Monday, August 29, 2011

The Unghat

I had planned on writing a blog entry for each day I was in Reno for WorldCon.  Unfortunately, my laptop suffered some hard drive problems and I was unable to use it for a couple of days.  A shout out of thanks to the crew at the Apple Store in Reno for getting it up and running again.  
What I've decided to do instead is write some blogs based on some of my experiences there.  This one is the first.
The most fun panel I attended at Renovation was one on Stellar Evolution & Alien Design.  It was part of the Teaching Science Fiction track, a series of panels directed primarily to teachers showing them how they could use science fiction in the class room to teach a variety of subjects, or how they could teach science fiction itself as a form of literature.  The first half of the panel gave a very comprehensive yet easy to understand explanation about how stars evolved from their birth from cold, molecular clouds to their deaths, which depended on their mass.  They demonstrated a card game to help teach the concepts.  The card game was given out to the teachers at the panel, but could also be obtained through the Chandra X-ray observatory website:  
The second half of the panel was entitled Alien Design.  For this portion we were paired off with another panelist and were asked to design an alien based on the parameters given to us for the planet it came from.  The parameters were: 
  • Day time temperatures reaching 150 degrees fahrenheit.  
  • Night time temperatures reaching minus 35 degrees fahrenheit.
  • Average wind speeds of 150 miles per hour.  
  • Extremely arid climate most of the time, but punctuated with relatively brief time periods of heavy rains and flooding.  
  • Gravity that was 75% of Earth's.  
Our instructions were to design an alien that was lived on such a world.  We would use the supplied arts and crafts supplies to build a model of our creature, which we would present to the other panel attendees, giving our justification for our design based on the parameters given to us.  There were no restrictions as to the size, sentience, or intelligence of the creature.  My partner and I came up with the "Unghat."  

The name sort of popped out of my mouth when one of the instructors asked me what was.  
To escape the extreme temperatures and dryness the unghat buries itself beneath the hard-packed clay soil of the planet where it estivates ('estivation' is similar to 'hibernation' except it's done to escape heat instead of cold).  
The unghat's body will dry out until it is only slightly more moist than the surrounding soil.  In preparation for the seasonal rains and flooding, it grows umbilical cord like structures from its back.  These tubes allow the waters to reach the unghat and revitalize its body once the flooding begins.  It will then use its paddle-like limbs to dig its way from its burrow.  
The unghat has two folding membranes, similar to bat wings, on either side of its body.  These function more like sails than wings.  The unghat will spread them out and lift them above the water's surface, using the high winds to push itself against the flooding waters in its search for food and potential mates.  

Because the time of the floods is relatively short, and the area of the unghat's native territory so large, the number of encounters between members of the species is relatively low.  In order to maximize the chance for mating, the unghat is hermaphroditic, each individual having both male and female sex organs.  When two individuals meet they engage in ritual combat, using the antennae like structures on its head to grapple with each other.  The winner of these combats will take on the role of the male and deposit its sperm into the loser's, now female, body.  The female will carry the fertilized eggs inside her carapace until they are ready to hatch.  An individual unghat can carry several different clutches of eggs inside its shell, each from a different mating.  Just before the end of the wet season, the pregnant unghat will dig shallow burrows for each clutch of eggs it is carrying.  It will then dig a deep burrow for itself just before the ground hardens for it to await the next coming of the rains.  

Please feel free to comment on my creation, especially if you see some point I may have overlooked.  I'm going to write the unghat as soon as I come up with an appropriate story for it.  

My story, Shadow Angel, can be found in the most recent issue of Asimov's Science Fiction, which should be in your local bookstore or newsstand.  I'd be pleased if you gave it a read and tell me what you think of it.  If I meet you in person, and you want me to, I'm more than willing to autograph it for you.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Qualities of a Convention Room

I'm in Reno, Nevada to attend "Renovation," the 69th World Science Fiction Convention or "WorldCon."  Along with the San Diego Comic-Con in July, WorldCon is one convention that I am compelled to go to each year.  This is my sixth WorldCon in a row, which includes the one day I went to the 2006 WorldCon in Los Angeles.  As I did with Comic-Con, I'm going to be writing a blog entry about each day that I attend, which formally opens later today.  
For this first entry, though, I thought I would write something about one of the most important aspects of one's WorldCon experience: your motel room.  One of the first things convention friends ask you when you run into them is, "where are your staying?"  I've learned over the years that the answer to that question can have a big impact on how much you enjoy the convention and how much you get out of it.  
Obviously you want your room to be clean and comfortable, but beyond that it doesn't have to be fancy.  You'll be spending your day at the convention or joining friends and the people you meet at the parties and get-togethers later.  Most of the time when you'll be in the room you'll be asleep or getting ready to go.  How fancy does it have to be for that?  
The most important feature of a good convention room is location.  You want to be within walking distance of the convention center and/or the hotel where the venue is being held.  This is not just to save time driving to and from the center, with the additional cost in time, money and hassle for gas and parking.  It is also to allow you to maximize your opportunities to attend the post convention parties where you can meet other writers, publishers, artists and agents that work in the industry.  It also means that you can indulge yourself in some fun, to a degree, and not worry about jeopardizing yourself and others.  
My room this year, at the Vagabond Inn on Virginia Street, is ideal.  It is situated between the Reno-Sparks Convention center and the Peppermill Hotel, which is being used for a number of the venues and parties this year.  It's a 10 minute walk to the convention center and five minutes to the Peppermill.  The worst room I ever had was at Denvention, the WorldCon in Denver.  It was a twenty minute bus ride to the convention center, and I found out to my peril one night that the buses stopped running at around 11:30 PM or so (an additional $25.00 in cab fare).  The best rooms I've had so far were in Yokohama in 2007, about two blocks away in a beautiful shopping and entertainment district, and last year in Melbourne, a five minute walk with plenty of shops and restaurants along the way.  
Other features of a good convention room include: 
Free WiFi or internet access.  This isn't just a convention going plus, it's become a necessity of modern life along with a phone and a working toilet.  
A good writing desk.  It's important to me, and I too often have to make do with side tables in the room.  
A refrigerator and/or microwave.  Going to conventions can be expensive.  Anything you can do to save on costs, such as buying groceries to keep from eating out all the time, can help.  
Gym or work-out room.  You need to stay healthy and fit in order to endure a convention grind.  The room I stayed in while attending last year's WorldCon in Melbourne had an agreement with a gym a couple of blocks away that allowed me to use that facility as a guest.  
Overall, the room I have this year rates pretty well.  It's location is ideal.  They give the guests free access to WiFi.  The writing desk is a REAL writing desk, with a writing surface on rollers that pulls out, with room for my journal and laptop at the same time, and a wide shelf on an raised level with dedicated electrical outlets built in for my computer, plus rechargers for my cell phone, bluetooth headset and camera batteries.  It doesn't have a microwave, but there is a refrigerator I'm making use of.  There's no work out room, but there is a gym across the way that has daily rates that I'm going to use a couple of times while I'm here.  
With a room like this, I'm ready to go conquer the World...  Con.  

Friday, August 12, 2011

Credit Rating Blues Riff

With the news that, for the first time in recent history at least, the credit rating of the United States Government has been lowered from its normal AAA rating to AA+.  Standard & Poors, one of the three credit rating agencies that perform this service, made this announcement on Friday, August 5th, after the stock market closed.  
This announcement has sparked a running dialogue with myself over the state of things in my country.  I am not a political nor economic expert.  A lot of what I'm thinking are gut reactions, conclusions I've reached because it just feels like the right answer.  But, when I look out across the sprawling landscape of modern media it appears to me that not knowing what one is talking about doesn't seem to be stopping many other people from speaking their minds these days, so why should I not share my thoughts as well.  
If anyone thinks I don't understand the situation, or that I'm just plain off my rocker, or, even better, has some proof or documentation that they think will open my eyes to the truth, then please feel free to post your comments.  As long as you're not a spambot trying to use my blog for advertising, I'll post it.    
My reaction to the announcement that our country's credit rating was less than that of a country like the Isle of Man followed a series of thoughts.  The first one was: 
"I feel like a character in a Vernor Vinge Novel."  
For those of you who don't know, Vernor Vinge is a masterful science fiction writer.  His books are big, thick things whose action often cover huge arcs of the galaxy, pitting normal people against forces or intelligences that are as far beyond them as we are to the ants at our feet.  Often these characters are struggling against these forces or intelligences have only limited information and power with which to cope.  One of my favorite characters was a minor character from Fire Upon the Deep.  A starship captain who has just lead his fleet into battle based on a message that he couldn't verify.  With the battle done, most of his fleet destroyed and crew dead, he can only wonder if he did the right thing.  
The debt crisis, and the state of the economy that sparked it, are big.  B-I-G big.  It's all I can do to keep my own financial state in order.  I can't buy enough American made TVs, cars, dishwashers or whatever to make a difference.  Even if everyone in the United States bought the same American made product tomorrow, a lamp let's say, it would cause a spike in the economy at best.  The thought of my relationship to the problem, as if Mr. Vinge were writing the story or our debt crisis, was followed quickly by, "What the hell can I do about it?" 
Then, another thought came to me...
"Wait a sec...  Aren't these the same guys that said those credit-default swaps that started this mess were AAA rated, too?"  
Remember the credit-default swaps?  They were the new financial tool everyone was so hot about.  You take a bunch of loans, like home loans, and roll them up into a package, then you sell them on a market similar to a stock market but where all the buyers are other financial institutions.  Everyone was buying them because Standard & Poors, and the other credit rating agencies, said that these swaps were AAA.  A terrific deal.  As solid an investment as the United States Government.  
They weren't,  We all know that now.  And, once the loans inside those swaps were actually analyzed, it became clear that they were basically garbage.  So, it kinda brings the judgement of Standard & Poors into question.  And the question I had was how they they reach their conclusion.  When I found out, I thought...
"This is Payback."  
Standard & Poors and the other credit rating firms were pretty well raked over the coals once their part in the financial disaster became documented.  Deservedly so, too.  They may not have caused the problem, but their pronouncements of those credit default swaps as being triple-A rated was definitely an enabling factor.  After such humiliation, I think those companies were left with the desire for a little payback.  A chance to show they weren't as stupid as everyone was saying they were, or a chance to show that the people calling them stupid, the senators and representatives in congress, were even more stupid.  Or even both.  
The way Standard & Poors made their announcement underscores this belief.  In the initial announcement they cited the size of the impending debt as the reason for their decision to downgrade the government's credit rating.  But then it was shown that they had made a 2 trillion dollar in their calculations.  What?  They forgot to carry the "1"?  Once this was pointed out, the company held a conference call for the news agencies.  They held fast to their conclusion, that the American government deserved to have its rating down-graded.  The "real" reason, however, wasn't the financial one they named before.  It was a political one.  The spectacle of the stand-off over raising the debt limit was an indication that the American government was too divided and lacked the political will to do whatever was necessary to fix the budget deficient.  It seemed clear to me that the decision to down-grade the government's credit rating was foregone.  When their math error took away a clear financial reason for doing so, the company replaced it with a more subjective political rationale.  
"They may have a point."  
There's an old French proverb that even a clock that is stopped is right twice a day.  For my younger readers, this saying refers to an analog time piece, before everything was digital.  
Going back to my first thought, the problems were the economy, with our government's method of raising money and spending that money, are big problems.  Huge.  So big that I am thinking that I'll grow old and die before I see them resolved.  And the political atmosphere is not one where anyone who can be called "reasonable" will make any headway.  I have heard too many people come back with, "I AM compromising!" right after someone has pointed out that they are holding out to get everything they want.  It's insane.  
So...  Do I think the American government is a credit risk?  Or, more of a credit risk now than before?  No.  And a large number of people seem to agree with me.  I listened to a financial report this morning about how treasury bonds are being bought up.  People are nervous and are buying the very thing that was downgraded as a way to feel safer, American governmental debt.  
I don't have a great deal of hope for the future, though.  Unless the elected officials pull their heads out of those places where they currently have them inserted, and soon, and actually deal with the problems, then the only thing wrong with Standard & Poors' decision is that they may have made it a little bit too soon.