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The Ship of Foolishness
November 30, 2010 4:03 PM   Subscribe

"The project was the brainchild of three good friends of mine. One was an astronaut, one was a communications genius who used to work with Walter Cronkite and the third was a highly respected scientist, and the one thing I won’t tell you about them is their names. You see, the three of them collectively cooked up one of the very best ideas I have ever heard, and they overcame all obstacles to make it come to pass. But then they messed up one tiny, inconsequential little detail. That turned the whole enterprise into a catastrophic confusion which gave great pleasure to some but cost others, including one of its principle intended beneficiaries of the idea, the Holland America cruise ship line, a ton of money." - Frederik Pohl [previously] posted by brundlefly (47 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
one was a communications genius who used to work with Walter Cronkite

If that person is Richard C. Hoaglund, I see the problem right there.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:04 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sounds like the best con ever.
posted by Artw at 4:14 PM on November 30, 2010 [8 favorites]


Damn, I was expecting that they'd gotten the launch date wrong, or not corrected for a different timezone or something.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:22 PM on November 30, 2010


That is an awesome story. The description of the actual launch, which is what the folly cruise was all about, is in the third -- damn -- part -- there's something in my eye, 'scuse me.
posted by localroger at 4:29 PM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


I found more information here, from which I believe you can infer at least two of the three cruise planners. Fun post, brundlefly!
posted by Songdog at 4:33 PM on November 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Good story, but confusing.

Why would the cruise line entrust the selling of tickets to these three? Why didn't they even care enough to show up?
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:05 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Persons who know who Fred Pohl is and can name two or more books by the guy are *seriously* well-advised to add his blog to their RSS feeds (although you'll have to click through to the blog to actually read moe than the first three sentences).

Lately he seems to be trying to start a literary feud with a recent biographer of C. M. Kornbluth because he thinks the guy "hates" him. I'm not sure how successful that effort has been. I hasten to add said would-be flamewar is NOT what I find compelling about the blog. It's stories similar to the primary links cited by brundlefly.

Art, I think Pohl actually describes the cruise as the best con ever. I had not caught the double-entendre until I read your post.
posted by mwhybark at 5:18 PM on November 30, 2010


Ah here's what he sez:

"Simply imagine that you’re at the best con you’ve ever attended, only it’s with fewer people than usual and it runs twice as long."

ART! Dude, you just outwrote Fred Pohl!
posted by mwhybark at 5:20 PM on November 30, 2010


If that person is Richard C. Hoaglund, I see the problem right there.

One strongly suspects it is Arthur C. Clarke.

The other two are likely Buzz Aldrin and Isaac Asimov.
posted by Justinian at 5:21 PM on November 30, 2010


If it were that kind of con you'd think its planners would have attended. I too wonder just why they missed it. Perhaps Holland America wouldn't allow them.

On preview: not Asimov--he was clearly on board.
posted by Songdog at 5:26 PM on November 30, 2010


Can't be Asimov, Justinian - Pohl explicitly says the three organizers never made it on the trip, yet talks about Asimov's joke-filled dinner table.
posted by egypturnash at 5:27 PM on November 30, 2010


D'oh. I suck.

Who is the third, then? Clarke and Aldrin have to be the others.
posted by Justinian at 5:28 PM on November 30, 2010


The only person in the world whose self description is invariably "once worked with Walter Cronkite" is Richard C. Hoagland. It's certainly not Arthur C. Clarke.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:29 PM on November 30, 2010


Richard C. Hoagland is also an avid organizer of conferences, whereas Arthur C. Clarke was not. But it's the "Cronkite" thing that's the tipoff.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:30 PM on November 30, 2010


Did you read the page I linked, Justinian?

Sidhedevil: Clarke joined Conkrite to cover the Apollo moon landings.
posted by Songdog at 5:32 PM on November 30, 2010


Cronkite.
posted by Songdog at 5:33 PM on November 30, 2010


Yes, absolutely, Songdog. It's just that "a communications genius who worked with Cronkite" isn't how most people would describe Clarke, but how Hoagland describes himself. The most salient thing about Clarke is that he was a great novelist, not that he was a "communications genius" or that he worked with Cronkite--I would suggest that Clarke is considerably more famous than Cronkite, even to folks of Pohl's generation.

In other news, I love Pohl's blog.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:35 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I also love that we're all playing "blind item" with this, as though these elderly and/or dead gentlemen were Hollywood teen idols.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:37 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Me too, Sidhedevil. I will also point out that Clarke is credited with inventing the communications satellite, and that before he began writing science fiction he was a radar technician for the Royal Air Force, working with the the first radar guidance system used to land airplanes.
posted by Songdog at 5:42 PM on November 30, 2010


> then they messed up one tiny, inconsequential little detail.

con had no booth babes
posted by jfuller at 5:47 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would suggest that Clarke is considerably more famous than Cronkite, even to folks of Pohl's generation.

Pohl's circle, yes, Pohl's generation I seriously doubt.
posted by DU at 5:56 PM on November 30, 2010


Another major space related adventure came my way after my first WorldCon art show in 1972, in which a science writer in his 20's named Richard Hoagland invited me on a cruise aboard the S.S.Statendam to see Apollo 17 lift off.
posted by unliteral at 6:12 PM on November 30, 2010


Gods, I loved reading these as they came out. I've fallen back in love with Pohl after sort of drifting away from hard SF for a long time, all thanks to his blog. I have some friends who are very interested in the history of fandom, and this, my friends, is going to be one hell of a primary source document for trying to collaborate all of the great con stories of the Fandom of yore.
posted by strixus at 6:15 PM on November 30, 2010


SS Statendam - The ship on which Asimov took a cruise to view the night launch of Apollo 17.
The event was sponsored by Richard C. Hoagland, and he mentioned it briefly in "The Triumph of the Moon," June 1973 and more thoroughly in the July 1973 essay for F & SF, "The Cruise and I".
posted by unliteral at 6:25 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hmmm, the Encyclopedia Asimova and the National Space Society both cite Hoagland as principal sponsor. So was he on board, or not? He was scheduled to give a talk entitled "The Space Shuttle".

Jinx, unliteral.
posted by Songdog at 6:28 PM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm commenting too much, but I can't resist linking this page from a Katherine Anne Porter biography, which names three men who missed the boat.
posted by Songdog at 6:38 PM on November 30, 2010


OK, but I still don't get why the organizers didn't show up.
posted by ottereroticist at 7:07 PM on November 30, 2010


Clarke is credited with inventing the communications satellite,

A credit often exaggerated.
posted by ovvl at 7:57 PM on November 30, 2010


ovvl: "A credit often exaggerated."

I know. But the salient question is: do you think Pohl is doing so?
posted by Songdog at 8:15 PM on November 30, 2010


I interviewed Frederick Pohl when I was a junior in high school. I accidentally poked a hole in his living room armchair with my pencil.

Glad to know he deserved it!
posted by washburn at 9:51 PM on November 30, 2010


I would suggest that Clarke is considerably more famous than Cronkite, even to folks of Pohl's generation.

Johnson lamented, after Cronkite's unprecedented editorializing that the Vietnam War could not be won, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

I've created a section on the ship's Wikipedia article for the cruise, using the two most reliable sources from the thread.
posted by dhartung at 9:51 PM on November 30, 2010


Joe, Jack and Jim

Or Rick, Robert, and Richard. Get it?
posted by nzero at 9:57 PM on November 30, 2010


When I was much younger, I got to know one Lt Cdr Geoff Lewis RN, who'd retired to a big house up the hill. He too 'worked in radar' during the war - and subsequently in navigation in the aerospace industry. He did the initial proof-of-concept work on Giotto's orbital mechanics, and was one of those polymath engineers who seemed to know everything and everyone and had an absolutely unassailable BS filter. His stock response to anyone who complained that engineers and engineering lacked culture was to offer to recite any three Shakespeare sonnets if they'd tell him the three laws of thermodynamics. And, as with any good Navy man, it was a matter of honour on his part to remove any shred of sobriety or inhibition from visitors through gin and Bach - but you had to keep up, and you could not bullshit.

He was the first person I knew who raved about Patrick O'Brian because as he said, you could trust the man absolutely in matters of historical detail, and he told a damned good story to boot. He raved about very little, so this was a true compliment.

Anyway. He knew and had worked with Arthur Clarke, back when. Arthur Clarke most certainly failed to get through the Lewis BS filter: Geoff Lewis was far too well-mannered even in his cups to diss a bro', but he had little time for the man. I didn't quite understand at the time, but do now.
posted by Devonian at 12:31 AM on December 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


His stock response to anyone who complained that engineers and engineering lacked culture was to offer to recite any three Shakespeare sonnets if they'd tell him the three laws of thermodynamics.

Right, and a pig farmer can escape being thought of as uncultured, if his accusers know nothing about pig husbandry.

Irregardless of that bizarre & unbecoming tu quoque fallacy, it would actually be a reasonably impressive feat of memory (which is, of course, not to be confused with culture) if he could recite whichever three you asked him for: "let's hear Sonnets 17, 84 & 155, please!"
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:43 AM on December 1, 2010


What exactly is a communications genius?
posted by IndigoJones at 6:15 AM on December 1, 2010


Exactly.
posted by Songdog at 6:40 AM on December 1, 2010


It's "regardless", UbuRoivas, among us with pig farmers with culture.
posted by notyou at 7:15 AM on December 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Arthur Clarke most certainly failed to get through the Lewis BS filter: Geoff Lewis was far too well-mannered even in his cups to diss a bro', but he had little time for the man. I didn't quite understand at the time, but do now.

Do tell. The people I've met who've met Clarke had nice things to say, though Ii don't say that as refutation, but in curiosity.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 7:26 AM on December 1, 2010


UboRoivas: So the three laws of thermodynamics are less important a part of our culture than Shakespeare sonnets? Really? There is no physics or mathematics in your list of the 100 most important books to read to be a cultured person?
posted by Dr. Curare at 8:44 AM on December 1, 2010


> it would actually be a reasonably impressive feat of memory (which is, of course, not to be confused with culture)

Retaining the words is mere memory, maybe, but the impulse to learn all of S's sonnets rather than, say, pi to 1000 places at least smacks of culture.


> if he could recite whichever three you asked him for: "let's hear Sonnets 17, 84 & 155, please!"

If the challenger were another cultured person I'd expect the challenge to be formed by providing a first line--also from memory. "OK, here's one: Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea.... Now you."
posted by jfuller at 9:44 AM on December 1, 2010


It's "regardless", UbuRoivas, among us with pig farmers with culture.

If the (former) self-proclaimed Leader of the Free World uses "irregardless", that's good enough for me. It's the modern version of the Queen's English: chimp chatter.

There is no physics or mathematics in your list of the 100 most important books to read to be a cultured person?

That's a very interesting question. In the Renaissance, there were seven recognised branches of knowledge, and a true Renaissance man had to be educated in all of them, and proficient in three or more. Definitely at that time, one would be expected to be knowledgeable in mathematics & architecture, in addition to rhetoric, the classics, philosophy and so on.

Nowadays, I doubt that maths & physics still have that kind of (capital C) Cultural status, although you'd expect people to be at least passingly familiar with them. Reading books about them, though? Shit, that's pretty dry. I wouldn't demand that my worst enemy trudge through them.

I actually happened to study both at the highest possible level for my high school graduation & university entrance exams. They were my best-scoring subjects, and even so I'd be hard-pressed just to name a classic maths or physics book to read. Something by Euclid? Does that count? Newton must've jotted down his thoughts somewhere, right? The Journal of Sir Isaac Newton?

But back to the laws of thermodynamics: the guy sounds very much like a classic sensate type, who confuses detail & memory with abstract understanding. There's nothing particularly "cultured" about committing something to memory, neither physics nor literature. In fact, it stinks of a kind of try-hardishness, don't you think? Something compensatory?

Like I said, though, people should be at least passingly familiar with the concepts. Let me try & flex my memory...in no particular order and in lay terminology, we have: 1) heat flows from a hotter object to a colder object 2) the amount of energy within a system always remains stable 3) um, a thermo remains at rest unless acted upon by a dynamic? No, for every thermodynamic there's an equal & opposite thermodynamic? How about something about entropy increasing over time?

I guess I don't win three recited sonnets, but that's gotta be close enough for somebody to have to give me a brief blurb on who the sonnets were written for, or about?
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:34 AM on December 1, 2010


I agree with most of what you said now, I am familiar with the Quadrivium and the Trivium. It is a shame that science has lost the capital C of culture, at least in the USA.

Books about physics and mathematics and science are not always dry. I've read some very engaging books on the history of science and mathematics. Books with no formulas at all!

I think the man in the anecdote is responding to people who say that engineers are uncultured, not confusing detail & memory with abstract understanding. No one can become a good engineer or scientist based on details and memory, that is what computers and books are for. The best engineers are the ones that have an abstract understanding of the problem and its domain.

I am lucky enough to know poets, historians, architects and artists as well as scientists and engineers. I am a designer, who spent 5 years in a Jesuit university where we got our heads pumped full of Culture with triple-capital C. Now I make a living writing code, with colleagues with PHDs in math and science.

In my experience, there are a lot more Cultured people who scoff at math and physics, who are even proud of their ignorance, than there are scientists and engineers with the same attitude with respect to literature, philosophy, etc... The problem is that the engineers who think that way compensate their willful ignorance by being VERY FUCKING LOUD AND OBNOXIOUS.

Back to the story, I find it very funny that three men, three educated, cultured, brilliant men sucked at business so bad. We should also give business the big C of culture. Maybe that way we would have less starving geniuses.
posted by Dr. Curare at 11:10 AM on December 1, 2010


Incidentally, and since this is a Sci-Fi related thread, the 2nd (I think) Law of Thermodynamics supplies my favourite argument why we can only possibly survive with time running in the regular forward direction.

If time ran backwards, and you started out with two objects of the same temperature, and one became hot & the other one cooled down, and you had absolutely no way of knowing which object would go which way, then you'd be totally fucked in no time flat.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:46 AM on December 1, 2010


(ps - the same applies to time travel. you might be looking at a part of the universe of uniform temperature, and decide to zap back a few thousand zillion years and *BAM* you land right in the middle of a fucking giant star - because every last iota of predictability about the movement & distribution of heat has been lost)
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:30 PM on December 1, 2010


> a reasonably impressive feat of memory (which is, of course, not to be confused with culture)

Memory was a basic part of culture until the twentieth century, and this is not a case of "Look at our dumb ancestors!" We have lost a great deal by relegating information to external availability (books, computers, etc.). Your mind can only work with what it knows, what it has stored in its neurons; being able to get access to something is not the same thing. Joseph Brodsky, when he taught American college students, required them to memorize large amounts of poetry, because in his view that was the only way you could begin to understand poetry. That was standard procedure in the Russian educational system, but of course the American students bitched and moaned... but when they started learning the poems, they realized he had a point. And how are you going to come up with scientific discoveries unless you have the required prior material under your belt, not just in the next room? Of course just learning stuff by rote so you can mindlessly rattle it off is pointless, but learning in any real sense requires getting things into your memory.
posted by languagehat at 12:54 PM on December 1, 2010


Very true, and supposedly when Homer composed his epics, how did it go? I forget. Either he was penning a version of stories that had been passed down orally for centuries, or else he wrote them in his head, passed them on orally, and they were only committed to paper centuries later.

I think the latter version was what happened.

And in India, they still have guys who travel around and recite the entire Ramayana over 12 days and nights, entirely from memory.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:00 PM on December 1, 2010


The Wikipedia entry on "the Homeric question" is actually pretty sound. Bottom line--the poems attributed to Homer are the product of a long tradition of oral epic, which may or may not have been collected by one person at some point in time, probably the 6th century BCE or maybe the 2nd century BCE.

One person who may or may not have been named "Homer". Or maybe it was several people. And maybe "Homer" just means "bard" or similar.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:47 PM on December 1, 2010


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