Wolf Hall

is mostly set between 1527 and 1535 at the court of Henry
VIII, while Henry was maneuvering to control the English church and
marry Anne Boleyn.

I found it difficult to get into, as did a friend of mine who
read it before I did. Eventually it turned out to be as gripping
as you would expect a narrative about an interesting period of
history with well-drawn characters to be.

Analyzing why this was, I realized that it was the narrative
style. Eventually I figured out that it was written in the third
person, but completely from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell,
so that whenever “he” is used without an obvious antecedent,
Cromwell is “he”. Some of the time, this is made explicit, but I
continued to look backwards for an antecedent all through the

I looked up the technical description of various kinds of
third-person point of view, and it looks like this one is called
“third person limited”. Wikipedia gives the Harry Potter books as
an example of this technique, so it doesn’t always have to make
a book hard to read, but I have to admit I thought it was
frequently clumsy here.

Aside from that, it was a fascinating book. I had read
biographies from the period, but hadn’t run across a lot of the
details in this one. For instance, I’ve read lots of things about
Thomas More, but hadn’t known that he was renowned for his
abilities as a torturer. The characterization of London
businessmen in terms of whether they had copies of Tyndale’s
translation of the Bible was interesting. I was intrigued by the description of
well-off, heathy people dying of the fever in the course of a

There are also scholarly biographies of the main characters in
this book, which are probably better if what you really want to
know is more of the history of the time. But if you want a good
read with some history from a point of view you might not have run
into, this is your book.


When Everything Changed

I enjoyed reading this
by Gail Collins, who’s one of the New York Times
columnists I read regularly. It’s not so much a comprehensive scholarly history, as
a collection of the stories about women’s issues in the last
century. They’re well-told. And even if you lived through it
all, you’ve probably forgotten even some of the good ones.

Of course, if you lived through it, you probably have your own
stories that are as good as plenty of these. I kept thinking
about the time (probably in the mid-70’s) I didn’t get a job I was interviewed for, and the
person who did get it was a married woman. My mother was
incensed, because she thought I should have had priority over
someone with a husband to take care of her.

Another good part is that Ms Collins
followed up on what happened to the characters in the stories. So
a woman who in the 50’s was famous for having been able to iron a
shirt in 12 minutes was interviewed in the assisted living
facility and said she only owned one skirt, because she wears
pants everywhere these days. And she gets both Gloria
Steinem’s and Phyllis Schlafly’s reactions to Sarah Palin.

Ebook experience

Most of my ebook reading has been fiction. Terry Pratchett
does put footnotes in his fiction, and the most recent one I
bought did the right thing about making the footnotes links.

This Adobe epub book does even better and has a link back from
the footnote to the place in the text where it occurs.
Unfortunately, when you move to the link, it doesn’t appear at the
top of the screen, so you have to scan the whole page to find the
footnote you were looking for.

Another annoyance was that the page numbers (unnecessary,
because they’re redundant to the Adobe Digital Editions display at
the top of the window) obscure some of the text.

The illustrations came out very well. They were all at the end
of the book, with no links between them and the text that refers
to the same subject. This is probably similar to the dead tree
book, but it’s a place where an ebook could provide some value
added. And flipping between different sections of an ebook is a
bit more difficult than with a dead tree book, so publishers
should be thinking about these things.

But on the whole, I’m glad I was able to take this out of the
library as an ebook, even though I wish someone would crack the
Adobe epub format so that I could have read it in more comfort.


Amazon and Macmillan

So far, the best comment I’ve read on the current war
between Amazon and Macmillan
, which has caused a lot of
books people would be buying and reading to disappear from the
Amazon shelves, is this
by Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing.

He points out how ridiculous both sides look — both Amazon masquerading as a defender of
consumer rights by demanding low prices for ebooks and Macmillan
masquerading as a friend of the book industry for demanding that
ebooks sell at the price of hardcovers.

He says:

If true, Macmillan demanding a $15 pricetag for its ebooks is just plain farcical. Although there are sunk costs in book production, including the considerable cost of talented editors, copy-editors, typesetters, PR people, marketers, and designers, the incremental cost of selling an ebook is zero. And audiences have noticed this. $15 is comparable to the discounted price for a new hardcover in a chain bookstore, and it costs more than zero to sell that book. Demanding parity pricing suggests that paper, logistics, warehousing, printing, returns and inventory control cost nothing. This is untrue on its face, and readers are aware of this fact.

If true, Amazon draping itself in the consumer-rights flag in demanding a fair price is even more farcical. Though Amazon’s physical-goods sales business is the best in the world when it comes to giving buyers a fair shake, this is materially untrue when it comes to electronic book sales, a sector that it dominates. As mentioned above, Amazon’s DRM and license terms on its Kindle (as well as on its Audible audiobooks division, which controls the major share of the world’s audiobook sales) are markedly unfair to readers. Amazon’s ebooks are locked (by contract and by DRM) to the Kindle (this is even true of the “DRM-free” Kindle books, which still have license terms that prohibit moving the books). This is not due to rightsholder-demands, either: as I discovered when I approached Amazon about selling my books without DRM and without a bad license agreement for Kindle and Audible, they will not allow copyright owners to modify their terms, nor to include text in the body of the work releasing readers from those terms.

…[lots of good stuff about the bad effect of DRM on the marketplace, LEC]

If Macmillan wants to flex its muscle on an issue of substance and moment, an issue that will make it the hero of readers and writers and booksellers everywhere, it can demand that Amazon, Apple, B&N, and all the other ebook readers allow for interoperability and remove contracts that undo centuries’ worth of book-ownership norms.

And if Amazon wants to throw its toys out of the pram over a consumer rights issue, let it announce that it will offer a fair deal for any book that publishers and writers will allow a fair deal — no DRM, no abusive EULA, just “This book is governed by 17USC, the United States Copyright Law. Do not violate that law.” Let Amazon label the books that are a bad deal for readers with warnings: “At the publisher’s request, this book is licensed under terms that prohibit reading it on other devices, selling it used, or giving it to your children.” And let them put a gleaming seal of approval on the books that offer fair terms and a fair shake.

And trust readers to make up their minds.

In combination with the Apple announcement that the new Apple
bookstore for the iPad will have a different proprietary
format for the books it sells, this has been a bad week for
readers of ebooks. I haven’t been buying DRM that can’t be
broken — maybe I should go back to not buying DRM that can’t be
*legally* broken.

I’m currently reading:

  • A hardcover from the library for my
    bedtime book (and dealing with the light and the reading glasses
    when I want to stop).
  • A DRM’d ebook from the library on my laptop for
    my reading downstairs.
  • A Project Gutenberg ebook on my Nokia
    for when I’m out of the house and don’t want to carry anything
    as heavy as either the dead tree book or the laptop

It would really be nice if the publishers of the hardcover and
the library ebook would sell me what I want to buy and put their
books out in a format I can enjoy on my device of choice. I’m
not the only person who wants this, and there are publishers (Baen for instance) who seem to
stay in business selling it to me and others like me. But it’s
not looking like either the big publishers or the retailers are
getting the message.

The Challenger Disaster — 24 years later

on the Boing-Boing blog reminded me that today is the
24th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle blowing up right
after takeoff.

I was working at Computervision, and heard about it on the
radio on my way to work. My most vivid memory from that day is
going into a co-worker’s office, where the radio was on, and
hearing about the children in Astronaut Christa Macauliff’s
class having watched it live. The co-worker, a father of three,
was visibly crying at the idea of 8 year old children coming
face-to-face with death in that way.

My memories of the congressional hearings are fairly vague, but
I did really enjoy the chapter about them in Richard Feynman’s
autobiography, What
do you care what other people think?

My third Challenger-related memory is from the Spring of 1990,
when I was standing in line in an airport behind two Republican
women. This was when I thought then-President Bush was going to
be in trouble at the next election, because one of the Republicans
was going on about his lack of leadership, and one example she
cited was that she hadn’t felt anything when he was talking
about the Challenger.


More about bashing the babies

In my post
about Psalm CXXXVII
, I said:

I think it’s important to remember that it isn’t just songs about not singing songs that war produces, but people who actually want to kill babies.

I just read something that suggests another point of view on
this. I’m reading Wolf
, a novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell, who
was an important figure in the government of Henry VIII.

The troups of the Emperor Charles haven’t been paid in long
enough to make them angry, so they run through the streets of
Rome, raping and pillaging and doing a certain amount of killing
people who are in the way of the raping and pillaging. But
Cromwell, who has been a soldier, is sceptical of some of the
propaganda describing what they’re doing (written by people in

Thomas More says that the imperial troops, for their enjoyment, are
roasting live babies on spits. O, he would! says Thomas
Cromwell. Listen, soldiers don’t do that. They’re too busy
carrying away everything they can turn into ready money.

So another thing war produces is people who tell lies about
what’s going on, so that people will believe there are babies
being killed and run out and kill or fund the killing of the
alleged baby-killers.


Variable Star

For much of his writing career, Robert Heinlein wrote one
juvenile a year, timed to be published for the Christmas
shopping season. Some of them (e.g. Citizen
of the Galaxy
) are among his best work.
would have been one of them, except that he wrote a
couple of chapters and put it in a drawer and never finished
it. After his death, his widow gave it to Spider Robinson, a
young writer in Heinlein’s tradition, to finish, and this is the result.

It reads a great deal like the other Heinlein juveniles, with
some of the really out-of-date descriptions of computers on
spaceships brought up to date. (Remember in Time for the
when the spaceship might not have been able to get
home because someone had destroyed the logarithm tables?)

The beginning, when the protagonist is 18, could have been
marketed as a juvenile even in the 50’s. He does some growing
up in the next 5 years on the spaceship, but even so, there
isn’t so much “adult” content that it couldn’t be a juvenile by
current standards. However, it got long enough, and the market
for Heinlein juveniles is old enough, that Tor
probably didn’t really consider marketing it as a Juvenile.

A lot of the themes Heinlein used — stand up to powerful, rich
people; space travel is necessary because Earth might not last,
a spaceship with a few hundred poeple on it develops its own
culture and social life
— are still there. An addition I enjoyed is that the main
character is a musician, and his psychological ups and downs
affect his playing.

So if you’ve liked the Heinlein Juveniles, you’ll enjoy this
one. If you like Spider Robinson’s other books, you’ll enjoy
this one. If you haven’t read either, but like books about
humans colonizing space, you’ll like it.


New Cambridge Public Library Building

[Cambridge library]

I finally got to the new building of
the Cambridge Public Library
, which opened in November,

It’s really pretty nice. Of course, it helped that it was a
sunny day — I’m not sure it would be as cheerful at night or on
a cloudy day. But just having enough space does make a lot of
difference to how pleasant the seating areas are.

One of the problems with the old library was that it was hard
to find things. The new one has a pamphlet with diagrams of
what’s on each floor. It was still a little hard to figure out
that the “L” floors were underneath the main floor in the
“Glass” building rather than in the “Stone” building, but after
I realized that, I had no trouble finding the fiction collection.

I didn’t check out the meeting rooms or the lounge areas. I
did sit down in the “New Books” area and check that my Nokia 810
could connect easily to wireless.

It’s obvious just by looking at the fiction collection that a
lot of old books have been deaccessioned. When I found only two
books by Elizabeth
on the shelf, I checked the catalog. It lists three
of her books as being in the Cambridge library, but all of them
seem to (for now) be in the Minuteman Library Network.

One problem with life in Cambridge recently has been that while the main
library building has been closed for the renovations, the old school
building used as a substitute home didn’t have enough air
conditioning to be a good place to go on a hot summer day. It
looks like this will solve that problem.

I’ve always liked the Richardsonian Romanesque old building,
but it clearly didn’t really have enough space, and I’m glad
it’s been joined by a pleasant new building. When the decision
was made to make an addition rather than move the main library
to a new site, a lot of people felt that a Central Square site
would have been more accessible to more people, both in terms of
where people live and where the public transportation goes. I
understand that point of view, but I’m glad the old library is
still there. (For me, Central Square is a little closer, but
not enough to matter.)

If you want technical discussion of the architecture, here’s an

The Children’s Book

by A.S. Byatt is set between 1895 and 1919. The
characters are participants in many of the exciting movements of
that time: Arts and Crafts, Women’s Suffrage, Fabian
Socialism, Children’s literature…

A.S. Byatt is Margaret Drabble’s sister and they’re both among
the best contemporary novelists of family life. Not surprisingly,
they both write well about sibling rivalry, and this novel is
not only not an exception, but a virtuoso piece of writing about
sibling relationships in two generations of several families.

Byatt is a scholar as well as a writer, so I believe she did
meticulous research into all the actual events she describes. I
particularly like the description of the first performance of
Peter Pan:

On the day of Prosper Cain’s wedding, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre, in St. Martin’s Lane. It was late: it should have opened on the 22nd, and had been delayed by the failure of some of the complex machinery for its special effects. There was to have been a “living fairy” reduced to pygmy size by a giant lens. There was to have been an eagle which descended on the pirate Smee, and seized him by the pants to carry him across the auditorium. At the very last moment a mechanical lift collapsed, and with it racks of scenery. Much that was to become familiar—the Mermaids’ Lagoon, the Little House in the Treetops—was not yet constructed. And there were scenes, on that first night, that were later excised. It had all been kept a darkly veiled secret. That reconvened first night audience—an adult audience, at an evening performance—had no idea what it was about to see. And then the curtain rose on an enclosed nursery, with little beds with soft bedspreads and a wonderful frieze of wild animals high on the walls, elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, kangaroos. And a large black and white dog, woken from sleep by a striking clock, rose to turn down the bedclothes and run the bath.

Both August Steyning and Olive Wellwood knew James Barrie, and were part of that first audience. Their party filled a whole row: Olive, Humphry, Violet, Tom, Dorothy, Phyllis, Hedda, Griselda. The light flared in the fake fire. The three children, two boys and a girl, all played by young women, pranced in pyjamas and played at being grown-ups, producing children like rabbits out of hats, having clearly no idea at all where children came from. The audience laughed comfortably. The parents, dressed for the evening, like the audience out in front of them, argued about the dog, Nana, who was deceived by Mr. Darling into drinking nasty medicine, and then chained up. The night lights went out. The crowing boy, who was Nina Boucicault, another woman, flew in at the unbarred window, in search of his/her shadow.

Olive Wellwood’s reaction to theatre was always to want to write—now, immediately, to get into the other world, which Barrie had cleverly named the Never Never Land. It was neither the trundling dog, nor the charming children, that caught her imagination. It was Peter’s sheared shadow, held up by the Darling parents before being rolled up and put in a drawer. It was dark, floating lightly, not quite transparent, a solid theatrical illusion. When Wendy sewed it on, and he danced, and it became a thing cast by stage lighting climbing the walls and gesturing wildly, she was entranced.

The amazing tale wound on. The children flew. The greasy-locked pirate waved his evil hook. The Lost Boys demonstrated their total ignorance of what mothers, or fathers, or homes, or kisses, might be. Dauntlessly, they sunk their knives into pirates. There was a moment of tension when the darting light who was the fairy began to die in the medicine glass, and had to be revived by the clapping of those who believed in fairies. The orchestra had been instructed to clap, if no one else did. But timidly, then vociferously, then ecstatically, that audience of grown-ups applauded, offered its belief in fairies. Olive looked along the row of her party to see who was clapping. Steyning yes, languidly, politely. Dorothy and Griselda, somewhere between enthusiasm and good manners. Phyllis, wholeheartedly, eyes bright. Humphry, ironically. Violet, snappishly. She herself, irritated and moved. Hedda, intently.

Not Tom. You would have wagered that Tom would clap hardest.

The penultimate scene was the testing of the Beautiful Mothers, by Wendy. The Nursery filled with a bevy of fashionably dressed women, who were allowed to claim the Lost Boys if they responded sensitively to a flushed face, or a hurt wrist, or kissed their long-lost child gently, and not too loudly. Wendy dismissed several of these fine ladies, in a queenly manner. Steyning spoke to Olive behind his hand. “This will have to go.” Olive smiled discreetly and nodded. Steyning said “It’s part pantomime, part play. It’s the play that is original, not the pantomime.” “Hush,” said the fashionable lady in front of him, intent on the marshalling of the Beautiful Mothers.

After the wild applause, and the buzz of discussion, Olive said to Tom
“Did you enjoy that?”

“No,” said Tom, who was in a kind of agony. “Why not?”

Tom muttered something in which the only audible word was “cardboard.” Then he said “He doesn’t know anything about boys, or making things up.”

August Steyning said “You are saying it’s a play for grown-ups who don’t want to grow up?”

“Am I?” said Tom. He said “It’s make-believe make-believe make-believe. Anyone can see all those boys are girls.”

His body squirmed inside his respectable suit. Tom said “It’s not like Alice in Wonderland. That’s a real other place. This is just wires and strings and disguises.”

“You have a Puritan soul,” said Steyning. “I think you will find, that whilst everything you say is true, this piece will have a long life and people will suspend their disbelief, very happily.”

There’s also a lot of art written by the characters — no
pictures of the pottery or jewelery, but excerpts from the fairy
tales by the writer (Olive in the above scene) and poetry by one
of the young men who fights in World War I. (And knew Rupert
Brooke at Cambridge.)

There are descriptions of the summer camps held by some of
these movements:

In 1910 also the Fabians held a summer camp. The camps were on the North Welsh coast—two weeks for the campaign workers who included a mix of Fabian Nursery, lower-class professionals, elderly ladies, teachers and politicians. These were followed by a conference of Fabians from universities. The University Fabians were high-spirited and the Cambridge contingent were camp. Rupert reported, to Lytton Strachey, late-night titillations and rampages. Beatrice Webb complained that they held “boisterous, larky entertainments” and were “inclined to go away rather more critical and supercilious than when they came … They won’t come unless they know who they are going to meet, sums up Rupert Brooke… they don’t want to learn, they don’t think they have anything to learn… the egotism of the young university man is colossal.”

So if you’re interested in 700 page novels about any of this,
this is a book to check out. If you haven’t read Byatt before,
this isn’t a bad place to start, but if you prefer a shorter one
that’s available in paperback, I’d say The
Virgin in the Garden
, which is the first book of a
quartet which all have the same main character, but it does
stand alone.


Family History Sagas

One thing I kept thinking about while reading Cryptonomicon
is that the model Neal Stephenson is using for family history is really
different from the standard model in mass-market

The standard model is that you write one book describing three

  • The Grandparent Generation makes a major life decision
    (immigrating to America, starting a business…) and makes it
  • The Parent Generation is constrained in its choices by the
    expectations of the Grandparent Generation, and ends up a bit
  • The Child generation has lots of choices, because of the
    success of the preceding two generations. The plot can either
    have them striking out in a different direction entirely, or
    ending up taking over the original business with new energy and

So this model says that your personality is determined by your
circumstances, which may be very different from those of your
parents and grandparents.

Stephenson’s model is that your personality is determined by
your heredity, so if your grandfather was the sort who was a good
sergeant (the Shaftoes), you’ll likely end up as a sergeant or
in a similar role in some non-military enterprise,
too. If your grandfather (or great-great-great grandfather) was a
scientific researcher, you’ll fall into some kind of research
activity, too.

Probably neither model works very well in real life, and both
models can produce good fiction. But I have to say that for
analyzing the dynamics in my own family, I more often find the
mass-market fiction model useful.


I assumed when I started reading this
that it was a sequel to The
Baroque Cycle
, but it turns out that it was
actually published four years before Quicksilver,
the first volume of the Cycle.

Stephenson says about the project:

The series will incorporate many characters and
stories, tied together by a few common threads. For example,
certain family names keep popping up. Crypto, money, and
computers seem to find their way into all of the

I was sure I enjoyed Cryptonomicon more for
having read it after Baroque Cycle, but then I
reread the first chapter of Quicksilver because it
was provided free at the end of the Cryptonomicon
ebook, and I realized that I’d probably have enjoyed it more if
I’d already met Enoch Root and Daniel Waterhouse’s descendants,

So if you want to read long novels with topics to do with
history and science and technology, start wherever you like.
Probably the best guide is which period you’re more interested
in the history of: the 17th and 18th centuries or the 20th

I was amused that a book about the wonders of modern
cryptography would have the boilerplate DRM at the end:

By payment of the required fees, you have been granted
the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the
text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be
reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse
engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information
storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means,
whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter
invented, without the express written permission of

I’m running late today, so I’ll reserve the right to discuss
this book more later, but consider this a recommendation.