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Off in the distance
my journal
May 2016

The Bellinghman
Date: 2007-03-20 00:30
Subject: #125 Francis Spufford: The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin
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Tags:books, reviews
Francis Spufford: The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin

Hardcover: 250 pages
Publisher: Faber and Faber (3 Dec 2003)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0571214967
ISBN-13: 978-0571214969
Category(ies): Journalism

This is an odd book, but a charming one. It comprises 6 chapters, each one of which describes a particular technical project, from the British satellite launch (Prospero - still up there) through the computer game Elite to how the Wellcome Trust kept the human genome in the public domain. These are recent episodes, so it's not quite History (OK, so some of it was before some of you were born, and I wasn't a teenager when Prospero went up), but it's not Current Affairs either.

They say that the best way of judging the overall accuracy of a writer is to examine his work in an area you know well, and assume that he is as accurate elsewhere. Well, on that basis, I can say that Spufford is pretty accurate, and where he differs from me, I'm almost ready to believe he's right and I'm wrong. (Unlike, say, Dan Brown, whose accuracy in the areas I know about is utterly appalling.) Talking about the game Elite, Spufford mentions details that are surely down to him having been in the room on some occasions. He's not perfect -- my name is not Chris Jordan, and it was me that was doing the bug-hunting on that project. However, as a journalist, he can really only know what people have told him, and I really don't know if anyone was writing down what we were doing at the time. It's episodes like this that make me aware that History is not what happened, it's what people think happened.

Part of it this is part of my early adulthood.
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User: mikewd
Date: 2007-03-20 13:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I also recommend this book to people - it's very British and does nicely capture the whole rather self-effacing but enthusiastic world of British engineers and scientists, compared to the much more gung-ho style from across the atlantic.

I was given it for the Christmas of the Beagle "landing" on Mars so reading the end of the last chapter was rather ironic....

Spifford does have a nice turn of phrase - I particularly like the line about Wellcome and the human genome project - "An enraged altruist with $25 billion in his pocket is a person to listen to".
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The Bellinghman
User: bellinghman
Date: 2007-03-20 14:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes, the Beagle chapter was ironic in retrospect, but as he showed, it was always a gamble. The fact was that it had higher than normal odds of failing, but it was also a lower than normal stake, so the expected return was still good. Considering that US missions costing vastly more had also failed, it wasn't a mistake to try, only to assume success.

I must actually go buy a copy - the copy I read was borrowed from bugshaw and major_clanger, and returned when the latter got back from dangerous foreign parts.
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