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Journal of No. 118


August 8th, 2019

Relatives, by George Alex Effinger @ 04:49 pm

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Effinger's second novel, from 1973, explores a nihilistic triple view of the world, interweaving three stories with related(?) main characters, all named Ern(e)st Wein(t)raub.

One lives in a future where world government has been centralized under a small cabal of Representatives, who wield absolute power. They announce that the world is coming to an end, and only some people will be awarded tokens to be allowed into the shelters. Our hero sets out into NYC to obtain a token for himself (and maybe his wife). It's interesting to compare this section with Super Sad True Love Story, which also features a troubled love story in an altered NYC under threat.

Another is in the Communist underground in a post-WWI America that is under German dominance (the Allies having lost). He's been sent by the Communist Party to undermine American values, as part of a long-term strategy to foment Revolution.

The last features a expat poet drinking his life away at a bar somewhere in the middle of the Sahara -- something of a preview of the Marid Audran setting, but not in the future.

Despite/Because of its bleak outlook on humanity, I think it's a great little work.

 

July 29th, 2019

The Voynich Manuscript, edited by Raymond Clemens @ 04:43 pm

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Once upon a time, I wrote a little article about the Voynich Manuscript (aka Beinecke MS 408 at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library) for The Unspeakable Oath #10. I learned a lot about it (or what was known) at the time, and I keep my eye out for things when they bubble up from time to time. But it was a real treat to find that Yale has put together a lovely large format book on the topic. The heart of it is a beautiful full color reproduction of the manuscript. It's really eye-opening. Even up til recently, the total number of pages that were reproduced (almost always in black & white) was pitifully small. So now to see the whole thing in living color is amazing.

Also interesting to see how different the experience is of reading that it has several fold-out pages, and being able to physically fold out the pages. In one case, a leaf folds out to 6 times the size of an ordinary leaf.

Surrounding the text are an introduction and several essays on various aspects of the text. I would have appreciated more material on the alleged solutions to its encryption, but since they are all crap, maybe it's just as well. The essay on the physical/scientific study of the book is quite interesting, in particular the carbon dating of the calfskin to the early 15th century. Alas, that early date dispenses with both my leading ideas -- that it was created by Edward Kelley (Dee's notorious associate) or that it was created as a fake herbal/grimoire/encyclopedia 'from the New World', since the plants in it don't look like European plants (of course, they don't look like American plants either, but that's beside the point).

Another excellent essay is on Voynich himself, who is nearly as interesting as the manuscript attached to his name.

So what is it? Nobody knows. I still doubt there is actually a sensible message encoded in it. One thing that particularly bothers me (and becomes clearer now that I've seen the whole thing) is that every paragraph begins with the same one or two characters, and they are also used internally in words. So unless it's a strange alliterative work, these characters were chosen primarily because they look cool. So in that sense it is 'fake', but it is a fake from circa 1425. 

Bringing this back around to Lovecraft, it's hard not to think something is lurking behind it all when you read the note left by Voynich's wife (also reproduced in the book). Just the note on the outside of the envelope is enough to set your imagination wandering.

Concerning the Cipher MS

Not to be opened till after my death and then only by A.M.Nill or one other responsible person in place of her.

and then the conclusion:

Father Strickland gave his personal assurance that [Voynich] could be trusted, and on that assurance he was allowed to buy, after giving a promise of secrecy. He told me at the time in confidence, feeling that someone should know in case of his death. For the same reason I am leaving this statement in the safe, in case of my death.




 

July 24th, 2019

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart @ 04:34 pm

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 The novel is primarily set in an increasingly dystopian future New York City. America has fallen victim to debt and foreign creditors are taking over, while a bellicose political leader fulminates (a surprisingly prescient divisive Trump-like figure for a novel written in 2010). But the story itself is (as billed) a love story.

The book has some parallels to Less, particularly the similarity of the main character to the author ... in this case, middle aged New York Russian immigrant Jews pursuing Asian girls as love matches. Less won a Pulitzer Prize, but I prefer SSTLS, though both give me slight cases of the creeps. Some clever wordsmithing, some humor, some pathos... a more satisfying story on the whole, even if some aspects of the love story seem extremely implausible.

Perhaps the most enjoyable device of the book is the alternating chapters, half of them written in a high literary style by the well-read protagonist (whose love of old books is disparaged in the dystopian future) -- the other half in the Facebook-y-LiveJournal-y lingo of his much younger girlfriend. Both are effective at revealing character.


 

July 10th, 2019

Lovecraft Country & 50% of Down Girl @ 03:48 pm


Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country doesn't have all that much to do with Lovecraft, but plenty to do with the mid-century experience of racism for black people in America. Certainly, Lovecraft's own ugly racism is mentioned, but not much time is spent on him or his work, and while the plot of the book is full of occult happenings, it is not particularly Lovecraftian. So... I feel a bit suckered by the title. Nevertheless, the novel is still an enjoyable combination of several interrelated story sections focusing on different members of an extended black family and friends.

Soon to be an HBO TV series.

--

Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne purposes to define and describe misogyny. The book was chosen by the Resistance Book Club, but it may have been biting off more than any of us wanted to chew. My heart sank when I discovered it was a work of academic philosophy. And it does often veer off into minutiae not of interest to me, but efficacious as a soporific (as I found on long plane flights, to my serendipitous joy).

Manne doesn't like the dictionary definition of misogyny (and if taken to extremes, I agree with her), so she sets out to find a suitable thing to which the label misogyny could be usefully applied. I also agree with her general program and she has identified something worthy of discussion -- namely the enforcement of patriarchy. So her definition is "misogyny upholds the social norms of patriarchies by policing and patrolling them".  Or per Wiki: "misogyny enforces patriarchy by punishing women who deviate from patriarchy."

But almost everywhere, the concept seems to be fluid, the illustrative examples either maddeningly absent/theoretical or misguided, and the point consequently muddled. Though some of the muddle may be my inability (or lack of desire) to penetrate the dense text.

"Rather than conceptualizing misogyny from the point of view of the accused, at least implicitly, we might move to think of it instead from the point of view of its targets or victims. In other words, when it comes to misogyny, we can focus on the hostility women face in navigating the social world, rather than the hostility men (in the first instance) may or may not feel in their encounters with certain women... Advantages of this approach would include that it 1.avoids psychologism … [and] makes misogyny more epistemologically tractable in the ways that matter here, by enabling us to invoke a “reasonable woman” standard … we can ask whether a girl or woman who the environment is meant to accommodate might reasonably interpret some encounter, aspect, or practice therein as hostile"

I don't see that substituting the psychology of the victim (indeed a hypothetical reasonable woman victim, whose reasonableness and perception of 'hostility' are no doubt predicated to some extent on our own psychologies) eliminates psychologism from the equation. 

Manne quite rightly criticized some of Trump's statements, but let's keep her definition of misogyny in mind as we review her examples:

"Rosie O’Donnell (very funnily) questioned his moral authority to pardon Miss Universe for indulging in underage drinking: Trump called O’Donnell a “pig” and a “dog,” among other epithets. Carly Fiorina competed with Trump for the Republican nomination: he implied that her face was not presidential-level attractive. Megyn Kelly, then of Fox News, pressed Trump about his history of insulting women: Trump fumed that she had blood coming out of her eyes and “wherever,”"

Are Trump's insults attempts to enforce the patriarchy? Or are they simply juvenile responses to perceived attacks on him personally (see also Sleepy Joe, Low Energy Jeb, Lyin' Ted, Cryin' Chuck, Conflicted Bob Mueller)? Perhaps a case could be made for Fiorina, since she was trying to usurp the presidency from men, but Rosie and Kelly were doing their jobs as TV people.

One could say that they were 'assaulting the patriarchy' by having the feminine gall to speak up on a national stage (the prerogative of men) and needed to be put in their place. But then we are left with the consequence that telling Ann Coulter to shut up is now automatically misogyny by definition.

Certainly the particular ways that Trump chose to express himself are gross and gendered. One might be tempted to call it misogynistic, but Manne's chosen definition prevents that.

I gave up when she constructed her own version of 'humanism' and then alternately agreed with it and tore it apart. From a certain perspective, I can see how that's necessary for her to develop her own ideas and contrast them with other possibilities, but... it was not necessary for me.

 

 





 

June 18th, 2019

The Fifth Season, by NK Jemisin @ 09:28 am


This got picked up by the NYT/PBS Newshour's Now Read This book club. It's been an interesting experience seeing a more general audience deal with a speculative work. I think there was more than the usual amount of "Nope. I'm skipping this one." And even among those who joined in, there was a surprising amount of "I don't understand what's going on!"

I don't think it's that inaccessible, but I wonder how much I have been 'trained' to understand modern speculative fiction by having consumed a lot of it and followed its progression. Maybe if you haven't read Anne McCaffrey and Katherine Kurtz, it's hard to absorb The Fifth Season. But again, I don't think it's that hard to take in, even if the world and reality is very different from our own.

In fact, it's so different that I'm somewhat surprised so many people think the book has some trenchant relevance to discussions of climate and race. I mean, surely it's there - persecution and control, and largescale climate effects on an entire world - but apart from very loose analogies, it doesn't seem very applicable. 

The story itself is interesting and engaging as you learn more about the world, and its characters. But... not enough for me to go on for a whole trilogy. Another common complaint in the book club (and a merited one) is the choice of a first book of a trilogy.
 

June 3rd, 2019

Five Strokes To Midnight - Tom Bombadil - Eye of the Beholder @ 04:15 pm


Five Strokes to Midnight is a World Fantasy Award nominated anthology of horror/dark fiction stories by five authors: Gary A. Braunbeck & Hank Schwaeble (which duo also edited), Tom Piccirilli, Deborah LeBlanc, and Christopher Golden. Each contributed two or three stories, loosely bound to a theme particular for each author. All pretty good stuff, many with a vein of deep personal emotion -- as a robot, this is not always my thing, but here it is handled generally really well.

The book starts out strong with Piccirilli's "Loss", as some out-of-left-field fantastic elements add some mystery to the regret. Tom's second story seems overlong, but now that he himself is gone, I'll take all the words I can get.

Leblanc's Curses gives us some vivid pictures of backwoods Louisiana - voodoo and worse.

Schwaeble's "Bone Daddy" is an agreeably nasty bit of work -- Lap dances for liches never turn out well.

Golden's Folklore stories take on Lost Miners, Goat Suckers and Ghost Trains. The last of which ends with a satisfying note that helps you close the book without shuddering.

---

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book collects a few of the longer verses Tolkien used in the Lord of the Rings, some related poems not in LotR, and others.

Many of them are rather somber in tone, while others are quite, well, Tom Bombadilly.

"The Mewlips" is delightfully creepy

The Shadows where the Mewlips dwell
Are dark and wet as ink,
And slow and softly rings their bell,
As in the slime you sink.
...

And how can I not love "Cat"?

The fat cat on the mat
   may seem to dream
of nice mice that suffice
   for him, or cream;
but he free, maybe,
   walks in thought
unbowed, proud, where loud
   roared and fought
his kin, lean and slim,
   or deep in den
in the East feasted on beasts
   and tender men.
...


His love of internal rhyme is on full display here, something I often find appealing.

The art by Pauline Baynes is amusing, hearkening to medieval illustrations, but it makes for a good segue into my last little review

----

Eye of the Beholder: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons

This is a documentary film about the artists behind some of the iconic images of D&D. In many ways, it is exactly as nerdy as it sounds. As a documentary, it's maybe not the best, but there are some neat insights, and plenty of dragons (and dungeons) on display.

Once upon a time, a lot of fantasy art looked like Pauline Baynes work -- somewhat tame. And then Frazetta and Vallejo showed up and went bonkers. D&D artists all wanted to be Frazetta and Boris. And this is their story.

It's interesting to see some of the inside history of how TSR grew, and went from amusing (and sometimes somewhat crudely executed) B&W images done on the cheap, and quickly turned into big colorful professional works. And then (to my eye) it drifted into something very 'corporate'. Alas, I think this final phase has, as the film I think correctly points out, informed a lot of current fantasy art (from novels to film to videogames to everything) making it derivative of a particular TSR corporate look. I mean it's commercial art, so it is what it is. And the stuff I'm nostalgic for was commercial art as well. But that original Players Handbook cover, which is rightly lauded in the documentary, just sets you thinking in exactly the right way to explain the game.

What just happened? Who are these people? What are they doing? Some people are doing this, and other people are doing that, and then there's those people over there --  what is going on? Did the lizard things live here and worship here? What's going to happen when they pop that jewel out? What will they do then?














 

May 24th, 2019

Escaping the Rabbit Hole, by Mick West @ 03:08 pm


 How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect


Mick West helped found the videogame company Neversoft, and after Tony Hawk's Pro Skater made him a bajillionaire, he could turn his time to more important things, like fighting conspiracies about chemtrails on the internet.

The book is intended as a real How-To guide in helping someone out conspiracy theories. It's a little idiosyncratic (in a good way) in that it is really intended as a guide for you to use on "your friend". West literally crafts this as how to help a close friend or loved one, so it's more intended that way instead of dealing with random people on the internet (though that's where many of his ideas were honed).

In the briefest sense, his advice is to foster honesty and respect -- understand that just as you know what's true and want to convince your friend to discard his false ideas, your friend also knows (or thinks he knows) what's true and wants to convince you to discard your false ideas. So just standing on I'm right and you're wrong doesn't get you anywhere. He suggests fostering more discussion where you explore the matter together and then...

Stick to the facts. Find something key to your friend's worldview that you can address in black and white.

One of the excellent details in the book are a few personal stories from people who have put their conspiracy theories aside and they describe how it happened to them. Or at least to move where they are on the conspiratorial scale.

My personal interest in not so much in conspiracy theories, per se, but scientific nonsense and political 'fake news'. But obviously there is a lot of overlap. If 9/11 was a conspiracy carried out by George W Bush, that has political overtones. If the schools are indoctrinating children with EVILution, and fluoridating their brains, or vaccinating them with poisons, there's a scientific conspiracy afoot. So I think the techniques and insights in West's book can easily apply to related situations.

Escapes by sudden realization come only after a build-up of new information that is initially strongly resisted. While they are learning new things, they are rejecting those things as false disinformation. Eventually their knowledge of the evidence against their theory builds up and leads to a more sudden realization they were wrong, a breaking of the dam, and a rapid movement over their own demarcation line. But there’s a single prime mover here in both routes: exposure to new information. Conspiracy theorists flourish in walled gardens. When asked where they get their news they will often point only to alternative fringe sites like Alex Jones’ Infowars, or more esoteric conspiracy theory sites like Rense.com, or even David Icke’s reptilian Illuminati related news.


Something I see on occasion in the creation/evolution battles is that a creationist has finally decided to accept the gauntlet. He's going to defeat evolution using the power of science by studying science the honest way and showing where the mistakes are. Most creationists are happy to play it safe and just listen to the professional creationists who just feed them what they want to hear. But these brave souls who venture into science expose themselves to new information, and sometimes the dam breaks. A recent case involving a former creationist now astronomer has been making the rounds. So in my own involvement in these debates online, I try to help spread information and facts, hoping to be part of the solution for some of them. Most of the frequent participants are pretty set in their ways. West sees that as well, but sometimes there's still hope:

There’s some people you definitely cannot get through to, there’s just too much ego, too many Thanksgiving dinners they have invested in. There was one guy I was just explaining how claims have counterclaims, and there was this great process of critical thinking. I had been showing him the NIST 9/11 slides and he realized he was wrong at that moment. This guy just started screaming. It stuck in his head that he would have to go back to his family and explain that he was incorrect. He almost had a nervous breakdown.


Although he's ultimately hopeful, he sees a lot of dangers in the online world. First off... YouTube:

Sometimes they watch the same video over and over again. You get the sense from talking to them that it’s something like a drug, that the “truth” they feel is in the video is activating some kind of function in their brain, resonating with them
...
The data-driven algorithm has evolved to recognize that the way to get people to watch more videos is to direct them downhill, down the path of least resistance. Without human intervention the algorithm has evolved to perfect a method of gently stepping up the intensity of the conspiracy videos that it shows you so that you don’t get turned off, and so you continue to watch. They get more intense because the algorithm has found (not in any human sense, but found nonetheless) that the deeper it can guide people down the rabbit hole, the more revenue it can make.

 


Obviously, we've seen a lot of false propaganda being spread as facts recently, and West thinks it will get worse as AI improves and fake people and bots start to spread more and more disinformation. We've seen just this week how some crudely slowed video of Nancy Pelosi can be used to suggest she's drunk, and you'll get a retweet from the President. Imagine how things will get when 'deep fakes' become possible. Seeing is believing, they say, but it will become more and more important to source your photo and video evidence.

Or am I just being paranoid? [Cue Twilight Zone music]


 
 

May 16th, 2019

War on Peace - First World Fantasy Awards @ 03:41 pm


Subtitled The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence, Ronan Farrow's book tackles the changes that have happened at the State Department and the devaluing of diplomacy in favor of more military-dominated foreign policy.

I was totally unaware that Farrow had worked in the State Department through more or less Obama's first term. He worked in close association with Richard Holbrooke, in his role as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the best and most engaging part of the book is really a fly-on-the-wall biography of Holbrooke's career and his successes and failures. And his own activities, of course, like talking with Afghan warlords about (their own) potential human rights abuses. Some of the details about some of our 'friends' in Afghanistan will curl your toes -- not unexpected, but grisly in detail. 

On the whole, I'm not sure it adds up to a coherent picture or argument. He was on the iside during Obama, when he saw this discounting of State happening. But now he's on the outside during Trump who's setting everything on fire. The two ends don't quite match up.

--

Gahan Wilson put together an idiosyncratic anthology of the winners of the First World Fantasy Awards in 1975, which were held in HPL's hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Wilson, of course, also designed the HPL bust that once served as the Award itself. The bust has been replaced (Howard can take it).

Bob Bloch's acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement award is pretty hilarious.

I love the voice of Aickman's "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal". It has a good Carmilla-esque feel to it, and the antiquated diary styling is entertaining in itself. But I'm not that wild about the ending, so I think it's a shame this beat TED Klein's 'The Events at Poroth Farm'. But since Gahan's making the rules, he printed both.

Manly Wade Wellman's "Come into my Parlor" made me rethink Lance Shoeman's story in Strange California. Either Shoeman was doing a 'remake' or (more likely) both stem from some bit of backwoods lore (as many of Wellman's stories do).

 

April 11th, 2019

The Library Book / The Night Ocean @ 02:27 pm


 The Library Book, by Susan Orlean, details two interleaved stories. One, the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, with a focus on the Central Library. Two, the story of the fire that ravaged the Central Library in 1986.

Even though I was living not that far away, I don't have any memory of the event. One possible reason is that the Chernobyl Disaster occurred at essentially the same time. (I certainly remember that!).

Arson was suspected, and ultimately the finger of suspicion was pointed at Harry Peak, a wannabe actor and pathological liar who told multiple conflicting stories to friends and authorities about how he spent his day, everything from "I did it" to "I was nowhere near it."

On the one hand, given that the case was largely circumstantial, I think it was probably the right call to drop the criminal case. On the other hand, I think Orlean is far too generous in her treatment of Peak. At one point, she says that Peak was always in search of *positive* attention, and thus the library fire would be uncharacteristic. This ignores the fact that he literally bragged about being the arsonist -- apparently he didn't have that big an issue with attracting negative attention.

And now for the Kindle notes:

Best title ever: "It housed the largest collection of books on food and cooking in the country—twelve thousand volumes, which included three hundred on French cuisine, thirty on cooking with oranges and lemons, and six guides to cooking with insects, including the classic Butterflies in My Stomach."


Some notes from just after the fire, as there was a need to deal with thousands of water-logged smoke-damaged books: 

Los Angeles has a multimillion-dollar fish-processing industry and one of the largest produce depots in the country, so there were huge freezers in town. Someone suggested contacting a few of those fish and produce companies. Though their freezers were full, the companies agreed to clear some space for the books. The volunteers were sent home with instructions to come back at dawn.

IBM gave its employees time off to volunteer. The next morning, close to two thousand people showed up at the library. Overnight, the city managed to procure thousands of cardboard boxes, fifteen hundred hard hats, a few thousand rolls of packing tape, and the services of Eric Lundquist, a mechanical engineer and former popcorn distributor who had reinvented himself as an expert in drying out wet things

The wet and smoke-damaged books were taken in refrigerated trucks to the food warehouses, where they were stored on racks between frozen shrimp and broccoli florets at an average temperature of 70 below 0. No one really knew when the wrecked books would be thawed out or how many of them could be saved. Nothing on this scale had ever been attempted.


A look into Harry Peak's life, as the author interviews his sister: "[mother] Annabell Peak worked as a cashier at a supermarket in what would be considered the wrong direction—the store was on the edge of Los Angeles. I told [sister] Debra that I lived in Los Angeles, and she thought I might be familiar with the supermarket. “It’s the one near L.A., you know, that’s owned by the Jew,” she said. “You know that one, don’t you?”"

Librarians as heroes: 

A battery recycling plant in the neighborhood had contaminated soil with toxic levels of lead, necessitating the largest lead cleanup in California history. Exide Technologies, which operated the plant, had just agreed to fund blood tests for the twenty-one thousand households in the neighborhood. The tests would be conducted at the Boyle Heights Branch Library. In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries. They become town squares and community centers—even blood-draw locations. In Los Angeles, there have been plenty of disasters requiring libraries to fill that role. In 2016, for instance, a gas storage facility in the Porter Ranch neighborhood sprang a leak, and methane whooshed out, giving residents headaches, nosebleeds, stomachaches, and breathing problems. Eventually, the entire area had to be evacuated. With the help of industrial-strength air purifiers, the library managed to stay open. It became a clearinghouse for information about the crisis, as well as a place where residents could gather while exiled from home. The head of the branch noticed how anxious patrons seemed, so she set up yoga and meditation classes to help people relieve stress. Staff librarians learned how to fill out the expense forms from Southern California Gas so they could assist people applying to get reimbursed for housing and medical costs. American Libraries Magazine applauded the library’s response, noting, “Amid a devastating gas leak, Porter Ranch library remains a constant.”

Speaking of other fires I hadn't heard of, she mentions the Proud Bird Fire.
 

"When he finished writing the book, Bradbury tried to come up with a better title than “The Fireman.” He couldn’t think of a title he liked, so one day, on an impulse, he called the chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department and asked him the temperature at which paper burned. The chief’s answer became Bradbury’s title: Fahrenheit 451. When Central Library burned in 1986, everything in the Fiction section from A through L was destroyed, including all of the books by Ray Bradbury."

--------------------------
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge, makes for a strange read. I guess ultimately, it's a story about a monster. La Farge certainly soaked in Lovecraftiana and one of the major counterfactual elements of the story is the idea that Lovecraft was gay and left behind a sexual diary of his exploits that was uncovered in the 1950s, causing a furore in fandom (and HUAC). The bits of its text reproduced in the novel are (while completely unbelievable) strangely believable. La Farge has some of the feel of Lovecraft's letters down quite well. The diary is soon exposed as a hoax, and then the actual story of the novel is a modern investigation of the hoaxer and who he really was or is. Could he be Robert Barlow, Lovecraft's friend and literary executor, reputed to have committed suicide in Mexico?

Sadly, this is one of those books where, when you get close to the end, you can tell that there aren't enough pages left for a GREAT ending. So while I didn't ultimately love the book, I appreciate the way it embodies a counterfactual world like that of Lovecraft - a world like our own apart from the existence of a particular book or other particular facts. Another topic it subtly bumps up against is Lovecraft's legacy... how would things be different if he was a 'pervert' instead of a racist? Or both a pervert and a racist.

Although it's a broad wink at the initiated, I also adore the name of the protagonist, Dr. Marina Willett.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

March 29th, 2019

Longitude, by Dava Sobel @ 11:25 am


subtitled: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Another of Sobel's great books on history/science.

Before GPS, it wasn't easy to find out where you were at sea. Finding your latitude was relatively straightforward by observing the sun (if not exactly safe -- before the invention of the back-staff, the use of the cross-staff involved staring into the sun -- could be why so many pirates have eye patches.) But longitude was harder to determine and dead reckoning was liable to error. In 1707, a terrible naval disaster, involving the deaths of more than a thousand sailors. A few years later, the British passed the Longitude Act, setting up a huge prize for the first person to 'solve' the problem of longitude, making navigation safer. This is the main story of the book, with some broader discussion of events before and after.

For instance, Galileo developed a clever idea of using the motions of the Galilean satellites of Jupiter. If a certain eclipse would occur at midnight in Milan, but a sailor saw it at 11, he would know he was "one time zone away" or 15 degrees of longitude. It was a bit impractical, since you'd need an observatory on your ship with a trained astronomer. And you'd need timetables of satellite eclipses that didn't exist. But solutions along these lines were in the forefront, making a strange marriage of navies and astronomers. Though now it makes sense that we have Naval Observatories.

In some ways, this caused problems for the eventual winner of the contest. It was overseen by the Royal Astronomer (and others) who preferred their own approach, and the rather simple (and successful in retrospect) solution of just making an accurate clock that would keep time on board a ship seemed impractical. A fair amount of the story is a sad war between our hero, clockmaker John Harrison, and our villain, Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, who developed his own solution involving lunar measurements and thwarted Harrison through delays, additional hoops to jump through, and possibly manipulation of some of the clocks (held in his possession to 'test' them).

And just a silly little detail of French/English friction: 

"In 1884, at the International Meridian Conference held in Washington, D.C., representatives from twenty-six countries voted to make the common practice official. They declared the Greenwich meridian the prime meridian of the world. This decision did not sit well with the French, however, who continued to recognize their own Paris Observatory meridian, a little more than two degrees east of Greenwich, as the starting line for another twenty-seven years, until 1911. (Even then, they hesitated to refer directly to Greenwich mean time, preferring the locution “Paris Mean Time, retarded by nine minutes twenty-one seconds.”)"

 

Journal of No. 118