Monday, February 17, 2014

Packing for Mars

I've never had any desire to go into space.  That's not to say I'm not fascinated by space exploration.  The later moon missions are among my earliest memories, and watching Judith Resnik let her hair loose  in microgravity made me, then a 15-year-old geek with waist-length hair, look seriously at Carnegie Mellon.  Even back then, though, I had the idea that space exploration wasn't for me.  Multiple people in close quarters, bad food, no privacy, and nowhere to get away.  When my co-workers get on my nerves, I can walk around the corner for coffee.  In space, there is no Wawa.

Packing for Mars tells me I was right.  Imagine the worse office job you've ever had.  Highly structured, little autonomy, lots of stress, no privacy, and you have to be prepared for multiple emergencies.  Now imagine that you're doing this while stuck in a two-room apartment with several other people for six months - and it smells like a combination of new car and old sweat socks, with a possible latrine under note.  Oh, and there's about a 70% chance of serious motion sickness - so if you're OK, your co-workers are probably throwing up.

Living in space is difficult, but, as Mary Roach explains, getting into space is even harder.  Packing for Mars starts with a visit to the Japanese space agency, where prospective astronauts have their return lunch trays photographed and inspected by psychologists and spend their days folding origami cranes and demonstrating their cocktail-party tricks.  Odd as these tasks are, they do make sense - living in space involves patience, attention to detail, and a certain lack of embarrassment, as well as an ability to keep things in perspective.  One astronaut tells Mary that his contribution to building the ISS was to "personally tighten six bolts" - which translates to two years of higher education for each bolt.  The fearless pilots of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions may have had technical backgrounds, but they were there as explorers and daredevils.  Most of today's astronauts are Geeks in Space, engineers and scientists who do 99% of their work firmly on the ground.

Most of the prep work is done on the ground as well, some of it by scientists, some by less technically skilled people.  Roach doesn't shy away from discussing bodily functions (and has even written entire books on them), so it's not surprising that she devotes several chapters to bathing, toileting, and the lack of facilities for either.  Space hygiene leaves a lot to be desired, and the men who spent a week trapped in a subcompact car while never changing their underwear needed a special kind of bravery.  So did the college students who did the prep work for those missions.  I can just imagine these guys signing up for a paid experiment (I did a few in college - 30-45 minutes of staring at a screen and pushing a button meant pizza money courtesy of the psychology department), thinking it was easy money and then discovering that they'd have to spend 14 days without bathing or changing their clothing, while scientists (undoubtedly the ones lowest in seniority) sniffed their armpits and groins to rate and graph their odor.  At least they didn't have to test the various waste containment systems, one of which involved a bag with a pocket for fingertip assistance, and a tube of antiseptic so that the bag didn't build up gases and explode.  Today's voluntary tests are a bit easier (they involve lying in bed for three months, to see how badly bone and muscle degrade without use), but tedious and require the subject to eat hospital food.  At least the meals aren't designed by veterinarians (as the early space meals were).

It's not all sweat and stink, though.  Roach also got to experience weightlessness on a parabolic flight, visited the Russian space museum (curated by a cosmonaut who staffed Mir - and whose desk included a built in bar), and spent time on a beautiful and remote island in northern Canada which simulates the lunar surface.  In this fantastic and beautiful wasteland, she includes an oddly touching moment.  Roach appreciates the ridiculousness and the wonder of space, but never loses touch with the professionalism and bravery of the men and women she's interviewing.  Like the IgNobel prizes, Packing for Mars makes you laugh, and then makes you think.

Dangerous to Know

Tasha Alexander's books are best read somewhere warm and sunny, preferably while drinking a beverage which includes a little umbrella.  That's not to say they can't be enjoyed while commuting on a snow-delayed bus.  It's just that while sitting in traffic, cold and surrounded by grumpy people, Emily's adventures provided too much contrast to my situation.

Still recovering from the injuries sustained at the end of Tears of Pearl and chafing under her mother-in-law's disapproving eye, Lady Emily finds solace in long horseback rides.  At least, that is, until she comes across the mutilated body of a young woman.  The local police think that it's the work of Jack the Ripper; Emily's husband Colin Hargraves isn't so sure.  With the help of Emily's friend Cecile du Lac (and Sebastien Capet, the burglar/pretender to the French throne), Emily and Colin discover that the dead woman was a distant cousin to Mrs. Hargraves's odd neighbors and had escaped from a mental asylum.  I spent the last third of the book convinced that I'd figured out the killer, and the motive - only to find out that I was completely wrong.  On a mystery level, it's the best Lady Emily book since the first, and after a book featuring none of Emily's friends, I was happy to see Cecile, but I miss Ivy, Margaret, and Jeremy, and even Emily's overbearing mother.  I don't have the next installment yet, but I hope it returns Emily to London where she (and we) will once again spend time with them.

Double Indemnity

The Postman Always Rings Twice disappointed me.  On a technical level, it deserves its reputation as a noir classic, but it left me cold.  Double Indemnity lived up to my expectations.  The characters were no more likable, but they were more compelling, perhaps because they inhabited a more complex plot.  Walter Huff stops by a client's house to renew his car insurance policy.  Mr. Nirdlinger isn't home, but Mrs. Nirdlinger is, and she asks about taking out an accident policy on her husband.  Huff knows what this means, but as he begins an affair with Phyllis Nirdlinger, he plans the perfect "accidental" murder of her husband.  

And it works - until Phyllis's stepdaughter Lola points tells Huff that her mother died in Phyllis's care.  Huff begins to question his accomplice, but the plan's going well, right?  Then Huff discovers that Phyllis is having an affair with Lola's boyfriend, and a trap springs on the wrong person.  Or does it?  Like a good noir, "double-crossing" doesn't even begin to describe the plot twists, and the ending foreshadows Jim Thompson's The Getaway.  At about 150 pages, Double Indemnity can be a one sitting read, and is definitely worth the time.  Now, I just need to see the movie...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

As Easy as Pi

I had a Pale and Geeky Christmas - my cousin gave me a sonic screwdriver, friends gave me a Doctor Who miscellany, and my parents gave me a Doctor Who t-shirt, a puzzle book, and four very geeky books.  One was As Easy as Pi, a volume of number trivia.  It's a perfect commute book, with essays ranging from a paragraph to a few pages on number-related topics.  From explaining where numerical phrases came from (or may have come from) to why buses seem to come in threes, it's diverting and unchallenging.  Just the thing to read during snow-lengthened commutes.

The Rough Collier

Several years ago, I read a really bad mystery.   The title was a clear attempt to cash in on a then-bestseller, the plot was ridiculous, the main character had too many "colorful" attributes (grad student AND bike messenger AND nude model for art classes AND lost her virginity to her professor-mother's colleague in a book-lined study - and all this by page 10), and the writing style was inappropriately flowery.  It was awful, but it was fun to read.

The Rough Collier is a better-written book, but less memorable and less fun.  Peat diggers find a preserved body, assume it's a recently disappeared local man, and a courtier visiting his mother deduces that it's not.  So what happened to the missing man?  It turns out he was murdered, but I never got interested enough in the characters to care how or by whom.   The Rough Collier isn't a bad book, but it's mediocre and dull.  I'm not going to look for any other books in the series, and I'm donating it to the Book Corner.

Simplexity: Why Simple Thing Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)

KISS - Keep It Simple, Stupid

My office mate is a big fan of simplification.  He can take any issue, boil it down to a single yes-or-no question, and declare victory when the person with whom he's arguing cannot give a 100% positive answer.  He should probably read Sipmplexity, but I doubt he ever will.  Jeffrey Kruger has an interesting premise - everything exists on a bell curve, between complete chaos and complete order, and the sweet spot is in the middle.  Every system needs enough flexibility to accommodate the variations from the norm, but not so much so that predictability falls too low.  Human perception complicates matters - we place too much value on the rare event (like plane crashes) because they stand out and not enough on common events (like car crashes) because they fade into the background.  Kruger applies the rules of simplexity to several situations, from language acquisition to sports scores and from consumer electronics to why low paid jobs aren't actually low skilled.  I don't know (and it may be impossible to know) how accurate his conclusions are, but it's an interesting book.

The Upleasentness at the Bellona Club

Dorothy Sayers is one of the masters of the classic, Golden Age mystery, and The Unpleasentness at the Bellona Club is, on one level a typical example.  On Armistice Day, General Fentiman's grandson finds him dead, in a comfy armchair at the Bellona Club.  A few days later, General Fentiman's lawyer asks Lord Peter Wimsey (who was at the Bellona Club when the body was discovered) to unravel a problem.  The General had reconciled with his estranged sister hours before his death, and she had changed her will.  Lady Dormer had also died on November 11, and if she had predeceased her brother, he inherited the bulk of her estate (£12,000 would go to Lady Dormer's niece Ann), which would then pass to his grandson Robert, minus £2000 to his grandson George.  If Lady Dormer predeceased the General, Ann would inherit her estate, minus £7500 to each of General Fentiman's grandsons.

So far, it's all fairly straightforward, except the General's body was moved after death, throwing the time of death into question.  That, in turn, opens up the question of how he died - did his heart simply give out after the emotional meeting with his sister, or was he murdered?  And by whom?   George and Ann benefited if the General died before Lady Dormer, Robert if the General last, and all three inherited a substantial amount.  Lord Peter, of course, solves the mystery, and the murder's identity would have been a surprise if I hadn't read the book twice before and seen the BBC adaptation half a dozen times.

I said that this is a classic mystery on one level, and it is.  On another level, it's a fairly early depiction of PTSD.  Most of Sayers's novels refer to Lord Peter's shell shock, and he has a breakdown at the end of Whose Body.  Lord Peter, has money and position which help provide coping mechanisms.  George Fentiman's situation seems calculated to make his shell shock worse.  He's a "gentleman" who now has to work, but keeps losing jobs because of his condition, and he's living in an era when PTSD is seen as a sign of weakness, not as an illness.  Modern readers are used to a little bit of social commentary in genre fiction, but I don't think it was quite so common 90 years ago.  This is why I re-read mysteries, particularly classics.  The second or third time around, I don't just see the puzzle but also the framework, and gain insights into the world as it was.