Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Borman was the least complicated man he had ever met

I heard this interview on This American Life a few weeks ago between Frank Borman, Commander of Apollo 8, and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, narrated by David Kestenbaum. It was a fascinating exchange, barely bridging a chasm of difference. Vaughan-Lee and Kestenbaum are the word-smithing romantics, Borman the pragmatic patriot. The transcript is now available and it reads as well as it sounds.
And it turns out Emmanuel had done these very long, multi-day interviews with each of the three astronauts. He sent me raw recordings. And listening through, I heard something I was not expecting at all.

One of the astronauts, Frank Borman, was saying things I had just never heard an astronaut say. Like this--
Frank Borman Space science fiction still bores me. I've never seen-- what's the name of that-- that very popular--

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee 2001?

Frank Borman Yeah, all that crap. I've never seen any of that.
David Kestenbaum Emmanuel, the filmmaker, also seemed amused. He pressed on. What about when you were a kid?
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee And what about the stars or astronomy?

Frank Borman No.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee None of that?

Frank Borman Airplanes.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee Airplanes, and airplanes only.

Frank Borman Airplanes, and airplanes only.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee Wow. Wow.

Frank Borman And a certain particular girl.

Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee Susan.

Frank Borman Yeah. So--
David Kestenbaum Susan is Borman's wife. They fell in love in high school. Borman was game to answer any question Emmanuel put to him, though he particularly seemed to like the ones he could easily dispatch answers to, like a little problem he had solved.


We sat down in a little conference room. I'd half wondered if we should use our time together to watch 2001-- A Space Odyssey. I thought if he actually saw it, he might like it. But it's a long film. I went with something shorter.
David Kestenbaum Can I show you something and see if it speaks to you at all?

Frank Borman Star Trek. Yeah, that's what I was-- I've never seen that.

Star Trek Narrator Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise--

David Kestenbaum I looked at Borman as he watched, but I couldn't read his expression.

Star Trek Narrator --to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Frank Borman Nonsense to me. I-- it doesn't interest me. I'm sorry.

David Kestenbaum To go where no man has gone before, that doesn't do anything for you?

Frank Borman No.

David Kestenbaum But you did it.

Frank Borman [LAUGHS]
David Kestenbaum He really did. When Borman became an astronaut, only eight people had ever been into space. Apollo 8-- the mission he was commander of-- it was the very first time humans had ever left Earth's orbit.

Borman and the two other crew members in this tiny spacecraft went all the way to the moon. They didn't land. It was kind of a dry run for the moon landing.

But in some ways, it actually seems more exciting to me and terrifying. It was the first time anyone had gone that far from the earth, really ventured out into space, seeing the moon so close up. This other celestial body right there, outside the window. He was 40 years old.

How did Borman-- the guy who didn't really care about space-- end up being one of the first people to go to the moon? It's true. This was the beginning of the space program, and a lot of the early astronauts were test pilots.

But still, the other two guys Borman flew with-- they were the type of people who might have gone to space camp as kids. If space camp had existed back then.

One of them, Bill Anders, loved geology. As a kid, he had decided he wanted to own a piece of every rock in the world. The other, Jim Lovell, while in high school, had tried to build a model rocket, one powered by liquid oxygen.
Frank Borman Lovell was mesmerized by space and exploration, and wanted desperately to explore the moon. I was there because it was a battle in the Cold War. I wanted to participate in this American adventure of beating the Soviets. But that's the only thing that motivated me-- beat the damn Russians.

Borman was an Air Force pilot who'd gone to West Point. He had a reputation for being blunt, and also kind of serious. He didn't like anyone messing around.

He'd never been in battle, but he thought this is where the real fight is now. So he applied to be an astronaut. The psychiatrist who evaluated him later said Borman was the least complicated man he had ever met.
David Kestenbaum What do you think he meant by that?

Frank Borman I don't-- I have no idea. I have no idea. I don't-- whether I'm complicated or uncomplicated.

David Kestenbaum What would Susan say?

Frank Borman Susan says this. I was the most uncomplicated man she ever knew.

David Kestenbaum Are you a romantic person?

Frank Borman I think in some ways I am. I get emotional at good movies at times, and things like that.

David Kestenbaum What movies do you watch?

Frank Borman Probably the best movie that I've ever seen is Casablanca. I love Casablanca.

David Kestenbaum Why do you like Casablanca?

Frank Borman Casablanca was a wonderful wartime story of the recognition that a good cause is more important than the human being relationship.

David Kestenbaum Oh.

Frank Borman Win the war and lose the woman was what that was all about.

David Kestenbaum That's the opposite of romantic.

Frank Borman No, it's very romantic.
David Kestenbaum I wasn't going to play you the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 tape, but then I listened back to it. It's pretty good. It's like you can hear how big the thing is.

One of the astronauts said it felt like being a rat in the jaws of a big terrier.

Man We have ignition sequence start. The engines are on. 4, 3, 2, 1, 0-- we have connect. We have--

Man Lift off. The clock is running.

Man We have lift off.

Man [INAUDIBLE] looking good.

David Kestenbaum OK, so after the launch-- and please, don't feel compelled to answer yes to any of these questions, you know.

Frank Borman Oh, I won't. I'mma tell you the truth. OK.

David Kestenbaum Was it cool to float around weightless?

Frank Borman [LAUGHS] No.

David Kestenbaum I think everyone thinks it would be amazing to be weightless and floating.
He said his main observation about being in zero g was just the obvious thing. When you let go of something in midair, it would stay there.
Frank Borman Turn loose of this and it would stay there. Except when turning loose of it, you'd probably impart a little motion to it so it would float around. But--

David Kestenbaum Was that interesting to observe?

Frank Borman Maybe for the first 30 seconds, then it became accepted.

David Kestenbaum Borman says there was really just one moment where he felt something stir in his uncomplicated self. It happened while they were circling the moon, which as a destination, he says, did not look like a place you would ever want to live or work.
Frank Borman Oh, devastation. Meteor craters, no color at all. Just different shades of gray.
David Kestenbaum And then peering out the small windows, over the gray landscape of the moon, they saw something coming up over the horizon. It was the earth, and it was beautiful. This blue and white marble, the only thing that had any color. Here's how he described it to Emmanuel, the filmmaker.
Frank Borman It's 240,000 miles away. It was small enough you could cover it with your thumbnail. The dearest things in life that were back on the Earth-- my family, my wife, my parents. They were still alive then. That was, for me, the high point of the flight from an emotional standpoint.
David Kestenbaum It's like the high point of being in space was the Earth.
Frank Borman The contrast between our memories of the Earth and the color on the Earth, and the totally bleak and dead moon was striking.

David Kestenbaum They'd been taking hundreds of photos of the surface of the moon, because, you know, no one had ever been there. NASA wanted to pick out a future landing site.

They took so many photos of the moon that Bill Anders, the astronaut who was doing it, said it got boring. There was nothing in the mission plan to take pictures of the Earth. It's like it hadn't even occurred to anyone it might look interesting.

But Borman and the crew, when they saw the Earth rising over the moon, they were like, whoa, that is a photo. There's actually audio of this moment.
Bill Anders Oh, my god. Look at that picture over there. There's the Earth coming up. Wow, that's pretty!

Frank Borman Hey, don't take that. It's not scheduled.
David Kestenbaum That's Borman there, saying, don't take that. It's not scheduled. He was joking.
Frank Borman Hand me a roll of color quick, would you?

Bill Anders Oh, man this [INAUDIBLE].
David Kestenbaum It ended up being one of the most famous photos of all time. If you Google "Earth rise," you'd be like, oh, yeah. That one.

It's like the first selfie of us all, the whole planet, and it's remarkable. It's exactly other worldly. Humans have been watching the moon rise from the earth for hundreds of thousands of years. This was the first time someone had seen the reverse-- us, our planet, rising over the moon's horizon.

The other thing that strikes me about this photo is just how truly dark space can get. Only half the Earth is lit up. The other half is in complete blackness, like it's been consumed by something. I asked Borman if that was just the exposure of the photo. He said no, it's exactly how it looked.

It took a couple of days for Borman and the others to travel a quarter of a million miles back here. It was mostly uneventful. At some point, Jim Lovell punched some wrong buttons on the computer, which reset the guidance system.

The spacecraft had no idea where it was. Lovell had to measure the position of stars by hand, just like sailors used to do at sea. They eventually splashed down in the ocean.

They were elated. The mission was over. Everything had worked. Borman says it felt like he imagines winning the World Series might.

He had a quick phone call from the president while on board an aircraft carrier. And then he went home to his kids and his wife, Susan.
David Kestenbaum How did you describe the mission to her? Like, what you'd seen. I mean, you'd just been on this incredible--

Frank Borman I really didn't talk about it very much. As a matter of fact, I can't remember talking to her at all about it.

David Kestenbaum You don't remember saying, you won't believe what the moon looks like. I was up there?

Frank Borman No, we didn't talk a lot about it. No.

David Kestenbaum Why not?

Frank Borman It was more important to see the boys and see her. And what have you be doing? We're back. It was a wonderful time of reunion and emotion, and the last thing from my mind was to tell them what the moon looked like.

David Kestenbaum Didn't they want to know?

Frank Borman No. Nobody asked. [LAUGHS]

David Kestenbaum What do you think you did talk about?

Frank Borman How glad I was to be home, how glad they were to have me back, and how the boys are doing in school, and why the dog's dish was still full. We got right back to the nitty-gritty's.
David Kestenbaum Just seven months later, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. The Russians gave up, which for Borman had been the point of the whole thing. So he did something that today seems kind of amazing. He quit. He left the job so many kids dream about.
David Kestenbaum If you had stayed, could you have walked on the moon?

Frank Borman Oh, yeah. I could have. Probably. I probably could have walked on the moon. Yeah.

David Kestenbaum Did you want to?

Frank Borman No. Why? Look, the answer to your question-- I would have not accepted the risk involved to go pick up rocks. It doesn't mean that much to me.

Somebody else wanted to do it. Let them take my place. I love my family more than anything in the world. I would have never subjected them to the dangers simply for me to be an explorer.

David Kestenbaum How often do you think of the Apollo 8 mission? Just when you're on your own, doing your normal stuff.

Frank Borman It never occurred in our lives much at all, really.

David Kestenbaum I was looking up at the moon the other night, and it still feels crazy to me that you were there. If you do think back to it, is there a particular part that you tend to remember?

Frank Borman The thing that reminds me, that I recall till the day I die, was the Earth, looking back at the Earth.
David Kestenbaum I wouldn't say Borman hated space. He was just indifferent to it. Or put another way, he has a strong preference for the Earth.
Frank Borman reminds me so much of my father. Pragmatic. Goal Oriented. Clear on his priorities. To call him uncomplicated sounds like an insult. Refined perhaps. All the dross and noise and posturing and superflousness vaporized away. What is left is a good man.
I've written a bunch of endings for this story. About yes, it's in our nature to explore. It's also in our nature to want to be home. But I'm very aware of the fact that so many historians and journalists and thinkers have tried to read particular meanings into that time that we went to the moon.

I'm just going to end this the way the world's most uncomplicated man might-- the facts of the present, what he's doing now. It's as earthbound as it gets. Here it is. His wife, Susan, has Alzheimer's, for nine years now.
Frank Borman I'm with her every day, and she can't walk or talk or feed herself. So that's where I come in. So that's very, very difficult-- very. And that's it.
David Kestenbaum Which is either the least romantic thing you can think of or just the opposite.
I'll go with the opposite. There's a beautiful purity in there.

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Earthrise, NASA image AS08-14-2383, taken by astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned voyage to orbit the Moon, December 24, 1968

Unexpected visitors in the British Natural History Museum

I see this and my first thought is "Its the End Times". Then, "Wow, we are making progress cleaning up the waterways."

Then, I decide it must be a prank. Googling, I find, Beluga Whale Spotted Frolicking In The Thames by Laura Reynolds in The Londonist.

It appears to be real. But I just love the closing paragraph in Reynolds' piece.
In 2006, a Northern Bottlenose Whale swam up the Thames until becoming stranded near Battersea and sadly not surviving the ordeal. It is now in the National Research Collection at the Natural History Museum.
Almost sounds like the whale took a wrong turn and strayed into the Natural History Museum. Which, when you consider, is sort of what happened.

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From The Thames Whale.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

From The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide, 1983

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Washington Crossing the Delaware

Oil on canvas; 149 x 255 in. (378.5 x 647.7 cm)

Many nineteenth-century painters, sculptors, and novelists created sentimentalized reconstructions of American colonial history. Inaccurate in many historical details, this painting is a conspicuous example of such Romantic imagery. The style is highly representative of a school of Romantic painting that flourished in Dusseldorf, where Leutze was living when he painted this picture in 1851. Worthington Whittredge, one of the American artists present while Leutze was working in Germany, posed for the figures of both Washington and the steersman. Gift of John S. Kennedy, 1897, 97.34

Beach Read by Karen Hollingsworth

Beach Read, 2008 by Karen Hollingsworth

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Monday, September 24, 2018

19th century intellectuals believed a bad review gave John Keats tuberculosis

Scott Alexander is such an entertaining and politely provocative thinker. And you can't read him without learning something. From Book Review: Black Swan by Scott Alexander. He starts out with a riff on how potentially dangerous it might be to do a review of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan, given how famously cognitively pugilistic Taleb can be. This leads Alexander down this trail:
I notice this BBC article about an author who hunted down a bad reviewer of his book and knocked her unconscious with a wine bottle. And Lord Byron wrote such a scathing meta-review of book reviewers that multiple reviewers challenged him to a duel, but the duel seems to have never taken place, plus I’m not sure Lord Byron is a good person to generalize from.

19th century intellectuals believed a bad review gave John Keats tuberculosis; they were so upset about this that they used his gravestone to complain:

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Keats’ friend Shelley wrote the poem Adonais to memorialize the event, in which he said of the reviewer:
Our Adonais has drunk poison—oh!
What deaf and viperous murderer could crown
Life’s early cup with such a draught of woe?
The nameless worm would now itself disown:
It felt, yet could escape, the magic tone
Whose prelude held all envy, hate and wrong,
But what was howling in one breast alone,
Silent with expectation of the song,
Whose master’s hand is cold, whose silver lyre unstrung.
So are book reviews in Mediocristan or Extremistan? Well, every so often your review causes one of history’s greatest poets to die of tuberculosis, plus another great poet writes a five-hundred-line poem condemning you and calling you a “nameless worm”, and it becomes a classic that gets read by millions of schoolchildren each year for centuries after your death. And that’s just the worst thing that’s happened because of a book review so far. The next one could be even worse!

Freethinker by Robert Service

by Robert Service

Although the Preacher be a bore,
The Atheist is even more.

I ain't religious worth a damn;
My views are reckoned to be broad;
And yet I shut up like a clam
When folks get figgerin' on God;
I'd hate my kids to think like me,
And though they leave me in the lurch,
I'm always mighty glad to see
My fam'ly trot to Church.

Although of books I have a shelf
Of skeptic stuff, I must confess
I keep their knowledge to myself:
Doubt doesn't help to happiness.
I never scoff at Holy Writ,
But envy those who hold it true,
And though I've never been in it
I'm proud to own a pew.

I always was a doubting Tom;
I guess some lads are born that way.
I couldn't stick religion from
The time I broke the Sabbath Day.
Yet unbelief's a bitter brew,
And this in arid ways I've learned;
If you believe a thing, it's true
As far as your concerned.

I'm sentimental, I agree,
For how it always makes me glad
To turn from Ingersoll and see
My little girls Communion-clad.
And as to church my people plod
I cry to them with simple glee:
"Say, folks, if you should talk to God,
Put in a word for me."

Forensic technology

This is a sad tragedy but a stunning example of technological legibility. A video clip begins to circulate in Africa of two women and two children being executed by soldiers. Who are they? When did this happen? Where did this happen? Nothing is immediately obvious. The BBC then deploys forensic technology on the video clip in order to identify the location of the execution and then the likely time period. Forensic technology combined with traditional reporting techniques then identifies the likely names of the three executioners. Remarkable.

Click through to follow the thread.

You never hear about that happening anymore

Well, no, you don't.

From What American gender politics has done to my mind by Ann Althouse. Althouse loves riffing on words and ideas. You never know where she will head. From discussing modern American gender politics, she arrives at:

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I think the problem is that there's one book with "The Cloud of Unknowing" that also has "The Mystical Theology of Saint Denis" and the text of the St. Denis prayer, which is properly quoted above. Did Saint Denis actually write those words? I don't know. But I did look up St. Denis, and I have a better understanding of the illustration:
Denis is the most famous cephalophore in Christian legend, with a popular story claiming that the decapitated bishop picked up his head and walked several miles while preaching a sermon on repentance....
A cephalophore is what it sounds like — someone who carries his own severed head. You never hear about that happening anymore, but people used to say it did:
A cephalophore (from the Greek for "head-carrier") is a saint who is generally depicted carrying his or her own head. In Christian art, this was usually meant to signify that the subject in question had been martyred by beheading....

[T]he folklorist Émile Nourry counted no less than 134 examples of cephalophory in French hagiographic literature alone....

Aristotle is at pains to discredit the stories of talking heads and to establish the physical impossibility, with the windpipe severed from the lung. "Moreover," he adds, "among the barbarians, where heads are chopped off with great rapidity, nothing of the kind has ever occurred."

Summer Night, St. John's Wood by George Clausen

Summer Night, St. John's Wood by George Clausen

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Little Prayer by Robert Service

A Little Prayer
by Robert Service

Let us be thankful, Lord, for little things -
The song of birds, the rapture of the rose;
Cloud-dappled skies, the laugh of limpid springs,
Drowned sunbeams and the perfume April blows;
Bronze wheat a-shimmer, purple shade of trees -
Let us be thankful, Lord of Life, for these!

Let us be praiseful, Sire, for simple sights; -
The blue smoke curling from a fire of peat;
Keen stars a-frolicking on frosty nights,
Prismatic pigeons strutting in a street;
Daisies dew-diamonded in smiling sward -
For simple sights let us be praiseful, Lord!

Let us be grateful, God, for health serene,
The hope to do a kindly deed each day;
The faith of fellowship, a conscience clean,
The will to worship and the gift to pray;
For all of worth in us, of You a part,
Let us be grateful, God, with humble heart.