August 28, 2007

Book Review: Moondust

5 out of 5 stars

Andrew Smith is a columnist for the Guardian.  Born in the US, he is lucky enough to remember that great day in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon.  For that alone, I am insanely jealous. I put the question to my parents: "Did you watch the moon landings?  What were they like?" and was surprised to find that I got a mixed response (although perhaps I should not have been; this is a good example of the usual juxtaposition of opinions that I've come to expect from them).  My Dad claims to have been riveted by them, glued to the TV (as I would have been), whilst my Mum's response was "Probably".  Surely, I said, it was an achievement so monumental that you must have been inspired by it.  Mum's response was, "I seem to remember it being old hat by the time they actually landed on the moon, as there were launches seemingly nearly every week.  I found John Glenn's accomplishment more exciting".  John Glenn was the third American in space and the first American to orbit the Earth1; slightly disillusioned by my Mum's indifference, I never quite found out why this was more of an achievement than  Gagarin's first flight into space (he was the first person ever to orbit the Earth).

But back to the book.  Moondust is as moving as its premise: that a handful of men (twelve, to be exact), in a crazily optimistic period between 1969 and 1972, were able to fly to and walk on the moon, the very edge of Deep Space.  The journeys these men made were to change them forever: the divorce rate amongst astronauts is "astronomical"; Buzz Aldrin lapsed into alcoholism and was later treated at a psychiatric institution; Neil Armstrong retreated from all public life; Ed Mitchell, of Apollo 14 and sixth man on the moon, reported experiencing an epiphany on the way back from the moon that led him to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), set up to reconcile the differences between science and religion, that has been a lure for hippies and new-age thinkers since its inception.  

The prologue tells the story of Smith's first personal encounter with one of the Apollo men: the tenth man on the moon, Charlie Duke.  During the meeting, Duke received a telephone call informing him that Pete Conrad, of Apollo 12, had been in a motorcycle accident; later he was confirmed to have died from the injuries sustained in the accident.  

It was the words Duke left me with that set my mind reeling that day.  He said them quietly and evenly, as though uttering a psalm.

"Now there's only nine of us."

Only nine.

Correspondingly, Smith divides his book into nine chapters; however, he does not, as one might immediately think, devote one chapter to each of the remaining astronauts.  His journey leads him to meet with not only the remaining moonwalkers, but also the men who could not go "the last sixty miles" to the moon, the Command Module (CM) pilots, such as Mike Collins (Apollo 11) and Dick Gordon (Apollo 12).  

Smith's book combines personal memory, descriptions of the Apollo missions, inner thoughts and recent interviews with the Apollo astronauts to great effect.  His accounts of the Apollo 11 take-off and the Gemini 11 Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA, or "space walk" to you and me) are heart-stopping and real.  His interviews with the astronauts and encounters with other "space nuts" really give you a feel for the characters behind the greatest achievement of mankind.  Alan Bean's (Apollo 12) artwork sounds gorgeous to behold, as he forever tries to capture the "human" part of walking on the moon that he regrets never being explored — too much emphasis was always placed on the scientific, and no time to just experience the moon.  

An undercurrent throughout the book is a sense of urgency to get back, and how we cannot let the Moon landings pass into legend.  Too many people already hold that they never happened, and too many people are alive now (myself included) who don't remember the Moon landings because they weren't alive at the time.  The last optimistic act of the 20th Century is also mankind's greatest achievement, and we should be looking to top it (by getting men on Mars) or equalling it regularly.  NASA's focus has shifted with the large budget cuts it has faced since 1972 and the need to replace the Space Shuttle, and so we haven't got out of low-Earth orbit in the last 35 years.  This is a great shame, and should be addressed.

Smith's book cannot come more highly recommended.  It will get you thinking about philosophy, the wonder of being a member of the only race on Earth to escape the atmosphere, and just how small we are in the grand scheme of things.  Not in a bad way, but in a way that really makes you feel so incredibly lucky to be alive.  What's more,you'll never be able to look at a photo from/on the Moon without thinking, "Wow. That's the Moon!", and a similar, but slightly magnified feeling now erupts inside me as I look at photos from Mars.  Read it. 

1.  John Glenn. (2007, August 17). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:02, August 23, 2007, from

August 19, 2007

Quite a weekend…

This weekend's been eventful, in a number of ways.  First and foremost, it was a lovely weekend with Zoë, staying in my flat in Cambridge (photos of the flat hopefully will follow soon). 

I almost bought a sofa.  I'd even chosen the colour and everything (blue leather).  It just didn't feel right handing over that much money to DFS, so I bottled out.  We spent the rest of Saturday looking at sofas in Cambridge and online; unless you go to DFS, though, they seem to cost an arm and a leg...

Additionally, my parents ran my desk up from Southampton on their way to visit friends in Ipswich.  The lounge is now more comfortable given that my computer is no longer resident on the same surface as I eat on, but there's a comparable amount of extra crap left over from assembling the desk and the recently-purchased coffee table.  Assembling these took Sunday afternoon and evening, so I'm only really sitting down to grab a breather now...

I'm off home to Southampton now (well, tomorrow lunchtime) for a couple of weeks to clear out my room there and collect the last of the random crap that I've assembled over the last 23 years before starting work at Citrix at the beginning of September.  

And so, to bed. zzzzzzzzz 

August 17, 2007

I've done something amazing…

...I've given blood.  For the first time in four years, which completely coincidentally coincides with my starting university...

Go do something amazing - give blood too.  You can book an appointment online (and enrol if you're a new donor) which will save you time queueing.  

That is all. 

August 15, 2007

Book Review: The God Delusion

4 out of 5 stars

Richard Dawkins is one of the most eminent Evolutionary Biologists around today, and also one of the most eminent atheists around today.  He has participated in a conference about how science should be the next evolutionary step beyond religion (people with an ATHENS login or online subscription can read the New Scientist report on the conference here), written numerous books on why religion is a Bad Thing™, and has accordingly been accused of being a "fundamentalist atheist".  He has also been hilariously lampooned in a two-part South Park story aired around the time of the afore-mentioned conference.

Dawkins uses The God Delusion as his manifesto for advancing the population of the world beyond religion, and a convincing one it is too, at least to the converted such as myself.  Unlikely to sell very highly in religious circles, and having spawned a number of counter-arguments, such as McGrath & McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion?, one wonders about the effectiveness this will have in converting the religious and the religious apologists. 

But this is not, in fact, Dawkins' aim.  Dawkins instead seeks to explain his opinion as to why religion is bad, and, by extension, why something needs to be done.  Interesting points he makes include the question of why religion is automatically afforded so much respect (citing an example of an American sect that won an exemption from the laws surrounding hallucinogenic drugs as their belief was that taking these drugs was the path to God; in the wonderful teenage phrase, not taking drugs is "against their religion"), that religion in moderation should not be tolerated as it provides a justification of fundamentalism and extremism, and that what we in the UK would consider as Christian fundamentalism is mainstream in the US.  He also rails against the indoctrination of children under religion, and calls for a paradigm shift in referring to children not as a "Christian child" or a "Muslim child", but rather "the child of Christian parents" or "the child of Muslim parents"; he maintains, quite rightly, that children should be able to choose religion once they are old enough to think for themselves, and not have it thrust upon 'em before they know what's hit them.  He uses political affiliation to provide a counter-example here: no one would refer to a "Tory child" or a "Marxist child".  

The God Delusion, like most books, is divided into a number of chapters; each chapter in this book is titled with a question or statement to be tackled: "A deeply religious non-believer", "Arguments for God's existence", "What's wrong with religion? Why be hostile?", etc.  The chapters tackle subjects including the roots of religion, the roots of morality, why religion cannot be moral (if said morality is derived from the holy book), focussing mainly on Christianity.  The root of Dawkins' arguments comes from his own particular field of specialty, evolution, and he uses natural selection to argue how and why religion and morality arose, and how he foresees a world without religion as the next step in the evolutionary path of religion.

Generally speaking, the book is particularly readable, and Dawkins conveys his message clearly and eloquently throughout.  The bit I struggled with most was chapter 5, "The roots of religion", which contained a lot of fairly Darwin-heavy reading.  For someone who thought they "got" the theory of evolution and natural selection, I can tell you that it was a tough read, and I'm now re-evaluating that assumption.  However, it is worth persevering; there is much joy to be found in chapter 6 "The roots of morality: why are we good" that outlines how morality might have evolved, along with — importantly — evidence to support the theories.  There are also stories later in the book of the journeys people have made when trying to reconcile a religious upbringing with the rationality they have gained as an adult, and one moving story of a man (I think a scientist himself) who ultimately chose religion.  

I award it 4 stars for a particularly high-level of writing, as would be expected of an academic such as Dawkins (the "Further Reading" list appears to formatted according to the Harvard system), and for the logic, strength of argument, and evidence presented.  The harder-going midsection around chapter 5 already mentioned is what loses the book the last star, but I really can't recommend this book enough. 

A welcome return to the blogosphere

Well, it's been a while since I last blogged; a little under a year, in fact!  The halt was due to work and extra-curricular commitments, and the fact that Facebook seems to have killed the blog.  Although, I'm still not signed up, and possibly the only person not to be...

Unsurprisingly, a lot has changed since I last blogged.  My final year was a busy one: I produced Trial with WSO, performed in The Merry Widow a few months later and sat on WSO's Exec, continued to play with the UWSO, and somehow managed to fit in my most academically successful year at Warwick yet.

By Christmas, I had also managed to secure myself a job with Citrix, where I worked last summer.  I was also invited to their Christmas party in Cambridge, which Zoë and I had great fun at.  I start in about three weeks, on 3 September, at an office outside Cambridge in a new town called Cambourne.  

Accordingly, I have had to find myself somewhere to live in the Cambridge area.  Focussing primarily on Cambourne, I found an unfurnished two-bedroom flat with a decent-sized kitchen and lounge, and have been living there since the beginning of August.  I've therefore been ordering and taking delivery of many items of furniture, perhaps most excitingly my wonderfully conformatble king size bed :D

The mess in the lounge at the moment is getting to me a bit, but without all the furniture in place, I don't feel I can properly get tidied up.  I therefore have some large boxes lying around, taking up space, and the current lack of a sofa makes things a little uncomfortable in there at the moment, but it is all only temporary. 

Anyways, I should go batten down the hatches - the wind is blowing a right gale here at the moment!  

September 22, 2006

Last day

This comment appeared at the top of a code file I generated from one of Visual Studio’s handy Web Service programs:
This code was generated by a tool.

Story of my life, really :)

On a slightly more sombre note, this is my last day at Citrix, where I have spent my summer. It’s been a fantastic three months, working on a really interesting project. I’ve met some great people, and found a company I would really like to work for post-University. In many respects, I don’t want to leave (typically, the work is just getting to be really interesting), but equally I can’t wait to get back to Leamington, to see my friends and my lovely girlfriend regularly again, and to throw myself into next year.

The whole experience has raised some questions with uncomfortable and unsatisfactory answers with regards to next year, but I’m only too aware that I can’t stick my head in the sand and hope it all goes away. I’ve got a fantastic opportunity here that I need to grab by the balls and make work for me, but being so far away from everyone this summer has been hard enough; I can’t imagine how hard a year or more may be.

Anyways, the regular Friday morning cakes have arrived, so I must be off to collect my sticky bun :)

September 14, 2006

For you SPaG Nazis out there… know who you are :) Courtesy of Harry’s Blog.

Your English Skills:

Grammar: 100%

Punctuation: 80%

Spelling: 80%

Vocabulary: 40%

August 30, 2006

Black Holes and Revelations: a grower, and a quick one at that

4 out of 5 stars

I listened to this first, as some of you will know from my previous blog post, on my way back from London at the weekend. Driving as I was at the time, I was paying quite a bit more attention to the road than to the CD I had on, by the time the last track had finished, despite thoroughly enjoying the final two tracks – at the time, seemingly joined together into a seamless and fucking awesome 10-odd minute jam – I had labelled this as a grower: there were some good songs, but nothing really stood out for me.

Having had it on at work today, I just want to get back to Leam so that I can play this loudly on my speaker set-up and get the full range of noise on the album. It’s a seriously good album. Every single track had me tapping along in the way that only Muse and a couple of other bands can, wanting to play air guitar, bass and vocals around my office in the most enthusiastic display of appreciation I can muster. Yes, it was a grower, but it’s a really fast one!

In short, this is a fantastic album; I can’t go through each song because I don’t have the time, but it is well worth your money; even the over-the-odds £13.95 I paid for it in HMV is well within my upper limit of £15 for an album. Yes, it bugs me that high street stores will still charge that amount of money for a chart album when they are being grossly undercut by their online rivals, but I picked up a couple of good deals (two Portishead albums for a total of £14, and Barenboim’s recordings of Bruckner’s 9 Symphonies for £25) in the same purchase. Either way, you don’t seem to get anything special for buying the special edition other than a nicer sleeve than the standard plastic, and it seems to cost the same as the standard edition.

The album sees Muse depart from their usual style of writing; there is much less piano-based artistry than on previous albums, but this seems to be the album of Bellamy’s guitar. As has been demonstrated previously (Plugin Baby immediately springs to mind, although it may not be the best example), he is an equally accomplished guitarist as he is pianist. None of this is to say that the synths and piano are missing; they are just used much more sparingly within the context of the album, and this is to their credit. The lyrics are typical Muse, as is hinted at by the title of the album.

If you have heard Supermassive Black Hole already, you will not be disappointed by the rest of the album. I was initially very surprised to hear how far they have strayed from their usual style with this song, and there are so many new influences (Mexican and Cuban are the two most notable) that this could quite easily have become a mish-mash with no real identity. This is not the case; the album just gels in a wonderful display of cohesion between musically diverse styles.

You may well be asking yourself why I’ve only given it 4 stars if I think it is so good. The answer is this: it’s no Absolution. Muse’s last album was just perfect for me; it completely and flawlessly encompassed their musical style, with every song a lesson in good writing. Whilst I do not dislike their new sound and am happily embracing it (see comment about air guitaring), it will take a little getting used to if you are a fan of the likes of New Born et al.

August 10, 2006

Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the Media

Writing about web page

The posting of this link may stir up some controversy, but what the hell.

I offer little analysis of the blog entry to which I have linked, and instead post it simply as interesting article to read on the state of the media today, and the way in which it is played — often without us realising.

Interestingly enough, I came across the article via the BBC's Editors' blogs following the sacking of a Reuter's photographer for doctoring his photographs.

I'm glad it's not my holiday this week…

Writing about web page

Well, it seems the anti–terrorist police have done a fantastic job in preventing the plan to explode several plans mid–flight. All respect to them.

I find it slightly odd, however (and this may just be me being cynical) that the terror alert level has been raised to critical after the plans have been foiled. Let us quickly examine what the "Critical" status means:

an attack is expected imminently and indicates an extremely high level of threat to the UK

So, was the plot foiled or not? What attack is expected imminently, if this plot has been stopped? And with this plastered all over the news, you'd have to be a very stupid terrorist indeed to try anything today.

I only wonder how long the alert will stay raised. One thing's for sure, though; anyone travelling through a British airport in the next few days is going to have to leave bags of extra time in order to make it through security. They're hand–searching everyone, for fuck's sake, and God knows how much of a hold it causes when one person has to be hand–searched!

Ho hum, the joys of living in a "free" society…

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