Snapshots 60 Days and Counting

Here are 9 developments of interest to fans:

(1) Once again NASA is asking for help finding the “moon trees”, the redwood, loblolly pine, sycamore, Douglas fir, and sweetgum trees sprouted from seeds that astronaut Stuart Roosa took to the moon and back aboard Apollo 14.

Back then, biologists weren’t sure the seeds would germinate after such a trip. Few experiments of this kind had been done. A mishap during decontamination procedures made the fate of the seeds even less certain: the canister bearing the seeds was exposed to vacuum and burst, scattering its contents.

But the seeds did germinate, and the trees seemed to grow normally. At Forest Service facilities, the moon trees reproduced with regular trees, producing a second generation called half-moon trees.

By 1975, the trees were ready to leave the Forest Service nurseries. One was sent to Washington Square in Philadelphia to be the first moon tree planted as part of the United States Bicentennial celebrations; Roosa took part in that ceremony. Another tree went to the White House. Many more were planted at state capitals, historic locations and space- and forestry-related sites across the country.

Apollo 14 is a mission more people remember for Alan Shepard’s golfing antics:

Shephard, rather than cramming his personal kitbag with seeds, slipped in golf balls and a club head which he later attached to a government-issue geology tool, fashioning a crude six iron with which he hit the first and only golf shots ever played off the surface of a body other than planet Earth. As far as we know … Shephard claimed his balls went “miles and miles and miles”.

(2) We have it on good authority from movie publicists that people have spent years seeking the real reasons why the government cancelled Apollo 18 and two other planned lunar missions. Now conspiracy theorists are about to be rewarded with a movie by Gonzalo Lopez Gallego showing that Apollo 18 did visit the moon in 1973 “but some kind of horror-movie monster/virus attacked the astronauts, resulting in the U.S. never going back.” Apollo 18 will be released April 22 and its impressive Blair Witch style trailer can be viewed on the website.

Why does no one theorize that the Apollo program was cancelled because people mistakenly assumed that if an astronaut had time left over to play golf, then NASA had already done everything that was worth the effort of going to the moon?

(3) Francis Hamit points out a significant trend in marketing novellas and long articles for e-book readers, which the New York Times discusses in “Shorter E-books for Smaller Devices”:

The Atavist is among the growing number of organizations that are cultivating a certain niche of writing — stories and articles that are longer than a typical magazine article but shorter than a novel — in the hope that they will find a comfortable home on the glassy screens of evermore prevalent mobile devices. “Word counts are getting shorter in most magazines,” said Mr. Ratliff, who is also a contributing editor to Wired magazine. “On a mobile device, we shouldn’t be bound by those constraints.”

The attention spans of readers — many of us, anyway — are actually not getting shorter, Mr. Ratliff says. The problem lies elsewhere, he adds: “It’s the platform.”

(4) Robert Sawyer’s article for Slate, “The Purpose of Science Fiction” begins with the perfectly reasonable premise that science fiction writers have more liberty to speculate about scientific matters than scientists. However, I recoiled from his claim, “And we come with the credentials to do this work.” This bit of scaffolding, introducing a list of sf writers with advanced degrees who do real world science or work in other specialties, ends up running away with the original theme by boldly suggesting sf writers in general have “credentials” beyond maybe a B.A. in English or History.

I’m a great admirer of writers who can “do the math” (Jerry Pournelle’s phrase), and enjoy their fiction very much. I wish there were more like them – I can only read so many stories that amount to no more than a clever excuse to revisit 19th century technology and fashions. But let’s be honest about the proportion of science professionals in the mix.

Harping on sf’s predictive powers can also be a very good plan for a writer looking for work as a futurist (Sawyer mentions being consulted by SIGMA), though I worry about this kind of “walking on thin ice” — won’t someone notice? As a fan I’m prepared to wink at that and wish them the best. But isn’t this the same science fiction genre that supplies the material for Connie Willis’ popular routine about all the technological advances predicted by sf – the laughs coming as fans realize not one of the commonplace technologies she mentions were ever imagined in sf stories?

(5) To be perfectly honest, we fans do more than wink at exaggerated claims about the genre, we applaud them. Remember Earl Kemp’s Who Killed Science Fiction? The project won a Hugo when first published as a fanzine in 1961. Yes, 50 years have passed and we’re still waiting for the corpse to lay down. John Teehan’s Merry Blacksmith Press has just brought out an edition in book form. Earl’s “complete and unexpurgated” edition also is available online in eI 29.

(6) Fandom and the Wikipedia having just boxed 12 rounds, here’s a timely development — will reboot the Fancyclopedia Project using a Wikipedia-like scheme. They are currently looking for alternatives to the software used by the existing wikied Fancyclopedia.

(7) Fandango asks, “’Harry Potter’ Origins Story to Hit TV?”:

According to reports, Poppy Montgomery (Samantha Spade on Without a Trace) will be playing Rowling in the TV movie, which is currently using the title Strange Magic. It will document the life of Rowling revealing how she first came about developing the series that would later take the world by storm.

Wouldn’t fans much rather see a TV adaptation of Patterson’s biography of Robert Heinlein? Although it probably could be aired only by HBO or Showtime, between the hours of midnight and dawn…

(8) Lots of fans aspire to drive their blogs to the top of the ratings provided they can do it for free, which is a reason they have to play within the rules. “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search” in the New York Times reveals how much funny business is possible when a company is willing to spend:

When you read the enormous list of sites with Penney links, the landscape of the Internet acquires a whole new topography. It starts to seem like a city with a few familiar, well-kept buildings, surrounded by millions of hovels kept upright for no purpose other than the ads that are painted on their walls.

Exploiting those hovels for links is a Google no-no. The company’s guidelines warn against using tricks to improve search engine rankings, including what it refers to as “link schemes.” The penalty for getting caught is a pair of virtual concrete shoes: the company sinks in Google’s results.

(9) I love hard sf stories for much the same reasons that I like news stories explaining how scientists have solved a mystery – like, why the yellow features in some of Van Gogh’s paintings are turning brown

To find out, the researchers obtained three tubes of yellow paint from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp that were manufactured around the same time that Van Gogh was working. They spread samples of the still-bright paint onto glass slides and bombarded them with ultraviolet radiation for three weeks to mimic the process of aging.

Only one of the samples browned — and it did so in dramatic fashion, its color turning from daisy to coffee with milk…

[Thanks for these links goes out to David Klaus, Bill Higgins, Bill Burns, Andrew Porter and Francis Hamit.]

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7 thoughts on “Snapshots 60 Days and Counting

  1. The cutting of the funding for Apollos 18 and 19 occurred long before Al Shepherd took his golf shot. As Tim Kyger has pointed out, the NASA budget in constant dollars began dropping even as the Gemini program successes took place, before the Apollo 1 fire.

  2. “Wouldn’t fans much rather see a TV adaptation of Patterson’s biography of Robert Heinlein? Although it probably could be aired only by HBO or Showtime, between the hours of midnight and dawn…”

    Indeed …. well, for Vol 1 for sure.

  3. Google has been doing a wonderful job of driving SEO down ever since they started; it’s the entire basis of Google itself, and PageRank, after all.

    It’s also why I get Google Alerts on my name every hour or two, since my own name is constantly buried in HTML to help raise PageRank in a gazillion SEO attempts, so it’s rather in my face, or InBox, many times a day, so hard to forget. 🙂


    Webmasters and content providers began optimizing sites for search engines in the mid-1990s, as the first search engines were cataloging the early Web. Initially, all webmasters needed to do was submit the address of a page, or URL, to the various engines which would send a “spider” to “crawl” that page, extract links to other pages from it, and return information found on the page to be indexed.[1] The process involves a search engine spider downloading a page and storing it on the search engine’s own server, where a second program, known as an indexer, extracts various information about the page, such as the words it contains and where these are located, as well as any weight for specific words, and all links the page contains, which are then placed into a scheduler for crawling at a later date.

    Site owners started to recognize the value of having their sites highly ranked and visible in search engine results, creating an opportunity for both white hat and black hat SEO practitioners. According to industry analyst Danny Sullivan, the phrase “search engine optimization” probably came into use in 1997.

    Nice that, as usual, the NY Times is bringing the News to folks about fifteen years later…. 🙂

  4. @Gary: Maybe you missed the news in the NYT article, which shows how JC Penney beat whatever system Google is using and had its links coming out at the top of searches for weeks. That news would be considerably less than 15 years old. In fact, it was still only a few weeks old when I linked to it — y’know, the equivalent of a vulture landing after the lions have finished with the carcass…

  5. Didn’t miss it, Mike. Didn’t want to repeat the long conversation Moshe Feder and bunches of us had about on on FB the day the article came out.

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