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March 01, 2005

Asimov and the Cleti

Boing Boing pointed to a cache of computer ads from the 1970s and 80s yesterday; this one in particular caught my eye. And here's why:

1. I have fond memories of being 12 years old and fiddling around with the TRS-80 Model III at the Glendora Public Library, writing little BASIC programs into the computer. I was quite the pre-teen BASIC programmer, which is to be understood as being the computer equivalent of saying "I was quite the architect with Lincoln Logs." From time to time I think about buying one off of eBay for nostalgia value, but since I already have a closet full of 80s electronic paraphernalia sitting there nostalgically, I doubt I can justify the purchase of yet another lump of 80s plastic. More's the pity.

2. If an art director today tried to get away with the sort of photo that's in this advertisement, his ass would be so fired. A background the color of bloody mud? The greasy shine on Asimov's face? Asimov's Captain Kangaroo-like suit? Fired, fired, fired. You wouldn't even use something like this for a local ad, much less one in a national advertisement campaign. Our current culture has its ups and downs, but at the very least it's not as esthetically challenged as it was a quarter century ago.

3. Looking at this picture of Isaac Asimov, by the way, reminds me that I actually don't have a good idea of what his face looks like -- The man for me was always characterized by his hair, glasses and goofy sideburns. Remove his lambchops in particular, and he looks just like any other schmoe. You have to think Asimov, not a stupid man by any stretch, was well aware that his distinctive look had at least something to do with his notoriety; because of it he's in the collective subconscious as the default image for "science fiction writer," not unlike the wild-haired Einstein is the default for "scientist." Now that I think of it, if you were to give ol' Albert a haircut and trim off his 'stache, I wouldn't have the slightest idea what he'd look like, either.

So a hint for all would-be science fiction writers: If you want to be known outside geek circles, work on some really distinctive hair, or, possibly, lack thereof. As it stands, at the moment I can't think of any truly distinctive-looking science fiction writers except for possibly Neil Gaiman, who's got a "I used to be the bassist for Echo and the Bunnymen" sort of look about him (shut up. It's a complement. Echo and the Bunnymen rocked), and then China Mieville, who's got that "Mr. Clean" look of his going on, and who in general is so far off the attractiveness bell curve for science fiction writers that I suspect the actual China Mieville is a troll-like guy in a dank room who sends this former competitive swimmer out to do his personal appearances, and feeds him dialogue through a cochlear implant. Admit it, "China"!! But yeah, aside from Gaiman and "China," there's not a science fiction author that you could recognize from ten yards out.

4. Aside the Asimov's lambchop issue, dwell on the fact that there's not a chance in hell that any major consumer-oriented corporation would even think to use a science fiction author to promote their wares these days, not even Radio Shack, who of late has been using Howie Long and Teri Hatcher to move their crap. We know they both can read, but other than that their literary talents are probably modest at best. Part of this has to do with now living in an esthetically-minded era (see points two and three above), but the other part of it is simply that there's no science fiction author who is currently such a part of the national conversation that he or she is seen as useful to push product.

Which is too bad. Not that I necessarily want to see, say, Cory Doctorow popping up to extoll the virtues of Snickers, or China Mieville with, well, Mr. Clean, although in each case the mind giggles like a schoolgirl to imagine such a thing. What I'm saying is that it would be nice is there were some science fiction writer who even the cleti (plural of Cletus, per "Cletus the Slackjawed Yokel" from The Simpsons) knew of, even if they hadn't read his work. Because that would mean science fiction, as a literature, would actually have its hand in the national conversation, and aside the Star Wars media novels, it's not entirely apparent that we do.

It's not just science fiction, mind you. There are depressingly few scientists who rate in the national conversation, either: We've got Stephen "The Wheelchair Dude" Hawking, and then nothing. This is a change from even a quarter century ago, when you had Carl Sagan pinging the Cleti Awareness Radar. Now aside from Hawking, who's not even American, the closest thing we've got to a Cleti-pinging scientist is Bill Gates, and if he's a scientist, I'm a pony. (Steve Jobs isn't a scientist either, people. A real scientist wouldn't work himself into paroxysms of joy over flash memory.) Now, this absence is somewhat related to the fact that there are now lots of people working overtime in the American culture to suggest that people who believe in evolution and the big bang also want to mandate forced downloads of child porn into your computer and give terrorists the key to your house. It's mildly worrying that scientists haven't found a way to counter this sort of thing. If they can send a man to the moon, they should be able to point out when someone is complete fargin' idiot and have it stick. Something for the brainiacs to work on, in any event.

Asking that scientists and science fiction writers occupy a central role in American cultural life might be a little much to ask for, but I don't think it would be bad for at least one or two of them to be recognized on sight by the average Joe. It may require lambchop sideburns, but one of us should be willing to make the sacrifice. I suggest we draw straws.

Posted by john at March 1, 2005 11:24 AM

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Whatever: Asimov and the Cleti John Scalzi has a blog entry with a picture of an old ad from the early 1980's where Issac Asimov shills for a TRS-80. It reminds me of a television commercial I recall from the same era, where Arthur C. Clarke was shilli... [Read More]

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Comments

dichroic | March 1, 2005 01:51 PM

The lack of well-known scientists and SF writers is related to the large unmbers of anti-evolutionists out there, yes. But I think it's related more in a lots-of-adamantly stupid-people-out-there way than in a cause-and-effect way.

The appeal of creationism should be obvious, anyway. Imagine you're not that bright. Now, you have two theories, one that tells you humans survived because they had evolved large brains and out-smarted their prey and predators. THe other says that God created you, yes, you, just as you are because he specifically wants you to be right where you are. Again, you're imagining you're not that bright, and you know there are smarter people out there. Which theory would you prefer, the one that says if not for civilization preserving weaker members you'd be doomed, or the one that says you're special?

I admit the Darwinian theory falls down a bit if you look at a random gathering of SF people (I include myself) but fortunately humans didn't survive by being faster, stronger, or better-looking than our competitors, just smarter and more adaptable.

Paul | March 1, 2005 02:26 PM

I remember a television commercial from the same era for Omni Magazine where Arthur C. Clarke was shilling for it. "I know that Mankind's future lies in the Stars. This is Arthur C. Clarke for Omni magazine..."

Same sort of lousy aesthetics, except this time a television commercial rather than a print ad. And you don't see ads for Asimov's or Analog or Locus on TV...

Jon Hansen | March 1, 2005 02:34 PM

I'm thinking the OED needs to include "Cleti" in their next update. Clearly a word deserving wider circulation, official recognition, etc.

d'Herblay | March 1, 2005 02:40 PM

Harlan Ellison starred in some commercials for Geo Metro automobiles in the early nineties (I think they were limited to Southern California). And now everyone I know drives a Geo Metro.

Had Stephen Jay Gould not passed away so early, he probably would have by now parlayed his Simpsons appearance into an Old Navy endorsement, next to Morgan Fairchild and Charo.

John Scalzi | March 1, 2005 02:44 PM

"Harlan Ellison starred in some commercials for Geo Metro automobiles in the early nineties (I think they were limited to Southern California). And now everyone I know drives a Geo Metro."

If they were the same Geo Metros as they had in the early 90s, that might say something about the economic health of SF writers and/or those who read them.

Had a Ford Escort in the early 90s myself. Don't recall it being endorsed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Strangely, not a bad car -- it lasted until about two years ago.

Kevin Q | March 1, 2005 03:11 PM

Cletus (kle' tus)
n.
pl.
Cleti

1. One who believes that Creationism is a valid scientific theory.
2. A vain, self-important, silly, or aggressively stupid person.
3. Those who encourage the thought that people who believe in evolution and the big bang also want to mandate forced downloads of child porn into your computer and give terrorists the key to your house.

See also, Ignorati, Ignoranus


[Simpsons, The: Cletus, the Slackjawed Yokel, from Latin clitora small-headed one, perhaps of Greek origin.]

- Source: Blue-State American Dictionary

Dean | March 1, 2005 03:18 PM

lots of people working overtime in the American culture to suggest that people who believe in evolution and the big bang also want to mandate forced downloads of child porn into your computer and give terrorists the key to your house.

Don't forget that we (the evolution-believing people) also want to come to your house and force you to have an abortion. Assuming that you're female, of course.

John Scalzi | March 1, 2005 03:21 PM

And even if you're not!

Dean | March 1, 2005 03:22 PM

Oh, yes, I must agree. Cleti (the word, not the phenomenon) is definitely worthy of wider dissemination.

John Scalzi | March 1, 2005 03:30 PM

By all means, disseminate away!

I should note that this is not the first time I've used it. It made its first appearance in my I Hate Your Politics column ("Liberals champion the poor and the weak but do it in such condescendingly bureaucratic ways that the po' illedumacated Cleti would rather eat their own shotguns than associate with the likes of them"). Maybe it was ahead of its time then. But I think we may be ready now.

Jon Hansen | March 1, 2005 03:42 PM

Well, the OED won't recognize it as a real word until it appears somewhere in print:

Contributors are invited to read any text from which quotations can be cited that provide new information on the English language - both in traditional book, magazine, or journal form, or from historical text databases accessible online. New information is available from almost any source, but texts most likely to yield valuable material are primary sources as yet unexplored by lexicographers.

At the moment, because Internet addresses and references can change, texts that exist solely online cannot be used as a source for quotations. In the absence of other evidence, such texts can be a useful starting-point; but other forms of verification are preferable.So try and work it into the next book somewhere, 'kay?

Jon Hansen | March 1, 2005 03:43 PM

Hmm...the preview button lied to me about the way my text would be displayed. I curse it in all its electronic forms.

Scott Elyard | March 1, 2005 04:25 PM

"Something for the brainiacs to work on, in any event."

Lots of 'em are. Even I'm working on it.

John Scalzi | March 1, 2005 04:27 PM

Work harder, please. They're gaining.

Sal | March 1, 2005 04:37 PM

It's not just science fiction, mind you. There are depressingly few scientists who rate in the national conversation, either: We've got Stephen "The Wheelchair Dude" Hawking, and then nothing.



My vote is for Paul Sereno to bring the masses back to science.

Looking at this picture of Issac Asimov, by the way, reminds me that I actually don't have a good idea of what his face looks like -- The man for me was always characterized by his hair, glasses and goofy sideburns.

I peeked in on a session at AAAS last month. The speaker was lamenting the choice of photos used for articles about Albert Einstein. (The subject was pertinent because this is the centennial of Einstein's annus mirabilis and AAAS was hosting the kickoff for the Year of Physics in honor of the centennial.)

The speaker thought people should be using photos of Albert in his glory days not those from his later years when he looked the part of the slightly crazed absented minded professor.

As proof of the problem, he threw up photographs of what he thought was misuse/abuse of Albert's image. AAAS, for Pete's sake, has as their mascot this year a wee babe with a white shock of hair and droopy moustache. The speaker showed sketches that became less and less "real" until he threw up one that was *just* that shock of hair and that moustache. You could still tell the artist meant "Einstein" when you saw the quick sketch, except, now that I think of it, Mark Twain had a droopy moustache and a shock of hair too.

John Scalzi | March 1, 2005 04:48 PM

"My vote is for Paul Sereno to bring the masses back to science."

And oddly enough, I have seen Paul Sereno in a few commercials, though not for commercial stuff (I think for finacial planning or some such).

He would be a good choice. He's very bright, good-looking even for a non-scientist, and finds important fossils with an absurd amount of ease. And he's a prof at the U of C, which fill me with alumni pride.

Andrew Gray | March 1, 2005 04:54 PM

Arthur C. Clarke has a reasonably recognisable public image over here, although it helps (I guess) that it gets conflated with the reasonably similar-looking Patrick Moore, who still crops up on television here and there.

Regarding Einstein... didn't someone once say that the reason Relativity became such an iconic piece of "famous science" was that it had The Haircut?

Andrew Gray | March 1, 2005 05:01 PM

Also on Asimov and his muttonchops: a year and a bit ago, for the couple of weeks when Beagle 2 hadn't yet become all a bit of an anticlimatic embarrassment, Colin Pillinger was everywhere. And he had the muttonchops, too.

Admittedly, the man was an exceptional self-publicist, but the facial hair no doubt helped keep him in the public eye...

John Scalzi | March 1, 2005 05:04 PM

Ah, Beagle 2. We hardly knew ye.

Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey | March 1, 2005 05:29 PM

Andrew Gray writes:
Also on Asimov and his muttonchops: a year and a bit ago, for the couple of weeks when Beagle 2 hadn't yet become all a bit of an anticlimatic embarrassment, Colin Pillinger was everywhere. And he had the muttonchops, too.



Everywhere in your country, perhaps. Not in ours.

Given that much of your science news eventually leaks over here (e.g., Horizon episodes become Nova episodes), Pillinger might have had a shot at conquering the Scientist Image Mindshare in the U.S.



Could still happen, I suppose, if he is able to come back from the Beagle debacle.

Andrew Gray | March 1, 2005 05:55 PM

Bill: Good point; I guess the same applies to Clarke/Moore in the US, as well. Unless Patrick Moore has a major transatlantic following, which somehow I doubt.

Part of the reason Pillinger got the press, I think, was the face and the accent making him a very recognisable talking head; there was an undercurrent of "Look! West Country Yokel Does Rocket Science!" to a lot of the coverage, and I'm not sure how well that'd have come across in the US.

I'm not sure who has the Scientist Image in the UK these days; other than Hawking, anyway. Martin Rees makes a good effort, but I'd be hard pressed to call him automatically recognisable; perhaps the Cohen/Stewart duo? All of them fairly prolific, certainly (and the latter two even count as sf writers). Or, God help us, Kevin Warwick. Now he's got the notoriety bit sewn up, for good or ill...

Soni | March 1, 2005 08:41 PM

Well, there's always Bill Nye the Science Guy. I think he's pretty cool, anyway.

pcomeau | March 1, 2005 08:48 PM

On the...

"
Neil Gaiman, who's got a "I used to be the bassist for Echo and the Bunnymen" sort of look
"


As one who lives in Minneapolis area (and who's wife once worked at a local book store that Mr. Gaiman would frequent...)


The running joke at the book store was... Neil Gaiman's way of going incognito was to dump the shades and leather jacket for a brightly colored shirt, that way his fans would never recognize him!

Tony Hellmann | March 2, 2005 12:38 AM

I came in on the next generation of computers: The Commodore 64.

LOAD "*",8,1

Then go make a sandwich while The Bard's Tale loads.

>Asking that scientists and science fiction
>writers occupy a central role in American
>cultural life might be a little much to ask for.

Sally Ride. Benjamin Spock. Jacques Cousteau. Masters & Johnson (although less famous, their contribution was huge).

I think that scientists do occupy a (relatively)central role in American cultural life.

John Scalzi | March 2, 2005 12:52 AM

"I think that scientists do occupy a (relatively)central role in American cultural life."

This would be a more compelling statement if more than 40% of the scientists you mentioned were now currently alive. And of the two still alive, only one is currently at all in the public eye, and she's much better known for her astronautical experience than her scientific achivements (which should not be construed to demean either; Sally Ride is awesome). But even she's not a public intellectual the way Sagan was, or Einstein, or even Feynman.

Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey | March 2, 2005 02:01 AM

Soni writes: Well, there's always Bill Nye the Science Guy. I think he's pretty cool, anyway.

One night, at our regular gathering of fannish techies, Bill Nye was spotted eating at the next table. He'd been shooting a documentary at Fermilab. He was entirely gracious about shaking hands, answering questions, and posing for pictures.

I think our gang was especially excited because of the feeling that he's not just a TV star, he's a nerd TV star. You know, one of us.

Mr. Nye is not, perhaps, a household word, not Einstein-famous or Sagan-famous. But he is more prominent and recognizable than most people I meet. I was impressed by his aplomb.

(There's a book, The Visible Scientists by Rae Goodell, about the handful of scientists who represent science in the public eye. It's from 1977, so rather out of date.)

David Goldfarb | March 2, 2005 03:42 AM

Isaac, dammit. Not Issac. One s, two a's. Isaac, Isaac, Isaac.

John Scalzi | March 2, 2005 06:23 AM

Relax, David. Typos happen.

Captain Button | March 2, 2005 09:40 AM

Dean wrote: Don't forget that we (the evolution-believing people) also want to come to your house and force you to have an abortion. Assuming that you're female, of course.

Is that before or after we make them marry someone of the same sex?

(Sorry, I missed the last meeting.)

Separately, a quick run through the Google image search reveals that you can find a picture of Albert Einstein with tame hair easily, but not without the 'stache, unless you'll accept a childhood photo.


gary gibson | March 2, 2005 09:46 AM

Re: lambchops.

That's *it*. I'm bleaching my hair and growing a handlebar moustache. TV ads and big sales, here I come.

Sal | March 2, 2005 11:18 AM

Separately, a quick run through the Google image search reveals that you can find a picture of Albert Einstein with tame hair easily, but not without the 'stache, unless you'll accept a childhood photo.
Sure, there are plenty of pictures out there. Some are used again and again because they are ones that people somehow gravitate toward. The ones the speaker was throwing up on the screen that he liked and wished people used in lieu of the manic professor photos were ones I'd seen before. This one, for instance.

His gripe was that the Einstein image you see on t-shirts and posters and coffee mugs, though, is more likely to be this one.

William R. Dickson | March 2, 2005 11:22 AM

You know, I could have sworn Asimov hated using computers, and stuck with a typewriter until the day he died.

Geoff | March 2, 2005 11:55 AM


Ah the 'Freudian-slop' typo strikes again...

Said David:

Cletus (pl. cleti).
.......

See also, Ignorati, Ignoranus
--------------------------^----

Pronounced 'ignor-anus' obviously!

Geoff

John Scalzi | March 2, 2005 12:04 PM

Actually, Geoff, "Ignoranus" is intentional there. I've seen it used before.

Martin Wisse | March 2, 2005 03:06 PM

Actually, it's not China who sents around a body double to the sf or socialism cons, it's John Meany, who sents around a bodybuilder. The guy looked ripped and ruggedly handsome when I met him at the Eastercon of 2001.

China has some competition in the good looks department from Ricardo Pinto, who also carries off the shaved head look quite well, if a bit more weedy.

cdu4ever | March 2, 2005 07:14 PM

The Glendora Public Library *rulz*, dood!

Carl Caputo | March 3, 2005 12:20 AM

Hmm. Two things: First, poster-people for science might include many of the Edge contributors constellating around John Brockman (e.g., Jared Diamond, Esther Dyson, Richard Dawkins), although, yeah, they’re largely literary phenomena instead of mass media people. Maybe Brian Greene is more in line with what’s wanted, here.

And second, even granting that science-fiction people and scientists time-bind and do the big picture much better, on average, than, say, politicians or corporate policymakers do, I’m still a little skeptical about having ’em stick their hands in any “national conversation.” Our national conversational dynamics seem to leech most of the big picture out of most participants, and the big picture is science’s reason for being. No?

There’s something going on here along the lines of “People wise enough to run stuff are often wise enough not to want that truly terrible job,” but I’m not making it clear.

Soni | March 3, 2005 12:43 AM

One night, at our regular gathering of fannish techies, Bill Nye was spotted eating at the next table. He'd been shooting a documentary at Fermilab. He was entirely gracious about shaking hands, answering questions, and posing for pictures.

Okay, I am sooo jealous now. I love that guy! I used to stay up late and watch his syndicated reruns that were on at those surreal stoner hours of the morning (they may have been intended for hyperactive brats who are getting up at 4am for some reason, but I don't often see 4am from the 'getting up' side). Too cool.

I'm still trying to figure out what physical sport or activity he can't do. I've seen him dance, rollerblade, parasail, dive, snorkel, hike, climb and who knows what else. And he does it all well (even the dancing, freakishly enough, given the terminally Caucasian nerdling genes that he obviously inherited). He's my science hero, like Ambrose Bierce is my writing hero. Brainy, freakish but okay with it and multi-talented.

He's like a Swiss Army Talk Show Geek of SCIENCE!

Raphael | March 3, 2005 07:25 AM

Perhaps in the eighties, it made more sense (from an advertiser's or marketing guy's POV) to hire a famous SF writer for a computer ad because back then, computers were more of a geek thing than they are today.

These days, everyone and their cat has a computer, but in the eighties, most people who had one were either quite geeky themselves or at least saw the things as rather geeky. So an SF writer was more likely to make people think "I guess this guy must know what he's talking about there" than he would today.

John Scalzi | March 3, 2005 08:10 AM

Raphael -- I think you're probably correct.

However, assuming there were an analogous item today, and the manufacurer wished to promote it in a similar way, what current science fiction author has the same sort of "Q-Factor" (as they used to call it, back in the day) of Isaac Asimov? That's the interesting question.

mythago | March 3, 2005 08:40 AM

Er...China Miéville?

We have *got* to start recruiting more pretty faces into this industry, people.

John Scalzi | March 3, 2005 11:35 AM

Oh, come on! China's teh hawtness!

Simon | March 4, 2005 01:27 AM

"I don't have to write programs unless I want to," says Asimov in the ad.

He didn't want to. In fact, according to his memoirs he never even figured out how to change the margins.

He only accepted the computer under protest anyway, printed out his first drafts and hand-corrected them.

John Scalzi | March 4, 2005 10:09 AM

I imagine I'll feel the same way about direct brain implants 30 years from now.

Charlie Stross | March 4, 2005 04:57 PM

That does it. I'm definitely shaving my head again next month (it's still wintry hereabouts) and my next dust jacket shot will feature the long leather coat and the shades. The Matrix, only fatter and hairier, is definitely the way forward.

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