- Planet Ponzi by Mitch Feierstein
- A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell
- Stuffocation by James Wallman
- On Roads by Joe Moran
- North Korea Undercover by John Sweeney
- Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming
- Jumbo: The Making of the Boeing 747 by Clive Irving
Before I review this book, I'm going to rant fulsomely about the evils of Digital Rights Management, which enormously complicated my purchase of it and made me waste an hour or two trying to get the bloody thing to work. I have a generic e-reader (i.e. not a Kindle) and I wanted to buy this book in .epub format. No bother - I found it on the Kobo store fairly quickly and bought it. When I downloaded it, though, I didn't get an .epub file, I got a file that has to be run through Adobe Digital Editions. This then produces an .epub that can only be read on five registered devices.
Argh! First off, this prevented me from completing the purchase using my phone. Second, the version of Adobe Digital Editions I downloaded kept crashing and wouldn't let me do anything. Third, when I finally got a version of it working, it was a gruesomely non-intuitive and unfriendly piece of software, and it took me ages to work out how to get my e-reader working with it.
This is everything
that e-books shouldn't be. If I'm honestly paying for something, I should get it in a universal, non-restricted format that lets me do what I damn well want with it. I specifically wanted to avoid buying it from tax-dodging cretins Amazon, who also impose crappy DRM on you, and yet I still had loads of hassle.
The thing is, DRM is actually an obstacle to what it's trying to achieve. It makes being a legitimate purchaser so bloody awkward that it's tempting not to bother. What's my incentive for paying, when it's actually less hassle to download a pirated version? And why should I have to put up with restrictions on the use of something I've legitimately purchased? And if someone was buying this product with the intention of pirating it, they'd know how to strip the DRM anyway, which isn't hard - I've successfully done it with Kindle downloads and it's quick and easy.
Gaaah! Anyway, once I'd done battle with crap software and my e-reader's dodgy battery, I got to read the book, which is very interesting indeed.
The 747 is a ubiquitous icon these days, but according to a Guardian article I read recently, demand for it (and the even bigger Airbus A380) is waning, and big twin-jets seems to be the airline's choice at the moment. But the 747 was truly revolutionary when it first flew in 1969, and it's the plane that drastically altered the economics of long-haul travel, making it much more affordable. Interestingly, Boeing ended up selling far more of them than they expected - it wasn't predicted to have a long life, at least not as a passenger jet. Concorde had created lots of excitement, and it was expected that by the eighties most long-haul travel would be done in supersonic planes. The 747's body was therefore designed around carrying freight containers, and the upper deck and raised cockpit were there to provide a lifting nose for loading them. It was anticipated that the passenger versions would later be converted to freighters.
Of course, Concorde's success was very limited and the supersonic revolution never happened, although Boeing did a lot of work in trying to develop a supersonic transport of their own - the 747 was seen as a much less glamorous project.
The book goes into quite a lot of detail as to how the first passenger jets were developed, touching on the de Havilland Comet which was the very first, but focussing mainly on the 707, and how Boeing wanted to build on its success. The 747's design took a long time to evolve and it's a fascinating story. The resources required to design and build it were colossal and the technical challenges were way bigger than you'd realise - from a project management perspective it's hugely interesting. The risks were significant - if the 747 had failed, it would have taken Boeing down with it. It took some very brave people to see it through. Lots of personal stories are involved.
It's a well-written book that fully captures the drama and excitement behind the development of something so iconic that we all take for granted now. It's interesting that the everyday workhorse has survived for so long - it's a flying juggernaut, really - when Concorde came and went rather less successfully, having carved only a tiny niche for itself.
It reminds me a bit of British Rail's attempts to develop high-speed trains in the sixties and seventies. All hope rested on the revolutionary Advanced Passenger Train, which was meant to be the saviour of InterCity, but time and time again the challenges couldn't be resolved and ultimately the project was shelved, becoming an expensive failure. The much less radical stopgap solution, the InterCity 125, that was meant to just fill in until the APT was available, has been going strong since 1976 and the design has never been bettered. The 125 was not particularly radical in technological terms - the only significant advances were in the power-to-weight ratio and in braking performance - but it was the right train at the right time. It still is - it looks likely to be with us for some time yet.
The book shows how important it is to get the right balance between the technological and commercial challenges of transporting people, and the 747 got it right. It'll be interesting to see how long it stays with us - I don't think it'll fly off into the sunset anytime soon.