel I'd read a few years ago by Dan Simmons, The Terror, in which that ship winds up drifting south in its last pages if to then meet a fate suiting the fantastic, Grand Guignol mood of the book. Perhaps inspired by thoughts of that book, I bought an e-book after the announcement titled On the Proper Use of Stars, a novel by Dominique Fortier translated from French (and more "realistic"), which also managed to make Sir John Franklin the epitome of self-satisfied British polar incompetence and presented Francis Crozier as the apparently necessary more aware protagonist. With Franklin having died before the last record was signed, though, I suppose he's harder to develop as a fictional central character. If life hasn't imitated art, the Inuit testimony may yet be accurate enough for Terror to be crushed debris in deeper water further north. I did also happen to find a piece where some people had their own particular reasons to hope the ship to be Erebus, which goes to show everyone has their own opinions.
krpalmer: (Default)
I didn't listen to the radio news on the way back from work on Tuesday; I suppose I was wondering if there would be not just a piece on the product announcements from Apple that day but a piece filtered in a light I might overreact to the point of thinking "shaped around a pre-formed negative conclusion." That meant I might have missed a different piece of news announced that day until I saw it in my RSS reader program, but in seeing it I could recognise it as not just of "national" but of "international" interest. Every summer for the past few years, so it's seemed, an expedition has been sent into the Canadian Arctic to seek the sunken wreckage of the two ships of Sir John Franklin's last expedition; after years of inconclusive human-interest stories, and a day after the scene-setting news of yet more bits of wreckage spotted on a shore, one of those ships has been found.

The history of the Northwest Passage might have been almost "inherited" by Canada, but it's something I began picking up in bits and pieces at an early age. As it came together, the central tragedy of a major expedition sent in among the Arctic islands in the middle of the 19th century only to vanish and the drawn-out search that looked at last in the only place left to find only two terse notes on one surviving form, voiceless remains, and Inuit testimony, pretty much stood out. It does, of course, mark a shining example of that now-popular idea of the British polar explorers being incompetent "amateurs" unwilling to learn from the people who were actually surviving year-round there, even if the search filled in the southern blanks on the map.

Having heard recent speculation in this year's articles on the search that drifting ice would have smashed the sunken ships to fragments long ago, I was surprised by how defined the sonar image looked. (However, I did notice a suggestion the other ship of the expedition, said in the testimony to have sunken further north, might well have been crushed.) The false colours used in it gave an impression of the ship being down in the "stygian depths," like a ship sunken on the search (that people survived from to say just where it was) I'd seen pictures of a rigid diving-suit descent to years ago, but it turned out the ship was in water shallow enough for some diving-camera pictures to be well-lit. Whether the speculation that some records might even have been sealed up or preserved by the cold water is "exceedingly hopeful" is something we don't know yet, but that (along with whether this ship is Terror or Erebus) may have to wait for the next short Arctic summer. I do know this search could be contemplated as having been financed so that the chance of success would result in a surge of patriotic feeling of the current officially correct type, but more than that it's proving something said a long time ago true, just as the expedition was meant to travel through places just a few people lived in more than a century and a half back.
krpalmer: (Default)
With the melancholy centenary of the beginning of World War I approaching, along with watching a documentary series on the provincial educational channel I've been taking note of books about it. Finding one in the library I remembered seeing a review of in my newspaper's book supplement, I signed Max Hastings's "Catastrophe" out. (I've also managed to notice it already in paperback in the bookstore, so either I'd remembered the review for longer than I'd thought or perhaps the review was for a later American edition.) It covers just the first year of the war, but this does make for more detail than a general history while extending further than Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August" (which I've found a copy of at a library book sale), which dates back to from just before the fifty-year anniversary (when Hastings was helping interview veterans for a BBC series on the war). It also expands on books that just focus on the chain of events leading up to the beginning of fighting, one of which I read not that long ago only to get the impression that while the cover offered an interpretation of "blame should be spread around" the book itself might come across as suggesting Austria-Hungary and by extension Germany were all but blameless, which still opens up the question of "appropriate response" and may even bring to mind some much more modern rhetoric that may not have worked out.

This book may specifically address the one I read earlier through a quote near the end, "It seems mistaken to brand the 1914 rulers of Europe, and especially those of Austria and Germany, as sleepwalkers, because that suggests unconsciousness of their own actions. It is more appropriate to call them deniers, who preferred to persist with supremely dangerous policies and strategies rather than accept the consequences of admitting the prospective implausibility, and retrospective failure, of these." Hastings also touches on a different recent debate in the literature by insisting as the book opens and closes that a German victory would have been worse than the alternative and Britain in particular would not have found staying out of the war better, but in the close-up, soldiers'-eyes-view of the opening months the book presents it might still be possible to see the whole thing as intensely unfortunate. The book does seem to point ahead every so often to the later years of the war, but its conclusion does leave me wondering if Hastings will get around to follow-up volumes. Nevertheless, what he did write was interesting to read.
krpalmer: (anime)
Reading an interview on Anime News Network with Jonathan Clements about a "history of anime" he'd just written piqued my interest. While I'm not as familiar with his previous work as some, the thought of adding another volume to my small number of actual books about anime did interest me. I went ahead and ordered it, but even as I did I might have been wondering just what I would be getting into, whether I would be informed and interested or finish with the uncomfortable feeling of having read a very extended introduction to the sort of "portents of doom" forecasts made by those who seem convinced the stuff they're interested in isn't being made any more.
Numerous parenthetical asides )
krpalmer: (Default)
Noticing a new book in the library about the start of World War One, I decided to sign it out. In that particular conflict's dark mythology, the disparity between its final consequences and the usual perceptions of how it flared up can lead to a sense of the sudden disintegration of everything prosperous Europeans a century ago believed in, and more perspective does seem useful.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark, does seem a fairly scholarly work, but one with its own narrative. In seeing it spread "the blame" around, though, I did begin to wonder if it was trying to argue against the specific "blame" apportioned by other works to Austria-Hungary and Germany, such that those countries and their leadership were being presented at last in a special position of reasonableness. Perhaps I'm contrasting that against wondering if slices of the English-speaking nations, patting themselves on the back over being "the good guys" in World War Two, don't take well the questioning of whether particular things done along the way to victory should be acceptable for all time. There was an interesting idea for me in the book, anyway, when it was suggested both sides were motivated by the impression Russia was about to take off on its own industrial revolution and become the "superpower" the Soviet Union wound up as. That does contrast to the usual narrative of the country falling apart in the course of the war, but then Clark did seem to present in the most positive light Austria-Hungary, another state that went to pieces at the end of the war, and argues the contemporary impression of it as a declining power was unfair.

I did find myself contrasting the book to the last volume on the start of World War One I'd read, David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?, which seems less detailed and more aimed at a "general audience," only to find that book mentioned in the very first endnote. I also thought a bit of a completely different book with the same main title, Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers, a history of the development of the heliocentric theory interesting enough as a biography of Kepler, but seemingly putting Copernicus and Galileo in the worst light and ending with the perhaps dubious attempt to say the history just described proves science ought to accept extra-sensory perception.
krpalmer: (Default)
Back in what I can now suppose the later days of the Science Fiction Book Club, one of the books in their flyers that caught my eye was promoted as an "alternative history." Set at the start of World War I, the novel promised the grandiose addition of mechanical war "walkers" to the Central Powers and genetically engineered monsters to the Allies. I put in an order for Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, but suppose now it got sort of caught by my being put on shift, where I didn't have quite the same time to read, and it just sat in a pile until quite recently. That, though, did mean it was easy to get the next two books in the series once I'd read the first...
Exploring a fictional world )
krpalmer: (Default)
Indulging myself, I took a day off this week to show up at the very opening of the annual used book sale at the city library, and left it with a bag of books. Among my purchases were two more issues of a hard-covered magazine from the 1960s and 1970s, "Horizon." It could best be described as covering "history, arts, and culture," although I wonder if my feeling of it being "middlebrow" adds any accuracy. Ever since seeing back issues of it in high school and then managing to buy a good chunk of it at a book sale in unversity, I've been adding to my collection bit by bit, and I do find it interesting even as I get the sense it manages to capture the anxieties of the 1970s emerging from the relatively less anxious mid-1960s.

This time around, though, I managed to get an issue with a cover date exactly fifty years in the past, and aware of the mystic significance of round numbers I dipped into it with some interest. One article, "Where Will the Books Go?", caught my attention when its physicist author started off talking about the reducing effect of microfilm. With an amused sort of feeling, I thought of Richard P. Feynman's then-recent talk "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," and in the next paragraph or so the author had mentioned it as well.

The author was bringing all of this up, though, in speculating about a day when microprinting would make it possible to have all the books ever written accessible from something that could be built into a home, a topic still imagined today. I suppose I took particular note of him commenting it "could cost far less and be worth more, and would certainly have more buyers, than those desk-top electronic computers that have been talked about for years." While he'd mentioned Feynman saying how DNA "encodes" information, he had seemed pretty much set on reproducing print at a very small size but still "as itself," accessed through mechanical and optical means. Still, even so the article did acknowledge the contrast between what one person can read and what's been written, and how judgement of sources and the opinions of others about those sources is more fundamental to being "well-rounded." It was there, perhaps, that "something amusing from the past" began to speak to all times.

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