Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Thing With Feathers

As I remember it, it started out quietly.  A small group of scientists, or maybe just one, suggested that a remote ancestor of birds might be dinosaurs.  Dinos might even have been warm-blooded.

These days the warm or at least tepid-blooded dinosaur is a full blown theory with lots of evidence.  And the convinction that dinos and birds are related has been growing.  But I doubt if anybody predicted this.

On Friday the National Geographic online had this headline: Siberian Discovery Suggests Almost All Dinosaurs Were Feathered.

Yes, dinosaurs were the things with feathers.  First there were a few species discovered in China that definitely had lots of feathers.  But now: "This does mean that we can now be very confident that feathers weren't just an invention of birds and their closest relatives, but evolved much deeper in dinosaur history," he adds. "I think that the common ancestor of dinosaurs probably had feathers, and that all dinosaurs had some type of feather, just like all mammals have some type of hair."

Think about all those dinosaur models, all the books and dino toys that boys love.  How fierce and formidable they look, how warlike and ready for titanic battles, just like in the movies.

It's easy to overlook that most were vegetarians anyway.  But now they aren't plated, smooth hard-skinned streamlined for action huge roaring beasts.  They're fluffy.

The article goes on to say that this doesn't mean all the dinos were covered with feathers like birds.  They may have had just a bit of fluff here and there, especially the bigger ones.  But still.  The roaring towering dinosaur image is likely utterly shot.

Just why dinos had feathers is still a mystery. What exactly did all these different feathers do? "I don't know; nobody knows for sure," Godefroit says. "These animals couldn't fly, that's all we can tell you."

Man, feathers and they can't even fly and swoop down, or attack in formation or anything.  Maybe not so red in tooth in claw after all, that leaf-munching tyrannosaurus fluffy. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Internet Dystopia

Someone left behind a copy of Wired magazine at the Post Office, so I picked it up.  It's a big thick issue with a story headlined on the cover that sounded interesting.  I paged through it, while searching for the table of contents or at least the article, and I was amazed.  Ad after glossy ad, mostly for men's luxury products.  There were half a dozen ads just for high-end wristwatches.  So much advertising, and I never did find the table of contents or the article.  (This isn't the issue, but the cover says alot, especially in contrast to the cover below.)

I remember Wired when it was thin and new, publishing articles by Kevin Kelley about how the Internet was going to create an automatic egalitarian Utopia.  Now it resembles nothing so much as an issue of GQ in the 1980s.  Granted that this particular issue was an old one in the holiday gift-giving season.  But even so.

With the maturation of internet-related corporations, and all the money involved, comes the same sort of excesses as previous rich businesses, like the Google executive who took and overdose (or maybe poisoned) heroin provided by an unhappy hooker on his party boat.   Kind of doesn't fit the revolutionary image.

The most conspicuous difference on the net is the nature and amount of increasingly intrusive advertising.  I've been reading Josh Marshall's site since it was a one-person blog called Talking Point Memo at least a decade ago.  Since then he's been building it as a political news and opinion site, employing a number of others.  Recently he's been pumping up a membership model with extra access while the public site is so clotted with ads in the form of video, banners, and (clearly marked) faux news that the site takes forever to load on both the browsers I use.  Extra incentive to buy the membership I guess.  But the content has itself moved to the most politically sensational, finding every right wing outrage that's easy to describe in a paragraph.  It seems to be all about the eyeballs, but this particular combination of  predictable content and intrusive advertising is losing mine.  It's not a site I check every day anymore.

The struggle for viable economic models, mostly so far involving a geometric increase in advertising, is probably one reason nobody I know of talks about the internet Utopia anymore.  Even universal access to the internet is threatened by proposed new rules that will allow different tiers of service (though in fact, providers are already doing this.) The move from desktops to new devices with very pricey service fees is creating an internet for the well-to-do and nobody else. But it's worse than that--the internet threatens to become a dystopia.

It is already a dictatorship, when users have the choice of "agreeing" to various forms of spying if they want access and services at all.  There was a kerfuffle over a "study" done at Facebook that did more than study--it changed information on individual sites.  Today there's a story based on another study that uses Google accumulated data on searches to determine what Republicans and Democrats search for during extreme weather.  If that's not an actual First Amendment violation, it should be.  But it's business as usual on the internet, where information is what these companies have to sell.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

One Small Step

Forty-five years ago today, a human being first set foot on another world.  Some 600 million people on Earth were watching and listening as Neil Armstrong descended to the surface of the Moon from the Apollo 11 lunar lander, saying (in words slightly obscured by static) "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Those of us who were alive and old enough usually remember where we were.  I was visiting Colorado, and had spent the afternoon in a car winding through the dry bare mountains near Denver, which seemed to me as desolate as a moonscape.  Kathi, the driver, and my girlfriend Joni were from Denver and we were seeing the sights, but I remember this landscape (and possibly the thin air that I wasn't used to) just made me despondent.

A few hours later we were in the basement rec room of Kathi's parents' house as we watched the ghostly image of Armstrong on the Moon.  I felt it--that I was watching in real time an extraordinary moment in human history.  At the same time, that indistinct black and white image was a little like watching Captain Video on an early black and white television set when I was five or six.

Years later the worlds of science fiction and factual history collided again at a Star Trek convention dinner.  I stopped to speak to Nichelle Nichols at a table in the darkened ballroom when she said she wanted to introduce me to someone. From the seat next to her up popped a man in a suit holding out his hand--it was Neil Armstrong.  I shook the hand of the first human to really touch another world.
Earlier in this 45th anniversary year, MIT Press published Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek.  I liked everything about this book except the title, which suggests a conscious and coordinated campaign of hype and spin.  The book's contents tell a different story.  Though NASA and the major corporations involved in this titanic effort all had public relations and marketing people, NASA set the standard by insisting that the media be given full factual information.  There was plenty of hoopla surrounding the astronauts in particular, but a lot of that was generated by media responding to the burst of public interest that caught everyone by surprise.

As this book says (and other sources affirm), well into the 1950s the idea of rocketing humans into space was considered to be science fiction fantasy, believed only by children.  The Eisenhower administration itself was skeptical, though the U.S. government was confident that its plans to send a satellite into orbit as part of the 1957-8 International Geophysical Year would be the first such endeavor.

But early in the 50s, some magazine articles accompanied by dramatic cover art in Colliers plus the 3 Walt Disney programs beginning with "Man in Space" stirred some public interest.  Then came the shock of Soviet space firsts--the first satellite (Sputnik), the first live animal, the first man and the first woman in Earth orbit.  Humans in space was no longer a fantasy.

After a few disasters (including at least one on live TV), the U.S. Army and Navy succeeded in getting satellites up.  The civilian agency NASA was created, and suddenly the astronauts became heroic celebrities. After two sub-orbital flights, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.  Shortly afterwards, President John F. Kennedy issued his famous challenge: to land a man on the Moon and return him safely before the end of the 1960s.

After a string of successful one-person flights (the Mercury program) and two-person orbits mostly testing procedures and equipment for the moon shot (Gemini), the Apollo program began with an horrific tragedy: during a ground test, a fire aboard the crew capsule killed three astronauts, including the second American in space, Virgil Grissom.  After months of reappraisal and redesign, Apollo flights began and continued at a pretty rapid clip that kept the astronauts in the news and built to the moment of Apollo 11.

But for the next 6 Apollo flights, public interest dropped gradually and then precipitously.  "Few people alive on December 14, 1972, can tell you where they were on that day," this book notes.  But it was the day that the last humans to ever go there left the moon.  No one has been back since.

This book continues examining the coverage and marketing efforts after Apollo 11 and speculates on why interest dropped so far so fast.  Television coverage of the space program increased network news prestige--particularly CBS--but lost money, so after Armstrong it was cut back severely.  Other factors are suggested, notably that the goal of landing an American on the moon was basically Cold War competition with the Soviets, and after Apollo 11, it was game over, the home team won.

The authors also note how much else was going on to absorb public attention, and having lived through those years, that's certainly pertinent: the Vietnam war and associated actions in Southeast Asia, antiwar demonstrations, racial unrest, Kent State, the 1972 presidential campaign and the first Watergate stories were all happening between Apollo 11 and 17.

The book repeats assertions that the rise of the environmental movement in those years--partly inspired not at all ironically by the now iconic views of Earth in space, and the "earthrise" photos from the moon taken by Apollo astronauts--diverted attention from out there.

I recall all of these factors as at least partially true.  But there was also the relentless pace of U.S. space flights.  I saw them all on TV, from Explorer and Vanguard in 1958 through the Apollo shots more than a decade later.  I don't think people were totally fixated on the winning the space race aspect, but nobody could sustain excitement and the same keen interest for all those events.  Rockets to space were getting to be a regular thing.

Also, NASA had apparently concentrated so hard on getting humans to the Moon that they didn't come up with much for them to do there that was interesting, such as scientific exploration and experiments that could be communicated in an involving and exciting way.

This book does an admirable job of chronicling how NASA and the institutions involved got the information out, and how the media went about covering the stories.  There was a marketing concern, since it was felt that public interest would encourage Congress to keep funding the space program, but there were also concerns to keep commercialism from tainting the patriotic effort, leading to a shifting dance on what corporations could and couldn't do to publicize their part of the space program.  (Apart from major contractors, the winner on becoming identified with the astronauts was clearly Tang.  If you were there, you know what I'm talking about.)

This is a large format "coffee-table" book with lots of photos and sidebars.  Written by two public relations professionals, it not only tells the public information story but features enough documentary information (including transcripts of key Apollo moments) to be a good resource on the space program itself.  It seems to fulfill the NASA ideal of being as objective and complete as possible.  Though this was supposedly the Mad Men era, this book affirms that there really was a feeling of common purpose that permeated the space program and extended to the media.  The story of humans in space, of humanity on the Moon, was so powerful and inspiring that it often overrode selfishness and spin.

Today we know how many things went wrong as the Eagle was trying to land on July 20, 1969.  But somehow it did land, and that moment inspires awe even today.  Perhaps even more so, since such a voyage has returned to the realm of fantasy, only with better visual effects.